As I wrote back in 2007, many people are familiar with the telephone game often used with kids to show the challenges and importance of clear communication. It usually works with a message being given to one person, who has one chance to pass it along to another person. By the time it gets to the end the message is hilariously (?) garbled.
Sometimes skeptics will use the telephone game analogy to criticize the writings of the Bible, and of the Gospels in particular. Their premise is that the message was transmitted orally for at least a couple decades (and, by their often convoluted reasoning, many decades), so of course it got changed many times before it was put to paper.
But that game is different from how the oral transmissions that make up the Bible in many key ways:
- The Bible wasn’t translated just one-on-one. There were many witnesses and many people who heard and recounted the events. People would catch errors instantly.
- They didn’t get just one try. In the telephone game you only get one chance, but in real life – and especially with the New Testament – Jesus probably gave the same message many times, and people repeated it many times with overlapping audiences. Again, errors would be caught quickly.
- Transmitters were well trained in memorizing stories. People in that culture – especially Jewish men – were trained to memorize things well. Many Muslims memorize the whole Koran even in our times.
- The message being transmitted wasn’t insignificant. These people thought they had the words of life, and they worked hard to communicate it carefully. And they often risked their lives to communicate this message. A good analogy I heard was that if a group of cancer patients went to hear someone describe how they could be cured, they would be inclined to pay close attention and to collectively document the information accurately.
- The New Testament writers had the benefit of the Holy Spirit to guide them. I don’t think the Holy Spirit is actively involved in too many instances of the regular telephone game.
- Paul’s letters and others were firsthand accounts of events, so no oral tradition was involved. And we can be highly confident that the original writings were accurately transmitted to us.
A more detailed perspective is available here.
I was surprised to see an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies note that he actually uses this game to teach college students about the Gospels (a link came to my site from his blog via the “related posts” section). I didn’t realize his background before my first comment, then read more after he responded. Here’s my latest comment:
I’ve used the telephone game to teach the gospels a number of times, but it troubles me.
A college prof thinks that is a good way to teach anything? Sad.
On the one hand, of course teaching the gospels by playing the telephone game makes perfect sense: what we have in the New Testament today does not reflect what actually happened in 0 to 35 C.E.
Hmmm . . . if you know what “really” happened perhaps you could enlighten us as to what that was and how you “know” it.
Second, even after they were written down, the stories were copied by scribes who altered the text—textual transmission is just as subject to changes as oral transmission.
False. Even pagan skeptics like Bart Ehrman concede that we know with > 99% confidence what the originals said. The system works, that’s why most Bibles footnote that the ending of Mark and the story of the woman at the well were not in the earliest manuscripts.
Ehrman just makes up a new rule that says that if every copy wasn’t perfect then the originals couldn’t have been inspired (we call that “making God in your own image”).
If you take the two most divergent manuscript streams you still get the same thing: Orthodox Christianity.
However, it is worth nothing that textual transmission may leave alternate editions that permit comparison—to my knowledge historians won’t be able to compare existing texts to oral tellings until they have time machines.
Of course. That’s why you should always assume the opposite of anything ever recorded by anyone.
One can illustrate this point by playing the telephone game: read just a single verse from one of the gospels and have the students pass the message up and down the rows by whispering it to one other.
As noted in my first comment, that is not how the Gospels were transmitted. In theory, you could go to a professor of religious studies and they’d enlighten you as to how it really worked.
So, for instance, we shouldn’t read the gospel of Matthew with an eye to the extent to which it preserves the original message of Jesus, but with an eye to the problems his community was facing some 40 to 60 years after Jesus died, and how he hoped to resolve those problems by writing up some new propaganda.
First, that dating is all wrong. It is easy to demonstrate that the most logical case for the NT datings has the Gospels being written before 70 A.D.
Second, it is hard to imagine someone actually reading the Gospels and coming to that conclusion. Over 25% of the Gospels focus on the Passion Week. How does that represent some solution to an unrelated problem?
The problem is that we are sinners in need of a Savior and Jesus is that Savior. His death on the cross paid the price for us.
You might want to trade in the religious studies gig for fiction writing.