That explanation of a Scripture passage which is based upon the supposition that its author, whether God or man, intended something "other" (Greek, ἀλλος) than what is literally expressed. Expositors of this system may be called allegorists; the system itself, allegorism. Two modes of Allegorical Interpretation are found dealing with the Bible: the one, symbolic or typologic interpretation, derived mainly from Palestinian Jews; the other the philosophical or mystical modes, originating with the Alexandrian Jews of Egypt. Both methods originate in the same natural cause; whenever the literature of a people has become an inseparable part of its intellectual possession, and the ancient and venerated letter of this literature is in the course of time no longer in consonance with more modern views, to enable the people to preserve their allegiance to the tradition it becomes necessary to make that tradition carry and contain the newer thought as well. Allegorism is thus in some sense an incipient phase of rationalism. As soon as philosophy arose among the Greeks, Homer and the old popular poetry were allegorized. There being scarcely a people which underwent such powerful religious development and at the same time remained so fervently attached to its venerable traditions as the Jews, allegorism became of necessity a prominent feature in the history of their literature.

Early Allegorism.

Accordingly, one of the first of the prophets whose writings are preserved, Hosea (xii. 5), is one of the earliest allegorists, when he says of Jacob's struggle with the angel that it was a struggle in prayer: this was because the idea of an actual physical contest no longer harmonized with the prophetic conception of heavenly beings. The activity of the Scribes at a later period made the Bible a book for scholars, and allegorism was fostered as a form of Midrash. The Book of Daniel supplied an illustration hereof, when it interpreted Jeremiah's prophecy of the seventy years of exile (xxix. 10) as seventy weeks of years, and thus gave hopes of redemption from the contemporary tyranny of the Greeks. The dread of reproducing Biblical anthropomorphisms—a thoroughly Jewish dread, and a characteristic feature of the oldest portions of the Septuagint—shows the original disposition of all allegorism; namely, to spiritualize mythology. See Anthropomorphism; Septuagint.

Alexandrian Allegorism.

Essential as allegorism thus was to the Palestinian Jews, it was none the less so to the Alexandrian Hebrews, who were made to feel the derision of the Hellenes at the naive presentations of the Bible. The Jews replied by adopting the Hellenes' own weapons: if the latter made Homer speak the language of Pythagoras, Plato, Anaxagoras, and Zeno, the Jews transformed the Bible into a manual of philosophy which also was made to contain the teachings of these philosophers. This polemic or apologetic feature of Alexandrian allegorism is at the same time characteristic of its relation to the Palestinian Midrash on the one hand, and the allegorized mythology of the Greeks on the other; in its purpose, Alexandrian allegory was Hellenic; in its origin and method, it was Jewish. But one would hardly be warranted in maintaining that allegorism was specifically Hellenic because the Alexandrians were the first Jews known to have cultivated it; nothing can be really proved from the absence of allegory in the few inconsiderable remains of Palestinian Scriptural lore of the two centuries before the common era.

The Wisdom of Solomon.

Closely connecting with the Palestinian Midrash is Aristobulus, rightly to be termed the father of Alexandrian allegory. His purpose, to prove the essential identity of Scripture and Aristotelianism, is of course the Alexandrian one; but his explanations of the Biblical anthropomorphisms is thoroughly Palestinian, and reminds one of Targum and Septuagint. Similarly, The Wisdom of Solomon, another Apocryphal book of the same period, is not specifically Hellenic in its allegorical symbolism. The explanation of the heavenly ladder in Jacob's vision, as a symbol of Divine Providence and the super-sensual world, is just as little Hellenic as the Biblical narrative itself, the sense of which is very correctly given (Wisdom, x. 10). The influence of a Palestinian Midrash, preserved in the Mishnah (R. H. iii. 8), is evident in the explanation of the serpent (Num. xxi. 9), as a "symbol of salvation, while the salvation itself came from God" (Wisdom, xvi. 5). These and similar interpretations are so clearly of Palestinian origin that it would be wrong to assume any foreign influence for them. The literal reality of the Law and of the Biblical history is so strongly adhered to by the author of The Wisdom of Solomon, coming as it does from Pharisaic circles, that one can hardly speak of his treatment as an allegorization of the Bible.

The Allegorical Interpretation of the Law in the Aristeas Letter exhibits Hellenic influence more decidedly. It seeks to give ethical motives for all the ritual and ceremonial laws. On the one hand, the flesh of birds of prey is declared unclean, it says, in order to teach how violence and injustice defile the soul; on the other, that of animals which chew the cud and divide the hoof is permitted. For the former characteristic typifies the duty of invoking God frequently; and the latter signifies the distinction between right and wrong, and the division to be maintained between Israel and nations practising abominations.

Radical Allegorism.

A further step, but an inevitable one, was taken by those allegorists of whom Philo writes ("De Migratione Abrahami," xvi.; ed. Mangey, i. 450), that they cut loose entirely from any observance of the Law, and saw in the records of Jewish revelation nothing but a presentation of higher philosophical truths. Such an extreme step could only provoke reaction; and the result was that many would have nothing whatever to do with Allegorical Interpretation, justly seeing in it a danger to practical Judaism. These anti-allegorists were specially represented in Palestine, where the warning was heard (about 50 B.C.) against those "evil waters" to be avoided by the young scholars "abroad," i.e. Egypt (see Abtalion). Nor were there wanting in Alexandria itself many determined opponents of this tendency (Philo, "De Somniis," i. 16; ed. Mangey, i. 635). But the extremists on both sides, allegorists as well as anti-allegorists, were in the minority; for most teachers held steadfastly to the ancestral faith as far as actual practise was concerned, and endeavored only theoretically to harmonize Judaism with the Hellenic philosophy by means of allegory. Philo informs us ("De Vita Contemplativa," III. ii. 475) that his predecessors in this allegorical tendency (from whom he quotes eighteen times—see the list in Siegfried's "Philo," p. 26) had committed their teachings to writing; but beyond those quotations nothing has been preserved. The following is an illustration: "Men versed in natural philosophy explain the history of Abraham and Sarah in an allegorical manner with no inconsiderable ingenuity and propriety. The man here [Abraham] is a symbolical expression for the virtuous mind, and by his wife is meant virtue, for the name of his wife is Sarah ["princess"], because there is nothing more royal or more worthy of regal preeminence than virtue" ("De Abrahamo," xx. 8; ed. Mangey, ii. 15).


