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.