Hang it up, already!

Why the telephone game has no bearing on the Bible

By Jeff Laird

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Continued from Page One

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.

Image Credit: Kersley Fitzgerald

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | History-Apologetics

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Published 11-19-14