History of Biblical Interpretation: Allegorical Interpretation and Origen of Alexandria

122px-OrigenI am teaching hermeneutics this semester and we have been looking briefly at the history of hermeneutics. Allegorical interpretation is an important part of that history. In my previous post on allegorical interpretation, I wrote about Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish interpreter who lived during the time of Jesus (d. A.D. 50). Philo’s allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament turned out to be influential upon Christian interpreters as well. Some of them, like Origen and Augustine, were also educated people who were schooled in Greek philosophy and who were introduced to the writings of Philo. Their education prepared them to appreciate Philo’s allegorical interpretations, and how allegorical interpretation could be helpful for interpreting the Bible, especially difficult passages of the Old Testament.

Like Philo, Origen (d. A.D. 254) is based in Alexandria, Egypt. He is well-known for his allegorical interpretation of Scripture, but he also produced a lot of work that is useful for literal interpretation (like his work on the Passover). Origen distinguishes between the “letter” (the literal meaning”) and the “spirit” (the spiritual sense). The allegorical approach of Philo and his Greek predecessors influences Origen. For Origen, the deeper, spiritual meaning of the text tends to be  valued more highly than the literal meaning, even when the deeper meaning is highly allegorical in nature. His allegorical interpretations often focus on moral truths.

As was the case with Philo, it is helpful to read some excerpts from Origen in order to observe his priorities and tendencies.

1. Origen justifies seeking a deeper, spiritual sense. There are difficulties in Scripture that require the reader to seek for a deeper meaning, which is “worthy of God.” He writes:

“But as if, in all the instances of this covering (i.e., of this history), the logical connection and order of the law had been preserved, we would not certainly believe, when thus possessing the meaning of Scripture in a continuous series, that anything else was contained in it save what was indicated on the surface; so for that reason divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling-blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning should take place, by the intro­duction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom.”

Origen concludes this paragraph by saying, “Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him.”

2. Famous example of allegorical interpretation. The second excerpt from Origen comes from his homily on Numbers 33. Numbers 33:5 says, “Then the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses and camped in Succoth.” This excerpt shows how useful etymologies can be for allegorical interpretation. The etymology of Rameses here is not likely to be accurate, but it is useful for Origen’s purposes. According to Origen, the list of place names in Numbers 33 has a deeper meaning. It has to do with “the progress of the soul.” Through allegorical interpretation, he finds a spiritual meaning in a list of place names. There is no difficulty here (see above) that prompts him to seek for a deeper meaning. What prompts him to do so? Perhaps it is because he believes that Numbers 33’s long list of place names must have some spiritual significance. Why else would this long list of place names be in Scripture? Origen writes:

“So, the children of Israel went forth from Egypt, and setting out from Ramesse, they came to Sochoth. The order of setting out and the distinction of the stages are quite necessary and must be observed by those who follow God and set their minds on progress in the virtues. With respect to this order I remember that already in other places where we have spoken for edification we have pursued the points that the Lord thought right to give us. But we shall now remind you of them again briefly, since you ask it.

Now the first starting place was from Ramesse; and whether the soul starts out from this world and comes to the future age or is converted from the errors of life to the way of virtue and knowledge, it starts out from Ramesse. For in our language Ramesse means ‘confused agitation’ or ‘agitation of the worm.’ By this it is made clear that everything in this world is set in agitation and disorder, and also in corruption; for this is what the worm means. The soul should not remain in them, but should set out and come to Sochoth.

Sochoth is interpreted ‘tents.’ Thus, the first progress of the soul is to be taken away from earthly agitation and to learn that it must dwell in tents like a wanderer, so that it can be, as it were, ready for battle and meet those who lie in wait for it unhindered and free.”

If you read Origen’s full homily, you find out what he is going to do with each of the place names of Numbers 33. His interpretation appears to be profound and able to breathe life into a dull list of names.

Application Questions

Here are a few application questions that may help us to think about the significance of this introduction to Origen’s practice of allegorical interpretation:

1. What is unhelpful and misleading about Origen’s insistence that the difficulties in Scripture are actually pointers to a deeper meaning that should be brought out using allegorical interpretation? Is this the best way to deal with difficult texts in Scripture? What would be better? Who gets to decide what the difficult texts are?

2. When have you heard preaching or teaching that sounds like Origen’s homily on Numbers 33?

3. What is the most significant problem with Origen’s interpretation of the place names in Numbers 33? Examine the literal sense of Numbers 33. Is Origen’s interpretation really bringing out what the chapter is really about?

4. Why might Origen’s interpretation be tempting for teachers and preachers to want to repeat and imitate?


Reading 1: From Origen, On First Principles, book 4, section 15 (I have chosen to use a translation of Rufinus’s Latin translation of Origen. It is easier to follow than the Greek version, and appears to capture what Origen means to communicate). It is available from NewAdvent.org.

Reading 2: From Origen. Translated by Rowan Greer. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist, 1979.