Attempts to define allegory vary. The simplest way to understand it is etymologically: “saying something other” (derived from allos [“other”] and agoreuein [“to declare”]). Heraclitus (ca. 540–480 B.C.E.) wrote, “For the trope that declares one thing [alla men agoreuon] but signifies something other [hetera] than what is said, is called—quite appropriately—allegory [allegoria]” (All. 5.2). The ancients used a number of terms to indicate the other sense, including hyponoia (“underlying meaning”), aenigma (“enigma”), and symbolon (“symbol”). While some texts were composed as allegories, such as Psychomachia (Battle of the Soul) by Prudentius and On the Marriage of Mercury and Philology by Martinaus Capella, I will restrict the present article to the interpretation of texts allegorically (allegoresis).

Distinguishing allegory from typology is commonplace within Christian scholarship. For example, some suggest that typology deals with events (like the Exodus) or people (such as Abraham) but allegory, with words or that allegory points to a different semantic level, while typology sets up equivalents in a specific comparison. Similarly, it is not uncommon to encounter classifications of subtypes of allegory: e.g., “substitutive” allegory, which posits a one-to-one correspondence between the text and some secondary system, versus “diaretic” allegory, which explores a whole scene. However, the ancients did not generally recognize distinctions between allegory and typology or the subcategories of allegory; they simply read texts figuratively. Further, it is difficult to sustain such distinctions when applied to ancient texts. It is best to think of allegory and typology along a continuum of symbolic or figural interpretation and not to overdraw distinctions. Allegoresis comprehends the process of reading texts figurally.

Allegoresis was most frequently applied to texts that had authoritative status, whether Homer for Greeks or the scriptures for Jews and Christians. It served both to deflect criticisms against the text and to allow its interpreters to offer a reading that resonated with their audience. Allegoresis often involved using a philosophical lens or a particular ideological framework. While it often strikes a modern reader as whimsical, ancient readers could be quite serious about reading out of the text and not into it.

Allegoresis in the Greek and Roman Worlds.

The origins of allegorical interpretation are now lost. Evidence for its beginnings is found as early as the sixth century B.C.E. in the work of Theagenes of Rhegium who defended Homer’s depiction of the clashes among the gods as a cosmological allegory of the clash among natural elements. Pherecydes and Metrodorus are also credited with cosmological interpretations of the Homeric epics. These interpreters were probably reacting to criticisms leveled against Homer. For example, Xenophanes accused Homer and Hesiod of attributing to the gods everything shameful among humans (Sextus, Math. 9.193; Diogenes Laertius, 9.18).

The most famous critic of Homer in the ancient world was Plato. Although he composed several famous allegories, such as the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Er in the Republic, Plato argued that Homer should be banished from his ideal city (Resp. 379D, 398A, 595B). Plato’s criticisms provoked aversion of allegorical interpretation among members of the New Academy (Cicero, Nat. d. 1.42).

Another group of Socrates’s intellectual heirs reacted differently. The Stoa laid claim to Homer instead of banishing him; in fact, they were accused of making early poets into Stoics (Cicero, Nat. d. 1.41). Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoa, is said to have written five books on Homeric questions (Diogenes Laertius, 7.4). The “second founder of the Stoa,” Chrysippus, is said to have based Stoic theology on the poets (Philodemus, Piet. 13). Unfortunately, we only have testimonia and fragments of all early Stoic writings. From those, as well as from later Stoic writings, it appears that members of the early Stoa used different methods for interpreting Homer’s epics, such as etymologies and etiological explanations of myths. Whether we can properly credit the early Stoa with allegory as we can such later figures as Cornutus (fl. first century C.E.) and Heraclitus is disputed. The consensus is that the Stoa offered more than etymological interpretations; they made allegorical interpretations through etymologies.

Later Platonists moved away from Plato’s strong criticism of Homer and allegorical interpretation. Like the Stoic philosopher and Egyptian priest Chaeremon, who interpreted Egyptian texts allegorically through the lens of Stoicism, a number of Middle Platonists read Eastern texts allegorically through Platonic prisms. Plutarch offered an interpretation of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris myth (Is. Os.), and Numenius of Apamea interpreted the Jewish scriptures as well as other Eastern traditions allegorically (frgs. 1a, 1b, 1c; see des Places, 2003). Thus, allegory provided a means to bridge sacred traditions from the East and philosophical thought from the West.

Among the Neoplatonists allegorical interpretation of the Homeric poems was a standard practice. For example, Porphyry wrote an allegorical treatise on the Odyssey 13.96–112 (Antr. nymph.) in which the cave is a symbol for the cosmos. He interpreted the scene in the Odyssey as the journey of the soul. Similarly, Proclus wrote a famous allegorical interpretation of Plato’s Myth of Er in his commentary on the Republic. Such perspectives were mediated to the West through several Christian Neoplatonists, most notably Calcidius and John Scotus Erigena’s translations of Pseudo-Dionysius in the ninth century C.E.

Allegoresis in Hellenistic Judaism.

Jews learned to interpret their sacred texts allegorically as early as the second century B.C.E. The first example is Aristobulus, whose five fragments interpreted the Passover cosmologically (frg. 1; Holladay, 1983–1996), the anthropomorphic references to God figuratively (frgs. 2 and 4), and the sabbath cosmologically (frg. 5). Aristobulus explained his method: “I want to urge you to accept the interpretations according to a philosophical rationale [physikos] and to grasp a fitting conception of God. … For what our lawgiver Moses wishes to explain, he does so in multiple levels for one order (I mean the things that have an appearance), yet he is setting out conditions that are understood through philosophy and constructions of a greater order” (frg. 2).