It would not be just, in the absence of striking proof, to maintain that Josephus, who in his preface to the "Antiquitates" speaks of the literal sense and the allegorical, was influenced by Alexandrianism in general or by Philo in particular (Siegfried's "Philo," p. 270). His symbolical exposition of the Tabernacle with its utensils, and of the high priest's vestments ("Ant." iii. 7, § 7), and his interpretation that the Holy of Holies means the heavens, the showbread means the twelve months, and the candlestick means the seven planets, resemble Philo, but are merely resemblances. Similar explanations are repeatedly given by the Midrash; and this kind of symbolism was always a favorite in Palestine.


All achievements of preceding allegorists, however, were far surpassed by Philo, the most important representative of Jewish Alexandrianism. His philosophy furnished one foundation-stone to Christianity; his Allegorical Interpretation, in an even greater degree, contributed to the Church's interpretation of the Old Testament; and strange to say neither his philosophy nor his allegorism had the slightesteffect upon Judaism. Gfrörer has cleverly described Philo's allegorical bent in saying, "It is madness, but there's a method in it" (Gfrörer, "Philo," i. 113). Palestinian hermeneutics and Alexandrian allegorism are the two foundations upon which Philo builds his system of Bible interpretation. He detects allegorical secrets in parallel passages or duplicate expressions of Scripture, in apparently superfluous words, in particles, adverbs, and the like. In view of the numerous peculiarities of Hebrew in this direction—they are so prevalent that they may sometimes be detected even in the Septuagint translation—it was a very easy matter for Philo to discover many such secret hints where none existed. In addition to "rules" based upon the Palestinian Midrash, the Greek allegorists had set up an extensive system of the symbolism of things and numbers; and of this also Philo made considerable use. Thus the number one is God's number; two is division; five means the five senses; and similarly all simple numbers up to ten, and some compound ones such as 12, 50, 70, 100, 120, have their allegorical significance. Animals and winged birds, creeping things and swimming things, all have their symbolical import. Likewise, plants, stones, the heavenly bodies, certain species of animals—in short, everything that is finite was an allegory of some truth; this is one of the chief rules of Philo's allegorism.

But it must be noticed that Philo none the less protected the rights of the literal word, without, however, being quite clear as to the proper relation of the written word to its Allegorical Interpretation. By means of such hermeneutic principles Philo expounded almost the whole Pentateuch in its historical as well as its legal portions. The following is an illustration from Genesis: "God planted a garden in Eden [Gen. ii. 5 et seq.]: that means God implants terrestrial virtue in the human race. The tree of life is that specific virtue which some people call goodness. The river that 'went out of Eden' is also generic goodness. Its four heads are the cardinal virtues; 'Pheison' is derived from the Greek φείδομαι (I abstain) and means 'prudence'; and, being an illustrious virtue, it is said 'to compass the whole land of Havilah where there is gold.'" The name "Gihon" means "chest" (see Gen. R. on the passage) and stands for courage, and it compasses Ethiopia, or humiliation. Tigris is "temperance"; the name is connected with a tiger because it resolutely opposes desire. Euphrates means "fertility" (Hebrew parah; see Gen. R.) and stands for "justice." In this way the patriarchs, however, are allegorized away into mere abstractions ("De Allegoriis Legum," i. 19 et seq.; ed. Mangey, i. 56 et seq.).

Palestinian Allegorism.

As to Palestinian allegorism, it was too deeply rooted in historical Judaism to permit itself to go to such extremes with the history as the Alexandrians, no matter how much it may have chosen to allegorize the Law. Nothing exhibits the genuinely Jewish character of the Palestinian allegory more clearly than its application to the Halakah; a mere Greek fashion—and one specifically antagonistic to the letter of Scripture—could never have taken part in the Halakah, which is professedly founded upon the Scripture text. Devoted as the Palestinians were to the Pentateuch, it is nevertheless a fact that the Halakah, both before and after Akiba, made use of allegorism. It is expressly stated that Rabbi Ishmael (died about 132) explained three Pentateuchal passages by a species of parable (Mek., Mishpaṭim, vi.). His younger contemporary R. Jose of Galilee interprets Deut. xxiv. 6 also allegorically, or rather euphemistically after Job, xxxi. 10 (Gen. R. xx. 7). Akiba, although he more than any one else perceived the danger of this allegorization of the Law, which just then was fashionable in the Christian and the Gnostic worlds, could not refrain from adopting something of this method of interpretation. Thus, referring to the verse, "And she [the heathen captive] shall bewail her father and her mother" (Deut. xxi. 13), Akiba understands by "father and mother," "idols," according to Jer. ii. 27 (Sifre, Deut. 213); and in Lev. xix. 26 he perceives a warning to judges to partake of no food upon a day on which they are to consider a capital sentence (Sifra ḳedoshim, vi. 90a). Similarly the verse, Deut. xxv. 4 (forbidding the ox to be muzzled when treading out corn), when taken in conjunction with the following law (by or interpretation by sequence), is allegorically used to explain that the widow may not be compelled to enter into a levirate marriage with a leper. Just as the ox in the passage is not to be prevented from helping himself to a share of the harvest he is threshing, so the woman may not be deprived of her right to happiness in her marriage (Yeb. 4a).

Book of Jubilees.

The essential characteristic of Palestinian allegorism which distinguishes it from Alexandrian is its acceptance of the Scripture as the inalienable heritage of Israel. The Bible was a Jewish revelation, so that any hidden import discovered by means of allegorism was an inherent part of the history or of the religious life, the Torah of the Jews. An excellent exemplar of Palestinian allegorism is afforded by the Book of Jubilees. The periods prescribed in Lev. xii. for the purification of women are deduced by it from the legend that Adam was forty days old when he entered Paradise, and Eve eighty (iii. 9); in vi. 15, the Feast of Weeks is associated with God's covenant with Noah after the flood. These interpretations are strictly Haggadot rather than allegorisms, but nevertheless they show the typological character of Palestinian allegorism in the endeavor to expound the pre-Mosaic period by the light of the later period of the Law.

The Essenes.

