For hundreds of years, we’ve had Bibles in our hands. For Protestants, 66 books bound together including 27 books in the New Testament and 4 Gospels that communicate the story and teachings of Jesus.
Biblical scholars of various backgrounds attempt to estimate the dates at which each of our 4 Gospels might have been written, and their conclusions vary somewhat, but even the most conservative scholars place some of the Gospels decades after Jesus.
Yet when we open the pages of the rest of the New Testament, from Acts to the Letters to the Revelation, it becomes apparent that while the life, death, resurrection and ascension are taught as well as several of Jesus’ teachings, none of our 4 Gospels are ever specifically referenced by name as whole documents.
This leaves us with a period of time sustained by a primary form of communication that makes many of us today uncomfortable: oral tradition.
It’s highly possible and even quite likely that there were earlier forms of written material, but we’re left with more questions than answers as to exactly what that would have consisted of. By the time Luke writes, he notes that others have ‘undertaken to draw up an account,’ without commenting on the adequacy of such accounts. He could be referring in part to Mark or Matthew or less complete accounts. We would like to know more.
In any case, we have to think more deeply about the first generation of Christians not having gospels in their churches much less on their nightstands. That wasn’t the plan.
The teaching about Jesus was primarily passed on verbally.
Which makes us think of…
The telephone game.
Yes, that game that is fun to play with kids and in youth groups. Everyone who has played it knows how consistently it works. The leader whispers something to the first person and that person whispers it to the next person. This continues around the circle until the last person says the message aloud. And the message at the end is almost always significantly different than the way the message began.
Was the early Christian movement 40+ years of the telephone game?
Both those who are skeptical of the Christian faith as well as believers who want to dig in deeper can legitimately ask this question.
Although much can be said about the differences between written and oral cultures, low rates of literacy and the time and cost to reproduce documents as well as the fact that memorization as far more possible than we tend to think it is, this post will suggest two reasons why they were not playing something like the telephone game in the first decades of the Christian movement before the Gospels we have today began to circulate.
The first is the importance of the message. When we play the game, the message passed along is typically something inconsequential. But imagine a group of adults are seated in a circle to play and they are informed that the message going around is the combination to a safe. If the last person gets it right they will share the million dollars locked in it. I suspect the the chance of the message being transmitted precisely goes way up!
Even if you approach this discussion with a significant degree of skepticism about who Jesus is, it doesn’t seem hard to accept that Jesus’ disciples who spent 3 years with him would have had a solid understanding of whose message they were sharing. Students of other Rabbi’s would memorize and pass on teaching reliably. How much more with the belief that this Rabbi was also the long awaited Messianic King! This was important information.
A major difference between the early believers and the telephone game is that the message was frequently shared out loud (not whispered) and in community gatherings. As today, even if I shared something partially incorrect with a neighbor or coworker, once they were a part of a bigger group and repeated that idea, others would quickly correct them.
Imagine that I wanted to share the good news about how fun the game of golf is with someone who had never heard of it. They are interested in getting outside, learning about the different clubs and techniques. I tell them that the goal to winning is the get the highest score, like most sports.
I told my friend a lot of good and true things about golf, but I also got something absolutely essential wrong about how golf is scored. That is no small mistake and is akin to how some skeptics might imagine the Christian message getting curropted over time.
Even if my friend told another person who had never heard about golf my wrong information, the first time they actually showed up at a golf course or spoke with anyone else who had even a basic knowledge of golf, they would immediately be corrected. “You have a lot of it right, but that thing about the scoring is totally wrong. Let me help you…”
We see this very type of correction happening on the pages of the New Testament.
“Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:24-26
People’s understanding could be incomplete or it could be off base in some ways, but there were correctives built in. This included the understanding of the gathered community, teachers and elders in the local communities, as well as others more directly connected with the Twelve Apostles themselves.
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2:2
Trusted people like Priscilla, Aquila, Timothy, Titus, Barnabas and Silas among many others could provide whatever correction was needed. If it was a really rough situation, one of them could stay in a place for awhile to get things back on track.
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” 1 Timothy 1:3.
At the beginning of all the other reliable testimony about Jesus and his teaching are the eyewitnesses to his life and ministry, in particular the 12 Apostles.
When they were looking for a replacement for Judas, look at the qualification:
“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” Acts 1:21-22
These disciples/apostles were eyewitnesses to all of Jesus life, teaching, signs, death and resurrection. If the truth of the message got off track, they would be the ones with the greatest ability to correct.
The conclusion that we are left with is that the telephone game comparison doesn’t work very well. The message is much more important and all along the way there are opportunities to correct any mishandling of the essential information. The apostles were, after all, the ones who not only heard but saw with their own eyes.
It’s probably no coincidence that the written Gospels began circulating as the eyewitnesses got older, and martyrdom was a real possibility.
Today we continue to keep each other accountable in community and with reliable teachers. Yet the core source of that information remains. In the first few decades it was the living eyewitnesses. Now it’s their testimony preserved for us and available everywhere.