Friday, May 06, 2016

Christianity and the game of telephone

Here. 

30 comments:

B. Prokop said...

The "Telephone Game" charge was decisively refuted in Brant Pitre's latest book, The Case for Jesus.

There's no point in my repeating what he wrote here. Read it for yourself (unless you're afraid of becoming a Christian).

Miguel said...

I'm currently reading Pitre's book and I'm really enjoying it.

unkleE said...

The Jesus blog, not an apologetic but by serious scholars who you might expect to be on the same wavelength as Bart Ehrman, criticise his use of this metaphor.

Joe Hinman said...


My argument is that Oral tradition of the Jews made for controlled telling Tat;'s what they were doing when then sold their positions and moved in together They were starting a school like they garden and they were memorizing and hearing the witnesses

Commujity as Author paer 2

B. Prokop said...

One point to remember is that, even if you grant the "telephone game" hypothesis, the ability of individuals in strictly oral societies to pass along tradition with phenomenal accuracy and faithfulness to the original version is something we in the literate world simply cannot comprehend. Keep in mind that The Iliad was not written down for at least four centuries after its composition, yet we still possess the words of Homer, transmitted from generation to generation by people who memorized the whole dang thing.

And if you don't believe that, perhaps needing a more contemporary (and verifiable) example, The Koran has been memorized in its entirety by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims all around the world, even today.

I myself have memorized large passages of the Gospel of Luke, in Latin. It's really not that hard!

Although I do not subscribe to the various Late Dating theories concerning the New Testament (there is convincing evidence that it had been set down in writing in its entirety, with the possible exception of Revelation, prior to A.D. 70), there is no reason to assume that a 30 or 40 year long oral transmission of the events of Christ's Earthly Life would be in any way inaccurate.

By the way, happy Feast of the Ascension to all!

"Et factum est dum benediceret illis recessit ab eis et ferebatur in caelum, et ipsi adorantes regressi sunt in Hierusalem cum gaudio magno." (Luke 24:51-52)

Jezu ufam tobie!

Hal said...

"Keep in mind that The Iliad was not written down for at least four centuries after its composition, yet we still possess the words of Homer, transmitted from generation to generation by people who memorized the whole dang thing."

It appears you are completely ignorant of current Homeric scholarship. If there was a Homer, he lived when it was possible to write the Iliad down. He either wrote it himself (M.L. West's position) or dictated it to someone who could write(R. Janko's position). In any case, it took centuries of oral performance before the Iliad came to be in the form we know it. To think that what we call the Iliad was composed four centuries before it was written down is absurd.

B. Prokop said...

"It appears you are completely ignorant of current Homeric scholarship."

Au contrare, I am well versed in it, and have a number of volumes of it on my bookshelf. (The Iliad is one of my favorite works of literature.) But I happen to not believe a word of it. All the fanciful theories about there being no Homer, that the work is the result of many hands, or that it can be dated any later than 800 B.C., are nothing more than the products of publish or perish scholars desperate to make tenure and/or make a name for themselves. You can't make a splash in academia by agreeing with what everyone knew perfectly well for centuries. You need to come up with some sort of novelty to be recognized. Our entire system of "scholarship" is fatally flawed in this manner, and its products cannot be trusted.

"Absurd"? It's absurd to swallow 90% of contemporary "scholarship" as being anything more than self serving speculation for its own sake.

Eric Sotnak said...

The ancient Middle East had a tradition of accurate oral preservation. The Christian narrative arose within the ancient Middle East. Therefore, it is likely that the Christian narrative is factually accurate.

This doesn't seem like a very strong argument to me.

Memorization and recitation of any narrative is very different, situationally, from transmission of gossip, rumor, and other, "hey, did you hear...?" narratives.

First, we need to ask wether the early converts to Christianity were among those who had been trained in oral transmission, or whether they were from the general populace?

Second, we have to ask whether there was an early consistent narrative that was recited by people who were interested is accurate transmission of that narrative "now, remember this exactly, and try not to change any of it".

Third, we have to ask whether the people hearing and learning the narrative were able to take the time and had the opportunities to recite the narrative back and have it corrected for errors by the teachers.

Fourth, we have to balance the possibility of faithful memorization of the Christian narrative against the fact that there were also (a) many different version of the narrative within a fairly short amount of time (consider all the gospels that are rejected as spurious), and (b) many other (non-Christian) narratives from the same region and period that are rejected by Christians as not authoritative.

B. Prokop said...

As regards Homer, I particularly like this quote from Theodore Alois Buckley's introduction to Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad:

Scepticism has attained its culminating point with respect to Homer, and the state of our Homeric knowledge may be described as a free permission to believe any theory, provided we throw overboard all written tradition, concerning the author or authors of the Iliad and Odyssey. What few authorities exist on the subject, are summarily dismissed, although the arguments appear to run in a circle. "This cannot be true, because it is not true; and, that is not true, because it cannot be true." Such seems to be the style, in which testimony upon testimony, statement upon statement, is consigned to denial and oblivion.

The same can be said for much of what passes for Biblical scholarship.

As to the Gospel narratives being dependent upon an oral tradition, I probably need to clarify my own position here.

1. If the Gospels were in any way dependent upon oral tradition, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of what was being passed along (for reasons set forth in my above comment).

2. I do not believe they were so dependent, but rather agree with scholars such as John A.T. Robinson and Brant Pitre who (to me, convincingly) demonstrate that the Gospels were complete in the form we now have them within a very short span of time after the Crucifixion (at most, 20 to 30 years), and that the entire New Testament (with the possible exception of Revelation) predates the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Personal opinion: Mark was finished by about the year 45, Matthew at about the same time (or perhaps a year or two later), Luke prior to A.D. 60, and John in the early 60s. The last-written book in the New Testament, Revelation, likely dates to the late 70s or the early 80s.

Jezu ufam tobie!

B. Prokop said...

"consider all the gospels that are rejected as spurious"

Yes, do consider them. Consider the fact that they all date to a period subsequent to the writing of the canonical Gospels. They were not rejected "as" spurious - they were rejected because they were spurious.

Hal said...

" All the fanciful theories about there being no Homer, that the work is the result of many hands, or that it can be dated any later than 800 B.C., are nothing more than the products of publish or perish scholars desperate to make tenure and/or make a name for themselves. "

More confirmation that you've neither read or understood this modern scholarship. The two that I mentioned in my post actually do think that the Iliad we have today is the result of one person. But it was built upon an extensive oral tradition.

Interesting that you seem to have a gut level disdain of any sort of modern scholarship. Apparently they are all just money grubbers or fame seekers with no integrity.

B. Prokop said...

Apparently they are all just money grubbers or fame seekers with no integrity."

Delete all before "they".

(On April 1st, 1945, after the US Marines unexpectedly encountered zero resistance to their landings on Okinawa, invasion commander Admiral Turner radioed Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii, "I may be crazy, but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war." to which Admiral Nimitz replied, "Delete all after 'crazy'.")

Eric Sotnak said...

B. Prokop: "They were not rejected "as" spurious - they were rejected because they were spurious."

Maybe. But this presupposes, rather than argues for, the accuracy of a core narrative relative to which judgments of spuriousness were made.

B. Prokop said...

"But this presupposes, rather than argues for, the accuracy..."

To the contrary, their rejection is strong evidence in favor of the accuracy of the core narrative. I've posted this several times before, but it's amazing how utterly different the history of Christianity's "story" is to that of the various mythic narratives in world history.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I'll simply quote myself from a previous posting:

Arthur was indeed a minor historical figure, living in the Fifth Century. We actually know quite a bit about him nowadays (including the fact that his name was not Arthur!). But what is really interesting is how the story developed through the centuries. Contemporary accounts of his exploits are terse, factual, and quite devoid of myth. As generations pass, and writers with varying political and literary agendas arise, his story begins to absorb details from related figures in history (such as Charlemagne, El Cid, William the Conqueror, and various very real medieval knights and crusaders). Like tree rings, the story expands and expands, all the while losing none of the earlier versions. They just get absorbed into the subsequent interpretations.

But what a different development is seen in early Christianity. The initial eyewitness accounts of the events of Christ’s time on Earth are detailed and comprehensive, and all written down within a very few decades. Multiple attempts to expand on the story (the Gnostic Gospels, etc.) are resisted, and do not have a lasting effect. They are NOT absorbed into the narrative. And then a very curious thing happens. Unlike the Arthurian legend, all such attempts to embellish the story cease almost immediately (historically speaking), and the “canonical” storyline remains unaltered for two millennia.

This is why I have always been mystified by the idea in the popular press that the recent re-discoveries of early manuscripts such as the so-called “Gospel of Judas” somehow cast doubt on the orthodox narrative. Quite the reverse, the existence of these writings testify to how scrupulous the Early Church was in “sticking to the truth”, and avoiding the mythologizing of the Life of Christ. (Posted Sept 3, 2010)

Jezu ufam tobie!

Eric Sotnak said...

B. Pokop wrote: "The initial eyewitness accounts of the events of Christ’s time on Earth are detailed and comprehensive, and all written down within a very few decades."
Who were these eyewitnesses? How do we know that they were eyewitnesses rather than people seeking to boost their own credibility by claiming to be eyewitnesses? How do we know the recorders did not try to boost their own credibility by recording what was really hearsay and claiming to have gotten the information from eyewitnesses? How do we know eyewitness testimonies were not embellished by those who wrote them down? How do we know the recorders relied exclusively on eyewitnesses and did not also include information that was hearsay? How do we know that those who wrote down the narratives didn't have multiple inconsistent stories to choose from, and that some were kept and written down and others were discarded? If this last was done, how do we know they kept the right ones? What efforts were made to try to verify any parts of the narrative, and by whom and how were such efforts attempted? What were the criteria for acceptance or rejection of a narrative as reliable?

"Multiple attempts to expand on the story ..." This assumes there was, at the time, already one narrative to identify as THE story, and that all other variations arose later and departed from the original narrative. But I am unpersuaded that there is enough solid information to say what the original story was and how it came to be accepted as the right one, nevermind the question of whether or not we should believe its details to be historically accurate.

B. Prokop said...

"But I am unpersuaded that there is enough solid information to say what the original story was and how it came to be accepted as the right one"

Then I suggest that, before you post another word from a position of ignorance, you pick up copies of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna edited by Kenneth J. Howell, Four Witnesses, the Early Church in Her Own Words by Rod Bennett, When the Church was Young by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, and The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre, and read them through cover to cover. You'll find ample information presented therein - enough to convince the stoutest skeptic with a genuinely open mind.

Jezu ufam tobie!

Ilíon said...

"I myself have memorized large passages of the Gospel of Luke, in Latin. It's really not that hard!"

Everyone of us knows tens of thousands of *individual* (*) songs; few of them perfectly, of course, because we don't devote ourselves to knowing them perfectly. But we do generally know them well enough to follow along when someone else sings them and to recognize when that someone is getting them wrong.

(*) by which, among other things, I mean that remembering 'Song A' doesn't help in remembering 'Song B'.

Ilíon said...

... for instance, checking the "media library" of .MP3 and .WMA files that I've copied to this computer to play in the background as I work, I see that I have over 6200 songs. Most of these songs are Christian, and are by no means even approaching a majority of the number of Christian recordings available, and "Christian music" is but a ghetto of the total of all songs current in American culture.

