Bart Ehrman argues that the gospel texts are not historically reliable beginning with this analogy:

It is [oral circulation] that causes special problems for historians who want to know what actually happened in the life of Jesus. We don’t have written records from his own day, only later accounts written by people who had heard the stories that had been in circulation for so many years. What happens, though, to stories as they circulate by word of mouth? Did you, or your kids, ever play the party game telephone? Kids all sit in a circle, one kid whispers a story to the one sitting next to her, who tells it to the one next to her, and so on, around the circle, until it comes back to the first kid—and by then it’s a different story. (If it weren’t a different story every time, it would be a pretty pointless game to play.)—Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p.115

(He's made similar arguments in other books and debates.)

But is this a good model for understanding oral transmission? Can we expect that the text that goes into such a model will always or usually diverge in the same way that the text passed from child to child will diverge?

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    Try playing "telephone" with adults. It's distinctly pointless because the transmission rarely changes. – fumanchu Jun 29 '12 at 1:25
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    One thing that we forget to realize is that Oral Tradition does not mean that NOTHING was written. There could have been an outline or notes read. But the stories were spread from one voice to many ears. – The Freemason Jun 29 '12 at 20:08
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    @DanAndrews I'd even argue from one voice to many ears to many voices to many ears ... – swasheck Jun 29 '12 at 20:10
  • @fumanchu: You know, we are having a game night this weekend; I might try it. It does seem to me that most of the time when I played it as a child, some idiot would insert a totally new message about halfway around. We'd be lucky if there was just one bogus message. – Jon Ericson Jun 29 '12 at 20:10

Ehrman is a fascinating scholar, swinging radically between perspectives throughout his career. He's obviously quite intelligent and it also seems like he wholeheartedly throws his entire being into his research, which is why you can account for such radical opinions. They become a part of his very being.

The primary medium by which information was communicated was through oral transmission. Even once the written medium became relevant, oral transmission was the primary means of replicating information. There are a few issues to take up with Ehrman's perspective.

First, he is being intellectually dishonest in his presentation of oral tradition. I am pretty sure that he has a better understanding of orality than he's letting on, but that would sell fewer books. The reality is that though the primary way of transmitting important information, the written word was still present far back into antiquity. For instance, the Ketef Hinnom Amulet, which dates to 600 BCE, has an inscription of the Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) which played a role in the temple cult of ancient Israel.

Because of the centrality of oral transmission in the role of life, and worship, this was not just an isolated "game of telephone" that followed one line. There were many, many, many parallel streams of transmission that coursed through each family, tribe, and the nation. One must imagine that, given the centrality of the edicts to the way of life of Israel, that an out-of-sync stream would be corrected. Though Israel did not always follow the mandates of the temple cult (the order of worship), the laws were intricately intertwined with the daily life of the people. There was no such thing as the separation of church and state (which is a fairly new concept).

Secondly, Ehrman's claim that this was like a grand game of telephone is a classical case of an anachronistic fallacy. It would be like questioning the validity of The Lord of the Rings because J.R.R. Tolkien used the antiquated medium of writing in whole words and complete sentences, whereas the present form of communication would be in SMS shorthand. ZOMG Blbo, U gave da ring 2 Frodo?? The inability of the present generation to accomplish a task does not disqualify previous generation from such a feat - especially when there is a tremendous amount of technology that no longer necessitates such direct recall.

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    For "ZOMG Blbo, U gave da ring 2 Frodo??" a hearty +1. And I agree with the rest of the answer too. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jun 29 '12 at 20:06

An alternative answer:

The NT is not a history, neither were the apostles historians nor were their followers. The intent of the writings is to transmit a religious message, not to record historical fact. So even if the oral transmission was reliable, the motivation and the outlook of the authors was not historical.

Besides the oral transmission of the material for more than a century before it became text, the material probably also went through a language translation and shift of culture. No doubt those changes left their mark on the testimony and some facts were mistranslated, forgotten, or even mistakenly changed by well-meaning editors trying to reconcile different witnesses. It could be that material that we consider to be pseudepigraphal was included, because at the time of the compilation people of faith did not necessarily make the type of critical distinctions that we make today. So what. None of this changes the message of the text. In fact these probable changes enhance the meaning of the message. If Tacitus had written the Gospels we might know how much lunch in Tiberius or Kfar Nahum cost at the time but the message would have been lost.

The same reasoning applies to much of the OT. We're not looking to the book of Daniel to learn Babylonian and Persian history, or to Genesis to learn rocket science. We're looking for the Message.

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  • Excellent points. The genre of at least John can not be labeled "history". However, I think a good argument can be made that Luke thought as a historian (of the ancient mold) when he wrote his accounts of the life of Jesus and the early church. – Jon Ericson Jun 30 '12 at 20:00

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