1. Adam Kamesar, “The Bible Comes to the West: The Text and Interpretation of the Bible in Its Greek and Latin Forms,” Living Traditions of the Bible, ed. James E. Bowley (St. Louis: Chalice, 1999) 57.
A famous example of Origen’s use of the allegorical method, which caused much controversy a century later, is his interpretation of the “garments of skin” in Genesis 3:21. According to the biblical text, after Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden fruit, God made “garments of skin” for them to wear and expelled them from the garden of Eden. For Origen, this passage was rather crass and anthropomorphic. It simply could not be accepted that God would make clothes for Adam and Eve. So he interpreted the text along Platonic lines to the effect that originally everything was pure essence, without material existence. Platonism stressed the existence of a transcendent, nonphysical world of forms and ultimate realities beyond the material. Originally, in that mode, humans were just souls. The making of the “garments of skin” is an allegory that indicates that at a certain point humans took on bodily form, covered by skin. Origen rejected the literal sense of Scripture in that particular verse and favored an allegorical interpretation.
When I first read this, I wondered why Origen’s interpretation of Genesis 3:21 would be considered “allegorical” rather than “literal.” It apparently was, for, a few centuries earlier, Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.) had the same sort of interpretation, and he called it “figurative,” whereas he labelled as “literal” the view that God clothed Adam and Eve with a garment made of skins (Questions and Answers on Genesis I:53). But the Hebrew of Genesis 3:21 literally reads, “And the LORD God made for Adam and Eve garments of skin, and he clothed them.” Couldn’t the “skin” be human skin rather than that of an animal, meaning God after the Fall clothed Adam and Eve with their human flesh? That would be another way to apply the Hebrew word “or.” But it’s not an allegorical interpretation, for it’s not seeking a hidden meaning behind the word. Rather, it’s a literal approach that interprets a word in a certain manner: as human skin rather than animal skin.
But many scholars agree that Philo did not know Hebrew, and Origen probably preferred the Septuagint, even though at one point he composed a Hexapla of different Bible versions. And, instead of “skin,” the Greek Septuagint uses a word that means “leather,” dermitinos. Granted, dermitinos is related to a word for “skin,” dermatos, from which we get the word “dermatologist.” But dermitinos technically means “leather,” so, in order to arrive at their interpretations, Philo and Origen had to use allegory, interpreting the leather as a symbol for human flesh.
The view of Philo and Origen was probably rooted in the Greek view (or, more accurately, a Greek view) that prioritized mind over matter and emphasized an ascetic taming of the flesh.
2. Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint (New York: T&T Clark, 2004) 15.
Sometimes [the LXX translator of Deuteronomy] appears to ‘update’ his translation. In 23:18, for instance, he apparently adds initiation into the Greek mysteries to the list of forbidden practices.
The LXX of Deuteronomy 23:18 appears as follows in Brenton’s English translation. The relevant word is in bold-face:
There shall not be a harlot of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be a fornicator of the sons of Israel; there shall not be an idolatress of the daughters of Israel, and there shall not be an initiated person of the sons of Israel.
The Hebrew merely has the following (according to the NRSV): None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute.
According to Dines, the LXX translator added stuff to Deuteronomy to update the document, so that it could speak to Jews living in the Greek world, amidst all of its temptations. I’m not sure how the translator handled the prohibitions in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 on adding to the Book of Deuteronomy. He certainly translates those passages to mean “thou shalt not add to it!” Maybe he felt that he technically wasn’t adding, but was applying the ancient rules to the concerns of his day and age.
Do people of faith do that today? I’m sure that they do, though I can’t think of good examples right now. One example: the Bible’s prohibition on idolatry doesn’t speak to everyone today, since not many in the West today worship idols of wood and stone (though there are people who worship gods and goddesses). And so people apply the label “idolatry” to greed (as does Colossians 3:5), or watching too much TV, or putting anything ahead of God and religion. We’re trying to apply an ancient document to our modern concerns. Sometimes, our attempts are a stretch. At other times, they are faithful to the spirit of the biblical authors.