Thursday, June 30, 2022

Exaggerations in the Gospel of Mark

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.

  1. An exaggerated history is unreliable.
  2. An evangelist that exaggerates is untrustworthy.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Charlie! Love it, as I bet you could anticipate coming from me. I'm a big fan of Mark's twists and turns, his puzzles and conundrums, his oddities and challenges. Here's one I don't think you mentioned: 16:8, the last verse of the gospel. "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." The NRSV translation here obscures the double negative in the Greek, which is OK to do in Greek, but usually avoided in English. So, "they said nuthin' to no one, cuz they were afraid!" So the story ends in fear and absolute silence, and thus the story of the empty tomb was never told to anyone, and is entirely unknown to this day! As I said once in print somewhere, Mark ends with the story of the story that was never told! Wink, wink, nudge, nudge....

Bob Fowler said...

The Anonymous comment above was from me, Bob Fowler. Don't know why my name didn't show up.

Anonymous said...

Another thought-provoking blog.
Questions similar to yours arise when we read other parts of the Bible where exaggerations serve rhetorical purposes, such as reports on the size of conquered armies and cities (historical facts) and prophetic predictions of weal and woe (historical expectations).
Upon reflection I think I would slightly revise the implications of exaggeration in Mark and elsewhere in the Bible:
1. An exaggerated history is unreliable—as an accurate record of what happened in the past. It can be very reliable for other communicative purposes if we allow for different forms of history writing.
2. An evangelist that exaggerates is untrustworthy—if we expect that the evangelist’s primary communicative obligation is the unadorned conveyance of facts.
3. Is God responsible for the exaggerations, or is God simply forced to work through a flawed writer in this case? Or: is God pleased to be represented by a writer so effective in reaching his audience in ways that prompt them to give serious thought to the divine message?

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

If it's apparent to us that certain statements are enthusiastic exaggerations, I'm pretty sure it's apparent to most who were and are exposed to them. I would say that anyone, including an evangelist, who exaggerates is human. We have to be careful to confuse apples with oranges. John baptizing Jesus is a far more complex question than the admittedly ridiculous statement that everyone in Jerusalem came for baptism.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...


It appears to me that Mark is propaganda more than “history.” It uses exaggeration, “puffery,” hyperbole. The use of “olos” and “pas” in exaggerations are used in Mark as a propagandic technique, affiliation, in which the audience associates a person, product, even religion with a large group of people or important people. One example of affiliation is found in 1 Cor.15, with “famous” names, then the “500” and “12” to build the author up as better than those listed because he is “God’s agent,” and has worked harder than all (pantōn). In 2nd Cor. perissoterōs is used hyperbolically... and exceedingly excessively! (It is used to similar effect in Gal. 1.14 and a cognate very similar in meaning, (perissoteros) is used in 1 Cor.15.10 to describe Paul’s “work.”) One also finds hyperbole throughout Acts of the Apostles, to show how popular (or unpopular) the movement was, with none of the followers being needy, and its liberal use of olos & oxlos throughout the book, etc. Mark also used oxlos quite often, which also had the propagandic effect of affiliation, whether positive or negative.

Hyperbole has another function. In Mark, along with the use of present tense, the amount of direct dialogue and words like “euthus,” hyperbole created an immediate image and emotion for the audience. It would have probably been performed (i.e., not read silently), intensifying this experience. “All the people” or “in the whole world” were akin in their ambiguity to leitwort the author used (like sea, mountain, the way, fear) in that each gave individual members of the audience a “ready” and clear image, because ambiguity creates (demands?) recall of a salient connection quickly in a way precision might or might not do. Humans stereotype in order to categorize efficiently. “The whole city” or “all of them are obvious exaggerations with an impact that catches the audience’s attention, giving them a “picture.”

My question was whether Mark’s story was primarily meant to relate historical facts or tell a persuasive story. To me, it seems more the latter. The use of hyperbole was a rhetorical device used to facilitate the engagement of the audience, regardless of the purpose. It was probably effective, because it survived and proved the basis for other gospels. Before it turned into the holy Word of God, it was a story, not a forensic investigation of history.

Dennis Dean Carpenter

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Bill,
I have a question on your third point. If one overlooks the historical character of the message (that is to say, its grounding in verifiable data), doesn't the divine message become unhistorical propaganda?