Jesus and the Telephone Game

I once met with a prominent atheist and I asked him what it was that ultimately led to his conversion to atheism.  Naturally inquisitive, he had grown up in a marginally Catholic home and had found that nearly all of his questions as a child went unanswered.  He left home for a Methodist college known for its top basketball program and took a course in Scripture hoping to have some of his questions answered.  Instead he found that the professor was simply a “Scripture Scholar” who applied the Historical Critical Method to everything he taught and ended up destroying what little faith the man had.  One of the things he taught him was how unreliable the Gospels actually were.  He would compare the way the Bible’s accounts of Jesus were passed on with the children’s telephone game in which the children whisper a message from one person to another.  The message is corrupted and everyone has a good laugh in the end.  This analogy is applied so often that it bears a deeper look.

In order to avoid setting up a straw man, we will begin by looking at what one of the better known Scripture scholars, Professor Bart Ehrman, has to say about this:

“You are probably familiar with the old birthday party game “telephone.” A group of kids sits in a circle, the first tells a brief story to the one sitting next to her, who tells it to the next, and to the next, and so on, until it comes back full circle to the one who started it. Invariably, the story has changed so much in the process of retelling that everyone gets a good laugh. Imagine this same activity taking place, not in a solitary living room with ten kids on one afternoon, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across), with thousands of participants—from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts—some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages” (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Edition p.47).

In order to see why this is a faulty analogy, we must briefly look at the message.  The Gospel (not the books but the actual message) was an absolutely life-altering message.  If what was being said about the man Jesus of Nazareth was actually true then it would change the lives of everyone who heard it.  This is far different from the message of the telephone game which is really just a random (and sometimes deliberately confusing) one.  The magnitude of the message would lead to you wanting to hear it again and again to make sure you got it right.  In the telephone game you cannot ask for the message a second time.  Finally, the Gospel was not whispered in the ear, but preached out loud so that there is a social corrective as well.

While the argument suffers from the fallacy of a faulty analogy, there is a part of it that may in fact be true.  The reliability of the message depends completely on the reliability of the messenger.  Ehrman’s argument (and even the analogy itself) hinges on the lack of reliability of the messenger:

“It does not appear that the authors of the early Gospels were eyewitnesses to the events that they narrate. But they must have gotten their stories from somewhere. Indeed, one of them acknowledges that he has heard stories about Jesus and read earlier accounts (Luke 1:1–4). In the opinion of most New Testament scholars, it is possible that in addition to preserving genuine historical recollections about what Jesus actually said and did, these authors also narrated stories that had been modified, or even invented, in the process of retelling” (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Edition p.47).

Dr. Brant Pitre in his new book, The Case for Jesus, presents a well-researched argument against this that I present in summary below.  Although it seems like common sense, it bears mentioning that there were three stages in the writing of the Gospels.  First there is the life and teaching of Jesus to His disciples.  These disciples were not just students of Jesus, but like most disciples of Jewish rabbis sought to collect the dust from their Master’s feet because they were following Him so closely.  They spent every day for three years with Him.  They spent 40-grace filled days with Him after the Resurrection.  After Pentecost, the second phase began, namely their preaching of the Gospel.

This preaching was done by these same disciples, the ones who were with Him from the beginning.  They were not merely sharing incidental memories from their time with Him but instead like all preachers their message was rehearsed and rehashed.  In other words, we do not need to worry about their memory slipping them because they were constantly preaching the same message that would eventually be written down.

Francis whisper

These same preachers also acted as a corrective to the message as it spread.  This is the genius of the Church and its role in protecting the content of Revelation.  We find examples of this throughout Acts of the Apostles when it is the Church who sends out the non-Apostolic preachers.  Even St. Paul himself went to the Apostles in order to vet his message (Gal 1:18).  St. John also writes his letters as a means of correcting those Gnostics who had twisted and distorted the message.

A further aspect of this becomes clear when we ask an important question: why did Jesus only appear to certain people after the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:8)?  Couldn’t He have just appeared to all of the Jewish leaders and Pilate?  )?  It would seem that He would want to appear to a multitude in order to prove His words were true.  Instead, He appeared to only those who He deemed to be reliable witnesses.  He chose those (and we believe He also equipped) who were most qualified to spread the message.  This cannot be overlooked because each of these men ultimately gave their lives because they knew that the Resurrection was real.  They had no real fear of death because they had witnessed Jesus rise from the dead.

This is why it matters that it is these same witnesses who are responsible for the third stage, the actual writing of the Gospel texts.  The argument that the Apostles were ignorant fishermen and thus incapable of writing is not historically accurate.  First, not all of them were fishermen and certainly one of them, namely the former tax collector, would have been literate (especially in Greek).  It should not be surprising that of the 11 remaining Apostles then that Matthew wrote a Gospel.  Secondly, we need to make the distinction between author and writer.  While John may not have been able to write (Acts 4:13 seems to suggest this), this does not mean that he could not have used a scribe.  We have good reason based on their relationship that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter (1Pt 5:12-13).  Likewise Luke knew many eyewitnesses including the Mother of the Lord.

There is historical evidence as well that does not support the telephone game hypothesis.  One of the most basic rules for studying biblical manuscripts is that you go back to the earliest and best copies and see what they say.  All of the early manuscripts attribute them to the same authors that we do today.  We find not a single copy that is attributed to someone else.  Likewise there is unanimity among the Church Fathers as to the authors.

It bears mentioning as well that the amount of time that passed between the writing of the Gospels and Pentecost is not as long as some scholars will try to say it was.  We know from extra-biblical sources that the destruction of the Temple occurred in August of 70AD.  This is important because the Synoptic Gospels contain accounts of Jesus prophesying its demise.  Matthew (Mt 24:20) and Mark (Mk 13:18) both portray Jesus as telling the disciples to pray that it not come in Winter which only makes sense if it had not already happened (since it happened in late Summer).  Luke also contains a warning not to “enter into the city” (Lk 21:21).  One would logically ask why if it had already been destroyed this warning would be necessary.

Furthermore we know that Luke wrote Acts after his Gospel (Acts 1:1).  Given that he ends the book with Paul’s arrival in Rome and makes no mention of his martyrdom, it is reasonable to assume that it was written sometime between 62-68 AD.  His Gospel, would have needed to been completed then sometime before 62 AD, less than 30 years after the Ascension.

Unfortunately, my atheist companion is not alone in having had his faith destroyed in the face of faulty scholarship led animated by bad logic.  Many of us are afraid to use historical research to support our faith because of the fate of many Scripture scholars today.  If we do not learn the historical facts surrounding our faith then that faith will ultimately be supplanted in many hearts—truth cannot contradict truth.

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