Allegorical interpretation of the Bible  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Allegorical interpretation is an interpretive method (exegesis) which assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning and tends to focus on the spiritual sense (which includes the allegorical sense, the moral (or tropological) sense, and the anagogical sense) as opposed to the literal sense. It is sometimes referred to as the Quadriga, a reference to the Roman chariot drawn by four horses.



Allegorical interpretation has its origins both in Greek thought and in rabbinical schools of Judaism. In the Middle Ages it was used by Bible commentators of the Christian era.

The four types

Scriptural interpretation is sometimes referred to as the Quadriga, a reference to the Roman chariot pulled by four horses abreast. The four horses are symbolic of the four sub-methods of Scriptural interpretation. There are two main ways to interpret Scripture, further divided into three subgroups, hence the number four: Number 1: Literal/historical-critical: this is the most important and all other interpretations rely on it. Number 2a: Allegorical/Christological/Typological Number 2b: Tropological or moral Number 2c: Anagogical/Eschatological

  • Literal interpretation: explanation of the meaning of events for historical purposes from a neutral perspective, trying to understand the text in the culture and time it was written, and location and language it was composed in. This is, since the 19th century, usually ascertained using the higher critical methods like source criticism, form criticism, etc. In many modern seminaries and universities the literal meaning is usually focused on to a near complete abandonment of the spiritual methods. This is very obvious when comparing commentary from a Douay Rheims or Confraternity or Knox Bible with a New Jerusalem, New RSV or NABRE
  • Anagogic interpretation: dealing with the future events of Christian history(eschatology), heaven, purgatory, hell, the last judgement, the general resurrection and second Advent of Christ, etc. (prophecies).
  • Typological interpretation: connecting the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament, particularly drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ’s life with the stories of the Old Testament. Also when a passage speaks directly to you such as when St Francis of Asisi heard the passage to sell all he has and it changed his life. It can also typologically point to the Blessed Virgin Mary - she is the ark which held the Word of God, Judith who slayed a tyrant is a Marian type, the burning bush which containes the fire of God yet was not consumed as Mary held the Second Person of the Trinity in her Immaculate Virginal Womb and was not burnt up.
  • Tropological (or moral) interpretation: "the moral of the story", how one should act in the present. Many of Jesus' parables and the book of Proverbs and other wisdom books are packed with tropological meaning

A Latin rhyme designed to help scholars remember the four interpretations survives from the Middle Ages:

Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.

The rhyme is roughly translated: The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did, The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid, The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life, The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

In antiquity

Origen of Alexandria, in his Treatise on First Principles, recommends that the Old and New Testaments be interpreted allegorically at three levels, the first being the "flesh," the second the "soul," and the third the "spirit." Many of the events recounted in the Scriptures, interpreted in the literal or fleshly sense, Origen claims, are impossible. Many of the laws, when interpreted literally, are impossible or nonsensical. To get at the meaning of these passages, it is necessary to interpret them allegorically. Some connected passages will contain parts that are literally true and parts that are literally impossible. In this case, says Origen, "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."

In the New Testament

In Paul's Letter to the Galatians, the story of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) is interpreted allegorically (Gal 4:21-24). Paul treats Hagar's son Ishmael as an allegorical representation of the fleshly children of Abraham, and Sarah's son Isaac as an allegorical representation of the spiritual children of Abraham, the "children of the promise."

In the Middle Ages

Prominent theologians of the Middle Ages embraced non-literal interpretations of Genesis.

People of the Middle Ages shaped their ideas and institutions from drawing on the cultural legacies of the ancient world. They didn’t see the break between themselves and their predecessors that today’s observers see; they saw continuity with themselves and the ancient world using allegory to bring together the gaps. The use of allegorical interpretation in the Middle Ages began as a Christian method for studying the differences between the Old Testament and the New (tropological interpretation). Christian scholars believed both the Old and New Testament were equally inspired divinely by God and sought to understand the differences between Old Testament and New Testament Laws. Medieval scholars believed the Old Testament to serve as an allegory of New Testament events—such as the story of Jonah and the whale, which represents Jesus' death and resurrection. According to the Old Testament Book of Jonah, a prophet spent three days in the belly of a whale. Medieval scholars believed this was an allegory (using the typological interpretation) of Jesus' death and his being in the tomb for three days before he rose from the dead.

Another popular allegorical work studied in the Middle Ages comes from Plato's The Republic. In this episode, commonly known as the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. The work is an allegorical comment on the want of education in society at the time and the philosopher’s place in society as a teacher to enlighten the 'prisoners.'

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Allegorical interpretation of the Bible" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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