The oldest form of Palestinian derush (exposition), already archaic in the year 70 of the common era, is that of the Symbolists, literally "interpreters of signs"; called also , "interpreters of parables" (Ber. 24a; see Bacher, "Die Aelteste Terminologie," s.v.). Their method is allegorical or symbolically allegorical; thus: "they found no water" (Ex. xv. 22) means "no Torah," as in Isa. lv. 1; "and God showed Moses a tree," that means God taught him—a play upon the word , which means "to teach," as well as "to show"—the Law, as it is said, Prov. iii. 18, "It is a tree of life" (Mek., Beshallaḥ, Wayassa', i. 1). Another instructive example is the following: The Symbolists say that all, even the wickedest, kings of Israel shall enter the future world, as it is said, Ps. lx. 9; "Gilead is mine" means Ahab who fell at Ramoth-Gilead; "and Manasseh is mine," that is, literally, King Manasseh; "Ephraim is the strength of mine head" means Jeroboam who was an Ephraimite; "Judah is my law-giver" means Ahithophel, who was of the tribe of Judah; "Moab is my wash-pot" means Gehazi; "Over Edom will I cast out my shoe" means Doeg, the Edomite (Sanh. 104b).

Closely allied with this ancient form of Palestinian allegorism must have been that of the Essenes. The author of a book sometimes ascribed to Philo reports that among the Essenes, after the public reading from the Scripture, "another, who belongs to the most learned, stepsforward and expounds that which is not known, for in greatest part such men explain by means of symbols in the old-fashioned manner" ("Quod omnis probus liber," xii.). They certainly possessed many such allegorical interpretations of Scripture in writing (see Philo, "De Vita Contemplativa," iii.).

To base upon the above report the inference that Essene allegorism was drawn from Hellenic sources—as Zeller ("Philosophie der Griechen," vol. iii, part 2, p. 293) has done—is erroneous; for no Alexandrian would have spoken so disparagingly of Hellenic allegorism as to call it "old-fashioned," whereas the Alexandrians may well have deemed the Palestinian Allegorical Interpretation out of date—it was too Judaic for them.

Early Tannaim.

The early Haggadot of the Tannaim contain only few specimens of their Allegorical Interpretation. R. Johanan b. Zakkai is credited with five allegorical interpretations, four of which refer to Biblical passages (Ex. xx. 16, 25; xxxii. 16; Lev. iv. 22; see Tosef., B. ḳ. vii. 3), and it is remarked that he explained the Scriptures as a parabolic charm (ḥomer); that is, allegorically, in the style of the Symbolists, (Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 33). This applies also to R. Johanan's younger contemporary Gamaliel II. (Soṭah, 15a). But the allegorizer of this period is Eleazar of Modiim, an uncle, according to rabbinical tradition, of Bar Kokba. The Mekilta upon Ex. xvii. 8 contains a running allegorization. Thus: Amalek's onset was directed against those who were weak in faith, wherefore Moses sent men without sin to their protection. "The top of the hill," where Moses took his stand, signifies the pious deeds of the patriarchs and matriarchs, who are considered as the highest pinnacles of the human race. "Moses' hands became heavy" whenever Israel's sins prevented the effects of prayer. Aaron and Hur represented the merits of their progenitors Levi and Judah. Moses vanquished Amalek by his prayers, wherefore it is written in verse 13, , , literally, "by the mouth of the sword"; by the mouth, prayer replaces the sword. Many such allegorical interpretations by R. Eleazar are contained in the Midrashim (see Bacher, l.c. i. 211 et seq.).

Akiba and His School.

Though Akiba is not quoted as the author of so many allegorisms as Eleazar, he is known as the first tanna to allegorize an entire book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon. This was undoubtedly an important factor in quelling the opposition to the canonization of this book (Mishnah Yad. iii. 5). From the scant remains of this allegory only so much is evident, that he perceived in the Song of Solomon a representation of the relations between God and Israel, portraying in its passages the most conspicuous events in the history of the nation, past and to come. Alongside of this typological interpretation of this book, the essential features of which have been crystallized in Targum and Midrash, there may have stood that mystical interpretation which, according to Origen ("Canticum Canticorum," hom. iv.), was held in such high esteem among the Palestinian Jews that its study was forbidden to those not of mature years. Akiba's assertion (Mishnah, l.c.) that the Song of Solomon is "of the holiest of the holy," sounds in itself somewhat mystical. Akiba's favorite pupil, R. Meir, added to his master's interpretation of the book in the same spirit; thus upon ch. i. verse 12, he explains, "while the King sitteth at his table, the spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof," as signifying that while the King of Kings was in heaven occupied in giving the Law to Moses, Israel fell into sin (Ex. xxxii.) with the golden calf, of which it is said, "These be thy gods, O Israel" (Cant. R., in loco). From the controversy that arose between Meir and Judah b. Ilai concerning this exposition, it is evident that there were other pupils of Akiba who accepted his typo-allegorical method of interpretation. Meir was in so far independent of contemporaries that he saw also the sinister events of Israel's history depicted in the book, while the general understanding was that, being a love-song between God and Israel, it could therefore contain nothing in the way of reproach. Meir allegorized the earliest Bible history as well; his explanation of "coats of skin" (Gen. iii. 21) as "coats of light" (Gen. R. xx. 12) is interesting; the same idea played quite a part in the earlier Gnostic and Christian literature.

Judah the Patriarch.

Concerning R. Judah, the editor of the Mishnah, the important statement is made that he interpreted the Book of Job as an allegorical representation of the sin and punishment of the generation of the flood (Gen. R. xxvi. 7). Many allegorisms are quoted in the names of his disciples. Bar ḳappara interprets Jacob's dream (Gen. xxviii. 12) in the following manner: "A ladder set up on the earth," that is the Temple; "the top of it reaching to heaven," that is the pillar of smoke from the sacrifices; "the angels ascending and descending on it," these are the priests who mount and descend the steps leading to the altar; "and behold the Lord stood above it," that refers to Amos, ix. 1, "I saw the Lord standing upon the altar" (Gen. R. lxviii. 12). Rab and Samuel, the founders of the academies in Babylonia, are also named as the authors of allegorisms which, however, have nothing specifically Babylonian about them, but are quite in the spirit of Palestinian interpretation.

Palestinian Amoraim.

