In comparison with how modern Westerners speak about things, the lack of precision in Matthew 12:40 is truly amazing.
1 Corinthians 1:14-15
Consider also 1 Corinthians 1:14-15. In this passage Paul tells the church in Corinth:
‘I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say that you were baptized in my name.’
Paul has clearly been concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were putting him on a pedestal and regarding him more highly than they should. And he is implying that he baptized so few of them to counter this. But the way he refers to why he acted as he did is astonishing in comparison with what modern Westerners are used to.
Paul speaks as if the Corinthians had said to themselves:
‘This guy Paul is amazing. You know what, when I was baptized, I think I was actually baptized in the name of Paul.’
But Paul cannot possibly have thought that Corinthian Christians who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, would really have thought this! Yet he speaks as if they had!
The difference between the concern that Paul really has and the words used to describe that concern is amazing in comparison with modern Western ways of speaking about things.
I have given these two examples to set the scene for what follows by showing to what extent the biblical authors could be imprecise about things in a way that we wouldn’t be. I am in no way criticising this imprecision. I am just noting that it is a way of speaking that is very different from what we are used to.
Let’s look now at some specific types of imprecision in the Bible.
First, there is the issue of hyperbole. This is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration for effect without any intention to deceive.
Modern Western culture uses hyperbole very frequently. For example, someone might pick up a bag and say, ‘That weighs a ton!’ In this case, ‘a ton’ is not meant to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearers understand this perfectly. The idea is that the bag is extremely heavy, and the exaggeration is used to stress this.
Although we commonly use hyperbole, first century Jews used it more often and in ways we wouldn’t. Here are some New Testament examples:
In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus promises:
‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields . . .’
In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing. We can note too that Jesus even emphasises this promise by beginning it with ‘Truly I tell you’, yet the promise can hardly be taken literally. Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake. But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated when compared with what we are used to.
Another example can be found in Mark 1:5. Here Mark tells us:
‘And all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to [John the Baptist]. And they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’
Actually, we know that there were many Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t do this. The point is that large numbers of people went to be baptized by John. But this is stated in very hyperbolic language.
Hyperbolic ‘every’ and ‘all’
In fact, there are many places in Scripture where ‘every’ or ‘all’ is used hyperbolically. In addition to the example I have just given, see, e.g., Luke 6:30; Acts 3:24; 17:21; Hebrews 4:15. There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase ‘all Israel’ doesn’t literally mean all Israel. See, e.g., 1 Samuel 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11.
Failing to recognise hyperbole
Failing to recognise hyperbole can sometimes lead to misinterpretation of a biblical passage.
One such text is Revelation 5:9, which refers to those who receive salvation as coming from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’.
It is a fact that there have been tribes that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having heard the gospel. And it is often claimed that because this verse says that the saved come from every tribe, some members of these tribes must therefore have been saved without faith in Christ. This also means, the argument goes on, that we can expect significant numbers of people today to be saved without faith in Him.
However, once we recognize that ‘every’ in Scripture is often used hyperbolically, it immediately becomes clear that this verse doesn’t prove this at all. It could easily just mean that those who are saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.
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