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Miscellaneous meanderings and philosophical ramblings. The title from a spiral notebook I used to jot down my thoughts on religion and other matters some years ago. I like to write, think and express my views on various issues. Robust discussion is welcome.

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"Lan astaslem."
I will not submit. I will not surrender.
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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Chinese telephone and oral transmission

I wonder how the Google/China hegemony will deal with that title
but on to the subject at hand. In an online discussion I had recently, someone compared the way the Bible developed to the Chinese telephone or whispers game many of us have experienced as kids in school.

As many players as possible line up such that they can whisper to their immediate neighbours but not hear any players further away. The player at the 'beginning' of the line thinks of a phrase (or, in the case of young children, is supplied one by an adult), and whispers it as quietly as possible to her/his neighbour. The neighbour then passes on the message to the next player to the best of his/her ability. The passing continues in this fashion until it reaches the player at the 'end' of the line, who calls out the message s/he received.

If the game has been 'successful', the final message will bear little or no resemblance to the original, due to the cumulative effect of mistakes along the line. Often, however, the message does not reach the end of the line, due to someone accidentally speaking too loudly. Deliberately changing the phrase is often considered cheating, but if the starting phrase is badly picked, there may be disappointingly little natural change.

Their point was that before the Gospels were written, the accounts of Christ's ministry were passed on by word of mouth for a long period. If a simple oral message can hardly be transmitted accurately in a short period of time as the game tends to show, then the claim is that we can't trust the Gospel accounts for accuracy concerning Christ's words or ministry.

There are number of problems with drawing this conclusion. While it may seem to be showing a direct comparison to similar actions and conditions, and in fact, the game greatly emphasizes the length of time problem, to the apparent detriment of the Gospels; we shall see that a great deal is overlooked that reveals the linkage to be greatly flawed.

For one, and much information is available here, the ancient Hebrew culture had a strong tradition of oral transmission. A small excerpt from that study:

 It is well-known that oral transmission in Semitic cultures was very reliable, and this tends to support that. The fact that traveling singers and prophets could reproduce substantial works with very minimal variation over time makes perfect sense in light of this factor. And, in the case of the gospel stories, which would have had their first 'copy' made either during the life of Jesus (and under His training) or immediately after the ascension (and under the corporate oversight of a homogenous group), the implication is very supportive of the permanence of accurate reports! In other words, when you combine the various factors which would have contributed to the accurate retelling the FIRST TIME, with this factor that strongly supports subsequent fidelity to the FIRST "Copy" (i.e. the first 'retelling'), you get a situation in which high confidence in the accuracy of the early apostolic teaching is warranted!

There were checks, balances, and reinforcement throughout the process. The game, however, as part of its rules, removes controls by preventing others from hearing the message as it is passed. This minimizes the checks and balances and the reinforcements and moves them to the very end, when the game is over, rather than the message being corrected during transmission, so that it can continue to move down the line intact.

The game is also played in the context of cultures that have not had to rely on accurate oral transmission for many generations. There is also the matter of this being a game and not about conveying important knowledge or historical data, which would naturally create incentives for an individual to maintain accuracy.

An additional difference is that the period of oral transmission for the Gospels occurred when witnesses, friend and foe, were still alive and could offer correction if need be. It should also be noted that we have no reason to think that Christ's words were not written down while he was still alive or very shortly thereafter. It was not unheard of to do so, and we have examples, from that era, of students recording the words of their Rabbi's. While the oral tradition was well established and important, the culture included the written word as well. Both methods existed side by side at the time in question.

As we can see, the game is a not a direct comparison at all. Still, some may wonder what we can know about the early church, and how it developed shortly after Christ's death and resurrection. This brings us to the New Testament where we find that we can trace a clear and consistent teaching to very early in the Church's history. It is well established that Paul wrote Thessalonians around 50A.D. This is within a mere 20 years of Christ's crucifixion and yet a very high Christology is evident in Paul's writings as well as a confidence in presentation that indicates the teaching was not newly developed, but came from an earlier time. He appeals to the doctrine that congregations had already received and to his being authorized by the leaders in Jerusalem. Paul is not offering an innovation but repeating and reinforcing what had been previously delivered to them.

We find that we are now led to the Acts of the Apostles and the early preaching by Peter which emphasizes many of the same points that Paul does concerning Christ. This tracking back through Paul's ministry and to the early activity of the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ, leads us to the most plausible conclusion being that Jesus’ own claims about Himself were the source for this high Christology wherein Christ is Lord and Saviour.

So, people may play childhood games, but they should realize such trifles are not accurate or scholarly comparison to different times, methods and cultures. We can have confidence that the New Testament is an accurate account of Christ's words and ministry. Within that context, we have precious few options with regard to who Christ was. Do we take Him for who he claimed to be and love Jesus as the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour? Do we dismiss Him as seriously in error regarding His own identity, or merely a clever scoundrel who manipulated the masses? We have a serious choice to consider and to make our decision by way of a game would be infinitely more foolish than making long-term investment decisions based on how well someone played Simon says as a child.

he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Mark 8:29


Several resources I have used for this and previous posts as well as various debates/discussions:

A Christian Thinktank
Tekton Apologetics Ministries

Previous posts:

The fewer assumptions the better
Blind Faith
Yes, there is a God

Be sure to also drop by the following websites for more news and commentary:

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