This is an installment of my series of replies to an article by Dr. David Madison: a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. It’s called, “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” (Debunking Christianity, 7-21-19). His words will be in blue below. Dr. Madison makes several “generic” digs at Jesus and Christianity, in the written portion (it details a series of 12 podcasts):
A challenge for Christians: If you’re so sure Jesus existed, then you have some explaining to do. A major frustration is that, while believers are indignant at all the talk about Jesus not existing, they don’t know the issues that fuel the skepticism—and are unwilling to inform themselves.
Yes, I’m up to the “challenge.” No problem at all. I’m not threatened or “scared” by this in the slightest. It’s what I do, as an apologist. The question is whether Dr. Madison is up to interacting with counter-critiques? Or will he act like the voluminous anti-theist atheist polemicist Bob Seidensticker?: who directly challenged me in one of his own comboxes to respond to his innumerable attack-pieces against Christianity and the Bible, and then courageously proceeded to utterly ignore my 35 specific critiques of his claims as of this writing. We shall soon see which course Dr. Madison will decide to take. Anyway, he also states in his post and combox:
[S]o many of the words of Jesus are genuinely shocking. These words aren’t proclaimed much from the pulpit, . . . Hence the folks in the pews have absorbed and adored an idealized Jesus. Christian apologists make their livings refiguring so many of the things Jesus supposedly said.
The gospels are riddled with contradictions and bad theology, and Jesus is so frequently depicted as a cult fanatic—because cult fanatics wrote the gospels. We see Jesus only through their theological filters. I just want to grab hold of Christian heads (standing behind them, with a hand on each ear) and force them to look straight ahead, unflinchingly, at the gospels, and then ask “Tell me what you see!” uncoached by apologist specialists, i.e., priests and pastors, who’ve had a lot of practice making bad texts look good. . . . I DO say, “Deal with the really bad stuff in the gospels.” Are you SURE you’ve not make a big mistake endorsing this particular Lord and Savior? That’s the whole point of this series of Flash Podcasts, because a helluva lot of Christians would agree, right away, that these quotes are bad news—if no one told then that they’ve been attributed to Jesus.
Of course, Dr. Madison — good anti-theist atheist that he is — takes the view that we are not at all sure whether Jesus in fact said anything recorded in the Gospels in the first place. I don’t play that game, because there is no end to it. It’s like trying to pin jello to the wall. The atheist always has their convenient out (when refuted in argument about some biblical text) that Jesus never said it anyway [wink wink and sly patronizing grin], and/or that the biblical text in question was simply added later by dishonest ultra-biased Christian partisans and propagandists. It’s a silly and ultimately intellectually dishonest game, and so I always refuse to play it with atheists or anyone else, because there is no way to “win” with such an absurdly stacked, purely subjective deck.
In my defense of biblical texts, I start with the assumption that the manuscripts we have are quite sufficient for us to know what is in the Bible (believe it or not). Going on from there, I simply defend particular [supposedly “difficult”] texts, and note with appropriate argumentation, that “here, the Bible teaches so-and-so,” etc. I deal with the texts as they exist. I don’t get into the endlessly arbitrary, subjective games that atheists and theologically liberal biblical skeptics play with the texts, in their self-serving textual criticism.
Dr. Madison himself (fortunately) grants my outlook in terms of practical “x vs. y” debate purposes: “For the sake of argument, I’m willing to say, okay, Jesus was real and, yes, we have gospels that tell the story.” And in the combox: “So, we can go along with their insistence that he did exist. We’ll play on their field, i.e., the gospels.”
Good! So we shall examine his cherry-picked texts and see whether his interpretations of them can stand up to scrutiny. He is issuing challenges, and I as an apologist will be dishing a bunch of my own right back to him. Two can play this game. I will be dealing honestly with his challenges. Will he return the favor, and engage in serious and substantive dialogue? Again, we’ll soon know what his reaction will be. A true dialogue is of a confident, inquisitive, “nothing to fear and everything to gain” back-and-forth and interactive nature, not merely “ships passing in the night” or what I call “mutual monologue.”
Luke 14:26 (RSV) If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Dr. Madison, in his podcast, calls the text in question a “full body blow” and “embarrassing.” He adds (for no extra charge): “cult leaders . . . have not wanted people who would be swayed by family . . . that was part of his [Luke’s] agenda . . . for him it was standard operating procedure.”
