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Author Topic: allegorizing the Old Testament  (Read 1640 times) Average Rating: 0
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« on: January 18, 2010, 04:09:57 AM »

I was talking with a friend at church today and the subject of interpreting stories of the Old Testament came up.  It had been mentioned that some Church Fathers saw at least some of the stories in the Old Testament in an allegorical way, as opposed to literal retellings of historical events.  Both of us found this confusing.   Smiley

To what extent has the Old Testament been allegorized by our Church Fathers?  Are there specific stories that have more traditionally been considered allegorical in nature, while others have traditionally been considered historical?  To what extent has there been disagreement over the issue by the Church Fathers?

One story I've heard allegorized is the story of Jonah and the great fish, that the important thing about it is not whether a man was swallowed by a fish, but rather there was a deeper message.  And yet, didn't Christ say in one of the Gospels that on the day of judgement the men of Ninevah would stand up and condemn the people who rejected Christ?  Doesn't that indicate that it was a literal, historical event?  It's all very confusing.   Smiley 

Also, although some of the Old Testament can be allegorized (I think,) wouldn't it be accurate to say that one shouldn't do that to the New Testament?  Aren't the events of the New Testament always looked upon as historical events?
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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2010, 05:07:51 AM »

I am a novice, but my understanding is that the OT Scriptures which are written as historical events should be recognized as historical events- although not limited to mere historical interpretation. In other words, the biblical record of these historical events also contains significant typology and prefigurations of Christ, the Holy Trinity, Our Lady, and other theological truths. There are many moral and ethical lessons to be learned as well. The nature of God is also to be partially gleaned from OT history.

So I think it is very dangerous to relegate OT biblical history to the allegorical realm. To do so is to do violence to our understanding of the New Testament, as in the example you pointed out about Our Lord's prophecy of the Last Judgment as it relates to the people of Nineveh.

Of course, how this history is to be understood is another matter. Were the days of creation literal 24 hour days? What actually happened when "Joshuah made the sun stand still"? There are various ways to understand these historical events; but they are nevertheless historical.

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« Reply #2 on: January 18, 2010, 05:45:14 AM »

I am not so sure that it is the case that OT narratives were allegorised, as if the historical context were ignored. Rather the Fathers interpreted the Scriptures on a variety of levels.

So the account of Jonah and the Big Fish was understood to have happened in a particular time and place, and the narrative provided evidence of God's concern for the Ninevites, the demands on Jonah of obedience, the possibility of Jonah having a second chance etc. But it also provided what was considered a type of Christ, and there is a clear understanding in the Fathers that there is a level of Christ-content throughout the Old Testament. But there is also a spiritual interpretation, and so when preaching one of the Fathers, and a priest today of course, will ask how the narrative impacts us. On this level the narrative will be detached from the historical context and used as a means of reflection based on the wider content of the Christian message.

So I understand the Fathers to use all of these levels. I don't sense that they deny or diminish the historical context. But they place these interpretations in a hierarchy of spiritual value. They might well say - it is interesting to read about how Jonah tried to run away from God, but what is more important is the lesson we learn about ..... whatever. The Bible is, in one sense, not about Jonah, but it is always about God and the salvation of mankind, and especially the salvation of the soul reading or hearing the Scriptures. As Gebre has said, the Scriptures are rooted in history, but their meaning and value is not limited to history.

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« Reply #3 on: January 18, 2010, 10:08:52 AM »

The tendency to allegorize did seem to vary from place to place (e.g. Alexandria vs. Antioch). Much of the non-literal interpretation that I've encountered had to do not so much with the historical texts as the wisdom/prayer texts. When taken literally, passages in the Psalter which talk about crushing the heads of your enemies or dashing babies against rocks are not exactly conducive to a prayerful attitude. But if you transform the enemies spoken of into passions or sins, all of a sudden the Psalter is filled with language about spiritual warfare, which makes more sense.
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« Reply #4 on: January 18, 2010, 10:31:43 AM »

One thing I've always seen it that the allegory/symbolism is very high at the beginning, and start coming into focus in concrete history as we know it in Genesis 10 (if you notice, the ages of the patriarchs goes down to closer to present day levels).  On the opposite end, Revelation starts off with specific Churches and then goes off into visions that less and less deal with tangible history as we know it, so Scripture comes from a cloud of unknowing back into it.  In between history as history in the Bible is different from these two ends (which are NOT just allegorical/symbolic, just as the in between parts are not just historical).

