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I'm a Christian, married to a wonderful man, Steven, and mother to a wonderful little son. I have many interests and a few noteworthy journeys in life and I enjoy sharing them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Gospels--A Game of "Telephone?"

Some people will compare the early Bible to the game "telephone" since the story wasn't written down right away--the earliest Gospel, Mark, was written 30-45 years after Jesus' death, with Matthew and Luke being written very shortly after. The Epistles began much earlier than this, but they did not contain the story of Jesus' life and death in such detail.

However, to compare this to the game "telephone" is ridiculous. "Telephone" best represents gossip and rumors, not important events preserved carefully in the minds of those who witnessed them and repeated often and then recorded while the eyewitnesses were still alive. If you have never played "telephone," it is done by having a bunch of people sit in a circle. One person begins by whispering a sentence in the next person's ear, for instance, "Joe likes to dance the salsa." This can only be whispered and cannot be repeated. It gets passed down the line like this until it gets to the last person, who then says it out loud, and often is has become something ridiculous as bits and pieces were missed and distorted due to the rules of communication.

Now imagine instead that each person was allowed to say it clearly and repeat it until the person next to them got it. How much harder would it be to distort out of recognition, unless done deliberately? And imagine each person is allowed to go consult with the very first person to make sure it wasn't distorted. Do you think it would come out right in the end? Of course it would! Unless the very first person has some motive for messing everyone up as it gets down the line--and let's assume they don't--then it would turn out exactly how the first person said it!

Now let's get out of children's games. Imagine your father saw something significant when he was 18 or so. Perhaps he did, so you can really make this personal to you. For instance, I'm not sure how old he was exactly, but my father once saw a gruesome motor cycle accident. He told me only about it once, and not in much detail, a few years ago, but I still remember what he did tell me because it was quite a grisly scene to imagine. Now, these even that your father witnessed--image he tells you about it over and over and over again through the years in great detail. Then when you're an adult--let's say its been a minimum of 30 years since this accident took place, so your father is almost 50--you write it down how he's told you so many times in so much detail over the years. Do you think you've written it down well? Do you think it matches what your father saw?

Let's imagine as well that this event had multiple witnesses and it stuck with more than one of them in this way, and they or their children wrote it down as well. How well do you think those stories would match? Most likely, as evidenced by testimonies given in a court of law, valid testimonies have differences in details or perspective (influenced, for instance, by whether or not the person who saw it thought it was a good thing or a bad thing), but the core story beneath the perspective and individual details tends to remain the same, or at least very similar. And now that this story is written down, it would have to be deliberately altered to ruin its validity. If there's multiple copies of matching stories, and eyewitnesses or those who spoke with eyewitnesses still around who know the true story, a deliberately altered story would be recognized as such.

This is what our Gospels are. They are the stories of the eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and those who learned from eyewitnesses directly and in detail (Mark and Luke). The Epistles were written by apostles who were there during Jesus' life (such as Peter and John) and by people who directly witnessed and were called by Jesus (such as Paul and James).

Because of the amazing news their message was to the early Christians, copies upon copies upon copies were made very quickly. The apostles were still around while many of these copies were being made. Now if you're copying something, and you want to get it right because its the best news you've ever heard and you want to share it with people, you're going to copy it out correctly. And because there were so many faithful copies, any distorted or altered versions were readily recognizable and rejected as false. By the time the apostles and those who had learned directly from the apostles were all gone, there were too many copies of their works to distort them and have them accepted. The only thing people could hope to do was create new Gospels with their legendary embellishment, which we see in the Gnostic gospels at exactly the right time period for that to have begun happening. These Gospels were rejected from Bible canon for exactly that reason. While they are educational to read and study, they are not scripture.

We thankfully also have some early fragments of the Gospels and Epistles that show us that our current New Testament is faithful to the originals--that doctrine certainly has not been changed, even if an occasional word or phrase has been changed (for instance, "the Lord" being substituted for "Jesus"). We can also see where people might have added things, such as the very last portion of the Gospel of Mark, and these additions are often noted in modern translations. (My NIV brackets them and puts in a small note.) The oldest fragment of Mark, dating from less than a half century from the original, may have been found recently as well. I'm looking forward to hearing more on that one, when they release all their findings and translation of it.

So, a game of "telephone" or a reliably transmitted eyewitness story? Well, I'd definitely say the news of salvation wasn't gossip.

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