Way too often I hear people say that the New Testament can’t be trusted because it has changed hands so many times just like in a game of “telephone” (a game where a line of people whispers a message to the next person so that by the end of the line the message has been distorted). They always say this with the surest confidence as though it is as obvious as the color of the sky. With few exceptions, Christians typically fail to meet this objection with any kind of confident, let alone persuasive, response.
But here’s the thing. The telephone game analogy is not very well thought out. It is an easy criticism which always catches the unprepared off guard, but fails in the face of cursory examination. So let’s just take a minute to reflect on just how conceptually absurd the telephone analogy really is.
The telephone game is rigged to cause failure, and, more often than not, the participants want the results to be ridiculous since that’s the entire point of the game. So you start out with a message whispered over and over again and you end up with a funny result.
Now, can someone explain to me how this is even remotely analogous to the transmission of a written text regarded so highly by its adherents that they have demonstrated a willingness all throughout the history of their religion to die and sacrifice for the preservation of those texts? In a game of “telephone,” the participants want a ridiculous result. In the transmission of sacred texts, the participants desire precisely the opposite.
So there’s strike one.
Strike two is that we are dealing with written rather than oral communication. The point of “telephone” is that nobody can repeat themselves. It’s supposed to cause inaccuracy. But with written text, one can re-read as many times as they need to. As Christians handed down copies of the New Testament to the next generations, they had written texts to refer to which brings us to strike number three.
Oral communication expires. It cannot be referenced when it is nolonger repeated. Written texts don’t just fall out of existence as soon as they are copied.
Do skeptics making the telephone-game-argument actually think that Christians who have always been willing to die for their sacred texts would just allow new copies of those texts to make increasingly flawed errors? Do they think Christians would just overlook them? How would these errors even come about? Why would Christians haphazardly copy their most important documents? Even if a copyist of the New Testament honestly made an error, big or small, why should we expect that error to go unnoticed throughout the rest of Christendom and permeate every single one of their texts as if there were no pre-existing ones with which they could compare the flawed copy? Or should we expect that some nameless despot of which history has no record mysteriously and irrevocably changed all Christian religious texts in a significant way without Christians noticing or caring?
Or perhaps skeptics think that until the last few hundred years there was just one copy of the New Testament magically floating around between popes and rulers who changed it as they wished.
Are you beginning to see why the telephone game analogy is so humorous? It’s not even close to any realistic historical account of Christianity. We don’t even need to study technical historical evidence or argumentation. We just have to apply some careful thought, and the hilarious absurdity reveals itself.
While Christians should certainly be gracious in all they say and do, skeptics should feel a healthy dose of embarrassment for seriously asserting an argument that should never be taken seriously. It has long been time for the analogy of the “telephone game” to meet its end and live on only in our sense of humor. With careful thought, Christians are perfectly equipped with the most basic of arguments to bring it to a swift end.
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