Reading Scripture for the Allegorical Sense

This is a snippet from my book MAKING SENSES OUT OF SCRIPTURE: READING THE BIBLE AS THE FIRST CHRISTIANS DID. In it, we discuss the normative way in which ancient Christians read their sacred texts (meaning the Old Testament in apostolic times). The habit of looking for the literal sense is fairly newfangled in the history of the Church. The literal sense was taken for granted and then the average exegete, believing with Augustine that “The New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is revealed in the New” searched the Scriptures to find Christ. They took Jesus seriously when he told his followers:

These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44-47)

This, not Fundamentalist proof texts about the age of the earth or geocentrism or America, the Light and the Glory, or riddles about BIDEN equaling 666 are what an ordinary ancient Christian was dialed into as they heard the Jewish Scriptures expounded.


Now, as we saw in Chapters 1 through 5, Jesus, his apostles, and his Church after him have made copious use of the allegorical sense of Scripture. We noted, for instance, that Jesus tells us in John 6 that the manna in the wilderness is an image of himself, the bread of life. Likewise, Paul tells the Corinthians that the passage through the Red Sea is an image of baptism (1 Corinthians 10). Similarly, Hebrews spends a considerable amount of ink drawing allegorical lessons from the Old Testament descriptions of the Tabernacle. And, of course, our little study of the Virgin Birth simply scratched the surface of the allegorical significance that the New Testament finds in the Old. The New Testament is absolutely steeped in Jewish Scripture and sees a huge array of people, images, and events as signs pointing to Christ and his Church.

The modern reader, however, quite rightly approaches Scripture with a certain amount of trepidation. We are not, after all, inspired biblical writers. What may seem to us “deeply spiritual” in a given text may in fact be mere moonshine or wishful thinking. Likewise, what seems to us prosaic might in fact be laden with a significance to which we are blind. How then are we to discern “second meanings” in Scripture without walking off into the weeds and getting silly?

The first and most important thing to remember is that, as Catholics, we do not need to re-invent the wheel. As with the literal sense of Scripture, the apostles have already handed down to us a Tradition and Church which has done a huge amount of the work long before we were born. This does not mean there is nothing for us to do. But it does mean that the outline of sanity in biblical interpretation has already been clearly sketched for us.

Of course, the boldest and clearest lines in allegorical interpretation are sketched in the New Testament itself. Jesus and the apostles hold our hands and walk us through a wide variety of allegorical readings of Scripture. And so, for instance, we are explicitly told that the ladder of angels Jacob saw in Genesis 28:12 is an image of Christ (John 1:51). Likewise, Christ explicitly declares (John 3:14) that he is prefigured in the Bronze Serpent in Numbers 21:9. Similarly, Paul tells us in Galatians 4:21-31 that Hagar and Sarah can be fruitfully understood as images of the old and new covenants. And so on through connection after connection in both the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Since it is the God-Man himself and his inspired apostles and evangelists who are doing the interpreting for us, we can be absolutely sure that these allegorical readings of Scripture are legitimate. If a commentary or “Mysteries of the Bible” pundit tries to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge by declaring such interpretations mistaken or false or by declaring that all allegorical readings of Scripture are invalid, they simply have to take it up with the incarnate Son of God and the ones to whom he said “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). A God-Man—and his apostles—have more impressive credentials than a Ph.D.

Beyond connections explicitly made within the text of Scripture itself, however, are further connections which Scripture does not spell out yet which the subsequent apostolic Tradition of the Church has made extremely clear. Earlier, we alluded to some of these and showed the way in which explicit biblical teaching on one point throws stark light on implicit biblical teaching in other areas. So, for instance, although John does not post a big neon sign flashing “I am now making reference to the creation of Eve in Genesis 2” when he describes the piercing of Christ’s side we discussed in Chapter 5, nonetheless the connection is hard not to see given a) Scripture’s constant comparison of Christ with Adam; b) John’s focus on Jesus and Mary at the wedding at Cana as the archetypal “sign” of Christ’s work; c) John’s own habit of speaking of the Church as “the Bride” (Revelation 22:17); and, d) the energetic handwaving and gesturing John engages in at the point in his narrative where Christ’s side is pierced (John 19:34-35). Like any good storyteller, he makes some connections for his audience explicitly but also leaves a huge number of things implicit with the understanding that his audience already knows what he’s talking about.

