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Today in conversation with an atheist we ran into trouble over this passage in Matthew:

Mathew 18:9 (ESV)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

He seemed to be of the idea that the Scripture could be read either literally word for word from beginning to end or just as poetry or allegory, but that you couldn't pick and choose. I think a sound understanding of each passage demands some attention to how the literary elements it contains so that we are reading it the way it was meant to be understood.

What kinds of clues do experts in hermeneutics apply when approaching a verse to determine whether what was meant in a case like this was hyperbole or a verbatim instruction or something else?

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    "That's an excellent question!" said One-Eye Bill. – Richard Oct 4 '11 at 22:23
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    @Richard: Origen wishes it were asked 1900 years or so earlier too. – Jon Ericson Oct 19 '11 at 0:03
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    I have spent a life time researching this question since I would give my left arm to know. But apparently finding a hint on how to discern hyperbole is an impossible task. I do recognize that I may have missed something but I would just die if my error was revealed publicly. In the meantime I will just have to rely on the same instincts that I use to discern hyperbole in non-biblical texts. – Bob Jones May 28 '12 at 3:53
  • See now also @Soldarnal's question about "literal v. literalistic", which has an overlapping interest with this question (I think). – Dɑvïd Sep 11 '14 at 20:37
  • Jas 3.1's answer is very good here. Jesus' statement is not hyperbole. It is an example of (implied) a forteriori logic. IF your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Well, if you're willing to remove your eyeballs for God's kingdom, why wouldn't you be willing to give up something lesser? – Solocutor Apr 19 '16 at 17:11
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A literalistic reading of the aforementioned passage in Mathew teaches that under a certain circumstance, namely "your eye causes you to sin," one most poke out his or her own eye. A literary (non-literal) reading of the passage sees the usage of hyperbole and a vivid visual image to communicate the horrifying and traumatic nature of sin. The former reading is basically didactic, the latter reading sees a teaching that is implied and indirect.

“He seemed to be of the idea that the Scripture could be read either literally word for word from beginning to end or just as poetry or allegory”

The Bible clearly has didactic content, but it's unreasonable and certainly wrongheaded to reduce the Bible to a book about what a person should do and when. If the Bible was intended as such, it would have been written in legalese. The Bible contains narrative history, poetry, philosophy and law and is wrought with a pervasive tension between the literal meaning of its words and its literary effectiveness.

[In real life, many people are unable to appreciate nuance or tolerate complexity and are unable to see the power and effectiveness of tension, ambiguity and mystery in the human experience. No great literature is so simple that it can be packaged as either being literal or allegorical and that is what makes literature such a powerful and important medium of communication. The culture of bullet point summaries and bite sized content is antithetical to a deep appreciation of the Bible or any great art.]

Usually intuition is sufficient to determine if a text was intended more for its literal content or for its literary content. For example, it's overwhelmingly evident that Mathew 18:9 should not be taken literally since:

  • A literal rendering of the passage would be grossly inconsistent with much of scriptures
  • The passage fails to be meaningful or informative when taken in its literal sense - "if your eye causes you to sin" is far to vague and ambiguous and “tearing out one's eye” is far to intense to have any practical import
  • The added “and throw it away” contributes nothing to the literal obligation in the verse but is consistent with and complementary to its vivid and descriptive style
  • The context in Mathew isn't legalistic at all

Not all cases are so clear cut (see this question) and these issues are taken seriously and are well debated within religious circles. Nevertheless, a precise and rich understanding of the Bible, like any other important text, can only come through experience, study, and a learned sensitivity to the thematic and philosophical content therein.

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    I actually suggested that while hyperbole was the correct reading, the example in question COULD be taken literally as long as you go all the way with it. Then it because a non-issue again because it isn't the eye that actually causes you to sin it is your will. If you think your body parts are at fault that's a different problem. As for gouging out your will isn't that pretty much what we do with "dying to sin" and having our hearts of stone taken away? – Caleb Oct 8 '11 at 16:16
  • Yes! This actually has direct application by Paul concerning the body of Christ when he instructs them to cast one out who is causing others to sin. – Bob Jones Nov 14 '11 at 5:05
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Hermeneutics: Scripture has two "senses": a literal (historical) and a spiritual (the message God is trying to get across to us). (See here for further explanation of this.) The Bible is completely true in both senses.

Literal: Jesus literally said that "if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." This statement should be taken as an historical fact. (It is not just some life lesson that Matthew made up to teach us something.)

Now, what was God trying to get across to us by Jesus saying this? That's where we jump from "literal" to "spiritual".

Spiritual: If anything in your life causes you to sin, be ruthless about tearing it out of your life and casting it away from you. This is serious business. It is much better to lose things you value in this life than to go to Hell for eternity!

