An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 2)

Part One

 3. Allegorical Interpretation continued.

But what we must keep in mind is that allegorical interpretation was not foreign to Jewish understanding of their Scriptures in the first century.  Maier can say, “Jewish interpreters of the first century were convinced that the Holy Scriptures contained more than what the sensus literalis offered.” – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 68.

Thus, we should not yield to the naïve temptation to think that the Jews held to single-sense literal hermeneutics.

So what did the use of allegory accomplish?  In one important sense it enabled Christians in earlier ages to locate themselves and their situations in the Bible story.  As one writer puts it,

“…allegory was one of the main means by which Scripture continued to be a channel of the life of Christ to the church, rather than a dead letter.  It especially helped maintain the identity of a people.  It enabled Christians of the fourth, or seventh or fourteenth centuries to see themselves in the sacred text – and they can still do so today.  It is a community building manoeuvre, in which Christians of any ‘present’ are bonded with those of the past.” – Stephen I. Wright, “Inhabiting the Story,” in Behind The Text, eds, Craig Barthlomew, etc. 509.

Looked at that way, it is easy to see the attraction of allegory, just as it is easy to understand the urge to apply every verse in the Bible to Jesus Christ, or to erect large theological edifices via typology today.

4. From The Third to the Fifth Centuries.

It is no coincidence that allegorical interpretations of Scripture filtered into both the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church via Alexandria.  It was there that Clement (c. A.D. 150-215), and Origen (c, A.D. 185-254), used allegory to find ‘deeper’ meanings in the OT and NT. They particularly found difficulty in assigning OT prophecies about Israel to the Christian Church. But by discovering a mystical sense to Scripture, they could reassign troublesome passages and explain away what appeared to them to be incongruities within the Bible. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who was a native of North Africa, was the greatest theologian-philosopher of the Early Church.  He came to Christ through allegory (Maier, 69).  It was his endorsement of the allegorical method of interpretation which had the decisive influence upon hermeneutics up until the time of the Reformation. Thus it was that early Roman Catholic allegorism was given its impetus by the Alexandrian school under Clement and Origen, and then through the Bishop of Hippo.

Origen’s prominence as a Bible scholar influenced many interpreters of the Latin church. One of these, the Donatist Tychonius, was the man who would set out the principles of interpretation which Augustine would follow in his ideal of relating everything to Christ. A major premise of Augustine’s interpretation was that the Catholic Church was the City of God – the kingdom. Therefore, Old Testament statements which gave promises to Israel were to be re-interpreted so that the promises were now inherited by the Church.  He often allegorized Old Testament passages in order to solve its “problems.”  He did this so skillfully that it is hard to resist his conclusions, even if they are drawn precariously from an allegorical method.

Augustine’s elder contemporary, Jerome (c. A.D. 341-420), was a man of great learning, particularly in Hebrew and Greek. Although his first commentaries followed the allegorical approach, later in life he adopted a far more literal hermeneutic. This was due, in the main, to the influence upon him of the Antiochene school, which we will describe presently.  Jerome’s later Commentary on Daniel, says Dockery, “remained strictly within the confines required by the text.”  Thus, “Through Jerome’s influence, a modified Antiochene literalism was mediated to the later church.” – David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 133.

The school of Antioch in Syria was renowned for its exegetes Lucian (c. A.D. 240), Diodore (d. c. A.D. 394), and Theodore of Mopsuesta (c. 350-428), and for its great preacher John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 354-407), and its greatest theologian, Theodoret (c. A.D. 393-466). All of these men employed a more literal hermeneutic than the Alexandrians, wherein the literal sense was given precedence.  But it would be a big mistake to assert, as some do, that the Syrian approach to interpretation was the same as what has been called “grammatical-historical interpretation” in the present day.  To give two quick examples: Theodore of Mopsuesta was often so literalistic as to deny the prophetic teaching of many OT prophecies.  On the other hand, Theodoret often used spiritualizing in his expositions.

Still, it was true that, as a rule, the Antiochenes were far more concerned about reading the text for what it said rather than seeking for secondary meanings.  But, in the end, it was the spiritualizing of the Alexandrian school that prevailed and which was to hold sway for the next thousand years.

Next time:  Approaching the Reformation



3 thoughts on “An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 2)”

  1. Greetings brother, In Part One you only listed two of the three: “The main three were Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul…” Just thought I would highlight that so you can update your blog article to add the third name. Jason

  2. “Still, it was true that, as a rule, the Antiochenes were far more concerned about reading the text for what it said rather than seeking for secondary meanings. But, in the end, it was the spiritualizing of the Alexandrian school that prevailed and which was to hold sway for the next thousand years.”

    Would you make a distinction between the Church in the west (i.e. the Church of Rome) and the Church in the east (i.e. the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria)? I believe that the Eastern Orthodox Church firmly looks to John Chrysostom as its most gifted exegete. Many centuries later (after the schism with the Roman Catholic church), Theophylact of Ohrid continued to cite primarily Chrysostom in his commentaries on the Gospels According to Luke and Matthew (, which the greatly respected Russian theologian and bishop, Ignatius Brianchaninov, held up as essential in his spiritual guide, The Arena (

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