Monday, September 29, 2008

The New Testament and “Russian scandal”

There are many ways in which The New Testament is a great book. It has been read by many people (to say the least), it gives many people guidance in their lives and has done so for many years, and it also serves as historical evidence for the character named Jesus.

It is on this last point that I want to expand here. Having recently listened to two different courses from the always fabulous "Teaching Company", one exclusively about The New Testament, and one on "The foundations of western civilization P1", I have been fueled in my skepticism towards these books as any more than a fiction which one can interpret and then depending on who you are, help you do good things or bad things. (By the way, feel free to send comments and point out if I make any blatant mistakes – I have never read the book in their entirety)

Jesus was never famous during his lifetime it seems. Apart from the bible he is barely mentioned in any historical documents. So what we know about Jesus we know mainly from the gospels in The New Testament.

Mark, which is generally regarded as the earliest of these gospels was written, according to most historians, about 70AD, that is almost 40 years after the death of Christ (the exact year of this event is also very uncertain). 40 years in an age where very few people had access to any written sources and where perhaps even fewer could read. This means that the story of Jesus must have been passed on verbally for about 30 years or so.

Anyone who have ever played Chinese whispers (I just saw that this game also goes under the name of "Arab phone" or "Russian scandal" =)), knows that this is a problem. In Chinese whispers a message is passed along in a ring eventually coming back to the person who formulated the message. The final message is compared to the original message and there is invariably an astounding difference between the two.

The normal way to play this game is to have a group of children passing along a short message, say ten words or so, with little personal significance and hence little motive amongst the children to change the message in any way. In contrast, The New Testament is a rather long message, and the people who have passed it along have had every reason to alter the story to make Jesus sound better and greater than he actually was (does anyone seriously believe that he can turn water into wine?). What would 30 years of Chinese whispers with people who would have a strong interest in changing the story do to tales about Jesus? Well, let's just say that it would be no less of a miracle should the story be accurate and precise.


Anonymous said...

You mention the concern of a tradition being passed orally over so long a time. But wait, there's more! Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic. The gospels were first written in Greek. It wasn't just passed orally, it was passed orally for a long time and then translated into a different language.

To complicate things, significant portions of the gospels are focused on tying Jesus' life back to prophesies which were originally written in Hebrew but often poorly understood in Greek and Latin. For example, the actual translation of the Old Testament prophesy regarding the mother of the messiah is that she would be a maiden (best translated as *unmarried*, not a virgin)...yet, we clearly see a lot of effort in explaining how Mary was a virgin to provide a strong tye back to the Old Testament.

Even written forms are susceptible to change over time. Most modern bibles include the "Let him who is without sins cast the first stone" passages that are known to have been added in the middle ages, perhaps 1000 years after Jesus' death!

You mentioned the Teaching Company; they offer several courses like Lost Christianities and History of the Bible to cover topics useful to understanding how the Bible came about. Very well done and thorough courses, useful regardless of your religious beliefs.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but notice your naming of the game of 'telephone' (United States)--maybe it's a cultural thing the way you refer to the game of telephone, but pray tell, must it really be called chinese whispers/russian scandal/Arab phone? Really.
No need to reference the [lack/presence of] the integrity of any one in connection to a natural human phenomenon.

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the comment,
I see what you mean. It is a very human phenomenon, you are definitely right!

I think I used the terms I did because I heard those terms in a lecture a few days earlier. I don't put any value into it and next time I might use "telephone" as you suggested.

David Rasmussen said...

"Cheese rolls downhill."

That was the end result of a telephone game I had our employees play at work once as a training exercise in communication.

The actual conversation was a summarized and short explanation of the "sport" found here:

One must wonder how many ancient wars started for lack of understanding of certain missives. Something we perhaps refer to as "red wine emails" now?

(And, no, I was not looking for Anders Fogh Rasmussen ;o) I'll be back to read more. Interesting blog.)

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for your encouraging comments, David. It is indeed amazing how fast a message can be twisted and I cannot see why stories about Jesus should be any different...

Melinda said...

the Chinese whisper phenomena is to much for me , I can't understand why.

Melinda Robinson

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