How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Part 9a)

This post is really a continuation of the last one and is a brief look at special literary forms in the gospels.

Special Literary Forms in the Gospels

A. Exaggeration

Exaggeration occurs when a truth is overstated for the sake of effect to the extent that a literal fulfillment is either impossible or completely ridiculous. For instance, “I studied forever for that test” or “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

These can be seen in the Gospels in passages like Matthew 5:29-30, Luke 14:26, and Mark 10:24-25. When we see exaggeration, we do not need to force a literal interpretation or we will miss the real meaning of the passage. We should take Scripture literally as it was meant to be interpreted. Figurative language can carry a meaning and corresponding application.

B. Metaphor and Simile

Both metaphor and simile deal with comparison. Simile uses words such as “like” or “as.” When we run across a comparison, we need to locate the intended point of the comparison.

C. Narrative Irony

Irony is grounded in the principle of contrast—contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. The primary goal is to first notice the irony. Then we need to take time to reflect on the turn of events.

D. Rhetorical Questions

Jesus is fond of rhetorical questions, questions designed to make a point rather than to have an answer. The best way to approach a rhetorical question is to turn it into a statement. For instance, Matthew 5:46 says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” We could say it like this, “You don’t get any reward for loving only those who love you.”

E. Parallelism

Synonymous—the lines say basically the same thing in a similar way (Matt. 7:7; Mark 4:22)
Contrastive—the second line contrasts with the first line (Mark 4:25; Matt. 12:35).
Developmental—the second line repeats part of the first line, then advances the thought of the first line (Matt. 10:40; John 6:37).

F. Parables

A parable is a story with two levels of meaning, where certain details in the story represent something else (i.e., God is represented by the father in the parable of the lost son). Look for one main point for each main character or group of characters. Remember, the main points that are discovered must be ones that Jesus’ original audience would have understood.

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