Why does the Old Testament feel like folklore?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: What can I do to help my doubts about the Old Testament? I have a hard time believing in some of the Old Testament. I feel guilty about it, and I pray to God to give me Faith and help me with those doubts. It’s just, the Old Testament feels more like folklore on some level.

Stories like the Tower of Babel (for one example) sound like what a folklorist would craft to explain why languages are the way they are. I keep thinking that it is folklore, but then I remember that I should believe that it’s God's word. I trust God, but these stories do not feel like historic facts. How can I believe in inerrancy and believe these stories?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries, and thank you for asking such an honest question. You are obviously a believer... one who wants to stick up for God and his word. But also, you are no fool. When you read the Old Testament critically, some of it sounds like folklore to you — and there’s a good reason for that: some of it is folklore... but I have to explain this immediately so my readers won’t have a heart attack.

The Bible has many literary genres. Every one of them equally supports inspiration. However, they are not equal to every revelatory task. For instance, who doesn’t love Ecclesiastes chapter three... the “to everything there is a season” section? But Ecclesiastes is not one of the “go-to” books when we are looking to develop doctrine. If I am exploring salvation, for example, Ecclesiastes would not be off the table. Indeed, no book would be off the table! It simply wouldn’t come to mind. The book of Romans would, though, because when we’re talking about salvation, Romans would have greater epistemological weight.

But let’s say you are writing a song. Ecclesiastes would (arguably) have a greater epistemological weight than Romans. Pete Seeger would agree with me, anyway. (Hear Turn! Turn! Turn! at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qURAnrk30ng).

As it turns out, the Bible has many genres, and they exist to give clarity to God’s written revelation. These genres include history, historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, Gospels, ancient biography, teachings and mytho-history. If you are going to interpret Scripture, you must always know which genre you are reading because each of them needs special handling. Many Christians read the first chapter of Genesis the same way they read one of Paul’s technical arguments. This is a basic hermeneutical error... and among people who should know better, it is folly.

With the beginning of the story of Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, we have historical narrative. There is little doubt that we are talking about real people doing real things in real-time. But this is not true with Genesis chapters 1 through 11... which includes the Tower of Babel. These belong to the genre of mytho-history. They are 100% inspired and true within the limits of the genre... and these limits are that the stories should not be pressed for historical precision. Why? Precision is not God’s point in these stories... and whatever is off point obfuscates what God is trying to teach.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about the first eleven chapters of Genesis. They are giving us history. It’s just that they are doing it in a certain way. Also, do not freak out about the word “myth” in mytho-history. We mean it in the sense that a folklorist would use it. By using the word myth we are not saying that the contents are not true — which is the popular meaning of the word. We are saying that the contents belong to that particular genre, and it should be interpreted with that genre in mind.

I am very impressed with your honesty! And I pray that this solution will help you. I was in the same place many years ago. I had 100% faith in God and faith that word was inspired. But I couldn’t unscramble it with the tools I had at that time. Now I affirm the inspiration of Scripture under the rules of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).

That being said, I must issue a disclaimer: this is my personal solution to your question; it is not one offered by ministries such as Got Questions Ministries where I serve as a writer. Ministries that maintain a young earth position have no use for the mytho-historical solution. But you can see how this addresses the “folklore” question while maintaining belief in God and belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. To me, it is the perfect solution!

Dr. William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries advocates for the mytho-historical solution. I will leave you some links to his teachings on this. One of these links will bring you to his Defenders series of teachings. I highly recommend that you start at the beginning of this series and listen to every lesson. You will get better training in Systematic Theology than you will from any seminary, and since the lessons have apologetic and philosophical emphases, they will make you a hardier believer... although, with your rock-solid faith in God, you are plenty hardy already!

God bless you!

Click here to watch a short video with William Lane Craig introducing the mytho-historical genre.

Click here for the full explanation of the mytho-historical genre at the Defenders class — William Lane Craig’s Sunday school.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210405 Why does the Old Testament sound like folklore?).

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