Sunday, 20 September 2015

Chinese Whispers? Telephone Game? On the reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life & teachings

There are different ways of thinking about how the gospels came to be as we have them. I'd like to offer up a few thoughts. This will be a bit different from my usual. I'm not going to do a step by step through every little stage of an argument. I'm going to dive in.

So, I'm not going to challenge the scholarly consensus that Jesus died 30-33AD and that Mark's gospel was first completed a few years before or after 70AD. Let that be for the moment, because I want to talk about what that would mean for the reliability of what the gospel says about Jesus and his teachings.

Let's address the oft-expressed suspicion about "Chinese whispers" distorting the message by the time it was written down. Sometimes this is likened to the "telephone game". Two comments first of all:

1) That concern about Chinese whispers pre-supposes a certain kind of culture, a sort of village-storyteller culture. But that would be inconsistent with the origins of Christianity in a 1st century Synagogue-based culture. Here a key focus would be on READING the law and prophets, not on raconteuring. This was Israel: a partly scribal culture. From the start, the synagogues were centres of Christianity. And when Jesus' followers were thrown out of synagogues they started their own assemblies. There is no reason to suppose these would mysteriously change from that partly scribal culture to some kind of purely oral story-telling one. This is relevant because writing is usually a better safeguard for keeping tradition.

This seems evidenced by Mark ch 13 v 14, where the one reading aloud is expected to interpret the meaning. This little clue tells us that Mark's gospel was written down so that it could be read out to others. This isn't a Chinese whispers culture. This is a reading and writing culture.

This also seems evidenced by Jesus' saying in Matthew 13:52: "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old." This text equates scribes with Jesus' disciples (not that all disciples were scribes, but that some were). Such scribes, literate followers of Jesus, would have kept notes, their 'new treasure', of what their rabbi said, a scribal practice of that time. Look at his words: "every scribe who has become a disciple..."

This is evidence of literacy among the wider group of Jesus’ disciples. That would be in the 30s of the first century, according to the gospel text. This undermines the notion that there was nothing but oral transmission going on. Scribes were about.

2) Even if we were dealing simply with an oral culture (and we aren't), we should not underestimate the sophistication of non-literate oral cultures. We know from oral cultures (such as the Vikings) that everything was preserved by detailed accurate memory, from business contracts and treaties to genealogies and epic poetry. Vast amounts of sophisticated information were memorised by trained communicators as community property. The mistaken notion that oral societies are necessarily relatively primitive is propaganda put about by literate cultures, often when they are seeking the upper hand over their non-literate rivals. To this day, Muslims who cannot even read Arabic memorise the whole Qur'an in Arabic. Is that unsophisticated?

(There is a tendency among biblical scholars to pay insufficient attention to this. It is too easy for scholars to draw on only the negative side of evidence demeaning oral transmission, and apply it without proper attention to the positive specifics of the situation of early Christians. That is simply applying a priori scepticism without going on to do the actual job of weighing the evidence, of doing the analysis of early Christian modes of communication. To think that unnecessary would be like saying that since we have Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, there is no value in measuring the earth’s gravitational ‘pull’ on the moon, because scholars agree that gravity is there, and that’s all there is to it. That is unscientific. It would not do to say a consensus about gravity will suffice instead of testing its ‘pull’ on the moon if that is the issue under investigation. If you care to know what’s there, you test on a case by case basis.) 

Teacher and pupil

There are other reasons for debunking the "Chinese whispers" hypothesis. We should understand that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples was teacher and pupil. That is crucial: if we don't understand that, we miss everything.

They were to receive his teaching, not invent their own. In turn, embedded in the Book of Acts is the understanding that the apostles took the same approach to teaching their followers, who were devoted to the "apostles' teaching". This teaching framework makes even oral teaching secure. They're not sharing stories to entertain each other round the camp fire at night. They are receiving teaching. This is an innately conservative culture, not a raconteur culture.


