Thursday, May 30, 2019

Peter J. Williams on why the "telephone game" analogy is ill chosen for the transmission of Jesus traditions in the NT Gospels

Image: Norman Rockwell's "The Gossips" which appeared on the cover of the March 6, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

I’ve been reading Peter J. Williams’s book Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway 2018).

In the book Williams provides reasonable arguments as to why the information about Jesus in the NT Gospels should be considered historically reliable.

At one point he offers a response to those who use the “Chinesewhispers” or “telephone game” analogy to argue for corruption in the transmission of factual information in the Gospels.

Williams offers this response:

The analogy is, however, ill chosen. After all, this game is specifically optimized to produce corruption. Hence come the rules that one must whisper, passing on the message only once and only to a single person, and there must be sufficient people playing to ensure that the message is corrupted.

The circumstances surrounding the passing on of reliable information in the Gospels could not be more different. Not only are the names of people and places authentic, showing that they could not have been passed through multiple unreliable steps in transmission, but the very conditions in early Christianity were unsuitable for producing corruption: they were marked by a high emphasis on truth, a sense of authoritative teaching, a wide geographical spread among followers of Jesus, and a high personal cost to following him. A plausible scenario for accidental corruption simply was not there. By contrast, the view that people passed on reliable information explains the data more simply (77-78).


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