Bible is folklore at its best, Berkeley professor says

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From the story of the flood to the Sermon on the Mount, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are bursting with different versions of the same events, says U.C. Berkeley Professor Alan Dundes.

These variations illustrate the Bible's earlier history as folklore — an oral tradition passed along from people to people, he said.

"There were different people telling different versions," said Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore. The natural consequence was different accounts of the same event, he said.

Dundes detailed many instances of these multiple accounts in his recently published book, "Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore." Some involve the Bible's best-known stories.

Viewing the Bible as folklore, Dundes said, doesn't imply that its accounts are either true or false. Instead, it simply shows how multiple versions of the same story cropped up because the stories were transmitted orally.

"The word 'folklore' has the connotation of error," said Dundes. "That's not how I've used it. Some folklore is true, some of it isn't.

"My purpose was just to show the folkloric nature of one of the most important works, documents that we have," he added. "That's not meant to be disparaging. To me, it is the highest praise."

In the case of the story of the flood, Dundes found two "distinct versions" wrapped in a single narrative in Genesis.

Dundes noted that Noah is told in Gen. 6:19-20 to bring pairs of each animal aboard the ark and then in Gen. 7:2-3 to bring animals that are "clean," by sevens. The length of the flood is referred to as 150 days in Gen. 8:3 and 40 days in Gen. 8:6. And Noah sends out a raven in Gen. 8:7 and a dove in Gen. 8:8 to see if the floodwaters have receded.

The existence of what some scholars label "seeming inconsistencies" has been long known and debated, Dundes said. But few biblical authorities explained them simply by viewing the Bible as folklore.

Dundes, who is Jewish but considers himself secular, found examples of folklore in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. "I tried to treat them equally."

The wording of both the Sh'ma and the Lord's Prayer appear several times each — in slightly different variations.

Such differences provided Dundes with further ammunition for his argument since, he writes, "A traditional prayer, like a proverb, is normally a fixed-phrase genre. In other words, it is recited exactly the same way each time it is uttered."

Dundes' explanation is that these prayers were passed along orally rather than being first fixed in written form.

Before writing his book, Dundes had studied the flood myth as well as "little bits and pieces" of the Bible, but hadn't looked at the work as a whole.

While browsing through religious bookstores, he came across works that attempted to explain "the apparent contradictions" in the Bible. Some authors attribute the seeming inconsistencies to "scribal error," he said.

Dundes doesn't look at the variations as contradictions. "They were simply two different versions that were left intact."

In exploring references to the Ten Commandments, Dundes found several slightly different versions and even counts up 11 or 12 commandments, not 10. He also points to several biblical references showing discrepancies about the commandments' authorship. For instance, Exodus 24:4 states, "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord." But in Exodus 24:12, God gives Moses the commandments "which I have written."

"What may be something of a problem for historians or theologians is not a problem for folklorists," Dundes writes. "Here we have another fine example of multiple existence and variation, the hallmarks of authentic folklore."