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ALLEGORY (Gr. allēgoreuein, from allos, other, and agoreuein, to speak in the assembly). The literary device is used extensively in Scripture, for example in Isa.5.1-Isa.5.7 and in the Song of Songs. To speak allegorically is to set forth one thing in the image of another, the principal subject being inferred from the figure rather than by direct statement. Clarity of inference differentiates between allegory and parable, because the latter usually requires an interpretation for the teaching that it parallels. Allegorizing (to be distinguished from the drawing out of spiritual truths from factual presentations) has had broad application in Bible teaching. Alexandrian Jews spiritualized Scripture. The church fathers followed, reaching an extreme in the school of Origen in which spiritualization attained great heights in mystical and moral meanings. In the allegory in Gal.4.24 Isaac, the child of promise, typifies the Christian who is justified in Christ and is free to love and serve his Father; while Ishmael, the child of contrivance, typifies the legalist who is under the law and is bound to serve it and to seek justification in obedience to it.——CEC

The use of language to convey a deeper and a different meaning from that which appears on the surface. The methodology was elaborated in the rhetorical schools of Greece, originally to relieve Homer of any charge of impiety or ignorance. The Jews of the Diaspora, influenced by Hellenistic culture, adopted the allegorical canon of exegesis in the interpretation of Scripture. The Jew Aristobulus (first half of the second century b.c.) appears to have been the first to apply the Stoic method to the Old Testament, but the Alexandrian Philo* is the Jewish allegorist par excellence. Any passage of Scripture where the literal sense would impugn the transcendent and holy character of God, or which suggests a contradiction, must be interpreted allegorically. In Palestinian usage the allegorical principle was less marked, less radical, and sought to keep close to the literal meaning of the text.

In biblical usage a distinction must be drawn between allegory as a medium of revelation and allegory as a method of interpretation. There are undoubtedly allegorical passages in Scripture; Paul explicitly declares his use of the method in Galatians 4:21-31 (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4), but evidently this was a departure from his usual practice. In the early church, allegory found expression, e.g., in the works of Clement of Rome,* Irenaeus,* and Tertullian*; it was carried to excess in the Alexandrian School.* Jerome, Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine gave more or less prominence to the allegorical hermeneutic. Bernard of Clairvaux* was the supreme allegorist of the Middle Ages. Aquinas took up the earlier fourfold system of interpretation and made it normative for Catholicism. At all periods there were those who felt uneasy about or were openly opposed to allegory—e.g., the Antiochene School.* Theodore of Mopsuestia* wrote five books, Against the Allegorists. It was not, however, until the time of the Reformation that the allegorical method was seriously challenged; Reformed theologians generally rejected it, subscribing instead to the principle “Do not carry a meaning into but draw it out of (the Scriptures).”

F.W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (1886), pp. 127ff.; J. Tate, “The Beginning of Greek Allegory,” Classical Quarterly, LXI (1927), pp. 214f.; P.K. Jewett, “Concerning Allegorical Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal (1954), pp. 1f.; R.P.C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (1959); E.C. Blackman, “Allegory-Plato to Augustine,” Biblical Interpretation (1957).

ALLEGORY. The word is a combination of ἄλλος, G257, other, and ἀγορεύειν, to speak, and it means, literally, to speak in a way that is other than what is meant. Allegory, therefore, is a tool whereby a writer conveys hidden, mysterious truths by the use of words which also have a literal meaning. Even if the writer did not intend the hidden meaning, allegory is a method of interpreting a poet, a story teller, or a Scripture in such a way that the interpreter sees a mysterious meaning which the writer may not have intended. This view, that there is a deep meaning not intended by the writer, accompanies Scripture interpretation more often than it accompanies the interpretations of other writings, because it is understood by many that the Holy Spirit might well have conveyed to future generations, as He inspired the writers of the Bible, meanings that were not at all evident to the writers themselves. Spencer’s Faerie Queen, Swift’s Tale of a Tub, and, above all in Eng. lit., Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress are allegories. It is evident that their authors themselves intended deeper meanings than are seen on the surface. In Bunyan’s allegory, thought up and written down for his own devotional exercise, the people whom Pilgrim meets on his journey, the obstacles he encounters, and the journey’s final culmination are all intended to tell a deeply religious story about a person’s journey through this life and on into heaven—a story that runs alongside the literal story.

Because, in a given allegory, one often has repeated instances of a deeper meaning attaching to a tale, allegory has often been called “a sustained metaphor.” The hidden meaning is not as obvious as in a simile, where something is said to be like something else; e.g., where the psalmist says, “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Ps 42:1). A metaphor is more subtle than a simile as when Jesus says, of Herod, “Go and tell that fox...” (Luke 13:32). The metaphor is a less obvious comparison, but often more vivid and more direct and, therefore, more communicative than a simile. An allegory, which is a sustained metaphor, often contains repeated strokes in which a deeper meaning is drawn, along with a story that has also a literal meaning.

