The Telephone Game And Biblical Transmission

by Jason Wisdom

I remember playing “the telephone game” when I was in elementary school. It was my second favorite game, after any game involving the giant rainbow parachute (someone of you know what I am talking about). We would form a circle and the teacher would tell one student a phrase to whisper in the ear of the person to his/her right. The phrase would make it’s way around the circle until it reached the end. At that point, the last person would have to tell the group what he/she heard. Of course, if the teacher told the first person, “A man named Arthur ate a banana and oatmeal for breakfast,” by the time it got to the last person it was “A man-made aardvark ate a panda and old wheels for Texas.” Everyone would laugh. It’s all fun and games until someone uses it as a reason why we shouldn’t trust the Bible.

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Critics of Christianity often point to the telephone game as an illustration of why we shouldn’t trust the biblical text. Simply put, the books of the Bible have almost certainly gone through innumerable changes over the past 3,000 years. They have been passed around from person to person, copied and re-copied, like the telephone game. So, even if the original texts were written by credible eye witnesses, we don’t have the originals, and there is no way to know what they said; therefore, we shouldn’t trust the Bible.

Before responding to this objection, I want to concede a few things. First of all, this is a clever objection. The reason I say it is clever is because it sidesteps the question of whether or not what the Bible says is true by asserting that it is impossible to know what the Bible originally said. Secondly, this objection has great rhetorical power. We all remember the telephone game, and we know how quickly and easily things get garbled up. Finally, like any good objection, it possesses a certain amount of truth. Are there variations in biblical manuscripts? Yes. There are A LOT. Have some things been added to the text by copyists over time? Almost certainly. However, we do not have to be afraid of these facts…

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The Telephone Game And Biblical Transmission – Because It’s True