Debunking the Telephone Game Analogy

Many non-Christians object to the reliability of the New Testament, and they often reference the children’s party activity known as the “Telephone Game” as an example of how oral transmission of a message can become distorted. But is this really the principle at work in the writing of the gospels? Let’s examine the rules of the game to see how closely the game may compare with the composing of the scriptures.

Rules of the Telephone Game:

*]To play Telephone, you’ll need a group of players. More is better.

*]Choose a phrase for the team to use or let them select one themselves. Phrases should be complicated, with plenty of detail and unfamiliar words – for instance, try using a phrase such as “Mahogany tables don’t look good painted fuchsia.” The phrase should never be a familiar expression; these are too easy to remember.

*]Only one player should know what the phrase is.

*]The player who created or received the phrase starts the game by whispering it into the ear of another player.

*]She cannot repeat the phrase, so the second player needs to listen carefully. The second player then whispers the phrase to the third player, who whispers it to the fourth, and so on until the last player.

*]Once all players have spoken, the last player repeats the phrase. Unless everyone on the team is a very clear speaker and a very attentive listener, the phrase will have changed.

*]What began as “Mahogany tables don’t look good painted fuchsia” might end up as “Behold, any stables look good waiting on blue sand.” If you have time, go back through the players, asking each one what the original phrase was and pinpointing where the various changes occurred.

Why the Telephone Game Analogy Fails:

*]The rules of the game recommend that a group of players is needed. The reason for this is that in order for the game to be entertaining, deviation from the original phrase is desirable. In contrast, the gospel writers were not playing a game nor were they the last in a long chain of children; they were either eyewitnesses or they relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses who were still alive.

*]The rules of the game suggest that the phrases should be complicated and contain unfamiliar words. In contrast, the gospel writers conveyed Jesus’ words in plain, simple language using names, places, prophetic writings and history that were familiar to their readers.

*]The rules suggest that only one player should know the original phrase. In contrast, the gospel writers had access to many eyewitnesses who could corroborate the written accounts.

*]The game begins with a single whisper. In contrast, the proclamation of the gospel began with Peter preaching openly to thousands on the day of Pentecost.

*]The game limits each player to hearing and repeating the phrase once and from one source only. In contrast, the gospel of Luke states that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” of the events he also recorded in his gospel. Additionally, many eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus were still alive and both Luke and Paul make reference to this fact in their writings. Thus, the gospel writers were recording history that both they and their audiences knew well.

*]The rules assume that not all players will speak clearly or listen attentively. In contrast, the gospel writers took great pains to reproduce what they had seen and heard faithfully and with great clarity.

*]The rules of the game suggest that it would be fun to go back through the change to see exactly where all the changes took place. In contrast, if the gospel writers had made changes to the events of Jesus’ life or to His parables, the living witnesses would have objected strenuously to such objections as mere fabrications.

In conclusion, the gospel writers were not children being entertained by a party game. They saw themselves as passing on the very words of God just as they had received them, and the presence of many living witnesses would ensure that each author was held accountable for reproducing the facts accurately.

In addition, the people who passed on things had excellent memory back in the day. Memorizing whole books of scripture was child’s play to these people.

In contrast to today’s people who forget where they put the car keys this morning.


In addition, the existence of multiple extant copies changes the playing field considerably.

Our present Bibles are often accused of being “copies of copies of copies” or “translations of translations of translations.” That conjures up images of a sequence of copies, each one lost or destroyed in turn so that the next copyist has only the most recent copy to rely on (as in the telephone game, where each listener only has access to one person’s version that may already have been garbled). Instead, there have always been numerous copies made in many times and places, and older copies (though sadly not the originals) have sometimes been preserved. That means that, even though we lack the originals, we can correct obvious errors in any given copy by comparing it to multiple other, unrelated copies. In cases where serious differences do exist between different “streams” of preservation and translation, Bible publishers today generally make note of them for the reader.

Likewise, while historically some translated Bibles have been made from other translations, nowadays any new translation is made from the best available texts in the original languages, and usually a selection of different ones to address the single-copy reliability issues noted above.

A game of telephone in which the kids are allowed to check their results against each other and against multiple other chains of kids coming from the same starting point would have a very different outcome than the usual version, even if we don’t let the first kid just keep reinforcing the original message.


The people who compare Oral tradition to the telephone game do not have any idea of how oral tradition actually works. When I traveled to Greece, a country that heavily relied in oral tradition for many years I was explained how it worked and I realized that it is not similar in any way to the telephone game.

In the old days the way oral tradition was transmitted was that as soon as a child was old enough (maybe 7 sometimes even 5) every single night the child would be sitted down and repeated the same story, in the same way, over and over for the 365 days of the year and for the next 20 years of his life up until he will have to repeat exactly the same story that he has memorized due to hearing exactly the same thing over and over to other children.

The telephone game is about hearing one statement only one time and repeating it to someone one else one time. Oral tradition is based on full memorization. It is more like memorizing the words of the national anthem of the US by repeating it constantly to kids so they can learn each word so after one year of memorizing they can sing it.

If we are dismissing oral tradition then none of us should be able to memorize the lyrics of a song that is constantly played on the radio or non of us should be able to know thenathional anthem or the pledge of allegiance for example. All of us including children will be able to fully memorize a story word by word if we hear it over and over and over and if we are forced to repeat it on out brain over over and over. In fact there are a few children’s movies that I have memorized the entire dialogue of the movie word by word because my daughter wants to watch over and over every night.

