Amazing Ancient (and Modern) Memories

Ordinary people have memorized whole books, hundreds of thousands of words, both in ancient times and today.

It’s tempting to conclude that memorizing, say, a Gospel, is simply impossible. The human brain is great at Thanksgiving etiquette, lousy at Gospels. And that’s that.

But the evidence says otherwise.

  • In medieval times, many monasteries and convents wouldn’t let you take your vows until you’d learned the entire Psalter, all 153 Psalms. In English, that’s over 2400 verses–about 47,000 words. Some scholars (not only the superstars) knew the entire New Testament.

  • But in the time of Jesus, many ordinary boys memorized the entire Pentateuch. That’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–about 5800 verses and 150,000 words. The “smart” kids (as opposed to the B students who maxed out on the mere Pentateuch) would continue and memorize more.

Pretty impressive. But that was in the Golden Days, right? Back when the fairies sprinkled mnemonic pixie dust in every stream? Not so fast. Modern people can memorize too.

  • In Africa, many villages still have a griot, a bard who can recite epics and local genealogies. When Alex Haley wrote his family history in Roots, he traveled to Africa to meet with a griot.

  • There are many, many Muslims today who have memorized the entire Qur’an. The Qur’an is over 6,000 verses and over 77,000 words.

  • There are also Christians who have memorized all of Mark and other whole books of the Bible. Some even have a club: the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NOBS).

  • And the founder of NOBS, Tom Boomershine, mentions in his book Story Journey that even today, many young Hasidic Jews have memorized all of Genesis and Exodus, in Hebrew, by the ripe old age of … four.

How long is Mark? 678 verses and about 15,000 words. No sweat.

We don’t have many modern memorizers in Western culture, but they do exist. And they’d be the first to admit that they be may be smart, but they don’t have photographic memories or any exotic superpower. Just the usual superpower: an average memory.