A parable is at least somewhat sustained, as a full-fledged allegory is; but a typical parable gathers a truth up in order to teach one important matter, whereas an allegory is not unified to that extent and teaches numerous hidden truths throughout the story. The fable, used esp. among the ancient Latins, is similar to the parable in being a sustained story about a fictitious event, but it often treats things and animals as though they were persons. Some consider Judges 9:8 as a fable, where Jotham says that “trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’”

An allegory is different from an analogy, for it appeals to the imagination, whereas an analogy appeals to the reason. An analogy given as a puzzle is a riddle (examples being in Judg 14:14; Ezek 17:3-21).

Typology succeeds when there are earlier things and places, and even persons, which are similar to later ones and are, therefore, thought of as meaningful anticipations of the later ones. The Book of Hebrews abounds in these. An allegory is different, in that its hidden meaning is inherent, and does not depend on certain later historical developments.

Allegory in the Bible.

There is some use of allegory in the OT itself. More than anywhere else in that body of lit. allegory is found in the Book of Ezekiel. That prophet was a poet, and he preferred to say or act out something that had a deeply spiritual meaning, instead of writing down prose that has simply a literal significance (see J. Kenneth Grider, “Commentary on Ezekiel,” Beacon Bible Commentary, IV [1966], 566ff.).

Many Jewish and Christian scholars have supposed that the Song of Solomon is an allegory. Ancient Jewish scholars usually interpreted this book as depicting God’s love for Israel. Christian scholars have often interpreted it as an allegory depicting Christ’s love for His Church. This way of interpreting that beautiful love story, on the part of both the Rabbinical and Christian scholars, arises out of a Gr. influenced notion that the human body, with its sexual desires, is sinful and that the story, therefore, could not mean what it says—that a man is attracted to a maid, and the maid to the man, and that attraction is described.

The Book of Revelation employs allegory, however, where such references as “woman” (12:1), “creatures” (4:6; 19:4), and a “white horse” (6:2; 19:11) must be interpreted as having a deeper-than-literal meaning. So many allegories, in fact, appear in this book, that, due to these mysterious figures, Martin Luther, who preferred plain teachings to obscure ones, did not include Revelation among the first-class books of his canon.

Most notable and most explicit of the NT writers, in the use of allegory, is the Apostle Paul. He did not resort to it frequently, as Philo did earlier, and as Origen did later, but it is found in his writings. Paul even names as an allegory one of his interpretations of the OT. In a well-known passage in Galatians (4:21-31) he refers to Abraham’s “free” wife, Sarah, and his “slave” wife, Hagar, and says, “Now this is an allegory [ἀλληγορούμενα]: these women are two covenants....Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia....”

Another definite allegory is in Paul’s interpretation of the law forbidding the muzzling of an ox as teaching that the Christian Church should support its ministers financially. After stating that Christ’s ministers have the right to live by their ministry, he gives as authority for his view Moses’ law that the ox should not be muzzled as it treads out the grain. Paul is so allegorical at this point that he denies the literal sense of the Mosaic law on this matter. He asks, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (1 Cor 9:9). He implies “No” by another question: “Does he not speak entirely for our sake?” (9:10). Then he puts it into a positive statement, adding, “It was written for our sake...” (9:10).

There might be an instance of allegory in Paul’s stating, of the Rock from which the Israelites “all drank” in the wilderness, that “the Rock was Christ” (10:4). Some scholars question whether this is an allegory because Paul might have meant that Christ really was the One who sustained them at that time. Yet, He is called a “Rock,” and this figure is an allegory.

Besides allegories, Paul and other NT writers (esp. the writer of Hebrews) use typology, as was mentioned earlier, which is similar to allegory, but is different in that something referred to in the OT, e.g. Egypt, the Jordan, or Canaan, means more than what it does literally, and is symbolical of, or a type of, teachings on such matters as sin and grace which appear in the NT.

Extra-Biblical allegory.

No one knows just when the interpretation of lit. by the allegorical method of discerning hidden meaning first began, but it was at least several centuries before the Christian era. Among the earliest known usages of this method are those connected with interpretations of Homer. Theogenes of Rhegium (c. 520 b.c.) was prob. the earliest Homeric allegorist.

