Allegorical interpretation of the Bible

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The reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter. ~ Origen
We must not understand His words literally but with due inquiry and intelligence we must search out and master their hidden meaning. ~ Clement of Alexandria
It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. ~ Paul of Tarsus

Allegorical interpretation is an interpretive method which assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning, and tends to focus on the spiritual sense as opposed to the literal sense.

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A[edit]

  • The Catholic faith, … I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially true after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically—whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.
    • Augustine, Confessions, A. Outler, trans. (Dover: 2002), Book 5, Chapter 14, p. 81.

C[edit]

  • As we are clearly aware that the Savior teaches His people nothing in a merely human way, but everything by a divine and mystical wisdom, we must not understand His words literally [σαρκίνως] but with due inquiry and intelligence we must search out and master their hidden meaning.

F[edit]

  • The Lord ... said: Unless a man shall eat my flesh, he shall not have in himself eternal life. Certain of his disciples, the seventy to wit, were scandalised, and said: This is a hard saying; who can understand it? And they departed from him, and walked with him no more. His saying ... seemed to them a hard one. They received it foolishly: they thought of it carnally. For they fancied, that the Lord was going to cut from his own body certain morsels and to give those morsels to them. Hence they said: This is a hard saying. But they themselves were hard: not the saying. For, if, instead of being hard, they had been mild, they would have ... learned from him what those learned, who remained while they departed. For, when the twelve disciples had remained with him after the others had departed, ... he instructed them, and said unto them: It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. The words, which I speak unto you, are spirit and life. As if he had said: Understand spiritually what I have spoken. You are Not about to eat this identical body, which you see; and you are Not about to drink this identical blood, which they who crucify me will pour out. I have commended unto you a certain sacrament. This, if spiritually understood, will quicken you. Though it must be celebrated visibly, it must be understood invisibly.
    • George Stanley Faber, Christ's Discourse at Capernaum: Fatal to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation (1840), pp. 144-147.
  • In the interpretation of figurative passages, let the following canon be observed. If the passage be preceptive, either forbidding some flagitious deed and some heinous crime, or commanding something useful and beneficent: then such passage is not figurative. But, if the passage seems, either to command some flagitious deed and some heinous crime, or to forbid something useful and beneficent: then such passage is figurative. Thus, for example, Christ says: Unless ye shall eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood; ye shall have no life in you. Now, in these words, he seems to command a heinous crime or a flagitious deed. Therefore the passage is a figure, enjoining us to communicate in the passion of our Lord, and admonishing us to lay it up sweetly and usefully in our memory because, for us, his flesh was crucified and wounded. On the other hand, Scripture says: If thy enemy shall hunger, give him food; if he shall thirst, give him drink. Here, without all doubt, an act of beneficence is enjoined.
    • George Stanley Faber, Christ's Discourse at Capernaum: Fatal to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation (1840), pp. 147-149.

G[edit]

  • There is nothing unreasonable in our seriously studying all possible means of tracking down the benefit to be had from the divinely inspired scripture. If indeed the literal meaning, understood as it is spoken, should offer some benefit, we will have readily at hand what we need to make the object of our attention. But if something that is said in a hidden fashion, with certain allegories and enigmas, should yield nothing of benefit according to the readily apparent sense, we will turn such words as these over and over in our mind. ... When it comes to the insightful reading of such passages that comes via the elevated sense, we shall not beg to differ at all about its name—whether one wishes to call it tropologia, allegoria, or anything else—but only about whether it contains meanings that are beneficial.

M[edit]

  • Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.

O[edit]

  • The reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.
    • Origen of Alexandria, “How divine scripture should be interpreted,” On First Principles, book 4, chapter 2, § 2, Readings in World Christian History (2013), p. 69.
  • As for the apostolic epistles, what person who is skilled in literary interpretation would think them to be plain and easily understood, when even in them there are thousands of passages that provide, as it through a window, a narrow opening leading to multitudes of the deepest thoughts?
    • Origen of Alexandria, “How divine scripture should be interpreted,” On First Principles, book 4, chapter 2, § 2, Readings in World Christian History (2013), p. 69.
  • One must therefore portray the meaning of the sacred writings in a threefold way upon one's own soul, so that the simple person may be edified by what we may call the flesh of the scripture, this name being given to the obvious interpretation; while the one who has made some progress may be edified by its soul, as it were; and the one who is perfect and like those mentioned by the apostle: "We speak wisdom among the perfect; yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to nought; but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the world unto our glory" (1 Cor. 2:6-7)--this one may be edified by the spiritual law, which has "a shadow of the good things to come" (cf. Rom. 7:14). For just as the human being consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does the scripture, which has been prepared by God to be given for humanity's salvation.
  • When, therefore, as will be clear to those who read, the passage as a connected whole is literally impossible, whereas the outstanding part of it is not impossible but even true, the reader must endeavor to grasp the entire meaning, connecting by an intellectual process the account of what is literally impossible with the parts that are not impossible but historically true, these being interpreted allegorically in common with the part which, so far as the letter goes, did not happen at all. For our contention with regard to the whole of divine scripture is that it all has a spiritual meaning, but not all a bodily meaning; for the bodily meaning is often proved to be an impossibility.

P[edit]

  • In the paradise, made by God, all the plants were endowed in the souls and reason, producing for their fruit the different virtues, and, moreover, imperishable wisdom and prudence. ... These statements appear to me to be dictated by a philosophy which is symbolical rather than strictly accurate. For no trees of life or of knowledge have ever at any previous time appeared upon the earth, nor is it likely that any will appear hereafter. But I rather conceive that Moses was speaking in an allegorical spirit, intending by his paradise to intimate the dominant character of the soul, which is full of innumerable opinions as this figurative paradise was of trees.
    • Philo, On the Creation of the World.

S[edit]

  • Above all, words must be recognized as symbolic pointers to truth, not objective containers of truth.

W[edit]

  • More and more, as the organic world was observed, the vast multitude of petty animals, winged creatures, and "creeping things" was felt to be a strain upon the sacred narrative. More and more it became difficult to reconcile the dignity of the Almighty with his work in bringing each of these creatures before Adam to be named; or to reconcile the human limitations of Adam with his work in naming "every living creature"; or to reconcile the dimensions of Noah's ark with the space required for preserving all of them, and the food of all sorts necessary for their sustenance. ...Origen had dealt with it by suggesting that the cubit was six times greater than had been supposed. Bede explained Noah's ability to complete so large a vessel by supposing that he worked upon it during a hundred years.

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