Was the Gospel Tradition Like a Game of Telephone?

I recently gave a favorable review of Mark D. Robert’s Can We Trust the Gospels? His approach, though well-informed, is more pastoral than academic. One of his examples that I found particularly helpful was about the “Telephone game.” You have probably heard skeptics refer to this as an argument against the Gospel's reliability. As Dr. Roberts explains about “Telephone” on his website,

That’s a game where one person writes out a sentence, and then whispers it secretly to the next person, who whispers it secretly to the next person, until it comes to the end of the line. The sentence uttered publicly by the last person is usually an obvious and humorous corruption of the original. “There you have it,” the skeptics conclude. “The Gospels can’t be trusted.”

I do remember playing this game in elementary school, with a humorous example about the teacher’s cat. I have also seen skeptics raise it as an example of why the Gospels are unreliable. They are, it is supposed, the end product of a decades-long game of Telephone.

There are many problems with the Telephone analogy. Here are three.

First, even setting aside the likelihood that the Christian community had members specially trained in handling oral tradition accurately, our culture is written one rather than an oral one. The early Christian community, however, arose in a predominantly oral culture (though with growing literary elements). As Dr. Roberts puts it, “Telephone only works in a culture that is not like the oral culture of the first century A.D. People in an oral culture become quite proficient at remembering and passing on oral material.”

Second, whereas Telephone involves the passing along of a message from one person to another in low whispers, the early Christian community passed along the teachings and actions of Jesus in a corporate setting while publicly proclaiming it to others. The teachings were repetitive, being discussed and passed on over and over again. This would be like altering the rules of Telephone so that the teacher would openly and loudly repeat the message to be passed along to the entire class over and over again. Then, the first person would repeat it to the next person loudly and repeatedly. If he made any mistakes, other members of the class familiar with the tradition would correct him. And so on and so on down the chain. This likely would not be as fun, but that is because it is much more likely to accurately preserve the message.

Third, the message involved in Telephone is trivial. In my class, it had something to do with the teacher’s cat and what it had to eat. I had no stake in the message and did not particularly care about its content. Not so with the early Christian community and the traditions about Jesus. As Dr. Roberts puts it:

Most of the earliest followers of Jesus believed that He was the messiah of Israel. Soon, in fact, He was believed to be the Lord Himself. His teachings were regarded as divinely-inspired and, indeed, the ultimate source of divine guidance for living, not to mention salvation. Thus there would have been strong reason to transmit the sayings of Jesus with considerable accuracy.

If the rules of Telephone were changed so that any inaccuracy in the passing along of the message resulted in flunking the class, then I daresay that the results would be very different.

This post is obviously not a comprehensive defense of the accuracy of the Jesus tradition in the early Christian communities. Rather, it simply dispels an oft used but seldom discussed dismissive treatment of the Gospels. Since Dr. Roberts prompted this post, I will give him the last word in summary:
• 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.


Jason Pratt said…
Adding a crucial point to the second rebuttal: everyone understands from the first that the game of 'telephone' is supposed to be about _how much you can mess a message up_. That's the game. The game is not to preserve, but to corrupt. This is why people whisper it as secretly as they can: they want the fun of seeing how silly the end result will be compared to the original.

Sceptics typically omit mentioning this. {g} Even when they contend that the transmitters were 'messing up' the transmission on purpose, the contention still involves the transmitters not trying to actually 'mess up' the transmission but trying to 'improve' it in various ways. (It is only by hindsight comparison that the sceptic would say the transmission was 'messed up'.)

The intention between the game, therefore, and any even-remotely-plausible historical scenario then, is quite utterly different.

Kevin Rosero said…
The telephone game is such a poor analogy with the actual situation being studied that I'm surprised it is used so often. But perhaps that is simply due to the fact that it's a fun example, easy to relate and remember, and an example that large numbers of people can relate to and understand quickly.

All 3 of your objections are true, but let me just say that the second is the strongest, and the most interesting. The first objection might be easy for someone to pass over as too subtle, but the second gets across quickly the fact that the game is not set up correctly (that it's a poorly set up experiment) and that it should be changed. And that's where it gets interesting: imagining what it would be like for us to actually try to emulate the conversation of a first-century biblical community. Now that's a game that would actually be instructive and immensely interesting. Just trying to decide how to set it up will get you talking about the first-century situation. That would be more than just a dismissive game; that would be an instructive exercise.
Anonymous said…
Tha I found particularly helpful was about the telephone game .

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