The Gospels and the Telephone Game
I’ve used the telephone game to teach the gospels a number of times, but it troubles me. Here’s why.
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. 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.)
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. 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:
- 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.
- Similar 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).
- 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.