Textual Criticism and the False ‘Telephone’ Analogy
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.