Kenneth Bailey has given us some food for thought about the origin of the Bible and its authority in Interpreting the Bible. Now we turn to his seven sins of biblical interpretation. The first sin is the allegorical method of interpretation.
The allegorical method is an interpretive method that began to take hold as early as the second century. Bailey notes that Philo of Alexandria, a Jew devoted to Greek philosophy and a contemporary of Jesus, used it to interpret Old Testament stories. Third century theologian Origen used it regularly. From that time until at least the Reformation, allegory was a prominent means of biblical interpretation. It continued to be so in some circles even into the twentieth century.
The allegorical method assigns symbolic meanings to characters and events in a story. Therefore, St. Augustine or a contemporary might explain the story of the Good Samaritan this way:
Jerusalem is heaven and Jericho is hell. The robbers are the barbarians. The priest symbolizes the Jews and the Levite symbolizes anyone else you might dislike. The Samaritan is a monk or even Jesus himself. The oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit (never mind that Holy Spirit had not been revealed at the time of the story) and wine is Holy Communion (never mind that communion was not known at the time of the story.) The donkey symbolizes Jesus carrying us (never mind that “Jesus as a donkey” would have been highly insulting to a Middle Easterner.) The inn is the Church. The innkeeper is the apostle Paul. The 2 pence are the two golden rules (or any other two sided value you might wish to convey.) Finally, the promise by the Samaritan to come back is about the second coming.
There is no way Jesus’ listeners could have had this understanding of the story. Bailey points out that many teachers who used allegory were well grounded in basic theology, so their allegories tended not to stray too far from orthodox Christian thinking. So what is the harm in allegorizing? Bailey offers an alternative allegory to make is his point:
Jerusalem symbolizes the state of the noble primitive savage and Jericho is capitalism. The robbers are the feudalists. The priest symbolizes religion and the opiate of the masses that do nothing for you. The Levites are the Democratic Socialists who claim to be socialists but aren’t. The Good Samaritan is the Good Marxist. The oil and the wine are dialectical materialism, the only philosophy that will heal humankind. The donkey is the working class that carries us to the safety of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The innkeeper is the comrade who runs the dictatorship of the proletariat. The promise to return symbolizes the coming of the great classless society. From this allegory we can conclude that Jesus was proto-Marxist.
If allegory is legitimate, then on what basis would we conclude that this second allegory is preposterous? There really isn’t any. Bailey suggests that widely varying allegorical interpretations were assigned to Jesus’ stories in early centuries. Each bishop had his own code that interpreted the stories. Eventually, the idea that you could build faith on the stories of Jesus was abandoned. Though Jesus was seen as our salvation through his life and deeds, he ceased to be a serious theologian. Paul became the theologian of the Church.
Having said this, not all symbolism is bad. In fact, symbolism is a very powerful means of communication. But for symbols to work, they must signify realities that hearers instinctively identify. For instance, a ferret and a hippo in a political cartoon in the United States signify nothing to American readers. If the characters are a donkey and Elephant, then the readers immediately know the cartoon is about Democrats and Republicans. However, we don’t go on from here to suggest that the donkey’s left ear means one thing and the right another, while the elephants trunk symbolizes yet another idea.
The key to symbolism is the audience and what they perceive. Items in the story have symbolic meaning only insofar as the teller and the hearers have a common shared symbolic understanding of the various facets of the story. Therefore, in order to understand a parable or metaphor, we must enter as closely as possible into the mind of the original people interacting with the story.