Were the facts of Jesus distorted in the transmission like in the telephone game (i.e. can we trust the Bible)?
Skeptics use the telephone game as a parallel to how the Bible has come down to us. Just like the final message of the telephone game, the New Testament is equally unreliable. Right? Wrong.
This article from STR answers the question well. Here are the main points from the article:
At first glance, the objection is compelling. But most people raising it simply don’t know the facts. And the facts are on the Bible’s side. Clearly, the telephone game does not accurately capture the manner in which the New Testament was passed down.
First, the New Testament message was not transmitted orally, a mode of communication that is easier to distort. Instead, it was handed down in writing. Second, there was not a singular line of transmission—that is, it was not the case that a single individual passed the message to another individual who passed the message to a different individual and so on. Rather, there were many lines as one letter was copied multiple times and copies were copied multiple times, eventually resulting in a host of manuscript copies. Third, historians do not rely on the last person in line but look for earlier sources much closer to the original. Finally, original letters could be consulted, even after several generations of copies.
A quick look at the transmission of not only the New Testament but of all ancient documents reveals the misconceptions in the telephone game analogy. A more accurate picture of the transmission of the New Testament documents is captured by the Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce illustration where there are multiple lines of transmission, including multiple copies in each line. As ancient documents are passed along in this manner, historians ask two primary questions to determine a text’s reliability:
How many manuscript copies do we have?
How close in time are the manuscript copies to the original?
Answering these two questions for the New Testament demonstrates it is the most reliable ancient document, hands down. Let’s do a very brief survey of the evidence.
The number of manuscript copies of the New Testament is mind-boggling. In Greek alone, we have more than 5,800 copies, consisting of 2.5 million pages of text. In addition, we have more than10,000 Latin manuscript copies. If that’s not enough, there are more than 5,000 manuscripts in other languages, such as Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. In total, there are more than 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament in various languages.
To top it off, even if all manuscript evidence for the New Testament disappeared, we could still reconstruct almost the entire 27 New Testament books from more than one million quotations of the early church fathers. Clearly, we have all the manuscript copies we need to ensure what we have is what was written.
But the question of the distance of time from original to copy remains. Again, the facts are on the Bible’s side. We have a dozen manuscripts from the second century, 64 manuscripts from the third century and 48 from the fourth century. That’s 124 total manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament. There is not a single Greek or Latin manuscript from the ancient world that comes close to the early dating of these New Testament manuscripts. Again, the wealth of early manuscripts ensures what we have is what was written. That’s why the majority of biblical scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, conclude that the original words of the New Testament can be known by us with more certainty than those of any other text from all of antiquity.
"The common law ancient documents rule presumes a document is truthful unless it is self-contradictory, inaccurate, or there is internal evidence of text tampering. The one challenging the document generally shoulders the burden of proof. Unsolved problems or lack of clarity in the document don’t necessarily invalidate it as erroneous or unreliable. Biblical textual criticism, says Story, has resulted in historical research resolving allegedly problematic passages in favor of the Bible’s reliability."--David Limbaugh (Jesus on Trial)
Law professor and historian John Warwick Montgomery writes, “One must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.”
In his book, Jesus on Trial, David Limbaugh provides plenty of quotes from Bible scholars regarding the accuracy and reliability of the copies we have today. Here are a few of them:
"New Testament professor Mark Strauss says the evidence indicates that the early Church carefully transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus. Dr. Geisler agrees, declaring, 'The New Testament documents are copied accurately—the New Testament has more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more accurately copied manuscripts than any other book from the ancient world.'
Craig Blomberg adds, “By contrast [with other ancient books], the textual evidence for the New Testament from the first centuries after it was written is staggering. Scholars of almost every theological stripe agree that Christian scribes copied the New Testament with extraordinary care, matched only by the accuracy of the Jewish scribes copying the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament).”
Bible scholar John A. T. Robinson says of the New Testament, “ The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”
In his interview of New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, Lee Strobel emphasizes the importance of having a large number of manuscript copies. Strobel says he was skeptical when he first discovered there were no surviving autographs of the New Testament. If all we have are “copies of copies,” he asks, “ how can I have any confidence that the New Testament we have today bears any resemblance whatsoever to what was originally written?” Metzger replies that this isn’t unique to the Bible, but is true of all ancient documents: “But what the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings, is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived.” The reason this is so important, explains Metzger, is that “the more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they’d agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts.”
David Limbaugh's summarization on the accuracy of the New Testament:
"In comparing New Testament documents with other ancient documents, an examination of their relative accuracy is also relevant. Interestingly, there are so few manuscripts for many ancient books as to make any such comparison unfeasible. But as for those few ancient books for which sufficient manuscripts exist, their accuracy pales in comparison to that of the New Testament. Bruce Metzger found that manuscripts for the ancient Indian work Mahabharata were about 90 percent accurate. When there were only 643 known copies of the Iliad, he found that its manuscripts were about 95 percent accurate. The New Testament manuscripts, by contrast, were 99.5 percent accurate."
What about the many variants we have? “The vast majority of variants,” says Dr. Norman Geisler, “are grammatical in nature and have no bearing on the substance of the message. Only a small fraction of the variants bear on the meaning of the text, and none affect any major doctrine of the Christian faith.”
Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace conclude that “any uncertainty over the wording of the original New Testament does not have an impact on major teachings of the New Testament. They certainly do not affect the deity of Christ. There is simply no room for uncertainty about what the New Testament originally taught.”
Indeed, Blomberg writes that “even the most liberal members of the Jesus Seminar” agree “that there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support the claims of some modern-day Mormons or Muslims that the text of the New Testament became so corrupted over the centuries that we have no way of being sure what the original contained.”
Richard Bentley, “the ablest and boldest of classical critics of England” according to Philip Schaff, “affirms that even the worst of [manuscripts] does not pervert or set aside ‘one article of faith or moral precept.’”
British paleographer and biblical and classical scholar Sir Fredric Kenyon: “The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
The bottom line: If the critics of the bible dismiss the New Testament as reliable information, then they must also dismiss the reliability of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Homer, and the other authors mentioned in the chart. On the other hand, if the critics acknowledge the historicity and writings of those other individuals, then they must also retain the historicity and writings of the New Testament authors; after all, the evidence for the New Testament's reliability is far greater than the others.
For more, check out this chart here that compares the textual reliability of the New Testament to other works of antiquity: http://carm.org/manuscript-evidence