This is, in fact, the habit of most of the biblical writers. They leave a great number of allegorical connections between the Old and New Testaments to be made by their readers. But they also leave the connections clear enough that it is, again, hard not to see them once they’re pointed out. Take, for instance, Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. Both Luke and the book of Revelation subtly but very clearly identify Mary with the Ark of the Covenant, wherein dwelt the Presence of God. Luke 1:35, for instance, quotes the angel as saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The Greek word for “overshadow” is lifted from the Septuagint and refers to the Shekinah glory which “overshadowed” the Tabernacle and the Ark in the Old Testament (Numbers 9:15). Likewise, “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child [John the Baptist] leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41) just as when David brought the Ark to Jerusalem he “danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). And when Mary meets Elizabeth, Elizabeth wonders, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) just as David wondered, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9). John also makes this connection in his Revelation, where we see first the Ark of the Covenant (Revelation 11:19) and then immediately afterward we see an image of a woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to a “male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5). The connection between Mary and the Ark, once it is made, is hard not to see. The Ark was the dwelling place of God “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1)—the gold plated angelic figures adorning the lid of the Ark who perpetually bowed to his invisible Presence.  In the Ark were contained the tablets of the law and a jar of manna.  In the Holy of Holies where it was kept there was also the staff of Aaron, the great High Priest (Hebrews 9:3-5).  Knowing the identity of Mary’s “male child” to be “holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35), it did not take Christians long to draw the mental connection and think of her as a kind of Second Ark since in her too the Presence dwelt in the Person of the Word of God, the Bread of Life, and the Great High Priest of the New Covenant. And, not surprisingly, this is precisely what post-apostolic liturgy does.[1]

All this means, once again, that it is necessary for the student of Scripture to pay attention, not only to what Scripture is up to as it makes its various connections, but also to pay attention to the overall Tradition of the Church. One extremely useful way to do this is to note the connections made in the liturgy and prayers of the Church. Old Testament and gospel readings in the Mass are frequently connected, and the connection is usually an allegorical one. And the same is true of other liturgical texts, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, a cycle of prayers based on the Psalms that are sung by the Church throughout the day.

So, for instance, the readings for December 19th (which are right smack in the middle of Advent and are therefore meant to put us in mind of all the events leading up to the birth of Christ) focus on Samson and then upon John the Baptist. Why these two figures? Because Samson, like John, is dedicated to God with a Nazirite vow and stands as a kind of dim foreshadow of John. Luke records the vow but does not make the connection between John and Samson explicit. The Church does make it explicit by putting those two figures together in her liturgical worship and prayer.

Likewise, one of the Old Testament readings for Trinity Sunday draws on Proverbs 8. In that passage, the author’s literal sense is to describe the wisdom of God using the literary device of personification. That is, the author of Proverbs portrays Wisdom as a woman who takes center stage and delivers a monologue saying, in part:

“The Lord begot me, the firstborn of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
From of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.” (Proverbs 8:22-23 [NAB])

Nothing in the New Testament explicitly instructs the Church to “Read Proverbs 8 as a veiled reference to the Blessed Trinity.” But several passages in Scripture speak of Christ as “the only begotten Son,” the Logos who was “with God in the beginning,” and as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (John 3:16; 1:2; 1:24, 30; 1 Corinthians 1:24). Once those connections have been made, it is not very hard to see the Holy Spirit speaking through the author of Proverbs in a veiled way about the Trinitarian nature of the God who has now been fully revealed in Jesus Christ. And so, not surprisingly, the Church on Trinity Sunday couples Proverbs 8 with John 16:12-15 which describes how the man who is Wisdom Incarnate will pour out his Spirit of Wisdom from the Father on his disciples:

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Once again, a passage with a literal meaning out of the Old Testament is seen—in light of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit of Christ—to have a vastly richer meaning than the human author ever dreamed of. The literal meaning is not damaged or negated any more than the literal meaning of Exodus is negated by seeing the manna in the wilderness as a sign of the Eucharist. It merely takes on fuller dimensions as a square takes on fuller dimensions when it becomes a cube.

