Invitation to Consider the Trustworthiness of the Gospels, Part 8 of 8: The Telephone Game

Rick Mattson Apologetics, Bible Leave a Comment

(Go to the first post on the Trustworthiness of the Gospels)

In the prior post I did a bit of preaching about God’s ways of relating to human beings, suggesting that God’s nature and methods are often the opposite of what we might expect.

In this post: One of the objections I hear on college campuses about the Bible is that it’s been corrupted over the centuries due to copyist and translation errors.

An analogy often used is the telephone game, where a phrase is whispered around a circle of people, one person to the next, until the phrase is corrupted far from its original wording.

Thus, the phrase, “I ate toast this morning” might morph gradually into, “I hate the coast and I’m in mourning,” by the tenth person or so.

Critics point out that the transmission of the Bible doesn’t take place in a telephone game of just ten people but hundreds, and is not handling a single phrase but thousands of phrases, often copied in low-light conditions by unskilled labor.

Hardly a recipe for accuracy and reliability.

In fact, it’s been estimated that there are some 400,000 “variants” (mistakes) in the ancient texts. *

Two Replies: Lay people are generally unaware of the following facts, however:

1. Minor errors
: 99% of the variants are minuscule, such as spellings of citties and obvious omissions and and additions. And no doctrines of the faith are affected by disputed, unresolved variant readings.

2. Multiple games: Scholars are not limited to studying one telephone game. Rather, there are multiple “games” to be pored over: manuscript “families” or traditions from diverse locations in the Ancient Near East that can be compared with each other. This process of cross-comparison leads many scholars to believe we’ve recovered more than 97% of the original wording of the New Testament.**

Minimally, my hope is that this short post will give you some confidence that the charge of “Bible corruption,” often heard in the media, pop culture (and on college campuses), isn’t true.

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who makes no claim to Christian faith, seems to agree:

[Textual] variants . . . do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.***

This also raises the question of the number and quality of ancient manuscripts available today. In fact, we have in our possession over 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the NT and thousands of other copies in Coptic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian and Arabic. NT scholar Craig Blomberg observes, “We have an unbroken sequence of ever growing textual resources (in both numbers and amount of text represented) from the early second century until the inventing of the printing press in the fifteenth century.” ****

Translation: the NT is the bomb when it comes to the survival of manuscripts from the ancient world. Compare this situation with the tradition of most other authors from antiquity, such as Homer, Plato, Herodotus and Thucydides, where just a few manuscripts survive and are dated hundreds of years after the original compositions.

In summary, with the wealth of textual resources available to us, it’s tough to criticize the manuscript heritage of the NT. And if one took the more radical step of dismissing the entire NT as lacking any more substance than the greco-roman mythologies of Zeus and Jupiter and the pantheon of gods, then one’s entire view of ancient history could be in jeapordy.

I saw this illustrated one time a few years ago in a live debate between skeptical Bible scholar Robert Price and theologian Greg Boyd, in St. Paul, MN where I live. Price was expressing doubts about Jesus’ actual existence at all, so Boyd reminded the audience that by historical standards of the ancient world Jesus is a solid time/space figure. Then the critical question from Boyd to Price: If you don’t believe Jesus meets the regular standards of history, what do you believe about anything in ancient history? Price’s response was telling: We can’t know much.

The strategy Boyd employed was to normalize the historicity of Jesus, then force Price to either accept Jesus on those terms or reject all historical knowledge from antiquity — a high cost to pay, indeed, to preserve one’s ideological commitment to skepticism.

This concludes my series on the Trustworthiness of the Gospels. If you hung in this far, congratulations. We’ve only scratched the surface. My goal was to give you an idea of how the arguments tend to go without getting too technical in the process. Myself, I find it all convincing. The literature on the subject is massive and I’ve had the privilege of studying it for several decades, not being a young man anymore. And yet, there are judgment calls to be made. What one person finds convincing, another may not.

The structure of this series was to present a jigsaw puzzle of modest arguments that, when added together, make a strong case for the Gospels being trustworthy, similar to how a lawyer in a civil trial would “add together” smallish pieces of evidence and argumentation, such as weapon and motive and opportunity, and the like. The real power in such case-making is the cumulative effect, even if each piece taken in isolation is not convincing. Or an example from my kitchen: When my son was young and cookies were missing AND his face was dirty AND he had access to the cookie box AND he had motive. . . well, you see the point.

Thank you again for reading these posts. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment sections. Or email me directly at rickmattsonoutreach@gmail.com

I close with these words from Jesus: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:25-26).

And: The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:9-11).

Return to the first post in this series on the Trustworthiness of the Gospels.


* Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p89.

** For an excellent overview of how scholars study early manuscripts, see Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, esp. ch 2.

*** Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p87.

**** Craig Blomberg, “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why it Matters,” in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, Kindle location 5066 (ch 19).

For the power of story in finding one’s faith, see my Faith Unexpected: Real Stories of People Who Found What They Never Imagined (If you’re a student, use the code “local,” and I’ll pay the shipping.)

My other book, Faith is Like Skydiving: And Other Memorable Images for Dialogue with Seekers and Skeptics, has two chapters (5 and 6) summarizing the topic of the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Please leave comments in the sections below any of the posts. Or write to me directly at rickmattsonoutreach@gmai.com Thanks!

Index of all eight posts

Image by Colleen Conger from Pixabay 

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