Copies of copies, the telephone game

A few weeks ago, I was having a debate about the reliability of the New Testament with someone who goes by Professor Taboo. Once, he claimed that the New Testament couldn’t have been preserved because we know messages get corrupted throughout time as they’re continuously transmitted because of the telephone game. He said the following;

“But if the originals are lost, and the nearest-originals do not have as many additional events as the copies done 300-years later (which make up the vast majority of your 25,000+ manuscripts), what does that imply about the veracity of ANY manuscripts/testaments written AFTER Paul’s epistles about 52 — 60 CE? Wouldn’t this progression be similar/identical to the Chinese whisper/telephone game where the final story is convoluted or contaminated from its original content and meaning?”

Many people, when talking about whether or not the Bible is preserved or not, have sought to use the example of the telephone game to prove that the Bible couldn’t have been preserved. In the telephone game, you have a group of people that form a circle. One person begins with a message and whispers it to the person beside them, and then that person whispers whatever it is that they heard to the next person beside them, and so on and so on until the message gets finally passed on through the entire circle. By the end of the round, the original whispered message becomes completely corrupted as the message slowly becomes misunderstood through its transmission in the circle as it slowly becomes less and less like the original, and everyone has a good laugh at the end.

So wouldn’t the same happen to the Bible through its preservation? As the Bible gets copied and copied into more and more manuscripts, the message gets more corrupted through each transmission as happens in the telephone game, and what we have today is only the result of a long history of corruption and textual mistakes that is nothing like the original text, which we know happens because of the telephone game.

Here, I’ll show this analogy clearly doesn’t stack up. Indeed, trying to use the telephone game as an analogy for the transmission of the biblical text is actually fallacious, just because the two processes are so unlike. In a round of the telephone game, one person can only tell the next person the message one time, whereas when copying a manuscript, you can cross-check the original as many times as you want before copying it down. Furthermore, in the telephone game, you have to intentionally whisper the message to the person beside you, to try to make sure they have a hard time getting the message, something that is totally unparalleled when a scribe copies from a manuscript. The objective of the telephone game is to corrupt the message, whereas the objective of manuscript transmission is to preserve the message. As the prestigious scholar, Daniel Wallace remarks;

…it’s a ridiculous comparison, frankly. For one thing in the telephone game the purpose is to skew the message so you can have a big laugh, and in fact the message is usually somewhat convoluted right to begin with, difficult to remember, and not something that’s easily communicated. Secondly, it’s all done orally, by whispers without repeition. You don’t get a chance to say “tell me that message again.” Thirdly there’s a single line of transmission only. Fourthly you only get to interview the last person in the line of transmission. With the New Testament manuscripts we’re dealing with written documents, we’re dealing with documents that are copied multiple times, and even the original texts of the New Testament would have been copied multiple times, so you’ve got various streams of transmission, not oral transmission, you’ve got multiple copies, and you can interview the witnesses earlier on in the transmission, so the comparison is really quite silly, it just doesn’t work.

In other words, the analogy of the telephone game falls apart when trying to challenge the preservation of the New Testament, especially when you just take a look at the astounding preservation of the biblical text we have through our many tens of thousands of copies we have preserved from ancient times.

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3 thoughts on “Copies of copies, the telephone game

  1. Bart Ehrman (love him or hate him) has a load of good reasons why manuscript corruption is not a large problem. The real corruptions of the Bible were the intentional ones, such as the removal of nearly all signs of the Canaanite pantheon from the old testament during the Babylonian exile. One real source of errors is in translation. Fortunately, manuscripts in the original Aramaic (for the old testament) and Greek (the language of the new testament) have survived. Mnay of the “rationalist” translations in the New International Version” can therefore be tested against the original wording in the original language.

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    • I can’t exactly agree here on something. Canaanite pantheon verses removed during the exile? Considering we don’t have a single OT manuscript from that period, this is not only speculation, it’s imagination. Verses like Deuteronomy 6:4 make these polytheistic origins of the Pentateuch questionable.

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