Here in Part 2 are my thoughts on how I would use that plan to study for the PC(USA) Bible Content Exam.
I have to be very clear that this plan doesn’t come with any guarantees. I haven’t gotten anyone’s permission or approbation; it’s not official in any way. It’s merely what I would do myself, based on my experience of (a) having read the Bible a lot and (b) having taken and passed the Bible Content Exam myself a couple of times, once under the old system, and once under the new one.
Perhaps the biggest caveat is that I don’t have anything to do with making the test – which means that what I think is more and less important might not align with what the test-makers think is more and less important.
Honestly, I doubt it’s going much out on a limb to suggest that it’s good to know “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” is in the gospel of John, or that “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest is love” is in I Corinthians. For instance. I’m confident that it’s safe to suggest that you ought to know that the dry bones are in Ezekiel (chapter 37).
I just hope people won’t blame me, personally, if they take my advice and “just skim the lists in Joshua, and the genealogies in Chronicles” and then don’t pass the BCE. I’m pretty confident about skimming those lists and genealogies, too, frankly, but it’s like being a universalist … there’s always a chance we’re wrong about that.
I’m assuming you will modify this plan to fit your own needs. If you just finished taking a great semester-long course on the Torah, you may feel you are a lot more familiar with that section of the Bible, and you need to spend more time on Samuel through Kings. Alternatively, you might have been studying the Pauline letters in depth at church, so you can lighten up on those and spend more time on Torah or whatever you haven’t studied as much.
With all that out of the way, here’s what I would do to study for the PC(USA) Bible Content Exam:
1) Get 2 packs of 3×5 cards, a pen or pencil, and a Bible. NRSV.
(The denomination recommends a study Bible. I don’t think I would use a study Bible for reading through the Bible for the purposes of getting familiar with Bible content, because it’s too easy for me to get distracted by the notes. I would use a study Bible for the introductions to the books, and for the outlines.)
2) Read the Bible.
I would read a fair amount at a stretch, to encounter things in context. Maybe about an hour at a time. I would give first priority to having read all of the gospels and all of the Torah.
I would focus on “main things”: stories, especially well-known ones – their major plot points, and their main characters; “quotable quotes” – phrases that stand out as ones I’ve heard; “big ideas” – the kingdom of God, the covenant, the monarchy, that kind of thing.
(So I admit, I would skim some parts of some books, where the material is very detailed and repetitive, and I sense I might just need to know the main idea from that section rather than the details. So, for instance, I would not feel compelled to read every last word of the instructions for making the implements for the Tabernacle in Exodus, or every single instruction about sacrifice in Leviticus, or much of the genealogies in I Chronicles. I would want to do that some time, but maybe not when I only have a month or so to catch up on a lot of actual reading of the actual Bible. I would make do with knowing that God gave those detailed instructions, that there is a pattern to the instructions for sacrifice that goes something like “get a big animal, but if you can’t afford that then get a smaller one, and then if you can’t afford that get two birds,” and that the genealogies are there. I would read every last word of every one of Paul’s letters, partly because they are full of quotable quotes, but mainly because they’re short, so reading every last word of them goes fast.)
3) After reading each book, make a review card for that book.
The name of the book at the top. Below that, a few key words or phrases it seems vital to associate with the book. For example:
Why have you forsaken me?
empty tomb; “to Galilee”
I’d make a separate card for each of the Psalms I wanted to remember. (e.g., Psalm 1, “blessed is the man,” “two ways”; Psalm 2 “why do the nations rage”; etc.)
In a few cases, I think I’d make a card for individual chapters of a book. I could see doing that for John. And for Romans. Just because those books seem to divide that way. The BCE doesn’t ask chapter and verse, but in real life it’s helpful to know that John 1 is the prologue and baptism, John 2 is the Wedding at Cana, John 3 is Nicodemus, etc. It’s helpful to know that Romans 1 is “Gentiles are without excuse” Romans 2 is “Jews are without excuse,” Romans 3 is “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 4 is “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness,” etc.
3) Flip through the cards at least once a day, more often if possible.
There will be more as the month goes on. The books from the earliest days will get most review. (I would start reading with the gospels and the Torah, the sets of books that get the most weight on the exam, for that reason.)
Here are a few other somewhat random thoughts:
After reading the Gospels, I would take some time to review what’s in:
all the gospels (like, Jesus’ baptism, feeding the 5,000, the woman with the jar of ointment, the crucifixion and resurrection – if we count Mark’s empty tomb in that)
all the synoptics (like, temptation in the wilderness, preaching at Caesarea, casting out demons, teaching in parables, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper as a Passover meal)
John alone (like the Wedding at Cana, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, foot washing, Thomas)
Luke alone (like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Steward, the Walk to Emmaus)
I would take some time to compare the two versions of the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5).
I would try to remember the really good kings (David, Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah) and the really bad ones (Jeroboam and Ahab up North; Rehoboam, Manasseh, Athaliah – she was a queen/regent – Jehoiachin, Zedekiah down South). Without forgetting Saul.
I would read all of the holiness code (Leviticus 19-21).
I would skim the lists and genealogies.
With Job, which is long, I would try to remember that Job is full of quotable quotes (“man is born to suffer as the sparks fly upwards”; “I know that my redeemer lives”; “curse God and die”; …) But it could make sense to read the introduction, enough of the back and forth between Job and his friends to get the pattern and to know the names of Job’s friends (Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite), chapter 28, Elihu’s speeches, God’s speeches, and the conclusion.
If I had time, I would try to find out where any words I know from the liturgy (e.g., “hold fast to what is good”) and any lyrics I remember from the Messiah (e.g., “And the glory, the glory of the Lord …”) are in the Bible.
I would take breaks.
I would drink lots of water.
I would get enough sleep.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.