The Story of Jesus: A Game of Telephone

Today's Los Angeles Times has a book review entitled, How Jesus' story was writ, reviewing a book entitled 'What the Gospels Meant' by Garry Wills. The review starts with the old canard -- the story of how the Gospels came is much like the child's game of telephone.

REMEMBER playing "telephone" as a kid? You'd whisper a sentence in a friend's ear, and he or she would whisper it to the next person, and so on, until the last one reported a message so distorted from the original that everyone would convulse with laughter.

Biblical scholars sometimes refer to this game to explain how the Gospels evolved, presumably with less comedic results. After Jesus died, traditions about him circulated by word of mouth throughout the Mediterranean world.

Lest anyone think that this is actually true, I just want to point out a couple of good resources that answer that spurious claim quite easily.

First and foremost (scratching our own collective backs), CADRE Member Chris Price has written a blog entry on the topic entitled Was the Gospel Tradition Like a Game of Telephone? This brief article was based, in large part, on an article written by Dr. Mark D. Roberts entitled Can We Trust the Accuracy of the Oral Traditions About Jesus? The answer is, of course, that the game of telephone does not present a good analogy for the creation of the Gospel accounts.

Dr. Robert's article mentions his appearance on Greg Koukl's Stand to Reason program. Greg Koukl has written his own refutation of this simplistic argument entitled Is the New Testament Text Reliable? Greg notes:

Usually the complaint is raised by people who have little understanding of the real issues. In cases like this, an appeal to common knowledge is more often than not an appeal to common ignorance. Like many questions about Christianity, this objection is voiced by people who haven't been given reliable information.

Dr. William Lane Craig also notes the "telephone" analogy in his fine on-line article The Evidence for Jesus. Dr. Craig notes:

Rather ever since the time of D. F. Strauss, sceptical scholars have explained away the gospels as legends. Like the child’s game of telephone, as the stories about Jesus were passed on over the decades, they got muddled and exaggerated and mythologized until the original facts were all but lost. The Jewish peasant sage was transformed into the divine Son of God.

One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis, however, which is almost never addressed by sceptical critics, is that the time between Jesus’s death and the writing of the gospels is just too short for this to happen. This point has been well-explained by A. N. Sherwin-White in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.{2} Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he is a professional historian of times prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. According to Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually biased and removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander’s death, and yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander the Great did not develop until during the centuries after these two writers. According to Sherwin-White, the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be "unbelievable." More generations would be needed.

As Chris Price noted in the summary to his article on the game of telephone the differences are significant:

• Unlike Telephone players, the first Christians lived in an oral culture that had trained them to be proficient at passing on stories and sayings.

• Unlike Telephone secrecy, the passing on of the traditions about Jesus occurred primarily in public settings that ensured the basic integrity of the transmission.

• Unlike Telephone sentences, the sayings of Jesus were believed by those who passed them on to be the most important words ever spoken, essential for salvation and for abundant living. Thus the early Christians had strong reason to remember and to repeat the sayings (and stories) of Jesus accurately.

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Jason Pratt said…
To which can be added a further distinction: the game of Telephone is a game where (pardon me while I emphasize this) THE WHOLE POINT IS TO SEE HOW BADLY YOU CAN MESS UP THE ORIGINAL SAYING!! The accidents don't even happen by accidents; the fun is precisely in being tickled by how out of whack the original saying can get by the end, and intentionally working toward that. Kids whisper a phrase or sentence as mumbly as possible to the next kid, who does the same thing, and so on; until the final kid has to take a guess as to what it actually meant. Hilarity ensues. {g}

I strenuously deny that the data and the historical context points toward legendary accretion being any main factor leading to the composition of the texts (though not because of time constraints so much, even on a pre-70s composition), aside from a few details here and there--none of which are critical to the overall historical assessment. But even if legendary accretion was the primary (or even only a primary) factor in the eventual shape of the canonical texts, the telephone game analogy would be (to put it bluntly) ignorant.


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