While the Babylonian schools did very little for the Haggadah in general and for allegory in particular, in Palestine the golden age of allegorism dawned when the Amoraim interpreted everything in the Bible—legend, history, and law—in an allegorical manner. But it would be incorrect to attribute the vast allegorical material of Midrash and Talmud exclusively to the particular Amoraim named as their authors. In the tradition of the Haggadah, the subject-matter was everything, the name of the author nothing; so that the same Haggadah is continually found quoted with different sponsors who applied the traditional interpretation to their own times. It is hardly to be supposed that a new and sudden development of the tendency toward allegorization took place at any one epoch. Only later generations which had the older material before them compiled that of the various epochs. The following illustrations are taken from different parts of the Pentateuch: R. Simeon b. Laḳish explains the second verse of Gen. i. as follows: "The earth was without form," that means Babylon; "and void," that means Media; "and darkness," that means Greece (the Antiochian persecutions); "upon the face of the deep," that means the wicked empire (Rome); "And the spirit of God moved," that means the spirit of the Messiah; "upon the face of the waters," that is, when Israel shall be repentant; for water (compare Lam. ii. 19) symbolizes repentance (Gen. R. ii. 4).

Again, the four rivers of Paradise represent the four great kingdoms of the world: Pishon is Babylon, after Hab. i. 8—the land of Havilah which it compasses being Israel that watcheth for () the Lord (Ps.xlii. 6) and has the gold of the Law. Gihon is Media, the home of Haman, the serpent-like crawler (, Gen. iii. 14); Hiddekel is the Seleucidmonarchy with its sharp () and rapid () anti-Jewish legislation; Euphrates (Perat) is Rome the destroyer (), the wine-press (, Isa. lxiii. 3) of the Lord (Gen. R. xvi. 4). Such technical matters as the precepts concerning clean animals are also covered by allegorization; but it must never for a moment be forgotten that throughout Palestinian allegorism the literal word of the Law is endowed with complete reality, and any allegorical meaning found in it is always secondary to the import of its literal sense and does not in any way displace it. Thus in Lev. xi. 4-8, "the camel" means Babylon "because he cheweth the cud," for the Babylonians praise God (Dan. iv. 34); "and the coney," that is Media, because the Medians likewise praise God; "and the hare because he cheweth the cud," that means Greece, for Alexander the Great praised God; "and the swine," that is Edom (Rome); "he cheweth not the cud," he not alone praiseth not God but curseth and blasphemeth Him (Lev. R. xiii. 5). The preceding examples of Palestinian allegory were concerned with Israel and its history; but there are also many ethical doctrines in the form of allegories, though perhaps they are not so numerous as the preceding species. Thus, for instance, R. Johanan explains the passage, Num. xxi. 27: "Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say," so as to refer to those who control their passions (); "come into Heshbon," is interpreted as "let us estimate [] the good and the bad and weigh them against each other." "Let it be built and set up," "if thou doest thus, measuring good and evil, thou shalt be built up and established in this world and in the world to come," etc. (B. B. 78b). The whole is interesting inasmuch as it shows that the allegorization of Biblical proper names was by no means exclusively the characteristic of Alexandrian allegorism; the Palestinians were very fond of it, as shown by their interpretation of the genealogical lists in Chronicles, fragments of which have found their way into the Talmud, Meg. 13b, B. B. 91b, Sifre Num. 78, and Ruth R. repeatedly.

Of anagogic allegory—which, according to Origen, was a favorite mode among the Jews in the interpretation of the Song of Songs especially—there are but very few specimens in rabbinical literature. Thus a passage in PirḲe R. El. xxi., the close relationship of which with Gnostic ideas has been demonstrated by Ginzberg ("Monatsschrift," 1899, 224), in commenting on Gen. iii. 3, interprets the sin of paradise as being sensual gratification.

The Targums.

Allegory in the Targums is hardly different from that of the Midrash. Onkelos is almost entirely free from it, though he occasionally uses it, as on Gen. xlix.; the Palestinian Targums frequently make use of it. The Targum to the Prophets, especially that upon Isaiah, frequently employs allegory. The Targum to the Song of Solomon is an allegorical Midrash in itself, preserved in part in the Midrash Rabbah upon the book.

Rashi and Ibn Ezra.

Even those two prominent defenders of literal interpretation (peshaṭ), Rashi and Ibn Ezra, also at times succumbed to the influence of allegorical exposition. This is especially true concerning the Song of Solomon, which is interpreted allegorically by both writers, although in varying fashion. Rashi, the head of the French school of exegesis, sees in the book, like Akiba, the history of Israel, or, more properly, the history of Israel's sufferings, while Ibn Ezra, like a philosopher, descries in it an allegory of the intimate union of the soul with the universal intelligence, and explains it accordingly.

Philosophic Allegory.

It would seem that when the Arabian-Greek philosophy took root among the Jews, a philosophico-allegorical treatment of Scripture gradually developed. The Karaite Solomon b. Jeroham mentions Benjamin Nahawendi as the first Jewish allegorist (Pinsker, "Liḳḳute ḳadmoniot," ii. 109), but the illustration he gives is quoted literally from the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes, so that he can scarcely be said to prove his statement by it. Shaharastani (Haarbrücker, p. 256) indeed relates of Judgan of Hamadan, a contemporary of Benjamin (about 800), that he explains Scripture allegorically and in opposition to the custom of the Jews. However much the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages may have agreed with the Alexandrians that revelation and philosophy taught the same truth, they contrived generally to avoid the mistake of the latter in straining to prove this by means of the most artificial and far-fetched allegorization.


Saadia, the pioneer in Jewish religious philosophy, laid down a rule for the employment of allegory which was recognized generally until the time of Maimonides; it was that Allegorical Interpretation is only admissible in the four following cases: where the text contradicts (a) reality, (b) reason, (c) another text, or finally (d) rabbinical tradition (sec. vii. p. 212 of the Arabic text in Landauer). Saadia himself uses these rules in interpreting the anthropomorphisms of the Bible as conflicting alike with reason and tradition. He also shows how dangerous a free treatment of the literal word might become by showing how the Biblical account of Creation, and the history of the Patriarchs, and even the precepts themselves, could be so allegorized away that nothing of Holy Scripture would remain. Saadia's view of the proper use of Allegorical Interpretation was accepted by Baḥya ibn Pakuda, Abraham b. Ḥiyya, Abraham ibn Daud, and Judah ha-Levi. The last-named, by virtue of his antiphilosophical bent, even found a way to defend the literal conception of the Bible's anthropomorphic expressions; compare also Samuel b. Hophni.

