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Book: Social and Cognitive Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount

Chapter: 6. Emotional Repression and Physical Mutilation? The Cognitive and Behavioural Impact of Exaggeration in the Sermon on the Mount

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.32049


In his second contribution to the volume, Thomas Kazen discusses the effect of hyperboles on the listener. A long history of reading the Sermon as authoritative commands within a theological framework has made it difficult for most readers to appreciate the humorous surprise present in its exaggeration. In this situation, linguistic research on the cognitive and communicative function of hyperbole illuminates this hidden feature. When we hear a hyperbole, we negotiate the literal meaning of the hyperbole with a realistic version of the event and end up with a blend of the two, that—if successful—allows us to see matters in a new way. The vivid quality of hyperbole is also a source of humour and evokes emotions, which trigger engagement and guide moral evaluation of the topic at hand. According to relevance theory, those who hear hyperbole will intuitively understand that it is not meant literally, given that the contexts (the literary context of the saying as well as the context of the hearer) make such an interpretation more relevant than other interpretations. Through contemporary linguistic insights, Kazen helps us appreciate the quality of Jesus’s hyperbole anew. Matthew’s redactional activity sometimes softens the hyperbolic character of these sayings to make them more viable as moral exhortation (e.g. in the beatitudes, 5:1-12). In other cases, the hyperboles are stark (e.g. the so-called anti-theses, 5:21-48). The shocking disproportions were probably not taken literally by the Matthean audience, but nevertheless provoked a sense of moral urgency as their minds negotiated the absurd literal interpretation with their sense of proportion. Perhaps this provocative quality is one of the major reasons behind the continuing rhetorical power of the Sermon.

Chapter Contributors

  • Thomas Kazen ( - tkazen) 'Stockholm School of Theology'