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Special Literary Forms in the Gospels

As a teacher Jesus would never have been accused of being boring. One reason he was such an engaging teacher was that he conveyed his message through a wide array of literary forms and techniques. We cannot discuss them all, but we want to give you some guidelines for understanding Jesus’ use of exaggeration, metaphor and simile, narrative, irony, rhetorical questions, parallelism, and parables.

Exaggeration

As a master teacher Jesus commonly used exaggeration (also called hyperbole) to connect in a powerful way with his listeners and drive home his point. Exaggeration occurs when a truth is overstated for the sake of effect to such an extent that a literal fulfillment is either impossible or completely ridiculous. Statements like “I studied forever for that test” or “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” are examples of exaggeration. The student didn’t really study forever and the person may be hungry, but not that hungry. In both cases, however, an urgent message comes through. Here are a few examples from the Gospels.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. . . . And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut if off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt. 5:29–30)

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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. (Mark 10:24b–25)

When you see exaggeration in the Gospels, do not force a literal interpretation or you will miss the real meaning of the passage. Imagine the awful implications of thinking that gouging out your right eye would actually cure the problem of lust. We should take Scripture seriously but not always literally. Figurative language can carry a meaning (and corresponding application) every bit as radical as anything literal.

When you encounter exaggeration, ask the simple question: “What’s the real point here?” In Matthew 5:29–30 Jesus is telling his followers to take drastic steps to avoid sexual sin. In Luke 14:26 Jesus is making the point that our love for him should be so strong that, by comparison, our natural affection for our family members, and even ourselves, will appear as hate. In Mark 10:24b–25 Jesus uses exaggeration to point out how difficult it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God—more difficult, we might say, than squeezing a school bus through a keyhole.

Metaphor and Simile

When Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), or to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, “You are like whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27), he is using metaphor and simile respectively. Both literary vehicles make comparisons. With metaphor the comparison is implicit; with simile it is made explicit with words such as “like” or “as.” The Gospels are full of metaphors and similes. “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,… how often I have longed o gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). The list goes on.

When interpreting metaphors and similes, locate the intended point of the comparison. Disciples are compared to salt to underscore their responsibility to permeate and stop the decay in society. Teachers of the law and Pharisees are compared to whitewashed tombs in the sense that their outward appearance covers up spiritual decay going on underneath. You get the idea. Find the comparison intended by the author and you have found the meaning of the metaphor or simile. It may help you to visualize the figure of speech since the visual image usually carries the emotional impact.

Be careful not to press the details of the comparison too far. Whether implicit in metaphor or explicit in simile, the comparison is usually made between things that are different (e.g., Jesus to bread, Jesus to a hen). They are compared to make a point. When pressed too far, the comparison breaks down and the point itself is lost, or worse yet, a thousand points blossom in its place—all unintended by the author.

Narrative Irony

Irony is grounded in the principle of contrast—contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. You might say that there is an unexpected twist to the story. Someone hearing the story of Mary and Martha for the first time might expect Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help her sister, but, as you know, that is not how things turn out. When the dust settles in Mark 4–5, the uncontrollable, demon-possessed man has been restored to his right mind, while the demon-possessed pigs (an appalling combination especially for Jews) return to the sea, the same sea that produced the original storm.

You will see irony at work in many of Jesus’ stories. Consider the following parable from Luke 12:16–21:

16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
20“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

The primary interpretive goal in the case of irony is to notice it in the first place. After you detect irony, take time to reflect on the unexpected turn of events. What contrasts are present? What if things had actually turned out as expected? What does the twist in the story reveal about our own expectations?

By the way, what is the supreme example of irony recorded in the New Testament?

Rhetorical Questions

Jesus is fond of rhetorical questions, questions designed to make a point rather than to retrieve an answer. Here are some examples:

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matt. 5:46)

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (Matt. 6:27)

Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? (Luke 12:51)

When Jesus asks a rhetorical question, you don’t get the feeling that he wants an answer. Rather, he is making a strong statement in a creative way. The best way to approach rhetorical questions is to turn them into statements. Look at how we might transform the above examples into statements:

You don’t get any reward for loving only those who love you. (Matt 5:46)

You can’t add a single hour to your life by worrying. (Matt. 6:27)

You are afraid and you still have no faith. (Mark 4:40)

I did not come to bring peace on the earth. (Luke 12:51)

By transforming rhetorical questions into statements you will clearly see what Jesus intended to communicate.

