Mark D. Roberts

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The Telephone game assumes that the communication of the key sentence will be done secretly, with players whispering to each other.
Think of what would happen in Telephone if somebody changed the rules. Rather than whispering the sentence, the first player says it out loud to the person next in line. This person says the same sentence out loud to the next person, and so forth and so on. This would be a boring game, to say the least, because all players would hear what was being passed around.
That’s more or less what happened in the early Christian community when it came to passing down the teaching of Jesus. It was not done secretly, but openly. Remember that Luke got his information from eyewitnesses who were also “servants of the word” (Luke 1:2). They were teaching about Jesus in the public square and in the church. Their stories about Jesus and their accounts of his sayings were part of the public record, if you will, or at least the public church record.
When you think of how little material actually appears in the Gospels compared with all that Jesus would have done and said, it’s obvious that the “servants of the word” tended to repeat themselves a lot. The same stories about Jesus were told and retold. Given the variation we see in the Gospels, these stories and sayings weren’t delivered in exactly the same words every time. This would be especially true when the original Aramaic of Jesus was translated into Greek. Nevertheless, the members of the earliest churches would have heard the same stories and sayings again and again in much the same way they were first told by the eyewitnesses.
Repetition facilitates memory, even precise memory. I can say the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Pledge of Allegiance, and even my VISA card number because I have repeated them so often. I can sing more than a hundred hymns and songs, not because I’m so musical but because I’m in four worship services every weekend and I rarely miss church! The early Christians came to know a core of Jesus’ sayings and stories about him because they heard them and repeated them so frequently.
Curiously enough, there was one tradition in early Christianity that prized itself on having secret teachings from Jesus, ones that were not widely known among most Christians. This was a core feature of Christian Gnosticism. When orthodox Christians objected that Gnostic theology didn’t come from Jesus, the Gnostics claimed that the divine Christ had revealed secret information to a few select disciples. They were the only ones privy to the secret, and they passed it on only to the few elites who could receive the revelation. But this essential element of Gnostic tradition, its secrecy, counts strongly against the possibility that it truly represents the teachings of Jesus.

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