The Claim: Stories from the Christian tradition can accurately be described as a game of ‘Chinese Whispers.’
However a story starts, whether in truth or fiction, parable or dream, the Chinese Whispers effect will see to it that it changes as it’s repeated and re-repeated down the generations.
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 57). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Is this a fair analogy?
Dawkins claims the game “Chinese Whispers,” often referred to as “Telephone” in the United States, epitomizes the way that the Gospel writers obtained information about Jesus. His theory is that the information we have related to Jesus is due to legendary development.
However, is this an apt comparison? The game “Telephone” has rules that increase the chance that the message at the end will differ from the message at the beginning. Each successive person is not able to verify the information they receive from the source. Were the documents in the New Testament transmitted in a similar manner?
When asked about this concern, Dr. William Lane Craig points out key differences between the game and the development of the New Testament in this YouTube Video :
One of the differences between the game of “Telephone” and the disciples’ transmission of the traditions about Jesus is that the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life and teachings were still alive. They were still around. You could go back to the person at the beginning of the “Telephone” game and say “What did you say?” He’s still there.
Dr. Craig emphasizes that the way oral tradition was passed on about Jesus was completely different than information is in the game of “Telephone." Since the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life and ministry were still around, it was possible for information about Jesus to be corrected or verified by eyewitnesses. This is in direct contrast to the game, in which verification is impossible (or, at least, breaks the rules).
Early Evidence of Recorded Oral Tradition
However, what about the written record? There is no evidence of any legendary development - Jesus was seen as Divine from the very beginning. The documents can be dated remarkably close to the events themselves. Some of the earliest information we have about Jesus is in the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 as well as the first Gospel account, Mark. Both clearly demonstrate that Christian teachings about Jesus were established at the very outset of Christianity and weren’t developed over time, as the “Telephone” theory suggests.
Early Gospel Evidence: 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
In the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, authors Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona confirm that this creed supports the veracity of the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus:
One of the earliest and most important [creeds] is quoted in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (C.A.D.55). He wrote in 15:3-5, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Several factors mark this as an ancient creed that was part of the earliest traditions of the Christian church and that predates the writings of Paul. In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it from the disciples Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. If so, Paul learned it within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion and from the disciples themselves. At minimum, we have source material that dates within two decades of the alleged event of Jesus’ resurrection and comes from a source that Paul thought was reliable. Dean John Rodgers of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry comments, “This is the sort of data that historians of antiquity drool over.” (52-53)
If Paul learned this creed within 5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, that means the creed had to be around even earlier, which shows that the resurrection of Jesus was taught as one of the earliest traditions. It didn’t develop later, as Dawkins’s analogy to “Telephone” implies.
Early Gospel Evidence: Mark
The Gospel of Mark is the first Gospel account to be written. The estimated date of composition is either the mid- to late-50s AD or the mid- to late-60s AD. It was written by John Mark who was the writer for Peter (ESV Study Bible, Introduction to Mark).
Since this is the first Gospel account to be written, it’s important to pay attention to its teachings about Jesus, which reveal to us what the first Christians believed. Nabeel Qureshi states in this YouTube video (starting at the 8:30 mark) that the Gospel of Mark is evidence that Jesus was worshipped as God from the very beginning of Christianity:
In the earliest of the four Gospels, Mark’s Gospel, the whole thing points to the Deity of Jesus. That’s what the whole Gospel is about from the beginning to the end. It’s all about Jesus being God, except it’s revealed slowly; there’s only one point where there’s a massive climax and that’s Mark 14:62.
In Mark 14:62, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man,” which is a clear reference to the “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), where the “Son of Man” is considered Divine. This means that by claiming to be this “Son of Man,” Jesus is referring to Himself as Divine - calling Himself God. Nabeel continues:
This doctrine of the “Son of Man” is found in every layer of Gospel history. If you believe in Q theory, it’s found in all five sources, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and Q. That is why the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus.
The first Christians worshipped Jesus as God and this is reflected in the earliest writings that we have about Jesus, which say that He is God and claimed to be God. Thus, the Christian teaching of the Divinity of Jesus isn’t a doctrine that developed at a later time - it was there from the very beginning.
The way oral traditions were transmitted in Christianity does not resemble a game of “Telephone," as Dawkins claims, because the information that was transmitted could have been corrected or verified by the source of the information - the eyewitnesses themselves. Also, written records, including the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and the earliest Gospel, Mark, testify that the information related to Jesus has been consistent from the very beginning of Christianity.