Is the Telephone Game a Good Analogy for the Jesus Oral Traditions?

telephone gameMost scholars are agreed that the traditions about Jesus were passed along as an oral tradition before being written down in the four Gospels. But what does that mean for their historical reliability?

Some people have compared this oral period to the telephone game. The telephone game is a fun activity that children (used to) play. One person starts with a message, whispers it in another child’s ear, who whispers it in another and so on. At the end of the game, the final version of the message is very different from the original, and it is in that difference that the fun is experienced.

If that is the case, could not something similar happened with the oral tradition? Perhaps the oral tradition that was written down by the evangelists was world’s apart from what Jesus actually said and did.

I see a number of problems with this analogy.

One is that we do not live in an oral culture, while the people who heard Jesus and wrote down his life did live in an oral culture. We should expect greater accuracy within that culture.

Another is that the people who were involved were neither children, nor did they consider it a game. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they took that very seriously.

Part of the fun of the telephone game was to deliberately distort the message. It is no fun if the message is passed on accurately. There is no reason why the early Christians would choose to change the message.

The oral traditions were passed on within communities. While there was room to adjust style and colour, it was expected that the basic content would remain the same. The community enforced accuracy.

The Gospels were written down during the lifetime of people who had heard Jesus and there would have been opportunities to challenge false reporting.

Finally, we find in our written Gospels a number of independent traditions, and yet there is remarkable agreement among these traditions.

This is not my attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m simply saying that the telephone game is a very inaccurate comparison to what was happening during the oral period.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Telephone Game a Good Analogy for the Jesus Oral Traditions?”

  1. I think this is the same as independent traditions, but there is “multi-focality” for the copies of manuscripts.

    The Gospels were not passed on linearly as the telephone game is done. It was more complex and nuanced. So we have all these copies of scripture written in several different regions, by different ppl in different times and they show a remarkable consistency of form when compared.

    There never was a central editor somewhere deleting or adding text as the Muslims had done later.

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