But does this apply to ripping your eyes out? Yes! It applies to everything! If your eye causes you to sin, rip it out!

Application: With that said, your actual, physical eye does not cause you to sin. It's just blood vessels and goo. What causes you to sin is your lust, etc. And it is that lust that needs to be ruthlessly ripped out of your life.

This is easy to see if you consider what would happen if you actually ripped your eyes out. Do you think you would suddenly stop lusting? Man... if it were that simple, I'd happily go blind!

Conclusion: The Bible is literally true, but the purpose behind it all is to convey spiritual truth. The truth in this case is that we must rid our lives of those things which cause us to stumble - even if it's something as precious to us as our own eyes. Unfortunately, it is not that simple; your eye is not the cause of your stumbling.

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  • In my opinion, this is a much better answer. It doesn't try to hand wave away the intent of the passage. When you accept the literal meaning behind the passage, you have an a forteriori argument for getting rid of anything in your life that causes you to sin. "If I'm willing to give up my eyes, then surely I would give up [insert actual sin promoter here]." The message is very simple: Remove things from your life that cause you to sin. God's kingdom is worth any sacrifice. – Solocutor Apr 19 '16 at 17:05
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Q: What are the good contextual clues that passage is meant to be read as a hyperbole?*

Jesus’ ministry on earth began by proclaiming, Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand, and believe in the gospel (Mt. 3:2; Mk. 1:15). He proclaimed the Kingdom message in four distinct forms including healing, exorcism, miracles, and teachings.

Jesus’ teachings were about what is the kingdom of God is like, how one can enter the Kingdom, and how should disciples/believers live as a Kingdom citizen, etc.

As the first audiences noticed, unlike their teachers, Jesus' teaching was with power and authority (Mt. 7:29). He spoke in simple words and uses several kinds of figures of speech including hyperbole, parables, metaphors, etc., to illustrate His meanings. The hyperboles, He utilized words of obvious impossibility as in the examples below-Jesus' hyperboles.

One of His statements in particular, in Matthew 18: 8-9 (5:27-30; Mk.9:43-47) Jesus used extreme expressions that many have rather opted for hyperbole than a literal interpretation.

However, such an arbitrary opt-out is not only problematic but also raises serious theological questions, such as,

  • “Jesus did not always mean what he said?”
  • Who has the authority to make the call?
  • Are there any clues in the Scripture? and more...

1. Why "they" want it to be “Hyperbole?”

The Word of Jesus in question, Mathew 18:8-9 (and 5:27-30) and the parallel passage Mk 9:43-47), for example, has been the subject of hyperbole controversy by both Believers and Sceptics. They say, "He can't mean that?

Two major theological arguments for the hyperbole to give: :

First, if Jesus meant what He said, students of Theology will have to deal with clashing with their theology of God - a holy, good, and loving God. And, for them, hyperbolizing is a simple way out.

Second, They presume to hyperbolize a problematic Word of Jesus may help "them" not have to face the brunt of the implications, and make it more palatable.

However, first, Jesus does NOT need our help to keep His reputation for the Word He utters and His acts. For there are numerous so-called "controverial acts of God" in the Scripture defies human rationality -I.e. the curse imposed for eating of one forbidden fruit, destruction of the world by the Deluge, and God orders Isreal soldiers to kill and slaughter of the enemies including children, etc., and the bad things happening in the world.

God is “I am who I am” and Holy and Sovereign, and God rather wants His people to fear Him and listen to His Words and obey Him whole heartily, not with lips.

Also, our loving God sent Jesus to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8), NOT to mutilate His children. (see comments below).

Therefore, for all reasons, even if it hurts, unpalatable, and untenable, the integrity of Jesus’ Word must remain intact, for Jesus is the Word, and we are a mere man that must hear when He speaks upholding the Word of Jesus as spoken.

Because unwarranted hyperbolizing the Words of Jesus is akin to "breaking the Scripture."

2. People speak Hyperbole, and so doesJesus

Hyperbole is one of the familiar figures of speech people use in their life. It is a rhetorical and literary technique in which speakers intentionally exaggerate to an extreme and inject emphasis into their statements, or “when more is said than literally meant”(Bullinger). The ultimate implication of the Hyperbole is, not meant to be taken literally, the consequence that is.

a. Typical hyperboles people use:

  • There is enough food in the cupboard to feed an entire army.

  • He is a liar! Whole world knows it!

  • I’ve told you to clean your room a million times!

  • If I can’t get a smartphone, I will die.

  • If I don’t clean up this mess by this evening, my mom says, she would kill me!

