Literal and Allegorical Meaning

Yehoshua Amir, “Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 446-448.

“We may conclude, then, that on the whole, despite certain escapades, Philo recognizes a dual meaning of Scripture, neither sacrificing the literal meaning to the allegorists, nor allowing the literalists to contest his right to allegorize.”

Philo viewed much of the Hebrew Bible as an allegory for Greek philosophical ideas, particularly those of Stoicism. An example: For Philo, Joseph’s coat of many colors represented the Peripatetic ideal of having a variety of good things (e.g., social position, wealth, etc.), and, if my memory serves me correctly, Philo was not exactly a Peripatetic. Philo often assumes that the stories of the Hebrew Bible represent timeless ideas.

But did Philo believe that the Joseph story happened, or did he view it as just an allegory? According to this quote, he tended to maintain that the Scripture had both a literal truth and also a symbolic one. He opposed the extreme allegorizers, who thought that the Jews should abandon the literal observance of the law and just go with its allegorical meaning.

There were times, however, when Philo was dimissive of the literal meaning. For example, he thought that the idea that God planted a garden in Eden was ridiculous, since God does not plant. For Philo, the Bible often used anthropomorphisms of God “for the instruction of the many,” who, in the words of Yehoshua Amir, “can only be induced to follow the law through fear of an anthropomorphic God.”

That sounds to me like a white lie. Is God above using white lies for the instruction and benefit of humanity? I thought it was impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2).

The issue of literal and allegorical interpretations of Scripture is significant in light of Tom Harpur’s book, The Pagan Christ. Harpur essentially argues that the Egyptian myths and the story of Christ were only allegories in the minds of the ancients, in that they symbolized a deeper spiritual truth: humans acknowledging the “God within” and reaching their potential. For Harpur, Christians before the fourth century (I think) did not believe that the stories in the Gospel were literal and historical, but they viewed them as a symbol for something else. Harpur refers to Origen, who used an allegorical approach to Scripture.

I think that Harpur is stretching things, since, even though ancient interpreters may have believed that the biblical stories were symbolic, they also thought that they could be literal and historical. Origen included “literal interpretation” as one of his exegetical options. I think he believed that Jesus Christ existed, even if the Gospels could have a deeper spiritual truth (which I doubt was New Agey).

At the same time, I wonder if Origen and ancient interpreters were always fundamentalist, seeking to harmonize Scriptural contradictions to make the Bible appear historically consistent. I vaguely recall that Origen did not always use such an approach. When the literal meaning appeared ridiculous, he dug deeper to see if there was an allegorical meaning. So, if I’m not mistaken, he could reject the literal meaning in favor of the allegorical meaning.

But please don’t cite me on this (not that anyone will), for I have not exhaustively studied Origen.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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