Hang it up, already!

Why the telephone game has no bearing on the Bible

By Jeff Laird

Armchair skeptics like to compare the transmission of the Gospel to an extended session of the party game Telephone. In this game, the first player whispers a random sentence into the second player's ear. That person quickly turns and whispers it to the third player, who does the same to the fourth, and so on. At the end, everyone has a good laugh comparing the final product to the original. Just like how we got the Bible, right?

Not even close.

The idea that change can creep into a message, especially an oral message, isn't so controversial. The problem with this criticism of the Gospel, or the Bible, is that the characteristic flaws which define the Telephone Game don't apply. The transmission of the Gospel, both as a message and as a set of written documents, simply doesn't fit that caricature. What's surprising, at least to me, is how doggedly some skeptics insist that the transmission of the Gospels is "exactly like", or "just like", the Telephone Game.

To explain, consider several versions of this game, as follows:

Version A: Player one whispers a semi-random sentence into the ear of player two, who immediately turns and whispers it to player three, and so forth. After nine or ten hand-offs, the original is compared to the final, and everyone has a good laugh. There are no winners or losers, and the entertainment value is actually increased by mistakes.

Version B: Everyone's car keys are locked into a safe, which uses a short story for a password. Player one writes this text down. This is handed in turn to players two and three, who make their own written copies from the original. These two copies are given to the next four players, then eight, and so forth. At each phase, players may compare new copies to the previous generation, with the option of disqualifying players who make an error. After two or three rounds, the original is destroyed, making players totally dependent on copies to get their car keys back. After 10 rounds, players may attempt to introduce any changes they like, but must convince everyone else to accept them, in the face of the (several hundred) other written copies.

Version C: Player one whisper-sings the lyrics to a popular, well-known song to players two and three. They mutually repeat the words to each other until all three have learnt the words. Players two and three then whisper-sing the lyrics to players four, five, six, and seven. Players one, two, and three sing the lyrics to the others, for comparison. The next set of players are introduced, and players one, two, and three can no longer participate. The lyrics are required to unlock the safe where three fourths of the players' car keys have been locked. After four rounds, the game transitions into version B. This is subtly different from version B, but they merge so quickly that there's little practical difference.

Version Q: Player one dictates various phrases and speeches over the course of several hours. Other players have the option to write these down, or repeat them until they have them memorized. Near the end of the night, player one is removed from the game, as are 90% of those who could orally repeat his words. Player two is then assigned to collect oral recitations and whatever napkins, receipts, etc. other words were sketched on, and tasked with making a written version of player one's entire body of statements. Player two is then removed from the game, and four copies of his work are written out as fast as humanly possible. These copies are separated into four rooms. Player three then collects those, selects the "correct" version of any particular passage, writes down a single version, and destroys the other four, along with all of the napkins and receipts. Players who don't accept this as the "real" message are ejected from the party by player three.

Obviously, Version A makes for a good game. B and C aren't games at all — they're purposeful attempts to relay an accurate message. Q is ultimately fun only for player three, who gets direct personal control over the final version.

Version "A" is classic Telephone, and the skeptic's caricature of Biblical / Gospel transmission: careless, thoughtless, random, and slapdash. Nobody really cares about the content, nobody checks the content, nobody has any stake in whether or not it's transmitted correctly. That's not just unrealistic, it's silly. No part of that applies to early Christianity, but all parts are required to make the Telephone Game a game, and the skeptical attack meaningful.

Version "B" is a closer version of how Bible manuscripts were generated. Do variants appear? Yes, especially when you get to making thousands of copies, but by then changes are generally going to be typos and other minor errors. Multiple copies make such errors easier to find. The copyists have incentive to be as accurate as possible. By the time someone has the authority to attempt a major revision, it's impossible. There are too many copies in too many places to control the message — it's out there, as is, established.

Version "C" extends the idea to the earliest transmission of Christian doctrines, prior to the writing of the Epistles and Gospels. There's a strong incentive to be accurate, and a community to confirm and verify what's being passed down. Changes or variants may pop up but they won't go unnoticed. In both B and C, there's a legitimate motivation for players to get the message right, and keep it right. Also, the transition from oral to written is almost immediate.

Version "Q", here just for comparison, is an analogous history of the Qur'an, the Islamic scriptures. Written only in scattered fragments until after Muhammad's death, it wasn't complied into a single volume until most of those who had memorized it were killed in battle. Variants were sorted to produce one text, which rapidly produced variants of its own. The variants were so drastic that they caused infighting and political unrest. The third Caliph, Uthman, recompiled an "approved" version, and had every other scrap and copy destroyed. All of this occurred within 30 years of Muhammad's death.

The extant Qur'anic text is the product of a single person's influence, devoid of any prior manuscripts, multiply edited and recompiled long before it was widely copied, almost immediately after the death of its author. Uthman had the means and motivation to purge everything but his version of Muhammad's words. In contrast, the various books of the Bible had been copied and distributed without any central authority, under varying persecution, for three centuries before anyone had the political power to attempt a revision. By then it was too late. Too many copies, in too many places, distributed and read for too long.

Naturally, no analogy is perfect, otherwise it wouldn't be an analogy. Most skeptics don't think the telephone game "exactly" captures the transmission of early Christian beliefs, or the Gospels, or the Epistles. And the four scenarios above don't "exactly" capture historical details, either. Skeptics typically mention the Telephone Game as a means to suggest that human error makes the transmitted message unreliable. That's merely incorrect. Doggedly insisting that errors of the Telephone game apply "strongly" or "exactly" to early Christian beliefs is foolish, both historically, and logically.

The fatal problem with the Telephone attack, as explained above, is that the quintessential elements of Telephone don't apply. One purpose of the rules of Telephone is to encourage mistakes — something interested parties explicitly tried to avoid with respect to the Bible! If you use an important, familiar message, allow for caution and repetition in passing it along, and permit players to double back, or write it down, you defeat the purpose of the party game.

When we actually look at the details, there's ample evidence to show the transmission of the Gospels, and Epistles, and the earliest beliefs of the Christian church, were stable and accurate. Simply put, The Telephone Game provides no meaningful criticism of the Gospel.

Published 11-19-14