Allegorical interpretation of the Bible

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.[1]

The four types

Christian allegorical map of The Journey of Life, or an Accurate Map of the Roads, Counties, Towns &c. in the Ways to Happiness & Misery, 1775

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

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.[6]

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.[6]

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."[7]

In the New Testament

Paul's Letter to the Galatians interprets the story of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) 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

People of the Middle Ages shaped their ideas and institutions from drawing on the cultural legacies of the ancient world.[8] 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.[8] 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).[8] 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.[9] Medieval scholars believed the Old Testament to serve as an allegory of New Testament eventssuch as the story of Jonah and the whale, which represents Jesus' death and resurrection.[8] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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

External links

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  1. Stephan A. Barney (1989). "Allegory". Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol-1. ISBN 0-684-16760-3.
  2. Glucksberg, Sam (2001-07-26). Understanding Figurative Language from Metaphor to Idioms: From Metaphor to Idioms. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195111095.
  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, S.V. "Anagogical Interpretation", Accessed March 15, 2013.
  4. Hyde, Virginia (1992). The Risen Adam: D.H. Lawrence’s Revisionist Typology. ISBN 0271028459.
  5. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). “Scriptural Tropology”. Catholic Encyclopaedia. Robert Appleton Company.
  6. 1 2 Grant, Robert M. (1963). A Short History of Biblical Interpretation. New York. ISBN 0800617622
  7. On First Principles, in Readings in World Christian History (2013), p. 75
  8. 1 2 3 4 William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman (2001). Discovering the Middle Ages. The Teaching Company. ISBN 1-56585-701-1
  10. Stephan A. Barney (1989). “Allegory.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol-1. ISBN 0-684-16760-3.
  11. Watt, Stephen (1997), "Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5–7)", Plato: Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, pp. pages xiv–xvi, ISBN 1-85326-483-0
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