Parallelism

Poetic parallelism is an expression we use to describe a relationship between two or more lines of text. The use of parallelism reminds us to read the lines together as a unit of thought, never separating one line from the other. The lines belong together and should be read together. This is a major feature of Old Testament poetry, and we will discuss this feature in more detail later in the course. However, you will also encounter several types of parallelism in the Gospels.

Synonymous—the lines say basically the same thing in a similar way:

Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matt. 7:7)
For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed,
and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. (Mark 4:22)

Contrastive—the second line contrasts with the first line:

Whoever has will be given more;
whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (Mark 4:25)
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him,and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (Matt. 12:35)

Developmental—the second line repeats part of the first line, then advances the thought of the first line to a climax:

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me,
and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Matt. 10:40)
All those the Father gives me will come to me,
and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. (John 6:37)

Parables

One of Jesus’ favorite literary techniques was the parable. You’re probably familiar with the stories about the good Samaritan, the lost son, the wheat and the weeds—a few of Jesus’ most famous parables. A parable is a story with two levels of meaning, where certain details in the story represent something else (e.g., in the parable of the lost son, the father represents God). The difficulty is to know how many details in the story should stand for other things.

Throughout the centuries some Christians have taken great liberty with the parables by making almost every detail in each story stand for something. Perhaps the most famous example of such allegorization is the treatment of the parable of the good Samaritan by the early church leader Augustine.[2]

the man going down to Jericho = Adam
Jerusalem = the heavenly city from which Adam fell
Jericho = the moon (signifying Adam’s mortality)
robbers = the devil and his angels
stripping him = taking away his immortality
beating him = persuading him to sin
leaving him half-dead = as a man lives, but is dead spiritually, therefore he is half-dead
priest and Levite = priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament
the Samaritan = Christ himself
binding of the wounds = binding the restraint of sin
wine = exhortation to work with fervent spirit
beast = flesh of Christ’s incarnation
the inn = the church
two denarii = promise of this life and life to come
innkeeper = the apostle Paul

You can see why this approach would prove problematic. Few, if any, interpreters would agree on exact details, resulting in a wide variety of interpretations, with some clearly contradicting others. Also, by ignoring the context, interpreters could read into almost any parable a meaning that would have nothing to do with what Jesus intended for his original audience. In Augustine’s allegorization, he misses Jesus’ point to love your neighbor.

Since the late nineteenth century a majority of New Testament scholars have insisted that every parable makes essentially one point, which usually comes at the end. This has been a welcome corrective to the absurdity of unrestrained allegorization used by Augustine and others. But does the “one-point rule” restrict meaning more than Jesus would have intended? Take the parable of the lost son as an example. What is the one point? Does the one point that comes to your mind deal with the rebellious son, the resentful brother, or the forgiving father? Do you really want to pick just one and say that Jesus did not intend to make a point about the other two? The one-point approach appears to us to be inadequate. After all, not many stories of any kind make only one point.

Evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg offers a more balanced approach to interpreting the parables.[3] Jesus’ parables are not to be allegorized down to the last microscopic detail, but neither are they to be limited to only one point. Following Blomberg, we suggest two principles for interpreting Jesus’ parables.

(1) Look for one main point for each main character or group of characters. Most parables will make one, perhaps two, but usually not more than three main points. All the other details are there to enhance the story. Looking at the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–32), we can see how this interpretive guideline helps us identify three main points, one for each main character.

Rebellious son Sinners may confess their sins and turn to God in repentance.
Forgiving father God offers forgiveness for undeserving people.
Resentful brother Those who claim to be God’s people should not be resentful when God extends his grace to the undeserving.

Here is how the same principle might apply to the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37):

Man beaten by robbers Even enemies (here Samaritans) can show love.
Jewish religious leaders Even religious duty is no excuse for lovelessness.
Samaritan Even a “hated foreigner” can serve as a model of love.

(2) In addition, the main points you discover must be ones that Jesus’ original audience would have understood. If we come up with a point that Jesus’ audience would not grasp, we have probably missed his point. This guideline is intended to keep us from reading into Jesus’ parables what he never intended in the first place.

Whenever we read the Gospels, we must reflect on how to apply their message to our lives. When we truly grasp God’s Word, we will do more than read and interpret; we will allow the great truths taught by Jesus to penetrate our hearts and minds and make a real difference in how we live.


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