Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NT Pod 66: Oral Traditions and the Game of "Telephone"

NT Pod 66 discusses Oral Traditions and the Game of "Telephone". It is twelve minutes long.

NT Pod 66: Oral Tradition and "Telephone" (mp3)

See also: NT Blog: The Gospels and the Telephone Game (and further links there).

Feel free to leave your feedback below or on Twitter or on our Facebook page.

Thanks to Ram2000, Me and You, for the opening theme, released under a Creative Commons agreement.


  1. I agree that the telephone game analogy is very unhelpful. But I have often wondered about the related analogy of old schoolyard rhymes which have adapted geographically (yet much less quickly and less severely). Mark, What is your opinion of the 'directional' and 'variational' aspects to different/geographical versions of 'Eenie meenie miney moe...' or Ring-a-ring o’ roses//Ring-a-round a rosie? Is this perhaps any more helpful for thinking about oral traditions? People tend to need some kind of analogy.

  2. I don't think it is as bad as you say, Mark.

    Firstly, analogies are intended to communicate specific things. So the objection that students see the gospel variations as orally grounded is fair, but a problem with the teaching, not the analogy, surely. Perhaps 'Telephone' is so memorable that it overshadows the actual teaching, but I'd hope that 'Telephone' is only used to make a specific point: about the ways in which oral transmission changes.

    Secondly, Telephone is a good analogy, specifically because of the wise-cracking joker in the class. When we tell stories, we emphasize things that we want our hearers to hear, and portray figures in the best light possible. So the joker tries to pass on the rudest thing they can think of that sounds a bit like what they were told. That's an extreme example, and for the purpose of a laugh. But even eyewitnesses reinterpret information through the lens of what they believe. I'm particularly interested in healing testimonies in contemporary evangelicalism. I've traced back several, and they definitely show this pattern: tellers want to portray God as being as great as he can be, so the stories grow, some details are lost, others are emphasized, a rhetorical flourish becomes the core. When the original can be reconstructed, the kernel is often very different to the final product. These stories are typically told to groups, and passed from people in church to church, group to group. There are links back along the chain, and opportunities for correction. Yet they have a lot of similarity to telephone. So the analogy is sound in that sense, as long as it is clear what the analogy is about. The deliberate changes are an important feature, not a problem, because you can ask what motivates people to change stories they hear, and what constraints to such changes there are (the joker can't just make up any old rude phrase, for example).

  3. Another problem related to the linear transmission issues is tha telephone is essentially one individual communicating the message to another. I think we have pretty good ethnographic data that tells us that oral transmission is a community event which has social controls in place. The story may be able to be told several different ways, even amongst the same people, but there are unspoken lines that can never be crossed lest the storyteller lose his authority as storyteller. If the line is crossed the community rejects both the storyteller and the version of the story, or at least offers correction. Again, this doesn't mean there is no variety. Variety exists for an number of reasons, but there are boundaries. I think Lord and Parry, Kenneth Bailey, and Richard Bauckham all offer versions of this in their work. To my mind, this is where the telephone analogy really breaks down, if it ever had any merit in the first place. It does make for interesting comedy however... "Blessed are the cheesemakers."
    Fr Dan

  4. It might be worth thinking about the ability of non-literate or semi-literate societies to memorize. The earlier transmission of epic poetry, or later the transmission of the Qur'an suggest that there is a level of memorizing which is almost unthinkable in an age whenI tend to copy and paste a couple of words rather than type them afresh.

  5. Refuting Ehrman again, huh? ;)