Is that so? How very odd, then, that the same writer, eyes allegedly ablaze with propagandizing purposes and a cultish hatred of normal familial relations, records Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law:
Luke 4:38-39 And he arose and left the synagogue, and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they besought him for her.  And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her; and immediately she rose and served them.
What sense does that make? None . . . If we interpret everything with a stultified, wooden literalism (utterly ignoring the richness of literary forms and genres that every language has: including Hebrew and Greek), then we have the absurdity of Jesus supposedly advocating literal hatred of family members, yet turning around and healing one of same. And Luke the wild-eyed “true believer” — inexplicably, if we accept Dr. Madison’s take — records this! So do Matthew (8:14-15) and Mark (1:29-31).
“Hate” . . . means exactly what it seems to mean . . . This verse has to be at the top of the list of things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. . . .
One would have to know Greek or Aramaic . . . if not, so Dr. Madison opines, it is a “knee jerk reaction” to not interpret literally.
I’m delighted that he actually brought up the question of language and [implied] literary genres. It’s the only indication we have in his podcast, that he is aware of such factors that are crucial in interpretation. But one would fully expect this in one who has a PhD in Biblical Studies. This is what makes it all the more odd and strange that Dr. Madison can’t figure out what is going on in this passage. It’s really not all that complicated.
Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger catalogued “over 200 distinct figures [in the Bible], several of them with from 30 to 40 varieties.” That is a statement from the Introduction to his 1104-page tome, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: 1898). I have this work in my own library (hardcover). It’s also available for free, online. Bullinger continues, in the Introduction:
All language is governed by law; but, in order to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression, these laws are designedly departed from, and words and sentences are thrown into, and used in, new forms, or figures.
The ancient Greeks reduced these new and peculiar forms to science, and gave names to more than two hundred of them.
The Romans carried forward this science . . .
These manifold forms which words and sentences assume were called by the Greeks Schema and by the Romans, Figura. Both words have the same meaning, viz., a shape or figure. . . .
Applied to words, a figure denotes some form which a word or sentence takes, different from its ordinary and natural form. This is always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling, and greater emphasis.
Bullinger devotes six pages (423-428) to “Hyperbole; or, Exaggeration”: which he defines as follows:
The figure is so called because the expression adds to the sense so much that it exaggerates it, and enlarges or diminishes it more than is really meant in fact. Or, when more is said than is meant to be literally understood, in order to heighten the sense.
It is the superlative degree applied to verbs and sentences and expressions or descriptions, rather than to mere adjectives. . . .
It was called by the Latins superlatio, a carrying beyond, an exaggerating.
I shall cite some of his more notable and obvious examples (omitting ellipses: “. . .” ):
Gen. ii. 24. — “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” This does not mean that he is to forsake and no longer to love or care for his parents. So Matt. xix. 5.
Ex. viii. 17. — “All the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt”: i.e., wherever in all the land there was dust, it became lice.
I Sam. xxv. 37. — Nabal’s “heart died within him, and he became as a stone”: i.e., he was terribly frightened and collapsed or fainted away.I Kings i. 40. — “So that the earth rent with the sound of them.” A hyperbolical description of their jumping and leaping for joy.Job xxix. 6. — “The rock poured me out rivers of oil”: i.e., I had abundance of all good things. So chap. xx. 17 and Micah vi. 7.
Isa. xiv. 13, — “I will ascend into heaven”: to express the pride of Lucifer.
Lam. ii. 11.— “My liver is poured upon the earth, etc”: to express the depth of the Prophet’s grief and sorrow at the desolations of Zion.
Luke xiv. 26. — “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother”: i.e., does not esteem them less than me. So the verb to hate is used (Gen. xxix. 31. Rom. ix. 13). [my bolding]
John iii. 26. — “All men come to him.” Thus his disciples said to John, to show their sense of the many people who followed the Lord.
John xii. 19. — “Behold, the world is gone after him.” The enemies of the Lord thus expressed their indignation at the vast multitudes which followed Him.
