Allegory and its Limits: Reading the Bible in Alexandria & Antioch

By the third century, Christianity was no longer a fledgling faith, but had come into its own as a spiritual and intellectual force in the Roman world. Across the Empire, despite periodic and localized persecutions, Christians could be found in most walks life, found among slaves and citizens, and from the army to the Imperial court itself. Their presence was felt in the cosmopolitan academies of Alexandria, Athens, Antioch, and Rome, and they were respected for their care of the sick during times of devastating disease. In light of this greater stability and visibility, it should come as no surprise that this period also saw the rise of greater reflection on the faith, and with that, distinct schools of thought within Christian theology and biblical interpretation. As we saw previously, the second-century church had developed the trajectory of first-century Christian hermeneutics in some helpful ways, but also left a lot of important questions unanswered. Today I’d like to explore how Christians thought through these questions in the third through fifth centuries, paying particular attention to the famed schools of Alexandria and Antioch.

We can summarize the hermeneutical principles the third century Christians inherited as follows:

  1. The interpretation of any passage of Scripture must be guided by the overall message of the Bible.
  2. That overall message conforms to the Rule of Faith, received from the Apostles and preserved by the Bishops.
  3. The Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore expected to speak and continue speaking; therefore interpretation must begin — but not end — with what is plainly stated in the text.

These principles were leveraged not only to articulate and explain the Christian faith, but also increasingly to defend it from and promote it to those on the outside, and to protect it from differences of opinion arising within. Thus, interpretation often focused on continuities and analogies between the Old and New Testaments and on ensuring the stories within the Scriptures were read in a way that promoted a vision of God that was moral and ethically sound, and in keeping with what had been received from previous generations.

But these principles raised important questions, particularly about the literal meanings of Old Testament texts. Are these texts just shadowy foretellings of the truths later revealed in Jesus? Or do they have something to say in their own right? Any reference to ‘hanging’ was interpreted in reference to Jesus’ death; any reference to wood in reference to the cross; any reference to water in reference to baptism. But, the question was: when looking at the forest, could the trees themselves matter?

The interpreter who paved the way for everything that was to follow, whether as its hero or its villain, was Origen of Alexandria (185-253 CE). Origen was part of the diverse and lively intellectual life of Alexandria and inherited its philosophical ideas and ways of reading texts. Texts were treated like cryptograms or puzzles needing to be deciphered, or akin to dreams in the symbolic nature of the signs within them. For Origen, Scripture contained different levels of meaning, which could be discerned according to one’s spiritual maturity. In one oft-quoted passage, he says there are three levels, parallel to the body, soul, and spirit, however most of the time he seems content to discuss just two levels: the literal level of what happened and a metaphorical level that points to any of a range of potential ‘spiritual’ themes, including the moral, psychological, ecclesiological, and eschatological. Where a literal reading of the text included logical impossibilities, moral stumbling blocks, or even overly specific detail that doesn’t contribute to the story, this was a cue to look beyond the literal in order to discern what the Holy Spirit intended. Any number of specific tools could be used to solve these textual puzzles, ranging from things we would recognize today, like textual criticism and historical study, to more esoteric practices, such as numerology. The difficulties in the text and the need to puzzle over them are not problems with Scripture for Origen, but are a feature of it — the capacity of the text to contain multiple levels of meaning was the mark of its divine inspiration and a way the reading of the Bible could help the believer grow in faith and Christian maturity.

Origen left a huge mark on biblical interpretation. He was among the first Christians to look at textual variants and compare Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. Through St. Jerome, his methodology entered Western Christianity, where it became the dominant approach for such important theologians as St. Augustine of Hippo. But Origen’s methods were also very controversial. From the beginning, some Christians were uncomfortable with his move past simple typologies, by which the Old Testament texts pointed to some truth in the New, to outright allegory, and thought his privileging of the spiritual meaning of texts caused him to miss the point altogether. Allegory meant that texts could, ultimately, mean whatever the interpreter wanted them to mean; even if the actual interpretations were constrained by the Rule of Faith, this was not a convincing or satisfying state of affairs for many in the Church.

