How Not to Interpret the Bible Part Five. Interpret Everything Allegorically

How Not to Interpret the Bible Part Five. Interpret Everything Allegorically August 7, 2022

The Bible is not, overall, a piece of coded literature written in elaborately allegorical manner with all sorts of hidden meanings, which needs to be decoded to be understood.  Thank goodness.  Just to be clear what allegory is– it is a story which has a surface meaning within the story, but in fact those story elements refer primarily to things outside the story. Typical allegories are the Christian example Pilgrim’s Progress or the literary example Spencer’s The Fairy Queen.  One has to be able to distinguish between a straight up allegory where so very many of the elements in the story are symbolic and refer to something outside the story, or an allegorizing of a non-allegory, which is what we find in Philo in various of his books, or once in Paul in Galatians where he allegorizes the story of Sarah and Hagar, and finally there can be a few allegorical elements in a non-allegory, for example in a parable.

Perhaps the most classic example of the over-allegorizing of a non-allegory is what Augustine did to the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the good Samaritan represents Jesus, the man lying by the side of the road represents someone dead in trespasses, the oil and wine represent the sacraments administer to revive the man, the inn represents the church and so on.  But in fact this parable is about the social and racial tension between actual Samaritans and actual Jews, and Jesus is teaching how to be a neighbor even to those whom one has racial tensions with.  No one hearing Jesus’ original parable when he originally told it could ever have interpreted it to refer to the later Christian theology Augustine reads into the story.  A parable is an extended metaphor or comparison (‘the kingdom of God is like…) and occasionally it will have allegorical elements, for example in the parable of the sower in Mark 4 the seed is said to be the Word of God.  But not all the elements in a parable have some referent outside the story or analogy itself.

In the early church there developed two schools broadly of interpretation of the Bible, a more allegorical approach typified by the writers who, like Philo, came from Alexandria– Clement of Alexandria and Origen, as opposed to the more historical approach typified by Chrysostom and others of the Antioch school.  Modern historical study of the Bible has revealed that for the most part, the Bible writers wanted their writings to be interpreted in a non-allegorical manner. Even the parables were not straight up allegories.

And it is a mistake to over-read the OT in an allegorical way.  For example ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the OT is not the Son of God.  He is…. wait for it, an angel and as the author of Hebrews makes quite clear in Hebrews 1, the Son of God is far above the category of angels.  Or again Melchizedek is not Christ in disguise, and needing decoding.  As the book of Hebrews makes clear he is a type or foreshadowing of Christ. There was no incarnation of the Son of God in human history before the incarnation in Mary’s womb.   HOWEVER, this is not to say that the pre-existent Son of God was not involved in OT history in any way.  He is identified with the figure of  Wisdom in Prov. 8-9 and Proverbs 3, and see the Wisdom of Solomon 17ff. When Paul says, in 1 Cor. 10 ‘and the rock was Christ’ he is applying what had previously been said of Wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon to the Son of God.  He was involved as God’s Wisdom from heaven directed, guiding, nourishing God’s people all long.  Or again the three angelic messengers that visited Abraham were not the Holy Trinity. They were, wait for it— angels!!    The reason Paul is able to partially and cleverly allegorize a non-allegorical story in Gal. 4 is because some of his audience are Jews and already know it is a historical story with a historical meaning, so what Paul is doing is riffing, he is doing something in addition to the normal way of interpreting a well-known story. And probably he is deliberately doing it as a critique of the Judaizers who are bothering his converts.  He lines up Hagar with Mt. Sinai with Jerusalem, a surprising and non-historical triad to be sure, in order to make clear to his mostly Gentile converts that they should not get themselves circumcised and be forced to keep the whole Mosaic Law.  This is allegorizing a well-known non-allegory.

In some ways over-allegorizing a Biblical text is rather like over-spiritualizing it.  Take for example, the Beatitude which in Matthew reads ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ but in Luke reads ‘Blessed are the poor’.  Now the over-spiritualizing interpretation will focus on the former and assume it has nothing to do with real poverty, but this is quite impossible if one looks at the Lukan version.  Jesus was obviously very concerned not just with the spiritual welfare of human beings but also the physical well being– hence the feeding of the 5,000 and also the exhortation in Matthew about ‘inasmuch as you have not done it unto the least of these….’  and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The Gospel is not just about dispensing spiritual McNuggets which do not challenge our thinking about our obligations to the poor and the indigent.


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