Do little deceptions in the interest of furthering the kingdom of God matter?
To Exaggerate: “To magnify beyond the limits of the truth; to represent something as greater than it really is.”1 What difference does it make if the author of the Gospel of Mark occasionally overstates the truth? Mark’s exaggerations are most noticeable when Mark uses the Greek words olos (whole, entire, complete), or pas (all). Not all uses of these words are exaggerations, however, but when Mark uses them in connection with incidents or things he could not possibly have known even if he were present, then the statement becomes a clear exaggeration.
What I consider Mark’s classic instance of exaggeration is Mark 1:5, regarding the popularity of John the Baptizer:
And there came forth to him all (πας) the Judean countryside and all (πας) the inhabitants of Jerusalem and they were baptized by him in the Jordan river.
My response to this statement is: “Now just a minute Mark; are you saying that at that moment even those on their deathbeds or the mother giving birth, or those incapacitated by disease went down to the river to be baptized by John? Did your all include Roman soldiers and the entire priestly cadre of the Jerusalem temple, even the high priest himself?” Even though the Greek verb εξεπορευετο (“were going out” to him) indicates continuing action in past time (meaning that it is not a single event but events happening over time), it is not enough to render Mark’s statement credible.
Here is another example of Mark’s tendency to exaggerate:
Truly, I say to you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole (ολος) world, what she has been done will be told in memory of her (Mark 14:9).
This is not a description of something that has occurred but is an exaggerating prediction that the woman’s actions in the narrative (Mark 14:3-8) will be remembered throughout the entire world. That Mark’s prediction will, at some point in the future, come to pass is not something that Mark can know for certain. Mark believes that it will, and that makes it a faith supposition on Mark’s part.
Other passages that I would describe as exaggerations are the following: ολος (entire): 1:33; 15:16; 15:33. Πας (all): 1:37; 4:32; 5:20; 6:30; 7:3; 9:3; 11:18; 12:44. Other uses of πας and ολος for comparison to Mark’s exaggerating statements are πας (all): 2:13; 5:33; 6:56; 9:15; 11:32; ολος (whole, entire, complete): 1:28; 1:33; 1:39; 6:55; 8:36; 12:30.
If the reader is convinced that Mark has in some instances exaggerated, that suggests several things.
- An exaggerated history is unreliable.
- An evangelist that exaggerates is untrustworthy.
- On the theory that God has in some way inspired the evangelist (Mark) raises the following conundrum: is God responsible for the exaggerations, or is God simply forced to work through a flawed writer in this case?
- Exaggerations in Mark raise serious questions as to what we think is most reliable in Mark. For example, Did John, the baptizer, baptize Jesus? Even critical scholarship affirms the datum that Jesus was baptized by John.2
These observations prompt the question: Why would Mark exaggerate? Handbooks of literary form say that the “bold overstatement [hyperbole] or extravagant exaggeration of fact or possibility [exaggeration]” “may be used either for serious or ironic or comic effect.”3 Mark is very serious, using exaggerated statements to increase the appeal and effectiveness of his story with the reading public, at the cost of candidness.
Should deceptions in support of the kingdom be considered permissible? What do you think?
Missouri State University
1Oxford English Dictionary, definition #3.
2Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What did Jesus really do? (Harper, 1998), 54. Mark 1:9 is printed in a dramatic red. For an opposite view see C. W. Hedrick, “Is the Baptism of Jesus by John Historically Certain,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 44.3 (Fall 2017), 311-22.
3M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th ed.; Harcourt Brace, 1993), 85.