Allegorical interpretation of the Bible

Allegorical interpretation of the Bible is an interpretive method (exegesis) that assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning and tends to focus on the spiritual sense, which includes the allegorical sense, the moral (or tropological) sense, and the anagogical sense) as opposed to the literal sense. It is sometimes referred to as the quadriga, a reference to the Roman chariot that was drawn by four horses.

Allegorical interpretation has its origins in both Greek thought and the rabbinical schools of Judaism. In the Middle Ages, it was used by Bible commentators of Christianity.[1]

Four types

Christian allegorical map of The Journey of Life, or an Accurate Map of the Roads, Counties, Towns &c. in the Ways to Happiness & Misery, 1775

Scriptural interpretation is sometimes referred to as the Quadriga, a reference to the Roman chariot that was pulled by four horses abreast. The four horses are symbolic of the four submethods of Scriptural interpretation:

  • Literal interpretation: explanation of the meaning of events for historical purposes from a neutral perspective by trying to understand the text in the culture and time it was written, and location and language it was composed in. That is, since the 19th century, usually ascertained using the higher critical methods like source criticism and form criticism. In many modern seminaries and universities, the literal meaning is usually focused on to a nearly complete abandonment of the spiritual methods, as is very obvious when comparing commentary from a Douay Rheims or Confraternity or Knox Bible with a New Jerusalem, New RSV or NABRE.[2]
  • Anagogic interpretation: dealing with the future events of Christian history (eschatology) as well as heaven, purgatory, hell, the last judgement, the General Resurrection and second Advent of Christ, etc. (prophecies).[3]
  • Typological (or allegorical) interpretation: connecting the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament, particularly drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ’s life with the stories of the Old Testament. Also, a passage speaks directly to someone such as when Francis of Assisi heard the passage to sell all he had. It can also typologically point to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the ark which held the Word of God; Judith, who slew a tyrant is a Marian type; the burning bush, which contains the fire of God but was not consumed, as Mary held the Second Person of the Trinity in her womb but was not burnt up.[4]
  • Tropological (or moral) interpretation: "the moral of the story," or how one should act now. Many of Jesus' parables and the Book of Proverbs and other wisdom books are packed with tropological meaning[5]

A Latin rhyme designed to help scholars remember the four interpretations survives from the Middle Ages:

Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,

Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.[6]

The rhyme is roughly translated:

The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,

The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,

The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,

The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.[6]