Homer had talked of battles, injustices, immoralities, and other imperfections among the gods, and as the Greeks became more ethically sensitive, they began to interpret Homer allegorically, so as to make him more palatable. Plato was aware of such interpretations. In the Republic, speaking of “the battles of the Gods in Homer,” he says that “...these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not” (Plato, Best Known Works, tr. B. Jowett. [1942, 1946]). He adds, “For the young person can not judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind...should be models of virtuous thoughts” (ibid.).

Plato is aware, then, of the allegorical interpretation of Homer, and of other Gr. poets for that matter, but he does not try to save them by any such device. He says, simply, “Then we must not listen to Homer...” (ibid., 47).

The poetry of Homer, which was the oldest lit. the Greeks possessed, became quasisacred for the Greeks, and many of them, esp. the Stoics, tried to salvage such lit. by supposing that it did not mean what it said, and that it contained instead hidden meanings which were deeply moral and ennobling. It was popular to be known as teaching what Homer taught, so the Stoics interpreted Homer allegorically to make him not only morally palatable, but also to bring him into harmony with their own philosophy.

A Jew by the name of Aristobulus, who lived during the early half of the 2nd cent. b.c., was prob. the earliest allegorist of the OT. He was confident that Moses had taught what Plato and other Gr. philosophers later advocated. Portions of Aristobulus’ work have survived in Eusebius, the 4th cent. historian, in which, for example, David’s adultery is allegorized so as to make him a model of virtue.

In some of the Apoc. books there is allegory, as in Wisdom 16, where the daily manna by which Israel had been fed was taken to refer to God’s people being fed upon God’s word.

Well-known is the fact that Philo of Alexandria (49 b.c.-a.d. 20) also allegorized the OT to harmonize it with Plato and other Gr. philosophers. He “summoned to his aid, as the solvent of all problems, the system of allegorical interpretation” (J. Drummond, Philo Judaeus [1888], 18). A real extremist in this matter was this Jewish philosopher. Scripture, which Philo thought of as divine, contains a literal sense, he felt, but that sense is not important. What is important is its spiritual, mystical meaning. Just as our bodies are less important than our souls, so, for Philo, the literal meaning is less important than the fig.

While Justin Martyr, as a Christian, uses the allegorical method of interpretation in order to make what was later called the OT and NT teach Gr. philosophy, it remained for Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen (185-254) to capitalize upon this method for commenting on the Scriptures. Along with this method’s use so as to baptize some of their Platonic views into Christianity (e.g., Origen’s view of the soul’s preëxistence), they used the method to baptize Judaistic faith, esp. in the prophetic and the poetic books, into Christianity (see Clement’s Stromata, VII, 16, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, II; [1897]; and Origen’s Concerning Principles, Books 4, 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers [1887], IV, 349ff.).

Until Luther, Origen and his like prevailed. Indeed, it was often a far more puerile allegorizing of Scripture that prevailed. The School of Antioch sounded alarms against the method but such alarms were seldom heeded. Jerome seemed to be aware of the divorcement from Scripture which such interpretation could produce, and he said many unkind things about the allegorical method used by Origen and others. Yet he resorted to this method frequently, even when he had no important reasons for doing so. Origen often had reasons for allegorizing which were philosophically important to him. Jerome would allegorize for purely fanciful and frivolous reasons (for a careful and documented study of this, see Frederic Farrar, History of Interpretation [1886], 222ff.).

Augustine (354-430) likewise had sound things to say about rules for interpreting Scripture, and yet he seemed oblivious to his own rules in his actual comments on Scripture. He was even more fanciful than Jerome in his allegorizing. On the theory that nothing in Scripture could possibly oppose his own theology, and that of what he considered Christian orthodoxy, he fit Scripture into his own scheme by mystical interpretations.

With all Aquinas’s (1225-1274) acumen as a theologian, he was like the Scholastics in general, including his teacher, the encyclopedic Albert the Great, in fanciful flights of allegory in Scripture interpretation.

Just after the time of Aquinas, the little known Nicholas of Lyra exegeted the Scriptures with real respect for the literal sense. This method was little heeded, and not until the Reformation itself was there a real breaking of the stranglehold of the allegorical method upon the church’s interpretation of Scripture.

As is well-known, Martin Luther (1483-1546) did far more than anyone up to his time to break down the traditional use of allegory in Scripture interpretation. Only one or two of the Scholastics had taken the pains to learn the Gr. and Heb. well. Even Aquinas was a poor linguist. Luther, however, knew Heb. and Gr. well and had a doctoral degree in the Holy. Scriptures. He not only translated the entire Bible into German (NT, 1522; OT, 1534), but he also wrote many commentaries. In these, he often resorted to allegory, esp. to see Christ referred to in Genesis and other OT books such as the Psalms; but for the most part he advanced and supported the method of interpreting Scripture from the standpoint of what is in the grammar and the historical situation in which the passage is set.