Solomon ibn Gabirol.

Quite apart stands Solomon ibn Gabirol, who in his philosophy gave no consideration to Judaism, but in his exegesis frequently made use of Allegorical Interpretation. His method is quite Philonic, without being influenced, however, either directly or indirectly by Philo. Here is an example of Gabirol's Allegorical Interpretation as quoted by Ibn Ezra (compare Bacher, "Die Bibelexegese der Jüdischen Religionsphilosophen," p. 46; Kaufmann, "Studien über Solomon b. Gabirol") in his commentary upon Genesis. Paradise is the world supernal; the garden, the visible world of the pious. The river going forth out of Eden is universal matter. Its four separating streams are the four elements. Adam, Eve, and the serpent represent the three souls; Adam, who bestows names, representing the rational soul, Eve the animal soul (the living ), and the serpent the vegetative. Thus, when it is said that the serpent shall eat dust, it indicates that the vegetative soul cleaves to the dust of materialism. The coats of skins typify the body; the tree of life is the perception of the upper intelligible world, just as the cherubim, the angels, are the intelligible beings of the upper world. In addition to this allegory of Gabirol's, Ibn Ezra quotes another interpretation of Jacob's dream; but while it is possible that he may have applied this method to visions or similar passages of the Bible, it is altogether unlikely that he presumed to apply it either to the Law or to the historical events chronicled in Scripture.


The head and front of all philosophical allegorism among the Jews in the Middle Ages was undoubtedly Maimonides, although of course he can not be held responsible for the excessive use made of it by those who followed in his footsteps. He was the first Jewish thinker to set up the principle that the superficial sense of Scripture compares with the inner or allegorical signification as silver does with gold. The benefit to be drawn by men from the literal word is quite insignificant compared with that derivable from the perception of that deeper truth which may be learned from the word's inmost sense (Introduction to the "Moreh," Arabic text, 6b). Maimonides distinguishes two kinds of allegorism—that of each individual word of a passage and that of the passage as a whole. Of the former his interpretation of Jacob's dream is an example. The "angels" are the prophets, who "ascend" the ladder of perception; "whose top reached to heaven"—that is, to God—who forever "stands" above it. When the angels have reached a certain height of perception "they descend on it" in order to instruct men ("Moreh," i. 15, 22). The second kind is illustrated by Prov. vii. 5, where in the admonition against the adulterous woman he perceives the warning against all carnal desires; for woman is the allegorical designation for matter, or the animal craving (Introd. 7a, 8a). Concerning the relation of the inner meaning to the superficial one, Maimonides somewhat inconsistently declares that the literal sense must give way when it contradicts the postulates of philosophy, and yet he leaves the Biblical miracles and many prophecies undisturbed in their literal acceptation, as not being irreconcilable with his particular philosophy. His statement that if the eternity of the world were philosophically proven, "the gates of Allegorical Interpretation would not be closed" (for this view, see Bacher, "Bibelexegese Moses Maimuni's," pp. 14-17, 85), is characteristic. All legal enactments, however, must be taken literally, and he energetically protests against that Christian allegorization of the Law which entirely strips away and destroys the significance of its commands and prohibitions ("Iggeret Teman," ed. Vienna, 1874, p. 18). Maimonides' allegorism is thus confined, as it were, between the barriers of his rationalism on the one hand and his fidelity to tradition on the other. But his interpretation of the Canticles ("Moreh," iii. 51, 126) and of Job (ibid. iii. 22, 44b et seq.) contains pre-monitions of that excessive allegorization which after his death so strongly menaced the position of rabbinical Judaism in southern France. Maimonides' modest conceptions of allegorism undoubtedly influenced such writers as David Kimḥi, as Bacher (Winter and Wünsche, "Jüdische Literatur," ii. 316) points out, so that the attempt to set up Samuel ibn Tibbon as the originator of the Provencal school of allegorists, with the assumption of Christian influence, is entirely gratuitous. Ibn Tibbon's allegorism in his work, "YiḲḲawu ha-Mayim," is physical rather than ethical, as the Greek philosophers would say—that is, occupies itself chiefly with the Being of God and with natural phenomena—whereas Christian or Philonic allegorism, which is by some claimed to have influenced him, is mainly ethical, seeking in Scripture for the philosophical foundation of moral truths and of the idea of man's relation to God.

Pseudo-Maimonidean Writings.

In the Maimonidean "Pirḳe ha-Haẓlaḥah" (Chapters on Happiness)—largely interpolated by later writers (see Bacher, in "Jew. Quart. Rev." ix. 270-289)—and the "Ethical Will" (Ẓawwaah), falsely ascribed to Maimonides, the allegorization of Biblical personages and events is carried still further: Pharaoh is the evil inclination; Moses, the intellect; Egypt, the body; her princes, its members; the land of Goshen, the heart. Thus the Biblical narrative connected with these is simply a representation of the conflict between human reason and human passion for superiority in man. Even the minute and technical details of the construction of the desert tabernacle are allegorized into a physiological portrayal of the human body, its members and their functions. Although this "higher wisdom" at first did not dare to undermine the historical and legal passages of Scripture, accepting them in their true literalness, it was not long before it aspired to complete influence over the whole range of Scriptural interpretation. The fundamental proposition of these allegorists was then formulated, to the effect that all the narrative portions of Scripture, and especially those from the initial verse of Genesis down to Ex. xx. 2, are not to be taken literally; "From Creation to Revelation all is parable" (Minḥat ḳenaot, p. 153); and that even some of the legislative enactments are to be understood symbolically. First of the conservative allegorists who respected the literal word was Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli, at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

The Opposition to Maimonides.

In his "Malmad ha-Talmidim" (Goad for Scholars), he allegorizes the story of Noah to the effect that, in order to preserve himself against the waters of sin, every man must make himself an ark out of his good deeds, and this ark must consist of three stories, the mathematical, physical, and meta-physical elements (l.c. 12a). Even Anatoli, however, understands the Wisdom-Books of the Bible to consist of philosophical reflections only. Although Levy b. Abraham, of Villefranche, who was so prominent in the conflict concerning Maimonides, protests most stoutly against radical allegorism, he, in his "Liwyat Ḥen," nevertheless allegorizes the campaign of the four kings against five (Gen. xiv.), making of Chedorlaomer a representation of the Imagination, the leader in the battle of the five senses against the four elements.

