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:
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:
Matthew 1:23: reads:
Luke 1:26- reads:
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.
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Consultants on Religious Tolerance