The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Textual Criticism and the False ‘Telephone’ Analogy

with 7 comments

The publication of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, has caused quite a bit of controversy, and I have responded to it, generally, in a previous post titled Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy. However, I began to develop in my response an argument against the often-heard comparison of scriptural textual transmission to the children’s game of Telephone which I think needs a bit more detail.

Actually, I came to the determination that I should elaborate on this subject when a student recently asked, “Doesn’t it seem that the way we got our Bible is a lot like the game of Telephone? How do we know that the message we have now is at all like how it started?” Ironically, this student was not at all familiar with Ehrman’s book, or the field of textual criticism, so it can be rightly concluded that it doesn’t take an eminent scholar to come up with such a theory. Rather, I would argue that the arguments used by scholars, like Ehrman, to conclude the unreliability of the Bible ultimately work against them.

Instead of retracing my previous article on this topic, let me summarize the issue in this way: Ehrman, who is rightly regarded as an expert in the field of Biblical textual criticism, argues in his latest book that due to errors and even intentional changes in the text from one copy to another, the present form of the Bible should not be trusted in its details nor considered a reliable source of theological doctrine. Like the game of telephone, what goes in does not come out without being distorted, if not changed completely. In fact, half the fun of the game tends to be the result of intentional changes rather than incidental ones; apparently such is also the case of the scribes responsible for duplicating Biblical manuscripts.

The particularly ‘bombshell-like’ examples of errors in the Biblical texts that Ehrman documents have already been discussed at length (again, in my previous post on this topic). As I, and many others, have shown, not only are these errors not new to anyone familiar with Biblical scholarship, they are never damaging to the Orthodox theological understanding of Christianity. While I admit that Ehrman delivers a sobering call to Christian scholarship and perhaps even the merited removal of some portions of text from the Bible, his conclusions are generally unfair and likely the result of a desire to come to them, rather than a true mandate.

The process of textual criticism, however, is certainly not like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, there is no aspect which objectively preserves the initial message, except for the word of the first speaker. Thus, in a hypothetical circle of fifteen, player seven has no way of knowing whether the message whispered into his or her ear is at all like the original. In fact, player seven really has no way of knowing whether that message even resembles what player six received. However, such is not the case with the scriptural manuscripts. Like our modern Bibles, which footnote passages which vary from one manuscript family to another, even some of the early manuscripts contained such warnings! This would be like player seven passing on a message like, “Player six whispered the words ‘banana cheese steak’ into my ears, but I doubt their accuracy and suggest that they really meant banana cheesecake.” In other words, the scribes involved were not copying automatons, but were deeply involved in the process in a critical way. Of course, this does open the door for intentional theological alterations, which Ehrman certainly mentions, but as I will argue, these still do not lead to the conclusion that the resulting transmission of the scriptures cannot be trusted.

Our ability to discern errors in the transmission of the scriptures relies upon the availability of thousands of copies. (In fact, when confronted with daunting numbers of errors, keep in mind that one error in a manuscript duplicated possibly 100 times after results in a total of 100 errors. Really, in such cases only one error exists.) In fact, because certain early manuscripts were copied and lead to traceable ‘families’ of subsequent copies (think of a family tree of documents rather than people), we have a remarkably large amount of information with which to work to discern the probable original wording in the case where an error is found. In other words, the same process by which Ehrman has perceived individual errors and concluded unreliability in general should actually lead to the conclusion that the current version is likely to quite closely resemble the original.

When I answered the original question above, put forth by a student, I pointed out that the game of telephone is intentionally set up to produce distorted and entertaining results. In contrast, the process of textual transmission was one intentionally constructed out of pious stewardship and the awareness that without certain measures, the message of the Bible could be unintentionally (or even intentionally) changed. This responsibility was a tradition inherited from Jewish scribes, who, leaving no spaces between characters in their manuscripts, would produce a word count when finished and compare it to other results. If the count was off, the entire document would have to be checked and corrected. Unlike telephone, community measures were in place to prevent and catch errors. Similarly, Christian scribes would separate verified copies and establish new ‘family’ lines and even make marginal notes or comments in regard to questionable content. What has resulted is an ever-growing supply of copies that enable scholars to reconstruct what were likely the original versions of the scriptural documents. In many ways, comparing the many manuscript copies is like having them in transparency form and overlaying the various versions to see where variances are. Consequently, I would argue that as time passes and the process of discovering more copies and refining translations continues, the reliability of the Bible will only increase.

7 Responses

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  1. I like how you handled this question. I would also point out that the “Dead Sea Scrolls” show us that the methods used maintained high integrity as our modern translations of those “books” found in Qumran had very little errors.

    Courtney Roes

    June 9, 2006 at 9:25 pm

  2. I’m not sure if this response it off topic, but seeing as you’ve been writing about how the Bible as we know it came to be, I’m wondering how you stand on the topic of the “deuterocanonical books” (Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, etc.) used by the Catholic and Orthodox (and Lutheran and Anglican to some extent) denominations.

    You’ve consistantly argued in favor of the decisions and practicesof early councils and congregations, but I would note that the scriptures they used in worship(at least those that used the Septuagint) included the deuterocanonical books. The great councils that rejected “Gnostic” texts and such affirmed these books.

    Only hundreds of years later were they partially rejected by Martin Luther (possibly simply to shore up his interpretation of grace) and then years after that fully rejected by more radical protestant sects.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks in advance (and hoping to see you soon)

    Zdenko Juskuv

    June 10, 2006 at 9:13 am

  3. Hi Courtney,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with your point about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The discovery of a much earlier Isaiah scroll showed that the text had been virtually unchanged over the course of 1000 years. Incredible!




    June 12, 2006 at 10:52 am

  4. Hi Zdenko,

    Good to hear from you! In regard to the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, I would say that their “editorial” exclusion from the canon within Protestant tradition would be along similar lines of the reasoning toward the portions of scripture I examined in “Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy.” Specifically, these portions of scripture are generally questionable in terms of timing- their appearance in the manuscripts indicates that they were added later, rather than being original to the autographs. However, the point is that their exclusion from the canon, even if it were to be decided upon today, would not contradict our understanding of inspiration or inerrancy. Similarly, the Protestant evaluation of the Old Testament apocryphal books was in favor of excluding them on the basis of their doctrinal inconsistencies as well as timing issues. For example, Maccabees recounts a time during which God sent no prophets to Israel, and while the Maccabbee family fought and struggled for the Jewish traditions, it is clear that false teachings and heretical doctrines had made their way into the thinking of the time (i.e. affirmations of suicide, prayers for the dead, Purgatorial suffering as well as the possibility of being granted salvation after death). As a disclaimer, however, some of these books do, in fact, provide legitimate historical details of the time in which they were written, though they may not be suitable for doctrinal purposes.

    In general, I would say that no matter when the body of Christ deems fit to reject a heretical teaching, canonicity is not threatened. If this were not true, then one might be at a loss to appropriately deal with more modern heresies, like the teachings of Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church.

    As I wrote above, this process of refining our discovery of the scriptures is on-going. The more we improve our linguistic and historical studies, the more we can accurately understand where and when certain teachings originated and determine their authenticity. With this principle in mind, I have no problem whatsoever with both affirming the decisions of the early church councils as well as those of the Reformation in regards to the scriptures.



    P.S. Just a few more weeks and we’ll be heading home! We can’t wait to see you!


    June 12, 2006 at 11:07 am

  5. It might also be pointed out that these books did not become canonized until the time of the Reformation. Indeed, many have argued that they were canonized in reaction to the claims of the Reformers that Scripture nowhere supported some of the aberrant doctrines of Rome (which CB mentions). It seems to me that whatever they are, if the church had thought of these books as inspired texts, on the order of the other books of the O.T., then they would have been formally canonized long before this time.

    In any event, I think a strong case can be made that these books do not belong in the canon, and even that the Jews and church fathers generally granted these books a secondary status. Given that Rome insists on its own inerrancy where Popes and councils are concerned, I think that it has forced itself into the position of forever defending these books as equally inspired canonical texts.

    Scott Pruett

    June 15, 2006 at 6:52 am

  6. I’m looking for the citation for Ehrman’s analogy of the telephone game. Do you know where it is?


    August 10, 2006 at 9:05 pm

  7. I could not find Bart Ehrman using his analogy of the telephone game in print, though I would not be surprised if he uses it in his text book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, which I do not have with me. The telephone game is nowhere to be found in the extremely technical and detailed 4th edition of The Text of The New Testament:Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Bart D. Ehrman and Bruce M Metzger, 2005).

    If the telephone analogy is used in Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why?is it used in regard to transmission of text, or only in regard to oral transmission?

    I only recall Ehrman using the telephone game analogy in connection with oral transmission of stories about Jesus. He uses it in lecture four, “The Earliest Traditions About Jesus”, of the Teaching Company course on tape The New Testament.

    If Prof Ehrman has ever used the telephone game analogy in connection with written transmission, I would be very much like to see a citation.

    I have transcribed the relevant part of the TeachCo lecture from my copy.

    “ Stories get changed when they are told by word of mouth… Imagine playing the game of telephone, not in some living room on a summer day among people of the same socio-economic class, just twelve kids sitting in your room. Suppose in fact that the game ‘telephone’ is played for fifty years where people tell stories from one person to the next in different countries, using different languages, where you have thousands of players. What happens to the stories? My assumption is that the stories get changed. In addition, I would assume that sometimes people changed the stories because they wanted to change the stories. After all, people are telling stories about Jesus to convert others to believe, and once they believe, they are trying to convince them of certain things to believe and certain ways to act. Stories are told to promote faith in Jesus and to promote the right kind of faith in Jesus. Is it possible that sometimes the stories were changed precisely in order to make Jesus look even better than before? Or to stress a particular theological point about Jesus’ significance? As we’re going to see in a moment, there is historical evidence that stories were changed in these ways.”

    Substantially the same point is made in the Craig-Ehrman debate, though without using the ‘telephone game’ reference. Again, the point there is about changes in the stories about Jesus during oral transmission, as distinguished from the transmission of written gospels, but reflected in inconsistencies that appear in the written gospels.


    August 16, 2006 at 9:54 am

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