You may have heard some scholars compare the oral traditions of the early church to the “the game of telephone” wherein you gather a circle of children, tell the first one something, then watch as it morphs until it is barely recognizable when it has gone all the way around. This analogy is used to show how unlikely it is that oral tradition could have been stable enough to provide us with any useful Jesus traditions that would have survived long enough to become literary traditions when the Gospels were composed.
In Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It Le Donne challenges this view. He writes of two aspects of oral culture: variation and stability. Variation would be the differences we find when a story is retold or a song covered by multiple groups while stability is that aspect that allows us to recognize it as the same basic song or story. Le Donne uses the example of how Bob Dylan’s “Along the Watchtower” has been covered by Jimi Hendrix, U2, and The David Matthews Band. Each rendition is different and the same. It is new and old.
Le Donne takes these principles of variation and stability and writes this response to those who use “the game of telephone” as an analogy:
It must be said that this is not a controlled exercise in orality. It is an exercise in variation without stability. The vast majority of human civilization operated with largely illiterate cultures. Are we to imagine that all these civilizations were the equivalent of giggling children? That the golden ages of Egypt, Rome, Britain, the Maya, etcetera had no confidence in the reliability of social communication?’ No. Oral cultures have been capable of tremendous competence. The human mind can remember vast amounts of information with great accuracy when it remains active and fluid. The oral culture in which Jesus was reared trained their brightest children to remember entire libraries of story, law, poetry, song, etcetera.
In Jesus’ culture, there were different kinds of memory with different functions. Important stories, important sayings were not remembered casually. When a rabbi imparted something important to his disciples, the memory was expected to maintain a high degree of stability.
(pp. 70-71). Kindle Edition.
Whatever degree of skepticism one may bring to the unity of Jesus traditions over time, let us set aside “the game of telephone” as an analogy when teaching the subject. It is misleading at best.