Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible

Last semester I chose to focus some requisite research time on the roots of allegorical interpretation and how it came to be used by the early Church Fathers on biblical texts.  The historical antecedents of allegorical interpretation go far back beyond the first century AD.  I wanted to know how an essentially pagan interpretive scheme, first used by the Greeks of antiquity to tame Homeric narrative in order to make it more “appropriate” for school children, came to be applied to the Bible.  As I mentioned in this previous post, many within mainstream Christianity are still utilizing some form of this highly problematic interpretive method today, especially when approaching the Old Testament. While that in itself is a broad topic, I chose to specifically focus the scope of the question by asking how it was that Origen (182-254 AD), the Church Father most known for his allegorical hermeneutic, came by this method.  What follows is one my briefer research papers on the topic (in no way exhaustive whatsoever of the subject due to the limitations of the assignment) that includes a discussion toward the end on this method’s problematic issues for today’s student of the Bible.   If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, I’d suggest the introductory quote and  paragraph and then the final three paragraphs where I discuss some of the inherent issues in using allegorical interpretation on the Bible.  Enjoy or don’t!

If, following allegorical interpretation we say that the supreme God has promulgated laws for me, then I think that the legislation will seem worthy of the divine majesty.  But if, on the contrary, we tie ourselves to the letter [of the law] and accept…the law just as it is written, then I blush to proclaim or to admit that God gave such laws…But surely, if we accept the law of God in accordance with allegorical interpretation…then it manifestly surpasses all human laws and we may really believe it to be the law of God. [1]  

This quote of Origen’s, the Church Father from Alexandria (ca 185-253), regarding the Levitical codes, portrays his low view of the literal (“letter”) or historical meaning of scripture.  For Origen, it was the spiritual meaning underneath the “letter” that must be grasped in order to bring true light to the individual.  For this spiritual comprehension to occur, Origen believed in the efficacy of allegorical interpretation as an interpretive method.  Generally speaking, the key value in allegorical interpretation is its ability to utilize a universally respected text (such as Homer’s Odyssey) to legitimize ideas alien to the text’s historical intention.  It does this by maintaining that the literal words of the respected text are mere receptacles or sign posts that respectively hold or point to the deeper, yet alien, ideas seeking legitimacy.  Drawing upon the esteem of the respected text, the alien ideas gain credibility through allegorically being shown to have compatibility with that text.  Thus, an act of a god sleeping with a woman in Homeric narrative becomes the fodder for allegorically elucidating and granting weight to a philosophical system. [2]  For Origen, the Bible was just such a receptacle for legitimating certain Platonic ideas. [3]  Allegorical interpretation of the Bible made this possible.  Therefore Origen’s allegorical method was informed, in part [4], by an a priori commitment to the inherent harmony between certain Platonic concepts and Biblical Christianity, not out of a strict belief in allegory’s efficacy to grasp the original intention of the biblical author.

In order to show that Platonism helped inform Origen’s allegorical method two specific points of contact between Origen’s interpretive method and Platonism will be focused on before going on to discuss the method’s appropriateness for students of the Bible today.  The first point of contact for Origen was the Jewish Alexandrian allegorical tradition of Philo.  The second point of contact was the direct influence of two Middle-Platonists, Ammonius Saccas and Nummenius, on Origen’s formative education.

