On Allegorical Interpretation

One of the temptations into which we frequently fall when seeking to understand others in our own time and in the past is that we begin with the assumption that they think and interact with a given set of ideas in the same way that we do.  So, for example, in interfaith discussions, Christians will from time to time refer to groups of Jewish and Muslim leaders holding councils.  Or Muslims will speak of the Torah or the New Testament as if it was viewed in the same way in which they view the Quran.  This immediately generates misunderstandings that then have to be overcome in order to truly interact.  Christians involved in these discussions need to understand how authority structure work, or don’t work, in other religious systems.  Muslims need to understand how other religions view, interpret, and interact with their authoritative texts.  One of the most broadly misunderstood elements of the Biblical interpretation of our forebears in the Christian Faith is what we have for some time now called ‘Allegorical Interpretation’, though, as we will see, this is probably not the best term for it.

Allegorical interpretation is a label used to describe a certain type of interpretation, particularly of the scriptures, by many of the Fathers.  Strictly speaking, this would be designating this type of interpretation as other than literal interpretation, although the term ‘literal’ is itself subject to multiple definitions.  So, for example, the idea of typology, that Old Testament figures are a type, or fore-image of Christ, is often not considered allegory, but as a part of literal interpretation.  This vaguery has led to a rule of thumb definition of ‘Allegorical Interpretation’ as ‘any interpretation which to me seems “out there”‘.  And so, nearly all Christians easily accept that since our Lord Jesus Christ died at the Passover, that his death and resurrection represent a greater Passover, and analogies to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt are entirely within the bounds of ‘literal interpretation’.  On the other hand, a good many Christians would find Origen’s identification of the two oars in the hands of St. Peter as he rowed his boat onto the Sea of Galilee as ‘faith’ and ‘love’ to be a bit of a stretch, and therefore an example of allegory.  Here we can also see how allegorical interpretation carries a connotation of bad interpretation.  Thus, labelling something as ‘allegory’ becomes a means of marginalizing it from serious consideration.

The difficulty here is largely generated, however, by our own understanding of interpretation.  Most of us have been educated, at least passively by our culture, to read the text by attempting to discern what the original author meant in the historical context in which the words were originally written.  This is aided then, and Bible scholarship consists, in doing historical research and grammatical language study in order to better understand the texts in that light.  We understand this as being what it means to read the scriptures literally.  We therefore assume that any interpretation that doesn’t match this method does so either accidentally or deliberately.  It may differ accidentally in that we rather condescendingly look at our forebears in the faith, and their limited manuscript resources, language knowledge, and knowledge of history and conclude that allegory was the best that they could do.  Or it may differ deliberately in that we think something more nefarious is in play.  The interpreter was aware of our literal interpretation, but for whatever reason found it not to his liking, and so ‘spiritualized’ the text as a sort of dodge.  Both of these views assume that the Fathers read, or at least wanted to read, the text in the same way we now do.

We find something quite different when we set aside our own understanding of interpretation and instead attempt to follow what the Fathers were doing.  An obvious place to begin is with St. Paul himself in Galatians 4:24-26, in which he explicitly makes an allegory between Hagar and Sarah on the one side, and the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems, even using the word ‘allegory’ in the Greek text.  There is no trace here, in the argument of Galatians 4, that what St. Paul is arguing is that when Genesis was written and the story of Hagar and Ishmael was composed, what was intended was a reference to Jewish and Gentile Christian relations in the first century A.D.  Nor is there any trace of the idea that St. Paul is denying the historical reality of Hagar and Sarah in favor of a ‘spiritualized’ understanding.  In fact, many of his arguments earlier in the letter would suffer if Abraham were not a historical person.  Rather, St. Paul here uses allegory to apply this ancient story, which describes historical events and has itself many layers of meaning, to the immediate situation of his hearers.

