What is Allegorical Interpretation?

By Louis Ginzberg

Extracts from Jewishencyclopedia.com circa 1903

Allegorism. That explanation of a Scripture passage which is based upon the supposition that its author, whether God or man, intended something "other" than what is literally expressed. Expositors of this system may be called allegorists; the system itself, allegorism. Two modes of Allegorical Interpretation are found dealing with the Bible: the one, symbolic or typologic interpretation, derived mainly from Palestinian Jews; the other the philosophical or mystical modes, originating with the Alexandrian Jews of Egypt.

Both methods originate in the same natural cause; whenever the literature of a people has become an inseparable part of its intellectual possession, and the ancient and venerated letter of this literature is in the course of time no longer in consonance with more modern views, to enable the people to preserve their allegiance to the tradition it becomes necessary to make that tradition carry and contain the newer thought as well. Allegorism is thus in some sense an incipient phase of rationalism.

As soon as philosophy arose among the Greeks, Homer and the old popular poetry were allegorized. There being scarcely a people which underwent such powerful religious development and at the same time remained so fervently attached to its venerable traditions as the Jews, allegorism became of necessity a prominent feature in the history of their literature.

Early Allegorism. Accordingly, one of the first of the prophets whose writings are preserved, Hosea (xii. 5), is one of the earliest allegorists, when he says of Jacob's struggle with the angel that it was a struggle in prayer: this was because the idea of an actual physical contest no longer harmonized with the prophetic conception of heavenly beings. The activity of the Scribes at a later period made the Bible a book for scholars, and allegorism was fostered as a form of Midrash.

The Book of Daniel supplied an illustration hereof, when it interpreted Jeremiah's prophecy of the seventy years of exile (xxix. 10) as seventy weeks of years, and thus gave hopes of redemption from the contemporary tyranny of the Greeks. The dread of reproducing Biblical anthropomorphisms, a thoroughly Jewish dread, and a characteristic feature of the oldest portions of the Septuagint, shows the original disposition of all allegorism; namely, to spiritualize mythology.

Alexandrian Allegorism. Essential as allegorism thus was to the Palestinian Jews, it was none the less so to the Alexandrian Hebrews, who were made to feel the derision of the Hellenes at the naive presentations of the Bible. The Jews replied by adopting the Hellenes' own weapons: if the latter made Homer speak the language of Pythagoras, Plato, Anaxagoras, and Zeno, the Jews transformed the Bible into a manual of philosophy which also was made to contain the teachings of these philosophers.

This polemic or apologetic feature of Alexandrian allegorism is at the same time characteristic of its relation to the Palestinian Midrash on the one hand, and the allegorized mythology of the Greeks on the other; in its purpose, Alexandrian allegory was Hellenic; in its origin and method, it was Jewish. But one would hardly be warranted in maintaining that allegorism was specifically Hellenic because the Alexandrians were the first Jews known to have cultivated it; nothing can be really proved from the absence of allegory in the few inconsiderable remains of Palestinian Scriptural lore of the two centuries before the common era.

The Wisdom of Solomon. Closely connecting with the Palestinian Midrash is Aristobulus rightly to be termed the father of Alexandrian allegory. His purpose, to prove the essential identity of Scripture and Aristotelianism, is of course the Alexandrian one; but his explanations of the Biblical anthropomorphisms is thoroughly Palestinian, and reminds one of Targum and Septuagint. Similarly, The Wisdom of Solomon, another Apocryphal book of the same period, is not specifically Hellenic in its allegorical symbolism.

The explanation of the heavenly ladder in Jacob's vision, as a symbol of Divine Providence and the super-sensual world, is just as little Hellenic as the Biblical narrative itself, the sense of which is very correctly given (Wisdom, x. 10). The influence of a Palestinian Midrash, preserved in the Mishnah (R. H. iii. 8), is evident in the explanation of the serpent (Num. xxi. 9), as a "symbol of salvation, while the salvation itself came from God" (Wisdom, xvi. 5).

These and similar interpretations are so clearly of Palestinian origin that it would be wrong to assume any foreign influence for them. The literal reality of the Law and of the Biblical history is so strongly adhered to by the author of The Wisdom of Solomon, coming as it does from Pharisaic circles, that one can hardly speak of his treatment as an allegorization of the Bible.

The Allegorical Interpretation of the Law in the Aristeas Letter exhibits Hellenic influence more decidedly. It seeks to give ethical motives for all the ritual and ceremonial laws. On the one hand, the flesh of birds of prey is declared unclean, it says, in order to teach how violence and injustice defile the soul; on the other, that of animals which chew the cud and divide the hoof is permitted. For the former characteristic typifies the duty of invoking God frequently; and the latter signifies the distinction between right and wrong, and the division to be maintained between Israel and nations practising abominations

Radical Allegorism. A further step, but an inevitable one, was taken by those allegorists of whom Philo writes that they cut loose entirely from any observance of the Law, and saw in the records of Jewish revelation nothing but a presentation of higher philosophical truths. Such an extreme step could only provoke reaction; and the result was that many would have nothing whatever to do with Allegorical Interpretation, justly seeing in it a danger to practical Judaism.

These anti-allegorists were specially represented in Palestine, where the warning was heard (about 50 B.C.) against those "evil waters" to be avoided by the young scholars "abroad," i.e. Egypt...The following is an illustration: "Men versed in natural philosophy explain the history of Abraham and Sarah in an allegorical manner with no inconsiderable ingenuity and propriety. The man here [Abraham] is a symbolical expression for the virtuous mind, and by his wife is meant virtue, for the name of his wife is Sarah ["princess"], because there is nothing more royal or more worthy of regal preeminence than virtue."

