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Bible interpretation

Method 4 of 4: Interpreting
the Bible as folklore

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Method 4. Interpreting the Bible as folklore:

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

A few examples are:

bullet 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.
bullet 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 authors.
bullet The Ten Commandments which appear in three different versions in the Pentateuch,
bullet The names of the twelve tribes of Israel,
bullet The names of Jesus' disciples,
bullet Jesus' Sermon on the Mount or Plain,
bullet The Lord's prayer,
bullet The various conflicting inscriptions on the sign on placed on the cross, as described by various gospel writers.
bullet The conflicting lists of women who visited Jesus' tomb on Sunday morning.

Dundes 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 waters:

bullet Moses, in Exodus 15:5-28;
bullet Joshua, in Joshua 3:14-17;
bullet Elijah in 2 Kings 2:7-8; and
bullet 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 previous infertility.

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 and 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.

References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alan Dundes, "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore," Rowman & Littlefield, (1999). Read reviews or order this book.
  2. Ibid, Page 2.

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Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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