B. Prokop said...

I apologize if my last comment seemed a bit short, but It exasperates me when people say "there's no information" when there is clearly mountains of the stuff out there. And in this age, it's easily accessible. But tell someone to read a book, and they whine, "That's too much effort! Just give me a link, so I can spend 3 milliseconds scanning the pictures and feel that I've actually done my homework."

There is NO excuse for thinking that we don't know enough about 1st Century Christianity to make a determination as to the validity or otherwise of its claims. There's this totally erroneous impression out there that we have a huge gap between the Crucifixion and the Established Church, with no documentation for the intervening time span - but nothing could be further from the truth. We know in exquisite detail what 1st generation Christians believed, how they organized themselves, and what their liturgy, rituals, and prayers were like. We know the names and biographies of the key players in the development of Christian doctrine. We have an extant copy of the very first Catechism (the Didache). We can read the very earliest Christian fiction (The Shepherd of Hermas). We can still pray today the earliest known Christian prayer outside of the New Testament, dating back to the 2nd Century (and possibly even earlier). How amazing is that?

Jezu ufam tobie!

Eric Sotnak said...

B. Prokop: Thanks for the book recommendations. I may pick a few of them up. I know there are sincere and conscientious efforts by intelligent people to defend the reliability of the standard narrative. But that misses the point. I was mainly addressing the argument in the original link that the telephone game hypothesis can be dismissed on the grounds that the culture of the time was one that valued accurate memorization, and that therefore this must apply to the transmission of the Christian narratives. I don't have a strongly informed view about the details of early Christianity, or how early certain doctrines or practices were likely in place. I'll let the historians fight over that stuff. But if it is true that the earliest texts we have date to several decades after the estimated death of Jesus, there is still plenty of time for stories to be distorted or fabricated.

I also freely admit that I'm coming at this from the opposite end of things than apologists do. I start from the view that it is completely bonkers to believe that Jesus rose into the sky 40 days after supposedly coming back from the dead. So from my standpoint, the story must have gone off the rails somewhere. If you want me to think it doesn't, you'd better be able to show that the “chain of evidence” is intact all the way back. Since the chain of evidence here begins decades after the supposed events, there is plenty of room to fit all sorts of derailing possibilities.

B. Prokop said...

"Since the chain of evidence here begins decades after the supposed events"

I'm not sure what you consider to be "decades". Many contemporary scholars, rejecting the hyper-skepticism so fashionable in the last century, now date the Gospel of Mark in the form we have it today (minus the ending) to just 12 years after the Crucifixion. (And I personally agree with those who date Matthew even earlier than that!)

And even if a greater number of years intervened, that by no means necessarily implies any distortion to the narrative. I myself saw John F. Kennedy arrive at the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, during the presidential campaign of 1960. That was 56 years ago, yet I can still recount that day in intricate detail - where I was standing, who was with me, the weather, how he walked and what he looked like, and what music was playing. Now if I can remember so clearly such an insignificant event as that, just imagine how well I'd be able to relate having witnessed a miracle after an equivalent amount of time!

Jezu ufam tobie!

Eric Sotnak said...

B. Prokop: Perhaps you've seen some of the research on the unreliability of even our most vivid memories? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/201009/your-most-vivid-memory-maybe-it-never-happened

But as for the chain of evidence: It is possible that the very first accounts of Jesus' life were written down within a very short time. It is also possible that they were not. So how much confidence can anyone really have in discounting some variant of the telephone game hypothesis?

(And let me also point out that we are no longer addressing the argument in the link anymore - that culture at the time had a tradition of accurately preserving information over long stretches of time through memorization.)

B. Prokop said...

Eric,

I think we've come to the point where we'll just have to admit we're approaching this issue from opposite sides, and we've pretty much made our respective positions clear. You're looking for any way possible to cast doubt on the Gospel, even to the point where you wouldn't even accept you yourself being an eyewitness to the Resurrection. ("Perhaps you've seen some of the research on the unreliability of even our most vivid memories?") On the other hand, I'm pointing out that the "telephone tree" objection is a weak reed upon which to hang one's skepticism. I don't need to demonstrate that 1st Century Jews had a culture of oral memorization. I merely have to point out that such cultures do exist to show that the telephone tree objection is no silver bullet. It certainly isn't going to cause me to lose any sleep over it.

