Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Gospels and the Telephone Game (Chinese Whispers)

The anonymous blogger of Missives from Marx has an excellent post on The Gospels and the Telephone Game concerning a teaching practice where students play a version of "the telephone game" in order to demonstrate how oral gospel traditions corrupt over time from their pure originals.  In Britain, the same game is called Chinese Whispers. We often used to play it at primary (AmE: elementary) school when the teacher had decided to have a more relaxed afternoon. But I well remember my first 'O' Level (14-16 years old, now GCSE) RE (Religious Education) class at which our teacher got us playing Chinese Whispers in order to illustrate the phenomenon of the gospel traditions getting corrupted through time. It is not an experiment I have ever repeated in my own teaching, nor will I, largely for the reasons so well articulated by Missives from Marx.

I would add the following. Students actually find the idea of oral transmission of traditions pretty straightforward to grasp. They are familiar with the telling of stories in our culture, jokes, anecdotes, urban legends, and they are often inclined to think intuitively that this sort of thing provides a good analogy to the transmission of early Christian traditions. What students find harder to grasp, in my experience, is the notion that the Gospels are related on a literary level, that there is a lot of copying going on.  They need to be shown the texts and to see that at least two of the evangelists are involved in some pretty serious copying.  Our culture disdains this kind of copying, and avoidance of plagiarism is now a huge issue in universities and colleges.  Students are sometimes shocked when they see the extent of agreement in the Gospels because their guess, before doing any study, is that they are independent witnesses to traditional material.  This is especially the case for churchgoers, for whom the Synoptic Problem is rarely, if ever, taught.  

I noticed this year on my Historical Jesus course a related failure of some students to grasp the idea of "multiple attestation".  In spite of some introduction to the key issues in Gospel criticism, some of the weaker students would still treat the appearance of material in all three Synoptic Gospels as "multiple attestation", imagining a model in which the Synoptics were independently relating traditional materials.

Teaching students about oral tradition is an important and challenging element in the teaching of Christian origins, but I doubt that playing Chinese whispers helps anyone to understand it well, not least given the much larger task of explaining the inter-relations of the Gospels.


Scott F said...

Synoptic Problem? The pew dwellers are still reading books that teach them that two of the Gospels are eyewitness accounts! (I think the Case For Christ included that claim)

Juliette said...

Can I pick your brains for a minute? I'm doing some work on dreams in early Christianity for my thesis (not a big section) but I'm a bit clueless - just how much do we really know about the development of the Gospels? Id there a handy article on JSTOR I can read to get basic info?! I'm also a lifelong churchgoer, so I may have some very confused notions and I don't want to get it wrong in my thesis! And I've done some work on oral tradition in the past, so I naturally tend to emphasise that aspect.

Mark Goodacre said...

Scott: right!

Juliette: sorry, don't have any bright ideas. I think Justin Meggitt wrote an article on dreams of crucifixion. You may be able to find it by googling for his name.

J. K. Gayle said...

What do you think of Scot McKnight's game (in Blue Parakeet) of the Bible as "wiki-story"?

Mark Goodacre said...

I'm not familiar with it, I am afraid.

danbruce.usa said...

How would the game of "Chinese Whispers" be structured as an example of oral transmission of the gospels if the work of the Holy Spirit was represented in the "whispering" mechanism?