So that is how you debunk it. It is not the same as the telephone game. Change the dinamic of the game and instead grab the first person and force it for an entire week to memorize the first statement by repeating it several times for long hours each day, and after seven days of constant repetition have that person do exactly the same yo someone else by seven days repeating it for hours over and over and then do the same with a third and then let’s see if you don’t get exactly the same statement at the end of this modified experiment

I agree that the Telephone Game Analogy isn’t a good way to cast doubt on the veracity of the New Testament. To me, it seems rather unlikely that the first re-telling of Jesus’s story was that of an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life before getting crucified and staying dead. Not very memorable, and not much reason to keep passing it along unless they added some panache to it.

Sounds very science like. At first glance. Then you wake up and realize it isn’t even close to science at all.

It’s merely a game. Next thing we will be asked is to help out Mr. C Dollar to get a jet plane. Who knows if he will be back again.

John Denver warned us about this.

They were also First-Century Jews. Like many cultures, both then and now, the majority of people could not read or write - which were pretty pointless skills , as they would not have had access to written material to read, or material upon which to write. We often take for granted inexpensive (or free!) books to read and pens and paper to write.

For a society in which most members can’t read and write (and who would not have anything to read or to write with anyway), an accurate oral tradition becomes very important. We teach our children to read and write, but not to memorize. But the human mind has an amazing capacity for accurate memorization. Like other skills, it must be taught, honed, exercised, and maintained.

If the telephone game were played by people instructed in memorization, the final result would be almost identical to the original. The game does not reveal an actual limitation in human capacity, but an oversight of memorization in modern Western culture.

It might surprise you to know that some Christians also say this. The bible is viewed by some as an imperfect copy of documents; sometimes described as being inspired (not in the sense of “God-breathed” as some people use the term, but motivated by) by good messages, but not a perfect expression of those messages. This has sometimes been used to explain away messages in the bible that one finds disagreeable.

Did the Council of Nicea say that the translation THEY HAD was the word of God, or just the original?

Nicea did not rule on the canon or inspiration of Scripture, though many folks seem to think it did.

Also, at that time Greek was still the primary language of Christian worship and theology, so they would not have needed a translation for the New Testament. Of course, they still didn’t have the originals, just various sets of copies.


Whenever the Church put the Canon together, did it say THESE WORDS are the Word of God, or WHERE they came from, the originals?

Does anyone have the Church’s words on this?

I always thought of it like at the end of Fahrenheit 451, they memorized things verbatim.

…we are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John…]We’re book burners too. We read the books and burned them. Afraid they’d be found…]Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law. Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ. It’s here. And the hours is late, and the war’s begun, and we are out here, and the city is right there, wrapped up in it’s own coat of a thousand colors…]

I wonder if “The Book of Eli” was inspired by that book.

great post.

“they were either eyewitnesses” “proclamation of the gospel began with Peter preaching openly to thousands” all those things are just what the paper says on them. I remember being 15 and reading an apologetic book that said “how could 12 fisherman do all this” and I realized that its only the paper that is saying there were 12 fisherman. I did hear on TBN the other day that some historian says now that legends of people change only after a few generations after the person. But I have no way whatsoever to verify that the papers they claim to have from the early centuries really are that old, who wrote them, WHY, and numberless other questions. My faith is unshakable and I don’t need to prove it. Proving there is a God in the first place can be done however.

To accurately compare the Telephone game you would have to get a big group of people, then select a small committee to pull aside. You give them the oral message and let them discuss it amongst themselves for a bit.

Then two of them write the message down, again while the committee is able to witness these written messages.

Now, these two people take their written messages and begin two separate telephone games, and pass along the written message.

After the oral and written message has been passed along for two or three “generations” the written message is copied word-for-word, then the original is destroyed.

Then the oral and written copy is passed along again (keeping the two “teams” separate) for another 10 “generations” or so.

At the end of the game, the two teams compare their messages both oral a written. Whichever team gets it exactly right gets treated to a steak-n-seafood dinner. Any team that gets it wrong has to clean the gum off the church parking lot on the hottest day in July.

So there you have it - a more true-to-life Telephone Game Analogy. This game has the distinct advantage of carrying a written documentation. The documentation was written at a time when the first committee members were present to evaluate it for accuracy. The message and documentation spread along separate tracks and could then be compared with each other.

Now, considering that the ENTIRE TEAM would get punished if even one member gets the arrogant idea that HE can improve on the message - the team should be allowed to burn any such heretic. :eek:

It seems clear that the Church’s decree canonizing the body meant that a certain translation of each book which they had was accurate of the inspired original. What would the decree mean if they did not define that there copies were of the original? We don’t know who wrote some of the books of the Bible, so if the copy is not accurate, it is meaningless to define the “book” as inspired. The Church didn’t just say “Matthew wrote an inspired work” and that it. But if we are speaking of the books at Nicea, than it does really matter what earlier translations say. So my question is: where are the actually papers blessed as the word of God at Nicea on that certain day in history?

The earliest attestations of the Christian canon that we have (from the late fourth century) are just lists of books, with no indication of the contents or that the reference is to a particular copy or translation.

The Church did not actually take up the question in Ecumenical Council until Trent, after the Protestant Reformation, to affirm that the longer Old Testament canon is the correct one. Again, the concern was that the right books were included, not which particular copy or translation.

So, no, there does not seem to have been a point at which the Church identified specific physical writings that they had to hand as the Bible. Canonization is on the level of “the Gospel According to Matthew,” not on the level of “this specific copy of the Gospel.” Though of course we still want accurate translations and reject poor or slanted ones.


Excellent breakdown ^^ I’ve always found this comparison juvenile and annoying.

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