The Telephone Game
September 14, 2023
In Bart Ehrman’s remarkable book, Jesus Interrupted, he describes how the stories that formed early Christianity were spread through the Roman empire and beyond. A merchant in a village in a village meets a traveling stranger who preaches about the life, death and miracles of a man named Jesus, and how belief in the new religion surrounding Jesus will lead to peace and salvation. The merchant decides to follow this religion, and converts his wife and children. His wife tells the neighbors, and they convert too, and then one of the neighbor travels to a nearby town and tells those people about it. At the same time, the followers of Paul and later evangelists are traveling to dozens of villages and telling the same story, which gets re-told again and again by the new converts. This is how Christianity spread.
You’ll probably see the similarity between this form of dissemination and “the telephone game” that we played as children. In this schoolyard game, a group of children form a line, and the child at the front of the line whispers a phrase to the child next to her. Then that child whispers it to the next, and the next child whispers it to the next, and so on down the line. At the end of the game, the last child to hear the phrase recites it to the group, and it is barely recognizable as the original story told by the first child in line.
In my classes and workshops, I use this exercise to demonstrate how mythologies, scriptural narratives and traditions were handed down and interpreted over the centuries. It’s an informative, lively and entertaining way to learn how to use discernment and intuition when interpreting religious writings. Here’s how it works:
- I remove three people from the room and read a Native American creation story to the group that
- I then bring the first person back into the room and have an audience member repeat the story to
- Then the second person returns, and the first person repeats the story to him, and so on.
- Finally, I read the original story again to help everybody recognize how much it had
In the 20 minutes it takes to complete the exercise, the key details of the story are lost. Names are changed or omitted, and personal biases are inserted. Important time frames, the placement of physical objects, the motivation behind the characters’ actions and the sequence of events are drastically changed. This happens in a group of 50 people with three storytellers in a span of only 20 minutes. Imagine what happens over hundreds or thousands of years after numerous translations, ideological shifts and personal spins are attached to the stories by thousands of storytellers.
Important to note… when I conduct this exercise, I intentionally choose the oldest person, the youngest person, and a non-native English speaker, because this is how the original religious stories were handed down, translated from language to language and transmitted orally from elders to children. These teachings were also carried across ever-changing political and linguistic borders, and were frequently altered according to the personal preferences of the storyteller. By the time writing and printing became possible, the original stories were altered beyond recognition.
Here’s an example of what happens in a typical telephone game exercise:
After asking three people to leave the room (the oldest, who represents the keeper of the village stories), the youngest (representing a child being told these stories as part of their religious education), and one who is not a native English speaker (representing a visitor to the village from another culture).
I read the following creation myth to the audience (they are instructed to listen carefully, but not to take notes, as most of the ancient people were not able to write, so the stories were transmitted orally):
How Raven Helped the Ancient People
From the Alaskan Haida people, Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada
Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the guardian of the sun and moon and stars, of fresh water and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so he kept these things hidden in his lodge. People lived in darkness, without water.
Gray Eagle had a daughter, and a young man named Raven fell in love with her. Raven went to Gray Eagle’s lodge to ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage.
When Raven saw the sun, moon, stars and fresh water inside Gray Eagle’s lodge, he knew that he should steal them and share them with the world. He took these things and flew out of the lodge through a smoke hole, into the sky. He hung the sun, moon and starts in the sky, and spilled the water upon the earth, and this is how the people came to have these things.
Then we call the first person (the oldest) back into the room. We ask a random audience member to tell her the story. It usually comes out something like this:
There was a man named Great Eagle who had a beautiful daughter. A raven flew into his house and wanted to marry her, but the man was selfish and wouldn’t give them the sun, moon and stars as a wedding present. So the Raven flew away and took those things from the sky and gave them to the earth, and that’s how we got the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s quite entertaining watching where it goes from there, and the audience is laughing through the whole thing. It’s a great ice-breaker for a seminar, but more importantly, it shows us how the popular bible stories we heard all our lives are nowhere near what actually happened, or how they were originally intended to be told, or if they happened at all.
 Ehrman, B. D. (2009). Jesus, interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (And why we don’t know about them). New York: HarperOne. P. 146-147