From the same school also came purely allegorical commentaries upon Scripture, of which the following, out of the few fragments extant to-day, is an illustration: "Out of the house of Levi", (Ex. ii. 1)—that means, from organic corporal association ( union)—"went a man"—that is, Form—and "took to wife a daughter of Levi"; Form unites with Matter. From this union a son is born, Reason. "The daughter of Pharaoh" is Active Reason, who is the daughter of God the Recompenser (, derived from , to recompense), and who is therefore called Bithiah (literally, the daughter of God), as Moses' adoptive mother was traditionally named (Meg. 13a). It is of the nature of Active Reason to work among lower beings, and make their passive reason active reason too; wherefore it is said (verse 5) "the daughter of Pharaoh came down" (compare the Zunz "Jubelschrift," p. 159). That such explanations of Scripture in point of fact are tantamount to a perfect negation of its words is incontrovertible, and the conservatives of Provence were justified in opposing it by all the means at their command. The expulsion of the Jews from France in the beginning of the fourteenth century put an end to the conflict, but the subversive principles of extreme allegorism had no doubt by that time been completely checked. Gersonides, undoubtedly the most important genius among theallegorists of the fourteenth century, never thought of allegorizing historical or legislative passages, and instead contented himself with a philosophical exposition of Proverbs and Job, and that in a most conservative manner. A contemporary, the Portuguese David b. Yom-Ṭob ibn Bilia, unconscious in his remote country of the conflict between philosophy and orthodoxy, was alone at this period in giving an Allegorical Interpretation to the miracles and narratives of Scripture.

A curious fact, characteristic of the varied mental gifts of the Polish Jews, is that Moses Isserles, called Rama (), the greatest rabbinical authority of Poland in the sixteenth century, imitated the Provençal allegorists, some two hundred years after them, by allegorizing the Book of Esther. The quarrel between Ahasuerus and Vashti is the conflict between Form and Matter in the universe, just as Plato had presented the same opposition of existence as that of man and woman. The five senses and the five powers of organic life are symbolized for Isserles in the ten sons of Haman, who is himself the Evil Inclination (Commentary on Esther, "Meḥir Yayin").

Mystical Allegorism.

Though conservatism may thus be said to have vanquished philosophical allegorism in the fourteenth century and brought it to a halt, it could not prevent its development in another direction into that mystical allegorism, which in its turn became the most predominant method of Biblical interpretation. As far back as the "Sefer ha-Bahir" (first half of the twelfth century) this tendency had held sway in certain quarters, and it has survived down to the latest cabalistic work of modern Ḥasidim. The "Bahir" is the oldest cabalistic work of this kind. It says, "The earth was without form and void" (Gen. i. 2); the word "was" indicates that something was already existent; "void" also shows that there was a something; thus the pre-existence of the universe before Creation is deduced from Scripture.

Though Naḥmanides made only a scant use of allegorism in his Bible commentary, he was the chief Talmudic authority of his age who with great insistence spoke a good word for it, and a pupil of his, Baḥya b. Asher, was the first to define the advantages of mystic allegorism over other modes of interpretation. While admitting the merits of peshaṭ (the literal meaning), of remez (philosophical allegorism), and derush (exposition), he claims that only in the path of the sod (Cabala) is there light (Introd. to Pentateuch commentary, begun in 1291). In his commentary he never fails to take cognizance of this mystical interpretation; thus he sees in the three festivals, the symbols of the three Sefirot, ḥesed (love), din (justice), and raḥamim (mercy), the last of which establishes equilibrium between the former two, which are mutual opposites. In the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, God's love was displayed; in the revelation upon Sinai, His mercy, the intermediary between justice and love; and on the festival of the Holy Spirit (Tabernacles), the Sefirah of din (justice) stood revealed, an emanation of ḥokmah (wisdom). ("Commentary, Deut." ed. Riva di Trento, p. 256b.)


The masterpiece of Jewish allegorism, and next to Philo's writings the most interesting and most influential product of its kind, is the celebrated Zohar (Splendor), the gospel of the Jewish mysticism of the Middle Ages. It was this allegorical commentary upon the Pentateuch that coined the term PaRDeS ( Paradise) for the four species of Biblical interpretation, forming it from their initial letters, thus Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allegorical), Derush (haggadic or halakic interpretation), and Sod (mystic meaning). As secondary forms of these four, the Zohar mentions in a passage (iii. 202a, ed. Amsterdam) the following seven: (1) literal meaning, (2) Midrash, (3) allegory, (4) philosophical allegory, (5) numerical value of the letters, (6) mystic allegory, and (7) higher inspiration. It may be remarked with regard to the last that Philo likewise claims "higher inspiration" for some of his interpretations ("De Cherubim," i. 9, 144; "De Somniis," i. 8, 627). Resting as it does upon rabbinical Judaism, the Zohar maintains the authority of the written word; but mysticism was already aware, at the time of the Zohar's origin, of its essential antagonism to the spirit of strict rabbinism, as appears from the following classical passage concerning the various methods of Scriptural interpretation:

(Zohar, iii. 152, ).

"Wo unto the man who asserts that this Torah intends to relate only commonplace things and secular narratives; for if this were so, then in the present times likewise a Torah might be written with more attractive narratives. In truth, however, the matter is thus: The upper world and the lower are established upon one and the same principle; in the lower world is Israel, in the upper world are the angels. When the angels wish to descend to the lower world, they have to don earthly garments. If this be true of the angels, how much more so of the Torah, for whose sake, indeed, both the world and the angels were alike created and exist [an old Midrash; see Ginzberg, "Monatsschrift," 1898, p. 546]. The world could simply not have endured to look upon it. Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments. He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Wo unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body. Fools see only the garment of the Torah, the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul, its proper being, and in the Messianic time the 'upper soul' of the Torah will stand revealed"

General Allegorization of the Law.