That Christ rose is the most important fact in history, but history cannot carry the import of that event.

If you've been to Jerusalem, it's easier to understand. Such a smalll place overwhelms its geography.
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« Reply #5 on: January 18, 2010, 09:39:43 PM »

One would think that the OO would have the most significant tradition of allegorical interpretation, given that Alexandria was the center of this method in the Patristic era.
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« Reply #6 on: January 18, 2010, 10:00:28 PM »

One would think that the OO would have the most significant tradition of allegorical interpretation, given that Alexandria was the center of this method in the Patristic era.
There are plenty of OO who are not and have never been part of Alexandria, and the OO Copts do not contain all that is Alexandria.
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« Reply #7 on: January 19, 2010, 01:13:15 AM »

One would think that the OO would have the most significant tradition of allegorical interpretation, given that Alexandria was the center of this method in the Patristic era.
There are plenty of OO who are not and have never been part of Alexandria, and the OO Copts do not contain all that is Alexandria.

You're making it sound more black and white than I actually suggested.

The COC contains the largest portion of Egyptian Christians, maintains the most authentically and native Alexandrian liturgy, and maintains the most Alexandrian Theological/Christological perspectives and formulas.

The various OO frequently claim to be of the heritage of the Church of Alexandria in various respects, mostly in Christology, but also in other areas.
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« Reply #8 on: January 19, 2010, 01:45:47 AM »

One thing I've always seen it that the allegory/symbolism is very high at the beginning, and start coming into focus in concrete history as we know it in Genesis 10 (if you notice, the ages of the patriarchs goes down to closer to present day levels).  On the opposite end, Revelation starts off with specific Churches and then goes off into visions that less and less deal with tangible history as we know it, so Scripture comes from a cloud of unknowing back into it.  In between history as history in the Bible is different from these two ends (which are NOT just allegorical/symbolic, just as the in between parts are not just historical).

That Christ rose is the most important fact in history, but history cannot carry the import of that event.

If you've been to Jerusalem, it's easier to understand. Such a smalll place overwhelms its geography.

Great points Isa.

Furthermore, according to Origen, which seemed to get the approval of Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazienzen (and I'm sure St. Gregory of Nyssa would agree) that in between historical events there might be fictional accounts to account for a fuller allegorical consistency in understanding the mind of God.  This was considered as something indeed uniquely Alexandrian in thought as this was taught in the theological school at the time, opposed by the "School" of Antioch, which for most of them in the eyes of Alexandria became heretics.
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« Reply #9 on: January 19, 2010, 01:56:52 AM »

Mina,

Can you give examples of the above?  What Father Peter said in reply 2 seems to be the most balanced and logical approach to me, and I would imagine that it is the consensus of the Fathers as a whole. 

However, I have heard about that tension between Antioch and Alexandria with regard to the use of allegory, and how Origen seemed to make an extreme use of it.  I never knew much about the subject, though.  Do you have examples?  To what extent would Origen's approach still be considered acceptable by the Coptic Church today?
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« Reply #10 on: January 19, 2010, 02:06:48 AM »

Quote from: Matthew 12:40
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Is this allegory?

Also, I noticed that this three days and three nights doesn't correspond to the Church's teaching about the amount of time Christ remained buried, specifically in reference to three nights.
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« Reply #11 on: January 19, 2010, 02:31:50 AM »

I guess it's an example of allegory, but, if I understand Fr. Peter correctly, we should also take it as an historical event.  It's just that the message that we get from the allegory is what we really concentrate on.  What Mina touched on, though, is I think what I had heard of and what started me thinking about this.  I'm wondering if there were some Church Fathers who would have seen the Jonah story as only allegory.  But even if some Church Fathers would have seen it as only allegory, I get the feeling that Fr. Peter's view is more representative of how the Church today sees it.  I hope I'm making sense.  It's all a bit confusing.   Tongue
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« Reply #12 on: January 19, 2010, 04:19:32 AM »