The first four examples are plain and innocent hyperbole. The last one is a little different from the four, because “my Mom says she would kill me.” Of course, He/she does not mean Mom will literally kill him/her, and we all know that. So, it is still a plain hyperbole, an exaggeration, an empty threat, and there will be NO real harm!

b. Jesus spoke hyperboles

  • “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Mt. 23:24)
  • “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”(Lk. 18:25)
  • Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!”(Mt. 22)
  • ".. do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"; ".. is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Mt.6:3; Mk. 10:25)

These examples are plain hyperbole, for Jesus utilizes words of obivious impossibility, and with NO eternal consecuences attached.

3. Mathew 18:8-9 -The Word of Jesus in question is not hyperbole.

Because, Jesus, God the Son, is the eternal Word and truth. He speaks the truth!. The content in the verses are too serious to be hyperbole, and the internal clues against the hyperbole are:

a). The stipulations.

  • The text in question and other parallel texts (Matt. 5:27-30), lacks the marks and the characteristics of Hyperbole as seen in examples above.
  • But explicit stipulations in the context- the offense (the acts not to do) and the consequence -i.e. “your whole- body goes into hell” - rather signifies it as an divine code of conduct for His people.

Note: The structure of Jesus Word in the question is identical to God's command to Adam:

Genesis 2:17: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eatd of it you shall surely die.”.

b). The "I" emphatic Jesus begins in 5:28, the parallel verses to the text (also in V 28, 32, 34, 39, 44), with “I say to you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν), where the “I” is emphatic and authoritative as spoken by God.

Matthew 18:8-9 (ESV)

8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

“Matthew 5:27

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) that everyone who looks (βλέπων) at a (πρὸς τὸ) woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes ** you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your entire body is thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand** causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body goes into hell.”

c). The mood of verbs is imperative.

v.9, ἐξαιρέω (pluck out) & βάλε (cast) which signifies it is a command, **not just a didache

d). The case in point of Jesus addressing is the “ongoing, continuous, habitual offenses” that need to take drastic measures to avert the dire consequences, “be thrown into hell" -i.e. a surgeon sees the need for the drastic measure of amputation of a limb,

Here,

  • looks” (= looking βλέπων), denotes the act of continued looking to lust after (=with a view to), and
  • at a (πρὸς τὸ)” denotes to “with a view to”;
  • causes” (σκανδαλίζει) is indicative, present, active;
  • hand” (χεὶρ), refers to harming others with hands, as in Isa. 58:4; 59:3; Gen. 4:11.

e). It is a “prescriptive” statement with explicit stipulation.

Jesus is the Savior and Deliverer who came in flesh to save us from the eternal damnation and suffering. He does not want any of His sheept be lost. His prescriptive words such as the text in question are NOT exaggeration, just as a good doctor would not write a hyperbole prescription ( as defined in 2 -a) for the patients under his care.

**f). There are more words of Jesus to have the same elements,

  • If say Raca! to your brother, or say you fool, or angry with his brother are in danger of the judgement (Matt. 5:22);

  • “anyone causes one of little better hung millstone” (Mk 9:43-47),

  • Hate your father , mother, and carry your cross (Mt. 10:37-39; Lk. 14:26

  • For every idle word men speak.. by your words you will be dondemned (Mt. 12:34-37)

  • Forgive 7 x 70 times (Mt. 18:21-35)

  • Rich is as hard to enter heaven as the camel (a rope) to go through eye of needle. But it is possible with God (Mt. 19:23-26), etc.

If the text in question is Hyperbole, then so should these.


g). We need not mutilate our body because there is forgiveness available. For, Jesus was tortured, maimed, and hung on the cross for all our sins.


Scripture says, only repent and confess your sins:

1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Matthew 18:22: Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but (forgive) seventy times seven.

Matthew 6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And, Jesus is interceding for us (Heb. 7:25)

Summary:

  • The first hyperbolizing the Word of God (a command) occurred in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:4). When the serpent said to the woman,

“You will not surely die.” In effect, the serpent was saying, God spoke hyperbole, exaggeration, and God didn't mean it.

That one hyperbole changed the destiny of human race, and cost God dearly, His only-begotten Son! The same hyperbole spirit is lurking around us!

  • Hyperbolizing the text is not the right biblical hermeneutic approach, rather it would make up a “breaking the Word of God” (John 10:35).
  • Jesus is the truth, and He speaks the truth, and He speaks what He means, He means what He says.

We must pay heed to His words, especially the prescriptive ones such as these, without explaining away, weakening by hyperbolizing.

  • Each believer is ultimately responsible and accountable for how they receive and apply the Words.

    They will not be there for you on that day, but you alone!

Jesus Himself said:

“not an iota, not a dot will pass” (Matt. 5:18); “my word will not pass away” (24:35), and Peter said the Word of the Lord remains forever (1 Peter 1:25) Truth can be hurtful some times, but NOT Jesus. He maimed Himself on the cross so we may NOT need to maim ourselves.

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