But I do encourage people to learn about the history of the Early Church. I've found time and again that 99% of "skeptics" are skeptical about something that never even existed. The story of the generation immediately following the Apostles is, regardless of what you think about the Faith, one of the most interesting, and indeed astounding, in all of Human History. And we possess a truly incredible amount of information on it - more than what we know about quite literally anything else in the ancient world, and for that matter more than we know about most subsequent periods in history.

That alone ought to give even the most hardened skeptic pause.

Jezu ufam tobie!

Joe Hinman said...

But as for the chain of evidence: It is possible that the very first accounts of Jesus' life were written down within a very short time. It is also possible that they were not. So how much confidence can anyone really have in discounting some variant of the telephone game hypothesis?


It's funny Eric that you say that about the possibilities because the philosophers in this little corner of the blogosphere between this blog and SOP and others in the wake of them seem to think probability is as good certainty. I know they don't really think that but hear them talk it seems so. I think it's much more probable given what we know about PMPN that it was written early.

Joe Hinman said...

copies of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna edited by Kenneth J. Howell, Four Witnesses, the Early Church in Her Own Words by Rod Bennett, When the Church was Young by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, and The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre, and read them through cover to cover. You'll find ample information presented therein - enough to convince the stoutest skeptic with a genuinely open mind.

thanks for the great reading list.

Eric Sotnak said...

B. Prokop: “even to the point where you wouldn't even accept you yourself being an eyewitness to the Resurrection.”

Much depends here on what it is that it being remembered. If I told you I have a vivid memory of riding on a unicorn on my 5th birthday, I'm sure you wouldn't believe me. Would I believe myself? No, because I have enough additional evidence to overturn my confidence in that memory. What if it wasn't a unicorn, but a pony? Now we're in the territory of the believable. And there is a difference between asking whether I have reason to believe something on the basis of my own memory and asking whether you have reason to believe on the basis of my memory. Look, absolutely everyone accepts that the move from first-person to second-person memory is accompanied by a significant drop in confidence. And the more intermediary parties we interpose, the greater the drop in confidence.

There are things I, too, am certain of on the basis of memory, and I'm not saying memories are never reliable. But even people with great memories can get some details wrong. Some things we remember vividly, and others we kind-sorta remember, or think we do, and once we say we do, we become more convinced that we really do remember those things. So much depends, too, on the character of the memory itself. Since we know of all kinds of cases where the character, content, and context of experiences can lead to people sincerely insisting they remember something we know didn't happen (or didn't happen the way it is remembered), we should at least consider whether any of these concerns should apply to the Jesus narratives.

Let's go back to the telephone game and consider a different version of that. Much of the research on memory shows that the contents of memory change each time a memory is recalled, and that the way they change can be significantly affected by a variety of factors, including expectation. So if you take a witness to a crime and ask them to tell you about the other person who was there, even when there was no such person, the witness will begin to recall all sorts of details about that non-existent other person. And with each retelling, the memory of the other person will become increasingly vivid for the witness. This is a first-person-intra-memory version of the telephone game.

It matters massively whether the Gospel sources were recalling events in a social environment where there was pressure to remember things that conformed to a set of expectations. Since we know that in similar circumstances there can be mistakes and even confabulation of things that never happened, we shouldn't discount the possibility here, either.

Ilíon said...

"Now if I can remember so clearly such an insignificant event as that ..."

You're trying to reason with people who have chosen to engage in selective hyper-skepticism?

No, wait! You're up to something else, aren't you? I approve.

B. Prokop said...

"No, wait! You're up to something else, aren't you?"

Awww.. you saw through me.

No one can ever get anything past Ilion!

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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