This same pattern holds true in the Fathers.  Allegory is not an interpretive move, as we understand exegesis in our time and place, but rather a homiletic move.  It is a means of making application of a text, still seen to have sacred value, to a time and situation far removed from that of its composition.  It therefore represents an aspect of Holy Tradition in which the scriptures continue to live, in being proclaimed and applied to the people of God.  This has several related consequences.  It means that allegorical applications are not exclusivist.  One Father says that the three steps to the altar in Ezekiel’s temple vision represent the Holy Trinity, because in the new covenant we worship God the Father in Spirit and in Truth.  Another Father says that the three steps represent faith, hope, and love because it is through a life of Christian virtue exemplified by these three highest that one worships and brings glory to God.  These Fathers are not disagreeing with each other, because neither is making a claim to an ‘original, literal meaning’ of Ezekiel’s vision.  They are, rather, making different applications to different communities in different times and places which can both be true, along with countless others.  Further, this means that the Fathers did not, for example, find the literal, historical reality of Joshua’s conquest morally repugnant.  Rather, they found a literal application of same, the idea that Christians ought go out and kill to seize land, repugnant yet, still seeing the text as sacred, found ways to make it applicable and relevant, to make it alive, in the lives of their Christian hearers whom they were guiding to salvation.  This mode of application was even used of texts other than the scriptures.  We possess Christian commentaries, from the Byzantine period, on Homer’s Iliad.  There was still scene to be something valuable about Homer’s poetry, but bloody war stories in service of pagan gods seemed to have little to offer to medieval Christians.  Allegory represented a means 

We ought, then, speak not of ‘Allegorical Interpretation’, but of ‘Allegorical Application’.  The Fathers show us a commitment that every text of the scriptures is holy, speaks to us of Christ our savior, is God-breathed, and is for us.  The scriptures are not an ‘ancient text’ in the sense of an archaeological relic of interest only to scholars, nor a repository in which has been deposited specific truths to be mined, but a living, active means by which the Holy Spirit brings Christ into our life as the community of the church.  Allegory is a categorization of one means by which this dynamic takes place, and the Truth is communicated to us by God himself.

7 comments:

  1. Would “allegorical application” be equivalent to the Jewish concept of “midrash?” The Bible is less a vein of ore to be mined than a river to be fished. You can run out of gold, but the same river brings new fish.

    1. Yes and no. Midrash is a category that covers a broad range of Jewish interpretation. There are schools of Midrash that are grounded in the idea that the text is written for a present audience, where this runs parallel to the way the Fathers use allegorical application. There are other schools of Midrash, though, that run to the more speculative, and sometimes involve the creation of entire stories between the lines, or sometimes even between words, in the Biblical text, which is something we simply don’t see the Fathers doing.

      1. So the “good” Midrash is homiletic, but the “bad” gets you odd speculative tales like Lilith? Is that the kind of stuff Paul was writing about when he referred to godless myths and endless genealogies? I’ve always wondered what kind of “fan fiction” some people in the early church had got hold of there.

        1. I don’t know that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are the best descriptors here. There is a school of Midrash, as mentioned, that is homiletic in nature and parallels what many of the Fathers do with allegory. The other school, which is more expansionist, doesn’t have such a direct parallel. However, there are a number of instances of such expansionist readings being referenced in the New Testament. For example, St. Paul references the rock following Israel in the wilderness, Christ refers to interpretive traditions surrounding the founding of Jacob’s well, etc.

          As a Christian, I think this change in approach was a result of the nature of the Old Testament. Even before the coming of Christ, this sort of interpretation shows an awareness that the Old Testament was somehow incomplete, in not answering many of the questions it raised, and that there was a perception, by those who studied it most closely, that there was some underlying meaning or riddle to be solved in the text. As Christians approached the Old Testament, they saw Christ in the text, and saw him as the answer to these questions, and the underlying meaning. So they felt no need to approach the New Testament text in this manner, as the mystery had been revealed.

  2. Thank you, Father Stephen!

    Allow me to emphasize my gratitude – even if at the risk of seeming as one having completely missed the point of your article – but an Antiochian Priest in defense of allegorical application; how refreshing!

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