I deal with the question of the literacy of Jesus' followers in another post in more detail. So I will make briefer comments here. The circle of Jesus' people could not have been simply average. Jesus knew religious texts from memory. This means at a minimum that he had heard them and memorised them while listening – a common practice of learning in the ancient world. The person he was listening to had either memorised the texts, or was possibly reading them. That invites the possibility that Jesus – like anyone else who listened to texts being read in the ancient world – had access to one or more people who could read.

As such, the potential for a person such as Jesus to learn to read existed – especially a highly motivated person in a family with royal pretensions, particularly a leader with aspirations to be ‘King of the Jews’ and planning to have disciples administering such a kingdom. This is not an average situation, and opportunities such as learning from someone who could read were unlikely to be overlooked by such as him.

Given that he was highly motivated and high royal aspirations, it is unlikely that Jesus, in choosing those closest to him, was looking for 'average'. For some time, Jesus’ followers believed that they would have prominent roles in the leadership and management of a reformed kingdom of Israel. In that time and place, reading and writing played a prominent role in local administration. As such, they would have been highly motivated to recruit into their group people who were literate enough to be able to play an active part in the new administration they expected to happen. Such aspirations were unimaginably silly if the group did not think of recruiting people with reasonable literacy. This was not a group with merely average expectations!

There would have been many in earliest Christianity who could read and write. Acts chapter 2 tells of significant numbers of believers and it would be strange to assume that all of a large number would be illiterate; and a few chapters later we are told that priests had joined the movement. Priests could read and write. Even amongst the famous 12 disciples, at least one could no doubt write at a level appropriate for his day job as a tax collector.

There are yet more reasons to debunk the Chinese whispers hypothesis. From very early days, there were Christian assemblies beyond Jerusalem, and the immediate significance of this is that there would have been some demand from the earliest times for written material to send to such assemblies. (Peter couldn't be present in every church all the time - see Acts 9:32 !) Yes, written material. You want evidence of this? The culture of conveying messages in writing is evidenced by Acts 15 where a LETTER is sent out to be READ in the churches as a matter of course. Paul's letters were also to be read out to churches. Think written material, not Chinese whispers. Acts 15 points to a culture dedicated to ensuring messages are not lost: a reading and writing culture.

Take all that together with a couple of other significant things. Early letters, eg 1 Thessalonians (ca 50AD), 1 Corinthians, Romans, the letter of James, have bits of Jesus' teaching embedded in in them, not least from the Sermon on the Mount. The thing is that this was even before our four gospels were written. So... this means that these teachings were already circulating in written forms before Mark's gospel was written. So the gospel wasn't just born of oral culture, or Chinese whispers: it was born in an environment where some of this stuff was already written down. From there it is a smaller step to the written gospels we have.
Even if some speak of gospels being an end product of oral tradition, that theory should not just be uncritically assumed. When stories are spoken within the lifetime of witnesses, we are entering the domain of oral history, not just oral tradition, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out. That is, we are within a time-frame when witnesses could still be telling their own story for themselves; we're not talking about several generations passing in which tradition could take on a life completely independent of history.

The telephone game

In light of all of the above, it is obvious how silly it is to compare this highly motivated teacher-pupil situation with the "telephone game". This is the opposite of the reality of learning in the early church in every way: the game is designed to be played by children not adults; the game does not have the motivation of teacher and pupil; the game is only allowed in whispers, not normal volumes of speaking; the game allows only one person to hear and pass the message to one other person at a time, rather than a whole group learning together at once and reinforcing their mutual learning; the game allows a person to hear a message only once (with no opportunity to ask for the message to be repeated), whereas teacher-pupil learning includes repetition. The comparison with the game actually illustrates how different the reality was. Learning in the early church had adult pupils, learning as a group, listening to teachers speaking in normal vocal volumes, learning through repetition, and so on.

Also see:

Of course, you may want to know more of how a particular gospel was put together. Well, one gospel actually tells us: Luke's gospel. He tells us how he got his hands on older written material about Jesus, checked his facts, and put it all together. You can read it about it in a previous blog.

If anyone wants more of this I would recommend Paul Barnett's excellent and concise book "The Birth of Christianity - The First Twenty Years". Because this summary is owed to his work.

Other gospel-related blogs:

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?

Literacy of Jesus and his followers