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The Gospels and the Telephone Game

June 1, 2009

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I’ve used the telephone game to teach the gospels a number of times, but it troubles me. Here’s why.

four gospelsOn 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. Apart from the fact that some of it was made up from scratch, the stories that weren’t fabricated were transmitted orally, a method by which stories are altered and added to. 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. (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.)

telephoneOne 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. By the time it gets to the end it won’t be the same as it was when it began. You could even do the exercise again but make them text message the verse along—it will still probably change in its iterations.

So, if this is such a great way to teach the way stories are changed as they’re handed down, why is it problematic?

In sum, I’ve found that most students leave with the impression that this process is merely a negative one. They learn that iterations over time degrade an original, pure message. This is problematic for three reasons:

  1. It reinforces the idea that what is at the origin is what matters the most. The telephone game sits too snugly with nostalgia for origins narratives that posit some pure origin to the Christian message, which we need to get back to—you know, prior to its corruption.
  2. da vinciSimilar to the previous idea is the conspiracy theory type of crap you see in movies about how some secret truth is hidden in these texts, if only we could find it. Don’t you know that over at the Vatican they have the secret key to unlocking the true, hidden treasures of the text, but they’re unwilling to share that key with us? According to this view, the truth is right in front of our faces, but it is hidden behind the corruptions or alterations. We only need to find a way of separating the wheat (=the secret truth) from the chaff (=the corrupt changes).
  3. Last, the idea that there is a pure origin that is either covered over, corrupted, or degraded, misses the most important point I think worth making: each retelling of the gospel narratives is not a degradation but a production of something new and interesting in its own right! 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. As Cecile B. DeMille suggests at the beginning of The Ten Commandments, the movie is really about capitalism and communism, not about Israel and Egypt! You’re missing the point if you’re evaluating the film by comparing it to the book of Exodus. What you should do instead is see how the book participates in a propaganda war between McCarthyism and commie pinkos.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2009 9:32 am

    I don’t think you are applying the telephone game properly. It is radically different than the way the New Testament was transmitted 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.

  2. August 30, 2009 9:34 am

    P.S. You and your readers might find Can We Trust the Gospels? to be a good read — http://www.amazon.com/Can-Trust-Gospels-Investigating-Reliability/dp/1581348665/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251642800&sr=8-1 .

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 30, 2009 9:47 am

    Hi Neil. I’m sorry, but you’re working with a number of assumptions that are unacceptable, such as the idea that the Holy Spirit guided the authors. There’s no good reason to make that assumption over, say, the assumption that they were being guided by the devil. In addition, there are good reasons to accept the assumption that no gods exist whatsoever.

  4. August 30, 2009 3:15 pm

    Even if the Holy Spirit didn’t guide the authors the telephone argument fails completely. To state otherwise is to concede a complete lack of knowledge about how the texts were transmitted.

    In addition, there are good reasons to accept the assumption that no gods exist whatsoever.

    Sure, because something often comes from nothing, life often comes from non-life, things often get spectacularly organized via random events . . .

    Oh, wait, none of those things happen.

    Lots of reasons for God’s existence — http://rationalperspective.wordpress.com/theism/

    The best explanation for the historical facts is that Jesus rose from dead — http://4simpsons.wordpress.com/2008/10/20/a-unique-way-to-approach-defending-the-christian-faith/

    Peace,
    Neil

  5. August 30, 2009 3:34 pm

    Oh my, I just read more of your blog and background. You teach religious studies?! And you say that many transparently false and idiotic things in just one post?!

    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.

    He 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 copying 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. — http://4simpsons.wordpress.com/2006/06/29/when-was-the-new-testament-written/

    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.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 30, 2009 3:53 pm

    I think you’re confusing religious studies with apologetics.

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  1. Telephone game part II « 4Simpsons Blog – Eternity Matters

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