A later second-century B.C.E. author wrote an account of the origins of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures under the pseudonym of Aristeas. In the course of this story, Pseudo-Aristeas presented the Jewish high priest Eleazar as explaining the nature of the law, especially the laws dealing with kashrut, or purity concerns: “For in general everything is similarly constituted in relation to philosophical reasoning, administered by one power and in each case there is a profound reason for our refraining from the use of some things and use of others” (Let. Aris. 143). According to Eleazar, Moses set out these matters allegorically (tropologon) to teach moral values (Let. Aris. 150). For example, Moses understood the distinction between unclean and clean birds to refer to birds that are carnivores and birds that are vegetarians: the former represent those who oppress and the latter, those who are just. Pseudo-Aristeas used the language of signification (semeiosis), signify (semeioyn), and sign (semeion) to capture scripture’s underlying meaning.

The most famous Jewish allegorical interpreter was Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E.–ca. 50 C.E.). Philo wrote three massive commentaries on the Pentateuch. The first, The Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus, works through the text sequentially, posing questions and offering answers first on a literal level and then on an allegorical level. The Allegorical Commentary works through Genesis 2–18 sequentially, interpreting the text allegorically. The commentary is organized by lemmata, or phrases drawn from the biblical text, which are often connected to secondary or even tertiary lemmata from other passages by means of catchwords or thematic associations. Philo organized his running commentary in scrolls that often have a unifying theme. His final commentary, covering the entire Pentateuch, was organized into three parts: creation, history, and laws (Rewards 1–3; see also Mos. 2.45–47; Abr. 1–6). Philo typically paraphrased the biblical text in a form that reminds a reader of rewritten scripture, then offered an allegorical interpretation. While his use of scripture varied in these different commentary series, allegorical interpretation lay at the heart of his enterprise. Like Plutarch and Numenius, Philo used Middle Platonism as a lens through which he read Moses. Jerome’s famous aphorism “Either Plato Philonizes or Philo Platonizes” (Vir. Ill. 11) captures Philo’s ontological and epistemological framework. The basic orientation of his interpretations of the Pentateuch may be characterized as the allegory of the soul, its ascent to an encounter with the divine. Philo’s thought is thus theological, although he emphasized virtue as a means for the ascent.

Allegoresis in Early Christianity.

Early Christians used allegorical interpretation. Paul compared the events of the Exodus to the Corinthians’ situation (1 Cor 10:1–13). He called the events of the original Exodus “types” (typoi) and said that they happened typologically (typikos). Similarly, he offered an allegorical interpretation of the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion (Gal 4:21–29). In this case, Paul said that these figures were allegories (allegoroumena). In 2 Corinthians 3:4–18, the apostle offered a commentary on the tent of meeting (Exod 34:30–35) without marking his interpretation with technical terms for a figural interpretation.

The parables attributed to Jesus were interpreted allegorically in some of the earliest stages of the gospel tradition (thus the allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower in Mark 4:13–20//Matt 13:18–23//Luke 8:11–15). Adolf Jülicher (1857–1938) famously reacted against allegorical interpretations of the parables and insisted that the original parables had a single meaning. More recent parable research considers the parables to be metaphorical in nature and refuses to constrict meaning to a single reading since a metaphor is provocative by nature and invites different interpretations. This reopens the door to allegorical readings, which were certainly options for the early church. Among the Synoptics, Matthew demonstrates a particular penchant for allegorical interpretation of parables; thus, the parable of the evil tenants is an allegory of Matthew’s understanding of salvation history (Matt 21:33–46).

During the second century allegorical readings expanded. The Valentinians were famous for their allegorical interpretations. It may be that Valentinus himself should be regarded more as an allegorical interpreter, situated between Philo and Clement of Alexandria and less as a Gnostic. It was in these circles and those directly linked with Clement and then Origen that allegorical interpretations of New Testament texts became an important feature of Christian life.

Clement and Origen were indebted to Philo; like their Jewish predecessor, they used Middle Platonism as a lens by which they read the scriptures. Aware of Alexandrian scholarship on Homer and allegorical interpretations of the epics, Origen thought that the same approach could be applied to Christian texts (Cels. 1.42). He argued that the inconsistencies of the biblical text were not accidents but were deliberately placed in the text to point the attentive reader to the deeper allegorical reading (Princ. 4.2.9). Augustine would later make a similar point. He had been put off by the poor stylistic quality of the Old Latin Bible and by the stories within the Old Testament in particular. It was not until he met Ambrose, who taught him to read the text allegorically, that he found beauty within the biblical text (Conf. 6.3). Augustine would later echo Origen’s view that textual difficulties were deliberate (Doctr. chr. 2.6.7). For both Origen and Augustine, the real meaning of the text was uncovered by allegoresis. Like Philo, Origen compared scripture to a body (Philo, Contempl. Life 78; Origen, Princ. 4.2.4 and Hom. Lev. 5.1). Origen thought that scripture had three levels of meaning—Philo recognized only two—just as a human consisted of body, soul, and spirit. Allegoresis allowed him to explore the different levels. From Clement and Origen on, the practice of allegoresis became part of the Christian tradition.

The value that allegoresis offered ancient authors was that it gave them the opportunity to avoid the limits imposed by the original social setting of the texts and to read them in light of the social settings of their own time. With the rise of a return ad fontes (“to the sources”) and the emphasis on historical perspectives, allegorical readings lost their standing. The primary interpretive move shifted to situating the text in the ancient world rather than in the modern world.




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Gregory E. Sterling