This comes from the question, Is there a scriptural warrant for the literal-historical approach? The question links to the Wikipedia page on Biblical literalism, which states:

Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended as allegory, poetry, or some other genre, the Bible should be interpreted as literal statements by the author.

However, the top answer so far gives four examples of Jesus and NT authors referring to Old Testament stories, in every example treating the OT stories not in terms of their original historical context, but in terms of how they relate to Christ and to Christian faith.

Within the fourfold sense of Scripture these examples would therefore be classified as allegory. (With the possible exception of the example from Romans, which might be considered as moral instead.)

So in what sense do these examples support a literal rather than an allegorical approach to hermeneutics? How can we define our terms in a way that we can all understand each other?

  • I might have messed things up with my edit on that question. I couldn't decide if the question was about the grammatical-historical method (which the answer assumes) or the literal method, which is how I read the question. My edit was very late--far later than the answer, which I may have sabotaged. Oct 25, 2011 at 21:21
  • Hmm... I don't think you messed anything up, because the question has a bounty from the OP stating, "I would accept an example of the apostles use of the Old Testament scripture in a purely historical manner where there is no Christological implication." [emphasis mine] Oct 25, 2011 at 21:32

2 Answers 2


To start off with, let's talk about how terms are defined in general. For this I call my first expert witness:

When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. -- Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking-Glass

Next, I'd like to point out that you should all agree with me when I use a word. I consider this to be common knowledge and cite 1.84 million witnesses that feel the same way I do.

In conclusion, you should just use all technical terms the way I use them.

For those of you who find this conclusion unacceptable I shall condescend to propose a compromise:

  1. Whenever you run across a technical term on this site that does not seem to be used the way you expected, post a meta question specific to that term.
  2. Answers can then propose common definitions that could be agreed on through the vote system.
  3. As these definitions become established for use local to the scope of this site and our community, we can comment on posts that do not appear to use the same definitions with links to the relevant posts.
  4. Posters would then have two options: either edit their posts to use the terms in the way we have locally agreed to understand them; or cite their own definitions local to the scope of their own posts so that we know how to understand them.*

* Or risk an angry community that the 213 SE moderators together cannot restrain from downvoting until the uncooperative community member falls off the wall and shatters into a thousand pieces.

  • 1
    What a thoroughly saludinus answer! I'd also like to insert somewhere that Wikipedia has become the standard arbiter of meaning when there's no local definition. That's why I added the Wikipedia links to the original question. Oct 26, 2011 at 18:27
  • 2
    Oh. And the asker of a question has special privileges when it comes to defining terms. This was a critical (re-)discovery I made on the Philosophy site. Oct 26, 2011 at 20:26

My understanding of allegory is that there is a hidden meaning in the text. Consider, for example, Origen's allegorical explanation of Genesis 24:

Rebecca, which means "patience," when she saw the servant and contemplated the prophetic word "puts the pitcher down" from her shoulder (Gen. 24:18). For she puts down the exalted arrogance of Greek eloquence and, stooping down to the lowly and simple prophetic word, says, "Drink, and I will also give your camels a drink" (Gen. 24:14)...

A soul who does all things patiently, who is eager and is undergirded with so much learning, who has been accustomed to draw streams of knowledge from the depth, can herself be united in marriage with Christ.

Unless, therefore, you come daily to the wells, unless you daily draw water, not only you will not be able to give a drink to others, but you yourself also will suffer a thirst for the word of God (Amos 8:11).

In Origen's allegory, the word of God isn't explicitly mentioned. In fact, it's not even implicit; it is hidden. Yet as far as Origen is concerned, this is one of the meanings of the text and what God intended for it to teach us.

Contrast that to Mark 2 and Jesus' use of 1 Samuel 21:

He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Everything Jesus mentions in verses 25-26 is explicit in the text. Jesus draws a principle from the text, but it is a principle based on a literal understanding (David is David, the bread is bread, etc...) of the text rather than on an allegorical understanding (the well is the word of God, the pitcher is the exalted arrogance of Greek eloquence, etc...) of the text as in Origen's account.

Not sure if this answers your meta question of how we go about defining such terms, but I think here the important thing is how the questioner defines the terms. In this case, I interpreted his question based on my idea of Bob Jones's use of John 5:39 in his own hermeneutic.

  • What principle allows one to derive a Sabbath rule from an example of eating consecrated bread? If they are related literally, wouldn't they have to have been kept from women for three days before breaking the sabbath law?
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26, 2011 at 0:10
  • Does the same principle apply to murder? Why not?
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26, 2011 at 0:16
  • 1
    Two principles: 1) Human need is a higher law than religious ritual, 2) The Lord's anointed has unique authority in relation to the Law.
    – Soldarnal
    Oct 26, 2011 at 0:22
  • @Soldarnal, here's why Mark 2 is allegory: Nowhere in 1 Samuel 21 is the sabbath mentioned. The idea that the holy bread represents the sabbath is the hidden teaching revealed by Jesus. Your example from Origen is one extreme form of allegory, where every element of the story represents something else, but often allegorical interpretations are less extensive than that. Oct 26, 2011 at 1:23
  • "1) Human need is a higher law than religious ritual," That could be used to argue the law against homosexuality can be abrogated. (I don't want to start discussing homosexuality).
    – Bob Jones
    Oct 26, 2011 at 2:57
  • @BruceAlderman It's hard for me to see the difference between analogy and your understanding of allegory. It's not that the bread symbolizes Sabbath, but that the restrictions around the shewbread are analogous to the restrictions around the Sabbath. And just as the priests are innocent in abrogating the Sabbath restrictions to work in the temple (Matthew 12:5 cf. Numbers 28:9-10) so also certain laws (especially the commands to love) supersede other laws. It's no accident that in Mark just a couple verses later Jesus is asking if it is better to do good or evil on the Sabbath.
    – Soldarnal
    Oct 26, 2011 at 2:59
  • @Soldaral, perhaps there is no practical difference between analogy and allegory, as far as this example is concerned. The point is that Jesus did not simply refer to the story as something that had happened in the distant past. The story had a meaning that related to Christ. That's the definition of allegory, in the biblical sense of the term. Oct 26, 2011 at 4:44
  • @Bruce: I disagree with your definition of allegory. In an allegory, every element in the story might be meaningful as a symbol. But in an analogy, only specific portions of the story are transferred to the new meaning. David also asked for a sword in the story, but Jesus ignores that detail. David was lying about his men: how should we take that as related to Christ? Oct 26, 2011 at 18:33
  • @Jon: That's one type of allegory. More common in the New Testament's treatment of the Old Testament is typological allegory (which some today would classify simply as typology; I'm using allegory as more of a catch-all term). Oct 27, 2011 at 4:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .