The game Chinese Whispers (known as Telephone in the US) is a long-time favorite at parties. Someone whispers a phrase or sentence to another, who in turn repeats the words to another, and so on until reaching the last player, who then says the words out loud. The fun of the game is in the outcome — the last person usually repeats a wildly different message than what was uttered by the first player due to errors that were introduced and expanded nearly every time the message was passed on.
I’ve often talked with Mormons who relate the game of Telephone to different translations of the Bible. They assert that the Bible has been translated and retranslated and retranslated until it has become “a comedy of errors,” leaving us with a sadly corrupted text.
Early LDS Apostle Orson Pratt also believed the Bible has been debased. He wrote,
“Who knows that even one verse of the whole Bible has escaped pollution, so as to convey the same sense now that it did in the original?” (Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, No. 3, page 47).
I’ve found that people often confuse the issues of translation and transmission. Most of the English Bible translations we have today use the ancient manuscripts written in the original languages as their source. That is, the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek have been translated directly into English; they have not, as some Mormons assert, been translated into English from (for example) a Latin translation of the original languages.
Revisions to translations (e.g., the American Standard Version and the New American Standard Version) primarily result from two things: 1) the discovery of new ancient biblical manuscripts; and 2) changes in the English language over time. Yet even these revisions go back to the ancient manuscripts for accuracy. There is no game of Telephone here.
On the issue of transmission, it is true that the biblical manuscripts were copied and recopied as they were distributed across the then-known world, and during this process textual variants (errors) appeared. Nevertheless, because of the substantial number of ancient manuscripts and fragments that exist today, there is little question about the original biblical text. Respected Bible scholar F.F. Bruce explained,
“Fortunately, if the great number of MSS [manuscripts] increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small” (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, page 14).
Christian theologian Wayne Grudem expanded the same idea:
“It may first be stated that for over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said. Even for many of the verses where there are textual variants (that is, different words in different ancient copies of the same verse), the correct decision is often quite clear, and there are really very few places where the textual variant is both difficult to evaluate and significant in determining the meaning. In the small percentage of cases where there is significant uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context. (One does not have to be a Hebrew or Greek scholar to know where these variants are, because all modern English translations indicate them in marginal notes with words such as “some ancient manuscripts read… ” or “other ancient authorities add… ”)
“This is not to say that the study of textual variants is unimportant, but it is to say that the study of textual variants has not left us in confusion about what the original manuscripts said. It has rather brought us extremely close to the content of those original manuscripts. For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts. Thus, when we say that the original manuscripts were inerrant, we are also implying that over 99 percent of the words in our present manuscripts are also inerrant, for they are exact copies of the originals. Furthermore, we know where the uncertain readings are (for where there are no textual variants we have no reason to expect faulty copying of the original). Thus, our present manuscripts are for most purposes the same as the original manuscripts, and the doctrine of inerrancy therefore directly concerns our present manuscripts as well” (Systematic Theology, page 96).
Regarding the historical transmission of the Bible, just as in the translation of the Bible, there is nothing that warrants the assertion that it is like a game of Telephone, or a comedy of errors.
Bill McKeever once wrote,
“To argue that the existence of various versions of the Bible is reason enough to mistrust all of them is just a smokescreen. Mormons mistrust the Bible because it is the book that refutes their doctrines” (Answering Mormons Questions, page 44).
And that is the real issue.
Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.