In addition to the allegorical readings presented to us in Scripture and in the liturgy and prayers of the Church, there is also the rich store of exegesis handed down to us by the theologians and exegetes throughout the history of the Church. Bernard of Clairvaux,[2] for instance, notes the continual use of marriage as one of the primal images of the relationship between Christ and the Church and therefore performs an elaborate allegorical exegesis of the Song of Songs as an image of Christ and his Bride the Church. The original author of the Song does not, of course, consciously intend to speak of Christ and his Church. Very likely, the Song was composed for an actual royal wedding feast on the occasion of the wedding of some Davidic monarch. Yet, even if this isthe case, it should nonetheless be noted that, long before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people themselves also interpreted the Song as a portrayal of the relationship between Israel and God under the figure of a marriage, just as prophets like Hosea had done.[3] Thus, it is not altogether surprising that, once again, in light of the full revelation of Christ (and particularly of the constant usage of nuptial imagery by both Jesus and his apostles to describe his relationship with the Church) a Christian reader like Bernard will see Christ and his Church hidden in the Song.

In similar ways, other great Christians throughout history have mined the Bible for other insightful allegorical connections. Take honey for instance. The Torah repeatedly describes the Promised Land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (see Exodus 3:17, Leviticus 20:24, Numbers 13:27, Deuteronomy 27:3, among many other instances). The discovery of chocolate having to wait until the discovery of the Americas, honey is the yummiest, most scrumptious thing in the entire biblical lexicon. Not surprisingly then, it becomes one of the central biblical images for exquisite luxury, delight, and bounty—a sweetness that can only point to the even greater sweetness of its Creator. It is, therefore, an entirely natural thing for the Psalmist to write: “The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether… Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9-10). To many Jewish families, this is more than metaphor. A custom in many Jewish homes is that when parents teach a child to read, they have him recite the law of Moses. As he finishes, they give junior a spoonful of honey. This rite of passage seals in the child’s body and memory the exquisite sweetness of God’s word.

Thus, not a New Testament writer, but Hippolytus of Rome (in the third century) sees in the scriptural use of honey a figure, “meaning divine doctrine, which restores the spiritual knowledge of the soul.”[4] And Clement of Alexandria (also in the third century) builds on this insight, identifying honey not just with doctrine, but with the Divine Teacher himself. Honey, wrote Clement, “seems to have been spoken of the Word, who is honey. Prophecy often extols him above honey and the honeycomb.”[5] Then, going back to Scripture in light of this train of thought we notice something: the manna in the desert (which, as we have already seen, is an image of Eucharist) was compared to “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). And so we find an image in Scripture which reflects reality: The Eucharist both sustains and delights us.

Note what is happening here. Our insight into the second meanings of Scripture is not taking place in a vacuum. We are not, like lunatics or tea leaf readers, simply snatching texts at random and making them arbitrarily mean whatever we like. Rather, we are paying attention to the slow, organic growth of ideas and images which both put down roots in the whole of Scripture and throw out branches through the history of the Church. That is the way all healthy exegesis proceeds.

Discovering the allegorical sense of Scripture is, like all things Catholic, the fruit of balance, persistence, and most especially, a careful attention to the whole of the written and unwritten Tradition handed down to us by the apostles in union with the Church. On one hand, the Church teaches the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture and reminds us that all second meanings depend on the literal sense. Thus, we cannot as Catholics simply read into the Bible whatever we like. On the other hand, the Church also reminds us that there really are second meanings to Scripture and we therefore cannot automatically dismiss an allegorical reading as mere fantasy. Rather, we must firmly resolve to place our feet on the road walked by Jesus, his apostles, and so many other saints and scholars of Scripture to find the myriad ways in which God has spoken through his word.

[1] Thus an Akathist hymn in honor of Mary reads in part, “Hail, O Tabernacle of God the Word …. Hail, O Ark that the Spirit has gilded!” Many Eastern hymns use similar language, calling Mary “temple,” “tabernacle,” “shrine,” and so forth. The Akathist hymn can be found in the Byzantine Book of Prayer (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press; 1995), p. 344.

[2] G. R. Evans, tr., Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).

[3] The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2, Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J .. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., eds., (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 507. “The oldest interpretation [of the Song of Songs], in both Christian and Jewish tradition, is religious.”

[4] Hippolytus of Rome, On Proverbs.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, Book I, Chapter VI.


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