This classical passage reads almost like a declaration of war against rabbinism, whose haggadic and halakic interpretation is designated "body," or substance by the rabbis themselves (Ab. iii. 28) and by the Zohar is as it were travestied, being a body without soul. Characteristic of the Zohar is the fact that it provides a general allegorization of the precepts of the Law which heretofore had been attempted only in scattered instances. The following is the characteristic elucidation of the passage in Ex. xxi. 7, concerning the Jewish woman sold as a slave:

"When God, who in Ex. xv. 3 is called , the man, sells his daughter—that is, the holy soul—for a slave—that is, sends her into the material world—she shall not go out as the men-servants do. God desires that when she leaves this world and her state of servitude in it, she should go from it free and pure, and not after the manner of slaves, laden with sin and transgression; in this manner only can she be reunited with her heavenly Father. If, however, 'she please not her master,' so that she can not be united with him owing to impurity and sinfulness, 'then shall he let her be redeemed'; that is, man must do penance and liberate the soul from the punishments of hell, so that she shall not 'be sold unto a strange nation,' the evil angels."

Next to the Zohar, mention must be made of the mystic allegorical commentaries of Menahem di Recanati, about 1320, the first writer to mention the Zohar; of the books "Peliah" and "ḳ;anah"—see ḳ;anah—probably of the fourteenth century, anti-rabbinical works in the form of a commentary on the Biblical account of Creation; and of the "Ẓioni," by Menahem b. Zion of Speyer, beginning of the fifteenth century. The allegorism of these works is entirely derived from the Zohar. Extensive use of cabalistic allegorism was likewise made by Solomon Ephraim Lenczyz (end of the sixteenth century), who applied it even to rabbinical precepts. This homiletic application of allegorism was quite favored by the Polish "darshanim," or preachers,the best examples being afforded by the often highly ingenious allegorizations of Jonathan Eibeschütz in his homilies, "Ya'arat Debash" (Honeycopse). When cabalism became incorporated in Ḥasidism, Allegorical Interpretation received a new impulse, the effects of which are still felt. The following allegorization of the passage concerning the two wives (Deut. xxi. 15) is from a work entitled "Ezor Eliyahu" (Elijah's Girdle), published at Warsaw, 1885: "When man's two inclinations [, "rulers," for , "wives"], the spiritual and the material, the one which a man readily obeys and the one to which he is not so obedient, both produce actual deeds, then only the offspring of the spiritual prompting—the one less beloved—shall be considered as the real 'first-born,' the meritorious one."

Isaac Arama.

It was owing to mystic influence that, toward the end of the fifteenth century, philosophical allegorization, which had so long lain dormant as under a ban, once more raised its head in association with derush (exposition of Scripture). Quite the ablest of these allegorizing preachers was Isaac Arama, who, basing his attitude upon the above-mentioned declaration of the Zohar, strenuously maintained not only the propriety, but the necessity of Allegorical Interpretation ("Ḥazut ḳashah," x.), without, however, detracting in the least from the authority of the literal word. Exactly in the words of Philo, but probably quite independent of him (compare Paul's allegory of the same Biblical narrative), "Sarah, the mistress, is the Torah; her handmaiden, Hagar, is Philosophy. The fruitfulness of Sarah [the Torah] followed only when the Egyptian handmaiden—that is, heathen Philosophy—had for centuries usurped the position of mistress. It was then that the real mistress, the Torah, resumed her sway, and Philosophy became her handmaid. But the latter sought to flee from her rule into the wilderness, where the angels found her at the well. Thus Philosophy essayed to separate herself from Revelation, and presumed to water the desert of mankind with mere human wisdom, water from her well; but the angels taught her that it were better for her to be a servant in Sarah's house [the Torah] than a mistress in the desert." Arama's deduction that philosophy is the handmaid of theology is thus exactly the opposite of the view of Maimonides and his successors.

Next to Arama, mention may be made of Judah Moscato, the first darshan in Italy in the sixteenth century to make extensive use of allegorism. In the Biblical prescription for the Nazarite, he perceives the intimation that man must renounce the world and its enjoyments, until his hair, typifying his connection with the spiritual, has grown to such extent that he can enjoy the world without danger ("Nefuẓot Yehudah," hom. 15). In connection with this mention may be made of Don Isaac Abravanel, whose allegorism closely resembles that of the darshanim. He, too, takes his stand upon the Zohar's justification of allegorism and its distinction of garment, body, and soul in the Torah. Being an admirer of both Maimonides and the Cabala it is not seldom that he gives to a Biblical passage two interpretations, one philosophical and one cabalistic. Thus Adam is the type of Israel, the true man, into whom God breathed His spirit, the holy law. He placed him in Paradise, the Holy Land, where were the tree of life (the teachings of the Law and prophecy) and also the tree of knowledge (heathenism). And thereupon a philosophical interpretation follows, based principally upon Maimonides and Gersonides ("Commentary on Gen." iii. 22, ed. Amsterdam, 34b).

In the New Testament.

Of the New Testament writings, the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline are especially full of Allegorical Interpretation, in which the two elements of Palestinian and Hellenic Judaism are both conspicuous. Paul's allegorism is typological and betrays its Pharisaic origin. Thus it can not be said to be due to Alexandrian, still less to Philonic, influence, when Paul, in I Cor. ix. 9, 10, says, "Doth God take care for oxen?" (Deut. xxv. 4), "or altogether for our sakes." This is simply a modification of the old Halakah quoted above, which applies this law to explain that a woman may not be forced into an unsuitable levirate marriage, because she herself is entitled to the ordinary promise of happiness in return for her share in the bond of wedlock. So, too, his well-known allegorization of Sarah and Hagar (Gal. iv. 21-31) is fundamentally only a typological presentation of the Palestinian teaching, "Thou wilt find no freeman but him who is occupied in learning Torah" (Ab. vi. 2). Paul is not even original in his types, for the oldest Haggadah represents the conflict between Ishmael, the son of the maid, and Isaac, the son of the mistress, as a spiritual one (Sifre, Deut. xxxi.).

Epistle to the Hebrews.

