The Church as a historical fact

Back when I was in school, students were asked to perform an experiment.  A student at one corner of the classroom is given a message.  He whispers the message once to the student next to him.  That student in turn whispers the message to the student next to him, and so forth.  When the message has travelled the whole classroom, the last student is supposed to repeat to the class the message he heard.  It always turns out that the message has been so distorted in transmission as to be unrecognizeable.  The message students are supposed to get, I suppose, is that oral transmission of traditions is utterly unreliable.  In particular, the Gospels are utterly unreliable, because of the forty years that are supposed to have elapsed between the death of Christ and the Gospel of Mark.

The underlying idea seems to be that the Good News spread in the manner of an urban legend.  We know how unreliable those can be.  One person said to another “Joseph’s son is an excellent carpenter”, and after this had gone from mouth to mouth for a while, it got transformed into “Jesus Christ is the Son of God”.  (Lest you think I’m making fun of them, I remind you of one of the more popular claims:  that “thinking about Jesus made the Apostles feel all warm inside” got turned into “the Apostles saw and spoke to Jesus reanimated from the dead”.)  Now, the spread of an urban legend actually is a reasonable model for how the Gnostic gospels–with their notorious syncretism, ahistorical embellishment, and lack of communal oversight–spread throughout the Empire.  Ironically, these are the writings that our intellectual class would have us respect.

The four canonical Gospels, they tell us, only won out because they were backed by an unimaginative, closed-minded, dogmatic, ultra-conservative Church.  This is precisely right, and it boggles my mind that they don’t realize what a momentous piece of evidence that is.  The Catholic Church, precisely because of her features that intellectuals most hate, is an organization ideally designed for the purpose of passing down a message accurately and without change.  Nor is the Church’s conservatism a late development, as the records show and her enemies lament.

Let’s redo the classroom experiment, this time the Catholic way.  The first student takes the second student in another room, carefully gives him the message, and makes the second student recite it back.  Then the third student is brought in.  The second student relays the message to the third as he was given it while the first student listens.  If the second student makes a mistake, the first student denounces him as a heretic and has him expelled from school.  The first student leaves the room, the fourth enters, and the process cycles through the class.  At the half-way point, a student named “Paul” writes down a letter exhorting the students to get the message right, including part of the message itself in his letter.  This letter is available to the whole second half of the class.

Now, following this process for 30 students, how much contamination in the message do you think there would be?

4 Responses

  1. Well, the problem for the modern Roman church is that while the early Christians were certainly not Gnostics, they also would not have agreed with some modern popish doctrines.

  2. Thank you for commenting, Mr. Scott. It’s an interesting thought experiment: if a first-century Christian were transported into the 21st century, what would he think of the contemporary Catholic Church (RCC)? First, he’d have to get over the shock that Christ has not yet returned. I’m quite certain he would not find any transmission errors of the sort I was discussing in my post. Also, the historical continuity between the Church in his day and today’s RCC would be quite plain. The intervening two millenia have seen growth and evolution, but not revolution or replacement. He would be forced to accept the apostolic succession of RCC’s clergy and the validity of her sacraments. For example, I don’t think he would doubt that Benedict XVI is as much the bishop of Rome as, in the 1st century, Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch.

    It’s hard to know what our hypothetical 1st century Christian would make of more recent doctrinal pronouncements, such as the Assumption of Mary (I assume this is the sort of thing you have in mind). While all these modern teachings reflect ancient traditions, these traditions were not binding on the faithful until the pope made them so. In the first century, the Assumption of Mary would have seemed like an open question. So, too, would have seemed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the eternity of the Son (Arius had a lot of followers), and many other things we now confidently recognize as belonging to the apostolic deposit of faith. While early Christians did not positively affirm everything the RCC now teaches, they certainly didn’t authoritatively reject it either.

  3. The rote memorization of religious material has a long and storied history. When people believe it is the Word of God, they can be rather obsessive with preserving the exact words in perfect order. Even when they cannot even understanding the language! See the Vedas, as well as the Koran, for examples.

    The idea of “the telephone” marring religiously important material is quite silly, although quite widespread. Seems to be thought possible only by people who don’t take religion seriously themselves.

  4. Justin,

    The question is, who would you trust more to preserve a message reliably: someone who is obsessed with getting it exactly right, or someone who thinks he got the gist of it and then feels free to exercise his creativity? I’m afraid I don’t know what your “telephone” comment is referring to. The method of transmission has never been an issue–only our duty to preserve the message intact and unaltered. A Christian preacher always wishes to efface as far as possible his own personality–he wishes to preach Christ and not himself or his culture. “He must increase. I must diminish.” A Muslim preacher would feel similarly. Neither a Christian or a Muslim would ever feel that he understands God’s message so completely that the primary sources are no longer needed.

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