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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Senses of the Text

The notion that a text might mean more than one thing was already securely established in the patristic period, and indeed it had early been found necessary to postulate that for some passages of scripture, which seemed on the face of it peculiarly unedifying, there might be no literal meaning at all, but only figurative ones. As late as Augustine's day, it was unclear what pattern the figurative senses might form, and several systems were in play. In the De doctrina Christiana Augustine himself favoured the method of Tichonius the Donatist, a striking testimony to the desperate need for help in this area, since Augustine campaigned remorselessly against the Donatists of North Africa as schismatics.

Alte Pinakothek, Munich/Bridgeman Art Library.

The system which came into established use in the west throughout the Middle Ages appears to have been worked out by Gregory the Great. He took the surface meaning of the text, its literal or ‘historical’ sense as the foundation, and built upon it three higher senses. (There was never any question throughout the patristic and medieval periods that the figurative senses were preferable, because they were taken to be the ‘spiritual’ meanings, and therefore closer approximations to what God had meant to say.)

The first of these Gregorian higher senses was the allegorical. ‘Allegory’ could be used loosely to cover all the figurative senses, but in its strict sense it involved some transference of usage from the ordinary meanings of words to give them a spiritual application. For example, the ‘lion of Judah’ is Christ. This notion involved some conscious play with the term proprietas (propriety). On this analysis, the ‘proper’ sense became the allegorical one, so that brachium ‘properly’ meant ‘Christ’ rather than ‘arm’, which is its literal meaning.

The second higher sense was the tropological or moral. Thus when Gregory composed his Moralia in Job, in the company of his friends in the community, during his period in Constantinople, he concentrated especially on bringing out the moral lessons he found in the book of Job.

The third sense was the anagogical or prophetic. To draw that out was to show how the text pointed forward either to the future in this world, or, more usually, eschatologically, to the world to come. A habit of looking for ‘types’ in the Old Testament of figures or events in the New was universal, and it was then possible to move onwards into the future and suggest where the repeating pattern might lead next. A significant and controversial exponent of this method was Joachim of Fiore, who sought by this means to discover when the end of the world would come and to point to signs of the ‘old age of the world’ in present events. But before him the more respectable figures of Rupert of Deutz and Anselm of Havelberg in the first half of the twelfth century had been doing something very similar.

No meaning which could be got out of scripture which was in keeping with orthodoxy could be thought of as an invention, since God would necessarily have thought of it first and placed it in the text ready to be found by the spiritually minded reader.

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