Friday, February 29, 2008

123 of the Day: Leap Day!

Since it is Leap Day, I hope that the powers that be will forgive me for blowing off my assigned books in favor of some pleasure reading. I don't have a very well-developed cosmology, but I like to think that you can fly under the radar a little on Leap Day.
So today, I am reading Alan Dundes' Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Here's your snippet (again, I'm fudging a little here because it's a short book - only 118 pages, so these are the final three sentences):
The multiple versions of nearly every major episode in both the Old and New Testaments — the creation of woman, the flood, the wife-sister subterfuge, the Ten Commandments, the name of the twelve tribes of Israel, the names of the twelve deciples, the Sermon on the Mount, the Shema, the Lord's Prayer, the words inscribed on the cross, and the last words of Jesus before giving up the ghost, among scores of examples — attest to the folkloricity of the Bible. There is no one fixed text, but only multiple texts that manifest extraordinary variation in number, name, and sequence. The Bible may well be "the greatest book in the world" and "the most important book in the world," but it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.

That's pretty much his argument, and I find it pretty convincing. At bottom, Dundes' conclusions are even more unsettling than Bart Ehrman's for anyone who believes that the Bible is inerrant. At least Ehrman posits a (theoretical) original text with an original author (i.e. someone wrote the Gospel of Mark). For Dundes, the men who wrote the Bible, from Genesis right on down through Revelation, were not engaging in an act of authorship; they were compiling and transcribing an oral tradition. He does not demean the Bible by calling it folklore - indeed, he has a profound respect for folklore's place in human culture.

Nevertheless, the absence of an original text poses a substantial problem, not only for those who believe the Bible to be inerrant, but for moderate believers who nonetheless ascribe to the idea of a single, universal truth. If the Bible is a collection of myths, legends, and other forms of folklore, where does that leave God in the text's creation? I suppose you could argue that God inspired early versions of the stories, or that oral tradition developed after many people witnessed the same miraculous events. Still, in this telling, the Bible is hardly "the word of the Lord."

While I was reading, I had a recurring fantasy involving me, this book, and a devout Christian in which I quiz said Christian on various Biblical texts. Sample questions:

Name the 12 apostles.
If he come up with the list given in Matthew 10:2-4, just refer him to Mark 3:14, 16-19, Luke 6:13-16, or Acts 1:13 for alternate lists.

How many women visited Jesus' tomb after his crucifixion?
1 (see John 20:1)? 2 (see Matthew 28:1)? 3 (Mark 16:1-2)? 4 or more (see Luke 24:1, 9-10)?

What are the Ten Commandments?
Admittedly, this one seems to be a stumper even without considering the multiple versions in the KJV (let alone different versions in various translations).

The point here is not to humiliate people by pointing out piddly little discrepancies. The point is that any single version of the Bible contains multiple versions of the same myths, legends, and parables because the Bible was not divinely inspired. It was composed, transmitted, and eventually written by people.

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