Are the Gospel accounts distorted?


One skeptic claims that “At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”

The same critic goes on to say that the gospels, our primary sources for the historical Jesus, are analogues to playing the game of telephone (GOT). In other words, the skeptic argues that by the time the gospels were penned the historical information about Jesus was garbled in the process. Essentially, the GOT has someone put a message in at the beginning after which it is secretly passed around to several different individuals. When the message comes out of the other side it is totally distorted and sounds nothing like the original message. Is this a fair analysis of the gospel accounts of Jesus and how they have been handed down to us? I’d argue that it isn’t.

Firstly, we need to understand the actual intention of the authors of the gospels and those who play the GOT. When playing the GOT it is expected, as probably part of the fun, that the end message will be different to the original message. That is why it is a “game.” However, the gospel authors were not intending to play games. They were probably, more often than not, highly educated scribes who made it their mission to pass on what they thought the original documents said. They would have meticulously copied down word for word from the text that they would have received because their goal was to be accurate. That is not to deny that they made mistakes here and there, they did, but they attempted to be accurate.

Secondly, the lines of transmission between the GOT and the gospel authors is quite different. The GOT maintains just a single line of transmission whereas the gospel transmission process had multiple lines of transmission. In other words, the original gospel copy would have been copied by several different scribes, then those several scribes would give their copies to the next scribes who would then copy their manuscripts, and so forth. At the end of the line we would have thousands of manuscript copies that could be compared to each other. This would give modern scholars greater confidence concerning what the originals autographs would have read like.

Thirdly, the GOT requires oral transmission whereas the authors of the gospels, and the subsequent scribes, benefited from textual transmission. The key difference is that one, via a textual transmission process, could recheck the physical text, or have others analyze it, before passing it on especially if the goal was maintain accuracy. However, the GOT is limited in accuracy in the sense that only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked. The gospel scribes would have had access to earlier texts with some probably going back close to the time of the autographs.

These several considerations would suggest that when it comes the transmission of our gospel manuscripts through time, it is hardly analogous to the GOT.

Let me know your thoughts!

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