In the New Testament. Of the New Testament writings, the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline are especially full of Allegorical Interpretation, in which the two elements of Palestinian and Hellenic Judaism are both conspicuous. Paul's allegorism is typological and betrays its Pharisaic origin. Thus it can not be said to be due to Alexandrian, still less to Philonic, influence, when Paul, in I Cor. ix. 9, 10, says, "Doth God take care for oxen?" (Deut. xxv. 4), "or altogether for our sakes."

This is simply a modification of the old Halakah quoted above, which applies this law to explain that a woman may not be forced into an unsuitable levirate marriage, because she herself is entitled to the ordinary promise of happiness in return for her share in the bond of wedlock. So, too, his well-known allegorization of Sarah and Hagar (Gal. iv. 21-31) is fundamentally only a typological presentation of the Palestinian teaching, "Thou wilt find no freeman but him who is occupied in learning Torah" (Ab. vi. 2). Paul is not even original in his types, for the oldest Haggadah represents the conflict between Ishmael, the son of the maid, and Isaac, the son of the mistress, as a spiritual one (Sifre, Deut. xxxi.)

Epistle to the Hebrews. Alexandrian influence is first discernible in the Epistle to the Hebrews, whereas Palestinian allegorism is suggested in the interpretation of the ark of Noah as representing the rite of baptism, in I Peter, iii. 20; compare Gen. R. xxxi. 9. Alexandrian influence is shown in Hebrews by the general tendency throughout rather than by individual instances.

Paul never detracts from the historical reality of the narratives he allegorizes, but the Hebrews became the model for Alexandrian ingenuity by which Israel's history and legal enactments were construed as being in reality intimations of the mysteries of faith, concealing the spirit in the letter, and reducing the essentials of the Old Testament to mere shadows. This tendency is clearest in the Gospel of John, the author of which makes most use of Old Testament illustrations; the serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (Num. xxi. 8) becomes Jesus upon the cross (John, iii. 14). Jesus is the manna in the desert, the bread of life (ibid. vi. 31, 49).

The Apostolic Fathers. This pushing of the allegorization of the Old Testament to such an extreme that it would deprive it of all its independent life and character, or make of it a vague and feeble prophecy of the future, found favor among the Apostolic Fathers. Prominent among these for his allegorization was Barnabas (about the year 100), who, acquainted as he was with rabbinical and even halakic doctrine, aspired to show that the Jews did not themselves understand the Old Testament.

The Biblical enactment of the scapegoat is typically applied to Jesus, who carried the sins of his crucifiers; the goat's flesh was devoured raw and with vinegar—an old Palestinian tradition—because Jesus' flesh was also moistened with gall and vinegar. The boys who sprinkle the water of purification are the apostles; they are three in number, in commemoration of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These and other allusions make it sufficiently clear that Barnabas depended upon Palestinian sources rather than upon Philonic, as Siegfried would maintain ("Philo von Alexandria," p. 331).

Gnosticism. While Barnabas exhibits a not insignificant Hellenic bias, his methods were applied by Gnostics to the New Testament writings. Although they disclaimed any depreciation of the historical value of the Old Testament, they became the chief exponents in their time of that Alexandrian allegorism which made of the Biblical narrative nothing else than an account of the emancipation of reason from the domination of passion.

The Gnostics developed this theme with the modification that they detected this conflict between mind and matter, between reason and sense, in the New Testament in place of the Old. A different tendency was conspicuous among the older apologists of Christianity, who allegorized away the Old Testament, but regarded the New as absolutely historical. Justin Martyr is one of them, who ridicules the artificialities of Jewish exegesis ("Dialogus cum Tryphone," 113, 340), but whose own allegorization of Old Testament passages is thoroughly Jewish, Palestinian as well as Alexandrian.

Thus he says Noah was saved by wood and water, showing that Christians are delivered from sin likewise by the cross and by baptism (l.c. 138). In effect he transforms the whole Old Testament into a typology of Jesus and Christianity, so that Tryphon very pertinently remarks that God's word was holy indeed, but that Justin's interpretations were very arbitrary. With the gradual development of the Catholic Church out of Jewish primitive Christianity and Greek Gnosticism, the attitude of the Church toward the Old Testament was modified too, as is shown by Clement of Alexandria, or more strongly yet by his disciple Origen.

The former is the first Church father to revert to Philo's methods of allegorism, distinguishing between the body (literal word) and spirit (Allegorical Interpretation) of Scripture. He finds allegorical meaning in both prophetical and legislative portions; he adopts Philo's allegorical rules and many of his individual interpretations.

Nor does he fail to originate some expositions himself. Thus the unclean animals which chew the cud, but are of undivided hoof, are the Jews; heretics are those of divided hoof but who chew not the cud; while those who possess neither characteristic are the heathens ("Stromata," v. 52, vii. 109). Origen's intimacy with Palestinians prevented him from falling into such exaggerations of the Alexandrian tendency as marked his teacher Clement, and even a certain degree of historical appreciation of the Old Testament becomes evident. But the conflict in Origen, so apparent in his Christology, between speculative Gnosticism and the historical conception of Scripture, prevented any rational and consistent view of Scripture.

He, too, must be made responsible for the gross exaggerations of Christian allegorists lasting down to modern times; Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine all borrowed their allegorizing method from Origen, who likewise originated the doctrine of the threefold meaning of Scripture, the literal, moral, and mystical ("De Principiis," iv. 8, 11, 14). The following may serve as specimens of his manner: The narrative of Rebekah at the well is to teach us that we must daily resort to the well of Scripture in order to find Jesus. Pharaoh slew the boy-children and preserved the girls alive, to show that he who follows pleasure kills his rational sense (masculine) and preserves the feminine (the sensual passions.)