I guess it's an example of allegory, but, if I understand Fr. Peter correctly, we should also take it as an historical event.  It's just that the message that we get from the allegory is what we really concentrate on.  What Mina touched on, though, is I think what I had heard of and what started me thinking about this.  I'm wondering if there were some Church Fathers who would have seen the Jonah story as only allegory.  But even if some Church Fathers would have seen it as only allegory, I get the feeling that Fr. Peter's view is more representative of how the Church today sees it.  I hope I'm making sense.  It's all a bit confusing.   Tongue

It's not really clear what the Church "today" really upholds.  All I can really put my trust in is what the historical tendency was.  I mean consider our Coptic Gregorian Liturgy, and how we personalize the story of Adam, and even the whole Old Testament, which indicates spiritually speaking, the Old Testament is about us and our relationship with God:

Quote
Holy, Holy are You, O Lord and Holy in
every thing, and exceedingly elect is the
light of your essence. And inexpressible
is the power of Your wisdom. No manner
of speech is able to define the deep
expanse of Your love for mankind.
You, as a Lover of mankind, created
me, a man. You had no need of my
servitude. Rather, it was me who was in
need of Your lordship.
Because of the multitude of Your
compassions, You formed me when I had
no being.
You set up the sky for me as a ceiling.
You made the earth firm for me so that
I could walk on it.
For my sake You bridled the sea.
For my sake You have revealed the
nature of the animals.
You subdued everything under my
feet.
You did not permit me to lack anything
from among the deeds of Your honour.
You are He who formed me;
And placed Your hand upon me.
You wrote within me the image of Your
authority;
And placed within me the gift of
speech.
You opened for me the paradise, for my
delight;
And gave me the learning of Your
knowledge.
You revealed to me the tree of life;
And made known to me the thorn of
death.
One plant there was, from which You
forbade me to eat.
This of which You said to me: "From
this only do not eat!"
I ate of my own free will.
I laid aside Your law by my own
opinion.
I neglected Your commandments.
I brought upon myself the sentence of
death.

(Lord have mercy)

You, O my Master have turned for me
the punishment into salvation.
As a good shepherd you have sought
the stray.
As a true father, You laboured with me,
who had fallen.
You bandaged me with all the
remedies, which lead to life.
You are He who sent to me the
prophets, for my sake, I the sick.
You gave me the Law as an aid.
You are He Who ministered to me
salvation: when I transgressed Your Law.
As a true Light, You dawned upon the
strays and the ignorant.

Other examples I provided have been provided before:

http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,20613.msg360737.html#msg360737
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« Reply #13 on: January 19, 2010, 05:18:17 AM »

I think that the historical, the theological and the spiritual interpretations are always present in one degree or another.

Certainly there are Fathers who insist that the Creation should not be taken mythically, even while the narrative also provides a great deal for theological and spiritual reflection.

It would not be too hard to consider the writings of a variety of Fathers in regard to Jonah and examine what they say, but I would imagine that they treat it as a true and historical account, but one which provides theological and spiritual lessons which are more important than the historical events themselves.

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« Reply #14 on: January 19, 2010, 05:41:58 AM »

"Those who do not learn form history are doomed to repeat it."

If the historical biblical record is not actually historical, then the moral lessons and theological truths to be learned from it are no more significant than that which can be learned form Aesop's Fables. Nice ideas, but neither objective nor eternally relevant.


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« Reply #15 on: January 19, 2010, 05:52:48 AM »

I am not sure that is true.

And the lessons to be learned from Aesop's fables are not unimportant.

If it were somehow shown 100% certainly that the account of Jonah was an allegory rather than an historical account I do not see how it would change my appreciation of the lessons to be learned. It is quite usual for preachers in a variety of situations, even within Orthodoxy, to refer to a fictional work of literature to illustrate a point. The fact that the fiction depicts a human situation is what matters in that context, not whether or not it actually happened.

That does not mean that I am not myself of the opinion that the book of Jonah records an historical narrative. But my faith would not be shaken if it did not. There are certain key elements of the Old Testament which must be historical, but much else need not be, even though I believe it is. We must be sure that we are reading the Old Testament as we should, and not always reading our own ideas about historicity into it.

Many aspects of some saints lives are stereotypical and appear in all hagiographies, because in some sense 'this is what saints do', even if a particular saint did not. This does not make some hagiography false, but it means that we must learn to read what is written in the way and for the purpose it was written. It is the same with the Old Testament.

Perhaps I will read some more about Jonah, and what the Fathers have said. It is a wonderful book and filled with lessons for us and not so long that we cannot all read it and learn from it.