Gary Amirault highlights more biblical examples in a similar article:
[T]is verse is a hyperbole, an exaggeration for effect:
“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24, NIV)
It is not too difficult to determine that this is a hyperbole, an exaggeration. Because the English language is full of Bible terms and phraseology, this Hebrew idiom has become part of the English language. Therefore most English speaking people know the real meaning of that phrase: “You pay close attention to little things but neglect the important things.” [Dave: or, “you can’t see the forest for the trees”]
However, here is a hyperbole that the average Bible reader may miss and formulate doctrine from which may end up being harmful to themselves and others.
“Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:23b, NIV)
The Bible is full of exaggerations like the one above which are not to be taken literally. Careful attention, comparing scripture with scripture, knowing the Bible and its author thoroughly, making certain not to necessary apply things to ourselves which weren’t meant for us individually and some basics about the original languages are needed to prevent us from misinterpreting various scripture verses like this one. . . .
“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…” Matt. 5:29 (I met a Christian who actually tried to pluck out his right eye because he had a lust problem. This is an example the kind of problem a Bible translation can cause if one is not informed of the various figures of speech found in the Bible.)
The literary device of antithesis, or contrast also seems more specifically applicable to the verse we are considering. Bullinger writes about this in his pages 715-718:
A setting of one Phrase in Contrast with another.
. . . It is a figure by which two thoughts, ideas, or phrases, are set over one against the other, in order to make the contrast more striking, and thus to emphasize it. [footnote: “When this consists of words rather than of sentences, it is called Epanodos, and Antimetabole (q.v.).”]
The two parts so placed are hence called in Greek antitheta, and in Latin opposita and contraposita. . . .
It is called also contentio: i.e., comparison, or contrast. When this contrast is made by affirmatives and negatives, it is called Enantiosis, see below. The Book of Proverbs so abounds in such Antitheses that we have not given any examples from it.
Hence (understanding all this, which Dr. Madison obviously does not), when Jesus says “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” He is expressing Hebrew hyperbole and/or antithesis to express with extreme exaggeration what He literally means: “does not esteem them less than me.” Thus, the thought of “loving Jesus more than one’s own family” is expressed by the non-literal “hate [one’s family, in order to] be my disciple.”
In fact, Jesus did express what we contend He was stating non-literally in Luke 14:26, in a literal fashion elsewhere (and here we see the important hermeneutical principle of “interpret less clear or obvious passages by more clear related passages”):
Matthew 10:37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
We see precisely the same parallelism (“hate” = “love relatively more than”) in the poetic literary expression of Genesis:
Genesis 29:30-33 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.  And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”  She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she called his name Simeon.
The apostle Paul expresses largely the same sort of thing in the same way:
Philippians 3:7-8 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ
Paul also seemed blissfully unaware of Luke and other early Christian “cultist” supposed fanatical anti-family views, since he casually alluded to apostles like himself and Peter (“Cephas”) having “the right to be accompanied by a wife” (1 Cor 9:5).
I submit that Jesus commented on his own statement in another related sense in this passage:
Matthew 12:47-50 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.  But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
He’s not rejecting His family. He is enlarging the concept of family to include people like His disciples and indeed, anyone who “does the will of my Father in heaven.” It’s another very typical instance of Hebrew hyperbole or a type of antithesis. But it’s inclusive, not exclusive.
Jesus taught that we are to love (not hate) even our enemies:
Matthew 5:43-44 You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (cf. Lk 6:27-35)
Obviously, then, He would not (and did not) teach that we ought to hate our own families. Jesus taught that we should love all people, and that includes families:
Matthew 19:19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Matthew 22:37-40 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Mark 12:30-31 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Luke 10:27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 15:17 This I command you, to love one another.
I rest my case. This poses no problem whatsoever for either Christians, or a consistent interpretation of these Bible passages. It’s simply a function of non-literal forms of speaking that were common in Hebrew culture (just as in every other culture and language, to more or less degrees). But Hebrew language was especially rich in figures and non-literal techniques.
And this leads to innumerable misguided readings of Scripture from atheists and other biblical skeptics (even including those with doctorates in biblical studies) who — oddly — don’t grasp this rather elementary consideration, and appear to make no effort to try to understand it. They’re too busy tearing down Holy Scripture and approaching it like how a butcher views a hog.
Photo credit: The Sermon on the Mount (1877, portion), by Carl Bloch (1834-1890) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]