The first point of contact between Origen’s Platonism and his allegorical method occurs through being introduced to Philo.  As a native of Alexandria, the Christian Origen was the unlikely heir to the Alexandrian Jewish Hellenic allegorical tradition that sought to harmonize Platonism with the Jewish Bible.  “The literal meanings of the oracles [scriptures] are shadows of the real substances,” [5] said Philo of Alexandria, the first century (BCE and CE) Jewish philosopher, in expressing the Platonic spirit of his own allegorical interpretation of scripture.  Philo assigned to “the substances” of scripture the best of Platonic thought.  He believed strongly that Moses informed Plato’s own ideas.[6]  Philo wasn’t alone.  Two centuries prior to Philo, another Jewish Alexandrian Platonist named Aristobulus and later a first century BCE Jewish philosopher named Pseudo-Aristeas both were allegorically interpreting the Bible to advocate for Greek philosophical concepts.[7]  According to Origen scholar R.P.C. Hanson, Aristobulus, “claims that…Plato and all the Greek philosophers and poets had found their ideas in Moses’ works.” [8]  This three century-long movement to harmonize Platonism with the Jewish Scriptures “reached its fulfillment in Philo.” [9]  While Philo had no immediate Jewish successor to his philosophical system, Hanson states, “the [real] heirs of Philo’s system…were the theologians of the Christian Church.” [10]  Even though Philo and Origen were separated by two centuries and differing religious commitments, the evidence from within Origen’s own writings points to him drawing upon Philo’s allegorical project.  According to Joseph Wilson Trigg, “Origen came to know Philo’s works through Clement [of Alexandria], and thoroughly approved of them.” [11]

Philo’s Platonic Logos Doctrine, for example, later re-articulated for Christian purposes by Justin Martyr[12], allowed Origen to appropriate truth to Christianity wherever found.  For Origen, some of Platonism’s ideas were true and thus could be suitably attached to Christianity and the Bible.  But it was the blueprint of Philo’s allegorical method in which Origen found a means of drawing out these ideas from the Bible.  “Clement is the first Christian writer [patterned after Philo] to use allegory for this [harmonizing] purpose, and he provided an example which Origen followed with a deplorable eagerness.” [13]

There is little doubt among Origen scholars of Philo’s mediated influence, via Clement, on Origen’s interpretive approach to the Bible.  Even Henri De Lubac, an apologist for Origen’s Christian orthodox credentials, admits that, “the two [Origen and Philo] do in fact have many [exegetical] elements in common.” [14]  According to David Dawson, “for both Philo and Origen, allegorical reading was intended to enable the bodies of [scripture] to shape—and reshape—reader’s souls in ways that turned their common Platonic tradition into a context for the fashioning of new identities.” [15]  While Dawson doesn’t come out and say definitively that Origen’s exegesis was informed by Philo’s, he does affirm, like De Lubac, their striking similarities.  The fact is that both men’s “common” appreciation for certain Platonic concepts as well as Philo’s noted exegetical commendation through Clement, makes it compelling to see that the Alexandrian Jewish-Platonists informed Origen’s allegorical interpretive method.  Had Origen not been committed to the accuracy of certain platonic concepts, it is less likely he would have utilized the stricter Hellenic allegorical interpretive method of Philo as over against typological interpretation the NT writers employed in toward the OT.[16]  Thus, Origen’s a priori commitment to Platonic ideas helps in part to inform his allegorical method.

The second set of Platonic influences informing Origen’s allegorical method came through contact with two Middle/Neo Platonic thinkers: Ammonius Saccas and Numenius of Apemea.  The first, Ammonius Saccas, was one of Origen’s early teachers.  Ammonius Saccas was also the teacher of Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism.[17]  Through Ammonius’ instruction, Origen gained a profound respect for Platonic thought.  “Origen’s debt to Ammonius and to the Platonism he mediated appears at every level of Origen’s thought, from language to the style he employed,” asserts Joseph Trigg.[18]  The second Platonic thinker believed to have influenced Origen toward Platonic-Christian synthesis was the writings of the philosopher Numenius of Apamea.[19]  Numenius readily conceded that Plato borrowed the concept of a transcendent God from Moses.  “Who is Plato, but a Moses speaking Attic?” Numenius asked.   Numenius’s “most important contribution to the Middle Platonic tradition”, argues Trigg, “was his contribution to the Platonic doctrine of God.” [20]  It was Numenius that transformed Plato’s idea of “the Good” into a religious concept by identifying “the Good” with the God of the Bible. Numenius, like Philo, used allegorical interpretations of the Bible to “buttress the authority of Plato.” [21]  Trigg argues that Origen found Numenius’ formulation of God to be helpful as he worked out his ideas on the relationship between God and Jesus the Son. [22]

