The Bible is folklore, which doesn't mean it isn't true, says UC Berkeley folklorist

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Were there 10, 11 or 12 commandments in the Old Testament?

How many women came to the Holy Sepulcher after the death of Jesus?

Which of four Gospel versions of the words written on the cross is true?

These questions and many others have worried Biblical scholars for centuries as they have tried to understand and rectify the multiple versions of stories in the ancient text.

Now, a well-known folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the diversity in the Bible should be embraced as a central feature of the oral tradition from which it was generated.

"The Bible is folklore," said Alan Dundes, UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and folklore, in his recent book, "Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore."

"This doesn't mean the Bible isn't true, or that it isn't a sacred text," Dundes hastened to explain.

"It simply means that the Bible is oral literature that has been written down, and the nature of oral literature is that there must be two or more versions of any story."

He said the New Testament was written 70 years after the death of Jesus - more than enough time for several different versions of the same story to have arisen. To try to determine which is the "true" version is probably not productive, said Dundes.

Much past scholarship on the Bible has discussed folklore in the Old Testament, but relatively little has been done on the New Testament. Dundes said that ,to his knowledge, no one has ever said flatly that the entire text is folklore.

"People say this is a oral tradition, but then they proceed to search for one true variant," said Dundes. "In oral literature, there is no such thing.

"This is not meant to be disrespectful, but people should stop worrying about the discrepancies among the stories. They don't matter."

In his book, Dundes demonstrates that multiple versions exist for nearly every major episode in both the Old and New Testaments - the creation of woman, the flood, the Ten Commandments, the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, the names of the 12 disciples, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the words inscribed on the cross and the last words of Jesus, among others.

The story of the women who came to the sepulcher where Jesus was entombed, for example, has four variants in the Gospels, Dundes observed.

In John 20:1, Mary Magdalene came, with no mention of anyone else. In Matthew 28:1, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" came together. In Mark 16:1-2, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came. Finally, in Luke 21:1.9-10, the group included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and "other women who came with them."

In addition to variation in the number of women who came, there also are four different versions of what they observed, said Dundes. The variants are either one or two men or one or two angels, either sitting or standing.

Indeed, it would be surprising if there were not such variation, Dundes said, adding that "each of the four versions has its own integrity.

"To a folklorist, it is utter folly to attempt to reconcile such diversity."

Moreover, Dundes observed that variations in the oral tradition were preserved in the Bible precisely because of its sacred nature.

"No one was allowed to mess with the text," he said."You didn't have some editor red-lining passages and rewriting them."

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