John Calvin (1509-1564), more consistent than Luther, avoided the allegorical method. He helped measurably in establishing the tradition, to the present time, in which, while the allegorical method has not been ruled out, it is used only with care even as it is in the NT.


F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (1886); Origen of Alexandria, Concerning Principles, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, IV (1887); J. Drummond, Philo Judaeus (1888); Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Ante-Nicene Library, 11 (1897); Plato, Best Known Works of Plato (1942); R. M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (1948); E. C. Blackman, Biblical Interpretation (1957); J. F. Walvoord, Inspiration and Interpretation (1957); R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (1959); J. K. Grider, Ezekiel, Beacon Bible Commentary, IV (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

al’-e-go-ri: The term allegory, being derived from allo agoreuein, signifying to say something different from what the words themselves imply, can etymologically be applied to any figurative form of expression of thought. In actual usage in theology, the term is employed in a restricted sense, being used however in three ways, namely, rhetorically, hermeneutically and homiletically. In the first-mentioned sense it is the ordinary allegory of rhetoric, which is usually defined as an extended or continued metaphor, this extension expanding from two or more statements to a whole volume, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegories of this character abound in the Scriptures, both in Old Testament and in New Testament. Instructive examples of this kind are found in Ps 80:8-19; Ec 12:3-7; Joh 10:1-16; Eph 6:11-17. According to traditional interpretation of both the Jewish exegesis and of the Catholic and Protestant churches the entire book of Canticles is such an allegory. The subject is discussed in full in Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics, etc., chapter vii, 214-38.

In the history of Biblical exegesis allegory represents a distinct type of interpretation, dating back to pre-Christian times, practiced particularly by the Alexandrian Jews, and adopted by the early Church Fathers and still practiced and defended by the Roman Catholic church. This method insists that the literal sense, particularly of historical passages, does not exhaust the divinely purposed meaning of such passages, but that these latter also include a deeper and higher spiritual and mystical sense. The fourfold sense ascribed to the Scriptures finds its expression in the well-known saying: Littera gesta docet; quid credas, allegorica; moralis, quid agas, quid speres, anagogica ("The letter shows things done; what you are to believe, the allegoric; what you are to do, the moral; what you are to hope, the anagogic"), according to which the allegorical is the hidden dogmatical meaning to be found in every passage.

Cremer, in his Biblico-Theological New Testament Lexicon, shows that this method of finding a hidden thought behind the simple statement of a passage, although practiced so extensively on the Jewish side by Aristobulus and especially Philo, is not of Jewish origin, but was, particularly by the latter, taken from the Alexandrian Greeks (who before this had interpreted Greek mythology as the expression of higher religious conceptions) and applied to a deeper explanation of Old Testament historical data, together with its theophanies, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathies, and the like, which in their plain meaning were regarded as unworthy of a place in the Divine revelation of the Scriptures. Such allegorizing became the common custom of the early Christian church, although not practiced to the same extent in all sections, the Syrian church exhibiting the greatest degree of sobriety in this respect. In this only Jewish precedent was followed; the paraphrases commonly known as the Targum, the Midrash, and later in its most extreme form in the Kabbalah, all showed this mark of eisegesis instead of exegesis. This whole false hermeneutical principle and its application originated doubtless in an unhistorical conception of what the Scriptures are and how they originated. It is characteristic of the New Testament, and one of the evidences of its inspiration, that in the entire Biblical literature of that age, both Jewish and Christian, it is the only book that does not practice allegorizing but abides by the principle of the literal interpretation. Nor is Paul’s exegesis in Ga 4:21-31 an application of false allegorical methods. Here in Ga 4:24 the term allegoroumena need not be taken in the technical sense as expressive of a method of interpretation, but merely as a paraphrase of the preceding thought; or, if taken technically, the whole can be regarded as an argumentum ad hominem, a way of demonstration found also elsewhere in Paul’s writings.

The Protestant church, beginning with Luther, has at all times rejected this allegorizing and adhered to the safe and sane principle, practiced by Christ and the entire New Testament, namely, Sensum ne inferas, sed efferas ("Do not carry a meaning into (the Scriptures) but draw it out of (the Scriptures)"). It is true that the older Protestant theology still adheres to a sensus mysticus in the Scriptures, but by this it means those passages in which the sense is conveyed not per verba (through words), but per res verbis descriptas ("through things described by means of words"), as e.g. in the parable and the type.

In homiletics allegorizing is applied to the method which draws spiritual truths from common historical statements, as e.g. when the healing of a leper by Christ is made the basis of an exposition of the healing of the soul by the Saviour. Naturally this is not interpretation in the exegetical sense.