Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 29

The Bible and the Telephone Game

One common challenge made by skeptics of the Bible is that memory is faulty. It “leaks” and cannot be trusted over a long period of time. This means the Bible likely has errors and embellishments that were introduced during the time gap between Jesus' life and the writing of the Gospels.

Most scholars accept that there was a twenty-five- to sixty-year time gap between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels. If Jesus died around AD 30, Mark was probably written in the mid-50s to early 60s AD, and John in the 90s. During this time, the stories of Jesus’ actions and teaching were passed on primarily through word of mouth (i.e., “oral tradition”).

Reference is often made to the telephone game. A group of people line up; the first person whispers something to the second person and so forth until the message gets to the final person. The joke is that what the last person hears is rarely what the first person said. If a group of similar people in the same context can’t remember and accurately pass on a saying, how can we trust decades of faulty memory? This is an understandable question, especially when asked by someone from a non-oral culture.

An oral culture is a culture in which stories are learned and passed on primarily by word of mouth. People tend not to rely on written accounts. Because the United States and Western Europe are not oral cultures, many people in these cultures struggle to understand how facts can be reliably communicated orally. But there is ample evidence that people who do live in oral cultures are capable of seemingly near-impossible feats of memory and accuracy.

So let’s put this analogy to rest right now. Oral tradition has very little in common with the telephone game. In the game:

  • the message is heard and passed along one person at a time,
  • there are no controls over the message,
  • there is no cost attached to reliable or unreliable transmission.

All of this makes it fundamentally different from the oral transmission of the Gospels:

  • The biblical stories were relayed in communities (not one-to-one),
  • when the stories were shared in community, many people knew the stories and would correct mistakes relayed in the retelling,
  • the people retelling the stories had a strong personal interest in the truthfulness of what they were saying, especially when persecution of the church increased.

The joke of the telephone game is irrelevant to this discussion.

This blog is an extract from my upcoming book, Why I Trust the Bible, due out in August, 2021).