The Telephone Game and Christian Belief

sfWhen talking to a skeptic, it’s not uncommon to hear the challenge that what we have in the Bible is not particularly reliable. Making reference to the “telephone game,” the unbeliever will often claim that the Bible is probably much different than the original “story” it was meant to document. The analogy resonates with many people, who realize how hard it is to memorize in exact order a string of words that are spoken once. By the time it is repeated to the tenth person, it will bear little resemblance to its original form.

But does this analogy aptly describe the transmission of the Biblical texts? Putting aside for a moment evidence from sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which corroborate the accuracy of the Bible, are there other reasons to conclude that the “telephone game” bears no resemblance to the transmission of the early texts?

The first step in assessing this analogy is to consider the unspoken assumptions that are at play. The “telephone game” usually involves a rather meaningless sentence, spoken once, in which word-for-word memorization is the goal. The sentence to be memorized has no particular significance and no importance is associated with it, other than to memorize it word for word. Modern players live in a culture where written and electronic information storage systems have virtually eliminated the necessity of being able to quickly memorize long passages of information.

To be valid, then, the challenge of the telephone game assumes that these same conditions apply to those early times. But the experience of the early Christians bears no more than a superficial resemblance to this type of game. Yes, they were trying to remember things that were said in the past. But that is where the similarity ends.

In today’s culture, we have a certain approach to documenting history, one that highlights detail. We also have the technology to make recording detailed statements and events easy. Given these factors, certain expectations arise. Take for instance a criminal trial. As a juror, you may want to see and hear the actual interview in which the killer confessed, because you want to know exactly what he said, what words he used, whether he paused, how he came across as he was speaking. When the non-believer takes this approach to Biblical texts, he will reject them before he even considers their reliability because they will never meet these expectations. The skeptic rejects the text without ever really assessing it in the context in which it was written.

The writers of the First Century did not have electronic means to record statements, nor did their culture put a premium on recording history the way we do. They did, however, have a rich tradition of passing on stories, of using their minds to memorize long passages, even entire books. Accurately passing their traditions and stories and knowledge from generation to generation was highly valued.

When the first Christians began to document Jesus’ message, they were not playing a game in which He quickly said a string of words and asked them to repeat it. Jesus traveled from town to town spreading his message. His followers no doubt heard him speak on a subject on numerous occasions. What they eventually recorded was not a transcript of a particular speech, as if he were uttering the Gettysburg address once, and only once, at one particular moment in time. He was addressing themes repeatedly, using parables to convey his meaning, and inquiring of them if they understood. Given this context, it is not really hard to understand how someone who heard Jesus tell something they considered important – perhaps having heard it many times – would have committed to memory what was said. The important thing for the writer would not be that he got every word in the exact order it was said; it is likely that Jesus Himself varied what He said from speech to speech. The important thing would be that the meaning was accurately passed on.

Moreover, the central truth claim of Christianity is that Jesus died on a cross, was buried and then rose again on the third day, appearing thereafter to his disciples and many others. Remembering that they witnessed these events would not be difficult even for a person of average mental ability, as the unique and supernatural nature of what they witnessed would be indelibly recorded in their memories.

While the challenge of the”telephone game” has some superficial appeal, it is at most a red herring, a distraction which prevents some people from ever giving the historical truth claims of Christianity a fair hearing. The Christian message is far more robust – and meaningful – than a simple children’s game.

And that simple truth is certainly worth remembering.

Posted by Al Serrato

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