In the “Telephone” game, people start by sitting in a circle. One person makes up a sentence and whispers it into the next person’s ear, and the second person whispers what was heard into the third person’s ear, and so on. This process continues until the last person says the sentence out loud, and the person who started the game says the original sentence out loud. Usually the sentence get changed during the game, and the starting sentence and ending sentence are often quite different, and people laugh at how the sentence changed going around the circle.
A common argument against the reliability of the Gospels is that they were transmitted orally for decades before being written down, and were corrupted during the transmission. The analogy of transmitting the Bible like the telephone game makes false assumptions and breaks down very quickly.
What makes the Telephone game fun is to see how much the message changes as it is transmitted from one person to the next. There is some attempt to pass the message accurately, but the players usually want the message to be changed. Also, only one person may hear the message at a time, and there’s no confirmation that the message was communicated properly at any step of the way. In fact, one of the most important rules of the game is that a person can only hear the message one time.
First century Judaism may have been an oral society, but it had different rules for communicating than 21st century America. When Jesus spoke, there were often many people listening (Matthew 4:25 ESV, Mark 3:7-8 ESV), at times even thousands (Matthew 14:15-21 ESV). The disciples would have heard Jesus speak many times publicly, and he undoubtedly instructed the disciples even more frequently in private. The disciples would have known Jesus’ message very well, even if they didn’t understand the meaning until after the resurrection.
If the disciples had started teaching something which contradicted what Jesus taught, there would have been many people who could have corrected the teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote:
- I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20:29-31 NIV)
- As I urged you [Timothy] when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3-4 CSB)
- He [Church Elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9 ESV)
The Bible translations1 which exist today were made at different times, by different people, for different audiences, in different countries, in different languages and in different cultures, but they have a consistent message. The first century method of transmitting information was different than what we use today, but that doesn’t mean it was less accurate. Christians can be confident the Gospels we have today have been accurately transmitted from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
- Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) (Amazon)
- Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts, Lexham Press: 2014 (Logos)
- Kunkle, Brett. What We Have Is What Was Written, (Stand to Reason, March 5, 2013) (Blog, accessed 05-Oct-2018)
- Bible.com is showing 1,800 versions in 1,250 languages; some of these are only portions of the Bible. (Website accessed 24-Nov-2018.)