Method 4 of 4: Interpreting
the Bible as folklore
Method 4. Interpreting the Bible as
Alan Dundes is a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of
California. He has written over 30 books based on his studies of the oral
traditions of many cultures. In
his book called: "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore,"
he reports that multiple versions of various important stories appear in the Bible. 5
The two creation stories in Genesis concerning the creation of the first woman: one
story has her created at the same time as the first man; the second
story has God creating her later.
The flood of Noah: Much of Genesis 7
consists of an interleaving of flood accounts by authors referred to as
"J" and "P." Alternative verses are by different
The Ten Commandments which appear in
three different versions in the Pentateuch,
||The names of
the twelve tribes of Israel,
||The names of Jesus' disciples,
Sermon on the Mount or Plain,
||The Lord's prayer,
||The various conflicting inscriptions on the sign on placed on the cross, as described by various
||The conflicting lists of women who visited Jesus' tomb on Sunday
believes that these stories were circulated for decades and even centuries as
an oral tradition. During that time, each version of the stories subtlety changed
as it was circulated before it was finally recorded
in written form.
From the discrepancies among the various version of the same
stories, he concluded not only that the Bible contains folklore, but that
the Bible is folklore.
Dundes writes: "...the Bible clearly manifests the basic distinctive criteria of
folklore: namely multiple existence and variation." 6
Overview of folklore:
Ancient stories were circulated for
decades or centuries via an oral tradition before being fixed in written
form. Some were legends and myths; others were accounts of real events.
Various groups within a religion or culture passed on different versions of
the story. By the time that multiple versions of the same story were written
down, many discrepancies had developed.
Three examples are described below.
Example 1: The parting of the waters:
In the Hebrew scriptures, four individuals called upon God to part the
||Moses, in Exodus
||Joshua, in Joshua 3:14-17;
||Elijah in 2 Kings 2:7-8; and
||Elisha in 2 Kings 2:13-14
Each time, God responded by physically separating the water with, at least in
the first three stories, dry land under foot.
Midrash interpretation: Whether these events happened or not was
not important. The stories showed how God continued to work through various
heroes and prophets, and how subsequent water separation events were linked to the
first event with Moses at the Red/Reed sea.
Example 2: The birth of John the Baptist:
John's conception was unusual because of his parents' advanced age and
The Hebrew Scriptures describe four unusual births similar to
John the Baptist in the Christian Scriptures: Ishmael, Isaac, Samson and Samuel. Usually, prior to the
birth, an angel appears to an individual; the latter is afraid; the message of an upcoming
birth is given; objections are raised; a sign is given; and the birth is considered
unusual because he mother was either old or infertile. Note that it is always
the woman who is infertile. The husband is always assumed to be fertile. That is
not really how it works in practice.
John's conception is thus tied to
repeating stories of unusual births during the history of the Jews, in the midrash
tradition. But his conception was doubly unusual because his mother was both old
infertile. This use of midrash points out that John was even more important than
any of the four Old Testament figures.
Example 3: The virgin conception of Jesus:
In the King James Version, Isaiah 7:17 reads:
"Therefore the Lord
himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a
son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
Matthew 1:23: reads:
"Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they
shall call his name Emmanuel..."
Luke 1:26- reads:
"... Gabriel was sent from God onto a city of Galilee named Nazareth. To a
virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David and the
virgin's name was Mary. ... And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and
bring forth as son and shall call his name Jesus."
By having Jesus conceived by a
virgin, the significance of his conception is raised above that of John to
the status of a true miracle. This use of midrash implies that Jesus was much more important
than either John or the various Old Testament figures.
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
Alan Dundes, "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore," Rowman & Littlefield, (1999).
Read reviews or order this book.
- Ibid, Page 2.
Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson