Mercy Hill Church - Did the Apostles Play the Telephone Game Blog

Did the Apostles Play the Telephone Game?

This blog is a part of the “From Testimony to Testament” blog series where we are tracing the history of how the New Testament came to be. Read the introduction here.

Opening on the scene of the ascension of Jesus (probably AD 33 or AD 34), we see the disciples who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry standing around and looking up at the sky. The question that interests us the most in this blog is “Did Jesus prepare them well to give an account of what they had seen and heard?” Well we know from the account of the book of Acts that the apostles started going around and sharing their testimony orally. This testimony was what God used to build the church. They didn’t have the New Testament gospels like we have. In fact, the first two books of the New Testament written were probably the letter of James around AD 45 and Paul’s letter to the Galatians in AD 48 or 49. These are letters written to churches the contents of which assumed the reality of a risen Jesus. The first gospel (a majority of conservative scholars believe Mark was written first) was written in the mid – late 50s. If Jesus died in AD 33, this would mean that the church had been growing and thriving for almost twenty years before a gospel was written.

The Telephone Game Problem

It is in this gap that people like Bart Ehrman believe the actual story of Jesus, the true historical Jesus of history that walked the earth, was lost due to the distortions caused from the telling and retelling of the apostles’ oral testimony over the twenty-year gap between Jesus’ death and the first written gospel. The scholars claim that these Jesus tales were so distorted over time that we can’t know anything about the real Jesus today. This is where the telephone game illustration comes in. As the church passed on the oral tradition of Jesus, he became less of the historical figure he was and more of a divine prophet. Kind of like a fish story.

What this may cause you to ask is, “Twenty years isn’t all that long is it?” No, it’s not. In fact, non-conservative scholars used to believe that the gospels were written much later with an almost one hundred-year gap between the death of Jesus and the first written gospel. As the historical evidence has continually pushed the dating of the gospels earlier and earlier, the liberal scholars have stuck to their guns on their positions that the Divine Messiah Jesus that is presented in the four gospels was a fabrication developed by the disciples from the ashes of a now forgotten historical figure named Jesus.

The Evidence for Factual Gospel Evidence

I wish I could tell you that we know from our studies that the oral testimony carried by the apostles was not corrupted over time. Yes, the historical evidence leans towards that stance, but much of what we know is just scholarly common sense grounded in ancient history. But, it’s not in any way conclusive. This does not mean that we can’t be fairly confident that the four gospels preserve the truth of the real Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars make several excellent points as to why we can be confident in the testimony of the gospel writers.

  1. Jesus was an expert teacher – It is well-attested and certain that Jesus taught in such a way that it was easy to remember. Dale C. Allison shows in Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet that Jesus used parables, antithetical parallelism, rhetorical questions, the prefatory “amen,” divine passives, exaggeration/hyperbole, aphoristic formulations, and paradoxical remarks to deliver his teaching. These are all big words to say that what Jesus said was memorable.
  2. Jesus taught similar things multiple times – Jesus lived before mass media. It seems that people forget this. Jesus more than likely would have taught the same things over and over again as he traveled to new hearers. Yet, his apostles were his companions in travel and would have heard him repeat things over and over.
  3. Notebooks – While this is largely debated among scholars today because we actually have not found any of these notebooks, it was a practice in ancient culture (both Greco-Roman and Jewish) to write down the sayings that you wanted to remember from a respected teacher. Scholars will continue to deny this because they think that it is much too easy to explain the accuracy of the gospels this way. Yet, it is almost certain that Matthew and Luke used some written “sayings of Jesus” source for their gospel material that could have possibly been something from one of these notebooks.
  4. Eyewitness Accounts – A twenty or thirty-year period was not quite long enough for some eyewitnesses of Jesus to die. The presence of these witnesses more than likely kept the gospel writers honest as readers could have consulted these witnesses of Jesus’ life and asked them about the accuracy of the gospel accounts. Not only that but there is considerable literary evidence that supports the gospel writers probably “interviewed” eyewitnesses for material for their gospels.

There is not enough space to consider the additional evidence, but I think this summary by N.T. Wright from his New Testament and the People of God illustrates perfectly what we have seen:

“[E]ven in modern Western society those who hear a teacher or preacher say the same thing a few times can repeat much of it without difficulty, often imitating tones of voice, dramatic pauses, and facial and physical mannerisms. Moreover, when there is an urgent or exciting reason for wanting to tell someone else what the teacher has said and done, a hearer will often be able to do so, in summary form, after only one hearing; then, once the story has been told two or three times, the effect will be just as strong if not stronger as if it had been heard that often. This is a common-sense point, which would not need spelling out, were it not so often ignored. When we add to this the high probability that Palestinian culture was, to put it at its weakest, more used to hearing and repeating teachings than we are today, and the observation that much of Jesus’ teaching is intrinsically highly memorable, I submit that the only thing standing in the way of a strong case for Jesus’ teaching being passed on effectively in dozens of streams of oral tradition is prejudice.”

But Why a Gospel?

The demand to write the gospels came from the martyrdom of the apostles. It became necessary to preserve the account of Jesus before all of the apostles were gone. Therefore, the gospels were written. The churches assuredly had preserved the preaching of Jesus orally, but many might not have had the story of his life. Michael F. Bird says, “The Gospels are biographical expansions of the preached gospel, developed into a known literary form, for a wide array of purposes….” Bird says these were probably evangelistic purposes, teaching purposes, and life formation purposes.

In the next blog we will talk about the process of writing the gospels.

-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)
Read the previous “From Testimony to Testament” blog here


Resources for further advanced study:

Michael F. Bird The Gospel of the Lord

N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God

Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses