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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Allegorical Interpretation

Allegorical interpretation had a venerable history before Christian commentators appropriated it: both pagan commentators and philosophically-minded Jews such as Philo of Alexandria had employed allegorical exegesis to smooth over the problematic texts of their respective traditions. For sophisticated Hellenes, the ancient myths that portrayed deities as lying, fighting, and committing adultery were unacceptable as literal stories. The problem such intellectuals faced was how to retain the texts but give them different meanings. Likewise, the early Christian commentators struggled to affirm that both Testaments were morally and spiritually uplifting in all their parts through allegorical exegesis. Thus we see that the church's interests in interpreting the Bible were essentially practical.

The great master of allegorical interpretation in the early church was undoubtedly Origen. Book Four of his On First Principles contains the fullest defense of allegorical exegesis among early Christian writings. Since Origen believed that the “truth” of the Old Testament had been brought to light only with the coming of Jesus, it was important for his purpose to convince Christian audiences that the Hebrew Scriptures were enlightening. He argued against both the Jews, who denied that Old Testament prophecy referred to Christ, and the Gnostics, who mocked Biblical passages in which God was said to be angry or jealous, to repent, or to be responsible for evil. The problem of such opponents, Origen alleges, is that they employ only literal interpretations that damage the faith. Although all Scripture has a spiritual meaning, Origen believes, not all of it has a “bodily” sense. Some passages simply cannot be taken literally: for example, how could there have been “evening and morning” (Gen. 1.5, 8, 13 ) when there were not yet sun, moon, and stars? How can a thinking Christian believe that God “walked in Paradise in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3.8 )? And in his Biblical commentaries, Origen was deeply concerned to answer the Gnostic charge that books such as Joshua showed the Old Testament God to be a bloodthirsty warmonger.

Nor did the Gospels escape Origen's relentless eye. Take, for example, the story of Jesus' temptation by the devil (Matt. 4.8 ). The Gospel writer reports that Jesus was taken to a high mountain from which he was told to view “the kingdoms of the whole world.” How ridiculous, Origen writes, to think that from any mountain in Palestine you could see as far as Persia or India! And there are “thousands” of such passages whose hidden purpose is to convince Christians that not all the Bible can be read as historical truth.

Origen was not, of course, on a faith-smashing mission; he wanted to prove that such interpretive problems show up the deficiencies of a “historical” reading of the Bible. We should instead be encouraged, on such occasions, to search out the mystical or allegorical meaning of the passage, deliberately hidden under apparently offensive or meaningless texts. Thus the tale of earthly love and sexual desire found in the Song of Songs becomes for Origen an allegory of Christ's love for the church or for the individual Christian; the warfare of the Israelites to win the Promised Land becomes the Christian's struggle against the passions to win the Kingdom of Heaven.

Similar to Origen's struggle against the Gnostics was Augustine's battle with the Manicheans, whose beliefs and practices represented a more dangerous form of Gnostic teaching and posed a serious threat to the institutional church of the fourth century. For the brilliant young Augustine, the Bible seemed too crude to be worthy of acceptance. Only when he saw how Ambrose of Milan rendered Scripture palatable by allegorical exegesis did Augustine begin his conversion to the Christian religion. That he had been a Manichean for a long period in his young adulthood made his struggle against it, as a Catholic writer, especially intense.

Manichean leaders were close readers of the Bible. A formidable opponent of Augustine was the Manichean Faustus. Faustus' attack on the Bible was a three-pronged attempt to show that unworthy characteristics (such as ignorance and envy) are ascribed to God in the Old Testament; that the promises and blessings given to the Israelites were purely material (riches, land, progeny) and hence were unrelated to a spiritual salvation; and that the behavior of the Old Testament patriarchs was nothing short of disgusting. Who would want to sit at table in the Kingdom of Heaven with men like Jacob, who had “led the life of a goat” with his four wives? Since the Christian tradition aimed at a higher ideal—and North African Manicheans believed that they were the truest Christians—why accept the paltry offerings of the Jewish Bible?

Augustine's response to Faustus rests on the principle that nothing in the Bible is without meaning; throughout, God teaches us, if only we look to the symbolic meaning of the verses. Thus, Old Testament rituals serve as “types” of Christian truths, and the food laws contain allegories (once again, not eating pig meat becomes an injunction against swinish behavior). Nor should Jesus' teachings be interpreted as in opposition to the Old Testament. For example, his prohibition of divorce does not run counter to the Hebrew command that a man must write out a bill of divorce for his wife (Deut. 24.1 ), since the latter was intended to “prevent” divorce: the Old and the New Testament thus are in agreement.

Allegorical exegesis meant that contemporary audiences—Augustine's congregation, for example—would see the relevance of Biblical stories for their own moral lives. Thus the parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale of how an “outsider's” charity overcame ancient Jewish exclusiveness, but provides theological instruction for Christians: the man is Adam, who falls among thieves (i.e., is overcome by sin); he is taken to an inn (the church), receives oil and wine (the Christian sacraments) and must remain there, a convalescent, until the day when he departs to acquire perfect health in the Kingdom of God. Thus, besides functioning to keep the Bible “Christian,” allegory also rendered the text a tool for Christians' moral development and loyalty to the church.

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