Most of the time we intuitively recognize hyperbole—when a writer or speaker consciously overstates something for emotional effect. For example, if your kid says that everyone at school is laughing at him, or if your wife says that you never take out the garbage, it doesn’t do any good trying to prove that there are exceptions to the statement. To do so misses the point.
But reading the Bible—especially the words of Jesus—can make this a bit more tricky. When is Jesus speaking hyperbolically and when is he to be understood literalistically? [Note, I’m not using “literalistically” in a pejorative sense in this context.]
Compounding the difficulty is that determining that a statement is hyperbole is not an excuse to bypass the foundational, underlying truth being conveyed. We must still allow the words to make their intended emotional impact.
In his new book, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, Robert Plummer provides some good guidelines for identifying hyperbole (pp. 220-226). (He’s drawing here from Robert Stein’s work, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules.)
These are helpful in thinking through various verses, even if you don’t agree with every exegetical example.
- The statement is literally impossible [e.g., Matt. 19:24; Matt. 6:3; Matt. 7:3-5]
- The statement conflicts with what Jesus says elsewhere [compare Matt. 23:9 with Matt. 19:19; see also Matt. 6:6; Luke 14:26]
- The statement conflicts with the actions of Jesus elsewhere [compare Luke 14:26 and Mark 7:9-13; John 19:26-27]
- The statement conflicts with the broader teaching of Scripture (e.g., cf. Matt. 5:33-37 with 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8).
- The statement is not always literally fulfilled in practice (e.g., Mark 13:2; Mark 11:22-24).
- The statement’s literal fulfillment would not achieve the desired goals (cf. Matt. 5:29-30).
- The statement uses a particularly literary form prone to exaggeration (e.g., proverbs, poetry, and prophecy; see 2 Sam. 1:23).
- The statement uses all-inclusive or universal language (e.g., Col. 1:23; cf. Rom. 15:20)