While its one thing to argue Origen was the recipient of Platonic teaching from Ammonius and Numenius, it’s another thing to assert that his allegorical method was informed by their ideas.  Yet, it is not a stretch to conclude that Origen, being persuaded of Numenius’ ideas, would have also been influenced by the interpretive method Numenius used to “buttress” those ideas within the Bible.  Nummenius, like Clement and Philo, offered Origen another allegorical blueprint for bringing out the “inherent” Platonic ideas in scripture.  Indeed the Platonic tradition itself was in part defined by using allegory to re-interpret text as early as the 5th century BCE.[23]  “In order to understand Origen’s passionate devotion to allegory,” states Trigg, “we need to look again at Plato and the Platonic tradition.  It is the Platonists who provided, in their understanding of myth and symbol, a religiously satisfying explanation of allegory.” [24]  It was this “satisfying explanation” coupled with his Platonic commitments that informed Origen’s allegorical method.  Therefore as a Christian, to be a positive recipient of Platonic teaching, as Origen was, would also mean positive reception of the means for legitimizing that teaching.

While Origen scholars line up on both sides of the aisle of orthodoxy either claiming their muse to be a brilliant Christian thinker such as De Lubac or Edwards, or a syncretistic Christian-Platonist like Trigg or Hanson, both sides agree his allegorical interpretive methodology was informed, in part, by the Platonism of his era.  As to whether he was a true maestro in correctly wielding allegory to Christianity’s benefit, or whether, in the end, he skewed the Biblical message by it, is the question that will constitute the final part of this paper.

In the end, the question is whether Origen’s allegorical method is a legitimate methodology for grappling with the text of the Bible or whether it inappropriately reaches beyond the text?  The answer to that question depends on one’s view of the essential nature of the Bible.  If the Bible were just mere, uninspired narrative about a small band of ancient, irrelevant people, then allegorical interpretation would be a valid reading approach for an interpreter looking to “fill” the material with something immediately meaningful.  But, if the Bible is a compendium of writings that runs across genres, written by inspired human authors, into real culture(s) with specific audiences in mind, based on actual historical events that were specifically brought about by God to reveal Himself and His purposes, then no, allegorical interpretation undercuts the purposes of the biblical text.  Origen’s method falls short of providing a hermeneutic that matches the complexity of the Bible.  In light of this, there are two specific problems with allegorical interpretation to be highlighted.

First, is the question of whether allegorical interpretation takes the author’s inspiration seriously?   Allegorical interpretation does damage to the original, inspired intent of the author failing to see value in the revelations he has committed to writing.  While Origen rightly recognized certain inherent problems posed by a strict literal reading of certain texts, those problems don’t require allegorical interpretation to be overcome.  Rather, they require the reader to take the genre, context, and authorial intent cues seriously.  It seems to me that the author’s original intent is vital to the scriptures themselves being the authoritative truth witnesses.  Anything that brushes aside the author’s original meaning or overlays a level of meaning on top of the original intent does damage to the author’s authority.

Secondly is the issue of history’s value.  The bible makes a big deal out of history.  It is the stage on which God chose to unfold the narrative of his merciful dealings with creation.  The Bible presents real events, with real implications for real people including the modern reader.  “History is an essential ingredient of revelation; it is an inseparable part of the manner in which God reveals Himself,” argues R.P.C. Hanson. [25]  Origen’s allegorical method devalues the historical by treating historical events as mere “parable, a charade for showing forth eternal truths about God.” [26]  In Origen’s defense, some of those allegorically abstracted ideas were themselves biblically compatible.  The problem however is that while compatible with the worldview of the Bible, they were not specifically intended by the author(s).  It’s a slippery slope to assign meaning to inspired authors that they themselves didn’t intend.

2 thoughts on “Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible

  1. Keep those cards and letters coming!! Enjoyed this very much. A Quick question: you said,

    “If the Bible were just mere, uninspired narrative about a small band of ancient, irrelevant people, then allegorical interpretation would be a valid reading approach for an interpreter looking to “fill” the material with something immediately meaningful.”

    Why would allegorical interpretation be any more correct here than in the Bible. I’ve always assumed that “authorial intent” is basically universal.

    Please advise.

    Love ya man!!


  2. The Pursuit Of Happiness | Doc Denbow

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