the Fifth Week of Lent
Holman Bible Dictionary
Background Allegory arose from the Cynic and Stoic philosophies of the Hellenistic period (fourth to second centuries B.C.). As a general phenomenon, allegorical interpretation is adopted when sacred traditions are challenged by advances in knowledge and thought. When no longer able to interpret the traditions historically, and being unwilling to discard the traditions themselves, followers of the traditions probe for deeper, symbolic meanings. In the Greek world allegory was used primarily to interpret the Homeric myths and to preserve some moral and philosophical truths from them.
Old Testament Allegory Scholars generally agree that none of the Old Testament was written allegorically. Portions of it have been interpreted allegorically by later generations. For example, interpreting the Song of Solomon as an allegory of God's love for Israel rather than as a collection of romantic love songs may have played a role in the acceptance of that book into the Old Testament canon.
Allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament arose among Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria during the second century B.C. Philo, who died about A.D. 50, was its most prolific proponent. Philo sought to preserve Old Testament traditions against Greek perspectives in science and philosophy. He applied allegory to many portions of the Old Testament where the biblical views seemed to contradict contemporary secular understandings. Jewish proponents of allegory, however, never abandoned the historical meaning of their traditions to the extent that Greek proponents did.
Jewish interpreters in Palestine were less influenced by allegorical approaches. Their allegories were less complex and remained closer to the literal meaning. The rabbis placed more emphasis on extracting legal prescriptions from the traditions, while other interpreters were more attracted to viewing the Old Testament in terms of prophecies to be fulfilled.
New Testament New Testament writers have more in common with the approaches of Palestinian Jewish interpreters of the Old Testament than with Hellenistic interpreters like Philo. Allegory is not widely used in the New Testament; and when it is employed, it does not depart far from the literal meaning. A strong prophetic-fulfillment interpretation of the Old Testament also is evident.
While Jesus never made allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, some of His parables were interpreted as allegories. The parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20 ) and the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30 ,Matthew 13:24-30,13:36-43 ) are prime examples. Other parables draw on obvious Old Testament images (such as the vineyard representing Israel). In general, however, parables are to be distinguished from allegories because of their simplicity, sharp focus, and direct imagery. Contemporary scholarship generally prefers the plain and obvious point of the parable over the veiled and obscure meanings that often characterize allegories.
Paul employed allegorical interpretations on four occasions (1 Corinthians 5:6-8; 1 Corinthians 9:8-10; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11; Galatians 4:21-31 ), once employing the word allegory itself (Galatians 4:24 ). Paul's allegories generally are restrained and focus on contemporary application.
1 Corinthians 5:6-8 is not so much an interpretation of the Old Testament as it is the use of an Old Testament image that finds fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover. 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 draws heavily on the fulfillment that “followed” the Old Testament people in the person of Christ. These approaches are not far from Matthew's citations of Old Testament testimonies about Christ. They bear more resemblance to prophetic fulfillment than to allegory.
On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 departs completely from the literal meaning of the law as it applied to muzzling oxen; and Galatians 4:21-31 is a thorough allegorization of the Old Testament. The writer of Hebrews followed in that same spirit in dealing with Old Testament themes like Melchizedek, the Old Testament priesthood, and the tabernacle.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Allegory'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​a/allegory.html. 1991.