Alexandrian influence is first discernible in the Epistle to the Hebrews, whereas Palestinian allegorism is suggested in the interpretation of the ark of Noah as representing the rite of baptism, in I Peter, iii. 20; compare Gen. R. xxxi. 9. Alexandrian influence is shown in Hebrews by the general tendency throughout rather than by individual instances. Paul never detracts from the historical reality of the narratives he allegorizes, but the Hebrews became the model for Alexandrian ingenuity by which Israel's history and legal enactments were construed as being in reality intimations of the mysteries of faith, concealing the spirit in the letter, and reducing the essentials of the Old Testament to mere shadows. This tendency is clearest in the Gospel of John, the author of which makes most use of Old Testament illustrations; the serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (Num. xxi. 8) becomes Jesus upon the cross (John, iii. 14). Jesus is the manna in the desert, the bread of life (ibid. vi. 31, 49).

The Apostolic Fathers.

This pushing of the allegorization of the Old Testament to such an extreme that it would deprive it of all its independent life and character, or make of it a vague and feeble prophecy of the future, found favor among the Apostolic Fathers. Prominent among these for his allegorization was Barnabas (about the year 100), who, acquainted as he was with rabbinical and even halakic doctrine, aspired to show that the Jews did not themselves understand the Old Testament. The Biblical enactment of the scapegoat is typically applied to Jesus, who carried the sins of his crucifiers; the goat's flesh was devoured raw and with vinegar—an old Palestinian tradition—because Jesus' flesh was also moistened with gall and vinegar. The boys who sprinkle the water of purification are the apostles; they are three in number, in commemoration of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These and other allusions make it sufficiently clear that Barnabas depended upon Palestinian sources rather than upon Philonic, as Siegfried would maintain ("Philo von Alexandria," p. 331).


While Barnabas exhibits a not insignificant Hellenic bias, his methods were applied by Gnostics to the New Testament writings. Although they disclaimed any depreciation of the historical value of the Old Testament, they became the chief exponents in their time of that Alexandrian allegorism which made of the Biblical narrative nothing else than anaccount of the emancipation of reason from the domination of passion. The Gnostics developed this theme with the modification that they detected this conflict between mind and matter, between reason and sense, in the New Testament in place of the Old. A different tendency was conspicuous among the older apologists of Christianity, who allegorized away the Old Testament, but regarded the New as absolutely historical. Justin Martyr is one of them, who ridicules the artificialities of Jewish exegesis ("Dialogus cum Tryphone," 113, 340), but whose own allegorization of Old Testament passages is thoroughly Jewish, Palestinian as well as Alexandrian. Thus he says Noah was saved by wood and water, showing that Christians are delivered from sin likewise by the cross and by baptism (l.c. 138). In effect he transforms the whole Old Testament into a typology of Jesus and Christianity, so that Tryphon very pertinently remarks that God's word was holy indeed, but that Justin's interpretations were very arbitrary. With the gradual development of the Catholic Church out of Jewish primitive Christianity and Greek Gnosticism, the attitude of the Church toward the Old Testament was modified too, as is shown by Clement of Alexandria, or more strongly yet by his disciple Origen. The former is the first Church father to revert to Philo's methods of allegorism, distinguishing between the body (literal word) and spirit (Allegorical Interpretation) of Scripture. He finds allegorical meaning in both prophetical and legislative portions; he adopts Philo's allegorical rules and many of his individual interpretations. Nor does he fail to originate some expositions himself. Thus the unclean animals which chew the cud, but are of undivided hoof, are the Jews; heretics are those of divided hoof but who chew not the cud; while those who possess neither characteristic are the heathens ("Stromata," v. 52, vii. 109). Origen's intimacy with Palestinians prevented him from falling into such exaggerations of the Alexandrian tendency as marked his teacher Clement, and even a certain degree of historical appreciation of the Old Testament becomes evident. But the conflict in Origen, so apparent in his Christology, between speculative Gnosticism and the historical conception of Scripture, prevented any rational and consistent view of Scripture. He, too, must be made responsible for the gross exaggerations of Christian allegorists lasting down to modern times; Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine all borrowed their allegorizing method from Origen, who likewise originated the doctrine of the threefold meaning of Scripture, the literal, moral, and mystical ("De Principiis," iv. 8, 11, 14). The following may serve as specimens of his manner: The narrative of Rebekah at the well is to teach us that we must daily resort to the well of Scripture in order to find Jesus. Pharaoh slew the boy-children and preserved the girls alive, to show that he who follows pleasure kills his rational sense (masculine) and preserves the feminine (the sensual passions).

Antiochian School.

Origen's allegorism was thus a triumph for Jewish Alexandrianism in the development of the Church, but Palestinian allegorism likewise celebrated its own victory in the Church of Antioch. The basic principle of Jewish typology, "Ma'aseh abot siman le-banim" (the lives of the Patriarchs prefigured the lives of their descendants), became the motto of the Antioch school. Aphraates makes diligent use of this typology, and his successors do so in even greater degree; with them the aim of this typology is not always Messianic, and not even Christological. Thus Theodore of Mopsuestia regards Jacob's anointing of the stone (Gen. xxviii. 18) as a type of the erection and consecration of the Mosaic tabernacle, just as the Midrash does ("Nicephori Catena," ad locum).

  • A separate presentation of Allegorical Interpretation has not yet been written, and therefore reference must be made to works treating of Scripture interpretation in general: Rosenmueller, Historia Interpretationis Librorum Sacrorum, iv. Leipsic, 1795.
  • On Philo: Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria, Jena, 1875, and the list of references on p. 162;
  • Diestel, Gesch. A. T. Jena, 1869;
  • Farrar, History of Interpretation, New York, 1886;
  • Schmiedl, Studien über Religions-philosophie, Vienna, 1869;
  • H. S. Hirschfeld, Halachische Exegese, 1840;
  • idem, Der Geist der Ersten Schriftauslegung, 1847;
  • Bacher, Bibelexegese der Jüdischen Religionsphilosophen, Strasburg, 1892;
  • idem, Die Bibelexegese in Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Literatur, ii. 239-339;
  • idem, Die Bibelexegese Moses Maimuni's, Strasburg, 1898;
  • idem, L'Exégèse Biblique dans le Zohar, in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxii. 33-46, 219-229;
  • idem, Das Merkwort in der Jüdischen Bibelexegese, in Stade's Zeitschrift, xiii. 294-305;
  • Löw, ha-Maphteaḥ, Gr. Kanizsa, 1855;
  • Kaufmann, in Zunz-Jubelschrift. pp. 143-151;
  • idem, in many passages of his work, Die Sinne, Leipsic, 1884.
L. G.