This opposition was, in the fourth and fifth centuries, centered in Antioch. It’s important to note that the Antiochenes and Alexandrians shared many of the same approaches and tools. There’s often a tendency to see the Antiochenes as proto-Protestants in their hermeneutical concerns, that they defended the Bible against the over-imaginative operations of tradition, but this isn’t quite right. The real difference between the schools is that while Alexandrian interpretation emerged out of schools of philosophy, and was therefore primarily concerned with ideas and their consequences, Antiochene interpretation emerged out of schools of rhetoric, and was therefore concerned with language, and how it could be used and abused.

Antiochene interpreters used many of the same methodologies as Origen did — textual analysis and comparison, using one text to interpret another, understanding how words take on a specific meaning within the Scriptures, discussion of ambiguity and alternative readings, and so on — but to different ends. The watchwords for Antiochene exegesis were historia and theoria. Historia was the narrative presented by the text itself. It opposed allegorical interpretations of Scripture because they were detached from the narrative thrust of the text, from its historia. This could mean that allegories were unrelated to the text itself — such as some messianic interpretations of Old Testament prophecy — but could equally mean a too-close a focus on the words of a text instead of the story the words join to create (Eustathius of Antioch criticized this as a focus on onomata (’words’) instead of pragmata (’things’, ‘meanings’, ‘applications’)). In a sense, Origen could be attacked for being too literal — too dependent on the words or even letters of a text. But this insistence on returning to the story does not mean Antiochenes stopped at historia. Scripture, they insisted, had moral, ethical, and dogmatic consequences — and this is where theoria, ‘insight’ or ‘contemplation’, came in. The Antiochenes were just as committed to theological interpretations as the Alexandrians were, but they insisted that these be grounded in the historia in a way the Alexandrians did not — the two schools differed not in whether there are multiple meanings in Scripture, but in the relationship between them. In the hands of allegorists, the texts of the Scriptures could be read like dreams or myths at best, or blank slates for interpretation at worst: the text says one thing, but means another thing entirely. The Antiochene school rejected this approach, requiring that the legitimate interpretation and application of texts be grounded not just in the words of Scripture, but in the stories those words combine to tell.

To compare the two methods, let’s quickly look at how Origen and John Chrysostom (a leading representative of the Antiochene method) handle the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. For Origen, all of the elements of the story are symbolic: the desert represents the spiritual condition of life without God, the loaves represent Scripture and the fish represent the Word (Cyril of Alexandria took up this interpretation but had the fish represent the humility of the fishermen among Jesus’ disciples). But, for Chrysostom, the story is far more practical: the crowd’s hunger taught the people humility, and the equal division of the food taught them temperance and charity. For the Alexandrians, each element in the story has to carry a spiritual significance — even if that meaning is not connected to the text and even if they don’t always agree on what that meaning is. But, for Chrysostom and his Antiochene counterparts, there can be an almost obtuse refusal to see spiritual meanings in texts that seem to call for them: Jesus himself interprets the feeding spiritually, and not just in the moralizing way Chrysostom does.

If we try to map these two approaches (generalizing, of course) onto the Integral quadrant system, we see that things aren’t quite as black and white as they first appear. While allegory was accused of being highly individualistic, these individualized readings were constrained by both textual study and the Rule of Faith, which was becoming increasingly systematized through Church Councils. The Antiochene method, by contrast, has more rigour in terms of its insistence on the primacy of the text, but in trying to avoid the excesses of allegory, almost completely evacuates the upper left-hand quadrant, leaving it at risk for informative but dry and uninspiring readings.

Alexandrian Exegesis
Antiochene Exegesis

So, what might all of this have to say for us today? For me, the issue that really came to the fore in these debates is what the two schools agreed on: First, that the literal interpretation is never ‘enough’ when it comes to Scripture: in order to be sacred Scripture, a text has to mean something for us today and not just for the original audience. This may seem obvious — anyone who has ever had to teach or preach knows this — but it’s well worth stating and contemplating more. And second, holding texts to be sacred does not mean we need to be ‘precious’ with them: they can be analyzed, dissected, compared, and contrasted and this critical eye does not suggest a lack of respect or honour. But in terms of the ways the schools differed, I think we can happily take up the strengths of both as a way of avoiding the weaknesses of the other. We would do well to approach the Scriptures with the open minds and hearts and creative spirit of the Alexandrians, in order to avoid the often drab moralizing tendency of the Antiochenes. But we would do equally well to ground our spiritual applications of texts in the narrative thrust of the texts themselves with the Antiochene school, in order to avoid the at times wild flights of fancy of some of the Alexandrian excesses.

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