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

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

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.

  • 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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