God bless our studies in his Holy Scriptures

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« Reply #16 on: January 19, 2010, 06:11:46 AM »

I am not sure that is true.

And the lessons to be learned from Aesop's fables are not unimportant.

If it were somehow shown 100% certainly that the account of Jonah was an allegory rather than an historical account I do not see how it would change my appreciation of the lessons to be learned. It is quite usual for preachers in a variety of situations, even within Orthodoxy, to refer to a fictional work of literature to illustrate a point. The fact that the fiction depicts a human situation is what matters in that context, not whether or not it actually happened.

That does not mean that I am not myself of the opinion that the book of Jonah records an historical narrative. But my faith would not be shaken if it did not. There are certain key elements of the Old Testament which must be historical, but much else need not be, even though I believe it is. We must be sure that we are reading the Old Testament as we should, and not always reading our own ideas about historicity into it.

Many aspects of some saints lives are stereotypical and appear in all hagiographies, because in some sense 'this is what saints do', even if a particular saint did not. This does not make some hagiography false, but it means that we must learn to read what is written in the way and for the purpose it was written. It is the same with the Old Testament.

Perhaps I will read some more about Jonah, and what the Fathers have said. It is a wonderful book and filled with lessons for us and not so long that we cannot all read it and learn from it.

God bless our studies in his Holy Scriptures

Father Peter

I defer to you Father. I am a simple novice in these matters. But it seems we are actually agreeing here. I do not say that secular moralistic tales such as Aesop's Fables are unimportant. Indeed they have many valuable principles that are applicable to all- Christian or pagan. But my point is that if the Bible is simply a book of moral tales constructed by men, then it is neither objective nor eternally binding. IMHO.


Selam
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« Reply #17 on: January 19, 2010, 06:29:45 AM »

Gebre, I am sure we are in agreement. I would not wish to allow anyone to say that the Bible is simply a book of fables. I guess my point is that different parts of the Bible perhaps have different degrees of historicity, and the whole Bible is not one long book of history - especially in the way that we know understand history.

I suppose that there is also a real sense in which the Bible is not properly understood apart from the Church and the activity of the Holy Spirit in a soul, and even if it were all to be considered as history in the modern sense this would not make it come alive in a person's heart unless they are touched by grace. Whatever the categories of the various writings in the Bible it is the Holy Spirit who makes them life-giving and without such grace they remain merely a collection of words.

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« Reply #18 on: January 19, 2010, 11:52:25 AM »

Father bless!

I'm sure I don't think I encountered a Church father that does not takes the story of Jonah literally (as well as the obvious allegory).  Jonah is believed to probably be a real historical figure who converted the Ninevites.  Whether the whale story or the fasting story is considered true or not, I don't know.

However, I am curious about one thing.  It seems to me that when Origen speaks of things impossible, he mentions the Law of the 8th day circumcision, i.e. after the 8th day, if not circumcised, the baby should be cut off from the people of God.  To Origen, since it's inconceivable someone would just leave an infant aside to die, this is where allegory of an "impossibility" was possible, similar to Asteriktos' example on certain "violent" Psalms.

These leads me to ask how do the Church fathers take account of the genocides that occurred?  Did they consider it not happened and took it purely allegorical?  Were Hebrew people mistaken what the "will of God" might be?  Or did the Church fathers justify the killings, testifying to a literal interpretation?  I know many have taken them allegorically, but I wonder if they believed it literally as well?
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« Reply #19 on: January 19, 2010, 06:22:44 PM »

Gebre, I am sure we are in agreement. I would not wish to allow anyone to say that the Bible is simply a book of fables. I guess my point is that , and the whole Bible is not one long book of history - especially in the way that we know understand history.

I suppose that there is also a real sense in which the Bible is not properly understood apart from the Church and the activity of the Holy Spirit in a soul, and even if it were all to be considered as history in the modern sense this would not make it come alive in a person's heart unless they are touched by grace. Whatever the categories of the various writings in the Bible it is the Holy Spirit who makes them life-giving and without such grace they remain merely a collection of words.

Father Peter

Yes. Agreed. The Bible is not merely history, and it is not merely a collection of human words. And we cannot properely discern its meaning and message apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Church. And I agree that "different parts of the Bible perhaps have different degrees of historicity."

Thank you Father.


Selam
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