A Methodology for Detecting and Mitigating Hyperbole in Matthew 5:38–42 -- By: Charles Cruise

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 61:1 (Mar 2018)
Article: A Methodology for Detecting and Mitigating Hyperbole in Matthew 5:38–42
Author: Charles Cruise


A Methodology for Detecting and Mitigating Hyperbole in Matthew 5:38–42

Charles Cruise

* Charles Cruise received his Ph.D. in NT from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is an adjunct professor there. He can be reached at chuck.e.cruise@gmail.com.

Abstract: Matthean scholars have struggled to interpret a positive benefit for the radical commandment of Jesus against resistance and/or retaliation in the face of evil in Matt 5:38–42. The thesis of this article is that Jesus’s true intention can be discovered only when it is realized that he was speaking hyperbolically. Although others have claimed as much, no one has yet applied a comprehensive methodology for detecting and interpreting (mitigating) the hyperbole in this passage. The present study aims to do just that. Drawing from insights from the ancient rhetorical handbooks and modern linguistic studies of hyperbole, a reading of Matt 5:38–42 is proposed based on logical, linguistic, and rhetorical features of the text. In the end, it may be seen that turning the other cheek can be conceptualized in terms of a continuum within an economy of giving and taking. Rather than giving extra to an enemy (the hyperbolic response), the mitigated (though still radical) response is to forgive the enemy’s “theft” of honor, clothing, or freedom and not to repay in kind. Jesus’s teaching of forgiveness toward enemies may therefore operate as a hedge against the abuses of the OT principle of lex talionis.

Key words: Sermon on the Mount, hyperbole, rhetoric, non-retaliation, lex talionis

Matthew 5:38–42 is regarded as one of the hard sayings of Jesus.1 Interpreters must not only reckon with the teaching on non-resistance/non-retaliation in the face of evil, based on the infinitive (μὴ ἀντιστῆναι) used with negative imperatival force, they must also confront the positive imperatives that follow: στρέψονἄφεςὕπαγεδός.2 In other words, in 5:38–42 Jesus is not just exhorting the disciples to suffer injustice; he is instructing them to intentionally extend their victimhood: “Vss. 39b–41 do not merely speak of non-resistance. They do more than insist that one should not resist a slap on the cheek, the...

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