Gospels and the telephone game

I’m still making my way through Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham and blogging as I do so (see elsewhere on this site for previous entries), but there was a little quote he shared that I don’t think is significant enough to include in my review, but it’s worth commenting on, briefly. It’s always bugged me when people think the whole telephone game is a fair analogy to the transmission of the information about Jesus prior to the publication of the New Testament Gospels. Key elements of the telephone game that make it funny are the fact that each person has to quietly whisper so that nobody else can hear what is being said, that they only get one shot at it (no repeats) and that everybody is trying to mess up the message because it’s funny to do so.

This is related to the transmission of the stories and sayings of Jesus HOW?!?!?

The actual transmission of historical data in oral cultures is exactly the opposite of the telephone game. Bauckham quotes another scholar, Vansina, who writes,

Where … the performers intend to stick as closely as possible to the message related and to avoid lapses of memory or distortion, the pace of change [ed. – the telephone game effect] can almost be stopped. In some cases controls over the faithfulness of the performance were set up and sanctions or rewards meted out to the performers. … In Polynesia ritual sanctions were brought to bear in the case of failure to be word-perfect. When bystanders perceived a mistake the ceremony was abandoned. In New Zealand it was believed that a single mistake in performance was enough to strike the performer dead. Similar sanctions were found in Hawaii … Such … beliefs had visible effects. Thus in Hawaii a hymn of 618 lines was recorded which was identical with a version collected on the neighboring island of Oahu. … Sometimes controllers were appointed to check important performances. In Rwanda the controllers of ubwiiru esoteric liturgical texts were the other performers entitled to recite it. (page 305-306)

So here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you’re playing the telephone game and you realize that the message at the beginning of the game is a revelation from God that is critical for humanity to hear. Furthermore, when the first person recites it they do so out loud for the benefit of the entire group. The entire group is able to ask them to repeat it and clarify anything they did not understand. In fact, you can take notes! (Richard Bauckham presents a strong case that this is precisely what the early church, and in fact the very disciples of Jesus himself did!) Each subsequent chain in the telephone game recites the message out loud, answers questions, more notes are taken, and so forth just like the first person.

And to make the game really interesting let’s add this twist; if somebody messes up a single word, just one little bitty word, that big guy in the corner named Bruno gets off his chair, picks up his aluminum bat and bludgeons them to death in front of everybody else.

Let me ask you this; do you think you might be able to faithfully reproduce God’s message to humanity if you were playing that version of the telephone game? Now you have a bit of an insight of the transmission process in a predominantly (though not exclusively) oral culture. Does that give you a little more faith in the reliability of the Gospels? It should. If not, try reading the rest of Bauckham’s book!

[Update: One reader asked if threats of physical abuse were part of the process of reliably transmitting the Jesus traditions in the early church. As far as I know, and Bauckham has not indicated otherwise, threats of physical abuse were not utilized as a means of keeping the traditions free from error. I included the part about Bruno partly for literary flair and partly because I was trying to paint a general picture of oral cultures, per the quote in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In some oral cultures there is the threat of death as the quote states. The early church is one example of an oral culture, but not all oral cultures are the same nor do they all utilize the same means of control.]

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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