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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 names of the twelve tribes of Israel, the names of the twelve disciples, 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.
From Holy Writ as Oral Lit by folklorist Alan Dundes (1935-2005)

quick preface, to cheat my word count limit

I’ve been insanely lucky at times. One of my luckiest accidents was my choice of university, UC Berkeley, which could hardly have been a more perfect fit for me. In addition to a dozen other lifechanging things, I met the other half of my ridiculously lucky marriage there. Most of the best things in my life can be traced to that place in one way or another.

I also studied with a number of professors who left indelible stamps on my life and mind, especially in anthropology: Tim White, F. Clark Howell, Desmond Clark, James Deetz. But one stands alone as the luckiest path-crossing of my academic career: folklorist Alan Dundes.

I’d gladly spend my thousand words talking about this unique, funny, brilliant and beloved guy, but you’ll just have to follow the link. He changed forever the way I look at the human project. Among other things, he made me find wonder and fascination in things that had formerly irritated me about the human animal. Long story.

Anyway, when I tucked into the Book of Mark, it was Alan Dundes who immediately sprang to mind. Mark is a bag of memes, after all, and it was Professor Dundes who first made me love memes.

One of Dundes’ great joys was studying the mutation of folklore during oral transmission – the changes, tiny and great, that inevitably find their way into a story, joke, playground game, nursery rhyme, or legend as it is passed orally from one person or generation to the next. Nothing pleased him more than having four or five different versions of a story in hand, then recreating the original, and he always seemed to value the variants more than the original. The original was mere creation, after all. The variants had picked up the fingerprints of folklore and so were more complexly, richly human.

The Gospel of Mark


The Bible provides folklorists like Dundes with one of their greatest playthings for reasons made clear in the immensely readable and fascinating book Holy Writ as Oral Lit (1999). I mentioned in the first installment that Genesis begins with two different versions of the same creation story, but as Dundes noted in the quote above, it hardly ends there. The technique in play is another form of midrash, the Jewish syncretic teaching technique I mentioned in an earlier post.

By “folkloristic,” Dundes means the stories of the Bible show clear evidence of passage through many, many layers of oral tradition prior to being recorded at all. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Mark was written no earlier than the year 70, since the destruction of the Temple is referred to (Mt 24), and more likely around the year 85 (see Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle for a brilliant discursion on dating the gospels).

One of the most wonderful aspects of Dundes’ thesis is that he doesn’t remotely denigrate the gospels on these terms. Their inconsistencies are precisely what intrigues and delights him. Loving variety as he does, he is quite impatient with those who insist, despite continuous evidence to the contrary, that the Bible is inerrant and/or consistent. He contrasts what he calls the literalists’ “governing syllogism”

    God Cannot Err.
    The Bible is the Word of God.
    Therefore the Bible Cannot Err.

    (Geisler and Howe, When Critics Ask, 1992)

with his own syllogism:

    Folklore is characterized by multiple existence and variation.
    The Bible is permeated by multiple existence and variation.
    The Bible is folklore!

    (Dundes 111)

Only by remembering that folklore was the love of his life can we see this as the compliment it was meant to be. The Bible is warts-and-all human, not divine, he says. Isn’t that wonderful?

There are two main kinds of memetic repetition in the gospels: (1) Luke and Matthew (written a decade later than Mark) repeat the stories of Mark, and (2) each of the four gospels, including Mark, also repeats different variants of the same story within its own text – often on the same page. The feeding of the multitudes is one example of a single event told in two variants (6:35 and 8:1), followed by a rather awkward attempt to make them appear as two different events – by putting words in the Big Guy’s mouth, no less (8:18-20). Textual analysis this simple and clear doesn’t lie: it’s one story that has drifted into two versions.

5th c. tilework from the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Galilee, Israel

I could go on with this, but there’s much more to say about Mark.

There were dozens of existing first century gospels. Of the four eventual winners of the memetic lottery, Mark was written first, and Luke and Matthew were so closely based on Mark that the three are called synoptic (“same view”) gospels. So among other things, Mark gets credit for beginning to establish the New Testament’s relationship with the old.

So, with the coming of Jesus, have we decisively thrown that festering stew of the Old Testament Law nastiness onto the dung-heap of bad memes, as so many modern Christians claim? No such luck. Matthew (5:18) makes this clearest (“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”), but Mark already hints at the continuing enthusiasm for wretched immoral doctrine. Here’s Jesus himself (Mk 7:9-10) berating the Pharisees for not killing their disobedient children:

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’

Oh well done, thou Font of Goodness! Let us hasten to build all human morality on His example.

So why didn’t the early Christians take this golden opportunity to bid the OT farewell? Because the gospels were carefully crafted in fulfillment of OT prophecies, making it necessary to keep the OT around as evidence. But to specifically underline the more reprehensible messages, like child-killing? Perhaps my understanding of Christ’s message of love is insufficiently subtle to grasp His divine strategy.

frowning jc

So long as literalism is alive and dominant, this was, in a very real way, the Last Chance in history to renounce those ideas from the Old Testament that are most reprehensible — to say, “Here is a new covenant AND the old law is renounced.” Instead, God gave those ideas his explicit and enduring Seal of Approval. Once Jesus Christ weighed in both jot and tittle, there was no further way for subsequent Christianity to decisively disclaim any given notion in the Mosaic law. And there, I suggest, is the central problem with religions of the book: they lack a meaningful mechanism for self-correction.

More on this in later posts.

By far the most interesting aspect of the Gospel of Mark is what is missing. The miracles are mild and few, and the story lacks both the beginning and the end we all know. There’s no Zeus-like insemination of the mortal woman, no manger, no wise men or shepherds — none of the things that made Luke and Matthew bestsellers. In Mark, we start with a Jesus who is old enough for his tenth high school reunion. The dying girl he revives (Mark 5) has not yet been exaggerated into a dead girl (Matthew 9:18). Even the moral messages are blander and less compelling than Matthew and Luke.

And there’s another point, perhaps most fascinating of all: Mark 16:9-20 is not present in any of the earliest manuscripts. The original Mark ended with the empty tomb but included no appearances of the risen Christ, no snake-handling or poison-drinking, no appearance to the Apostles, no Great Commission, and no ascension into heaven.

We are left with two choices: If the oldest canonical gospel lacks both the beginning and end that appear in later gospels, either Mark found Jesus’ miraculous birth and explicit conquering of death too uninteresting to include (and the cursing of figs and pigs too interesting to exclude), or those elements — the most theologically important — were later folkloric additions.

Which of those (he asked rhetorically) is 1000 times more likely?

Read Matthew and Luke online
Believers on Matthew
Skeptics on Matthew
Believers on Luke
Skeptics on Luke

Followed by:

Dec 29 — John
Jan 8 — Exodus (special guest blogger)
Jan 15 — Leviticus
Jan 22 — Deuteronomy
Jan 29 — Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (special guest blogger)
Feb 5 — Acts
Feb 12 — Revelation

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.