The Problem With Christian Allegory

17 Aug
As one might have suspected by reading a bit in this blog and my focus on early Christianity, I'm a big fan of Marcion. Marcion had, what I consider, one of the most logical iterations of Christianity. Maybe that is why his brand of Christianity was so popular in the 2nd century.

The thing that led Marcion to reject the various Christianities around him was that they were too allegorical. Maybe he saw this, maybe he didn't – but the problem with allegory is the lack of constraints (obviously related to my previous post). What sort of restrictions in interpretation does one place on oneself when you are doing allegorical exegesis? How do you know when you are doing exegesis and when you are actually doing eisegesis? That is, how do you know when you are extracting the actual meaning of the text and when you are just inserting your own meaning into the text?
Marcion was said to have been “anti-Semitic” but this would be incorrect. Marcion read the Jewish Bible exactly the way that Jews read it, which is why he concluded that Judaism and Christianity were incompatible and that Christianity was an entirely separate religion with a different god. Of course, other Christians read the Tanakh in a manner that pointed towards the truth of their particular brand(s) of Christianity; I can't see how this could be anything other than eisegesis. Christians took it upon themselves to interpret and allegorize the Tanakh all they wanted. The only “constraint” was that whatever allegory they came up with it had to show that Christianity was true and that the Jews were wrong.

Joseph Tyson points out in Marcion and Luke-Acts
It is essential to note that the rejection of Marcion meant that proto-orthodox Christians would rarely be able to make use of literal interpretations of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. Writing only a few decades after Luke, Justin Martyr illustrates the ways in which Christian writers might interpret these texts. In his Dialogue with Trypho he categorizes the commandments in Torah in three groups. First there are those ethical commands that are universal. Justin says: “God shows every race of man that which is always and in all places just, and every type of man knows that adultery, fornication, murder, and so on are evil. Though they all commit such acts, they cannot escape the knowledge that they sin whenever they do so” (Dialogue 93). Thus for commands in this category Torah may be interpreted literally, but it adds nothing that human beings may not obtain from a variety of other sources. Second are the historical, that is, those commands that are intended only for Jews. Justin admits that circumcision is a practice that is deeply rooted in the Scriptures, but he insists that God intended it for Jews alone in order to mark them for punishment… (Dialogue 9, 16, 92) […] Third there are the prophetic passages, that is, those that typologically refer to Jesus the Christ. Justin says some of these passages have been misunderstood by Jews. He claims that this is the case with the practice of using unleavened bread at Passover. Although Jews understand this commandment in a literal, material fashion, it really refers, says Justin, to a command to repent, “to practice other deeds, not to repeat your old ones” (Dialogue 14). Many prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible have a typological purpose and so were not understood by Jews. The Passover lamb, for example, is a type of the crucified Christ. (Dialogue 40) The flour offering for a cleansed leper is a type of the eucharistic bread (Dialogue 41). Circumcision on the eighth day is a type of resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week (which is both first day and eighth day) (Dialogue 41). The twelve bells on the high priest's robes are types of the twelve apostles. (Dialogue 42)
One can see the reinterpretation to fit preconceived Christian dogma in action here. Of course, Justin Martyr's, and subsequent proto-orthodox's and Catholic's “methodology” continues to this day. The problem with allegory has shown itself in a couple of recent posts in the blog-o-sphere (which I myself wrote about a couple years ago). The more scientifically minded bloggers (as they should be, since they are actual scientists) point out a very real flaw in the whole allegory escape clause: If Christians take one part of the Bible as allegory – like the Adam and Eve tale – yet take another part of the Bible as literal truth – such as the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus – then what methodology are these Christians following to determine one or the other? To be a valid methodology, a random non-Christian Joe-blow off the street should be able to follow this Christian methodology and arrive at the same result that Christians do. Such-and-such part is allegory, and such-and-such part is literal.
Most of us who have dealt with responses from Christians pertaining to this particular problem already know what their “methodology” is. The parts that are allegorical are any narratives or doctrines that are not essential for their particular brand of Christianity to be true; of which there are at least 30,000 different denominations so that does not help. Consequently, any doctrine or narrative that is essential to the “truth” of their particular brand of Christianity has to be read literally. Of course, this methodology would not work on any non-Christian Joe-blow off the street because the methodology assumes what it is trying to prove; Joe-blow off the street does not have this assumption so the method would fail miserably. Moreover, the fact that Christians do not agree which parts are allegorical and which ones are not is evidence enough that the methodology itself is flawed.

Now I'm not saying that there is no any allegory in the Bible. It would seem that the entire gospel of Mark is one big allegory; at least, there are a multitude of pericopae in Mark that were meant to be symbolic or allegorical. Look at Mark 14.3-9: 
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?
5 It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.
8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
9 I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Why is this allegory? Because of the name of the town: Bethany (בית עניא :: byt anya). This word literally means “house of mourning/suffering”. So Jesus just so happens to be in a town called House of Mourning, where a woman prepares Jesus for burial. Who is this woman, and why does she know that Jesus is going to die soon? Not only that, but this woman has no name, yet she will supposedly be famous because this story will be told whenever the gospel is preached. So a person with no name is now famous (which, in antiquity, meant that you had a name).
The same sort of allegory happens with Bethphage (בית פגי :: byt phgy), which means House of Unripe Figs. Most atheists are confused as to why Jesus would curse an unripe fig tree for being unripe exactly when it is supposed to be unripe. However, right after Jesus curses this fig tree, he cleanses the Temple. After cleansing the Temple, the fig tree has been withered. Take a look at the sequence of events: 
Mark 11
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage [i.e. House of Unripe Figs] and Bethany [i.e. House of Mourning] at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples…
12 The next day as they were leaving [The House of Mourning], Jesus was hungry. [in Mk 11.1 Bethphage and Bethany are close to each other…]
13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. [i.e. Jesus finds an unripe fig tree in the vicinity of the House of Unripe Figs] 
14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,
16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts
17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ” 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'” [a bit of proto-Midrash, not a “prediction”]
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
Mark sandwiches the cursing and cleansing of the Jewish Temple inbetween the cursing of a fig tree and its withering… in the House of Unripe Figs.
Because of all of the symbolism here, it seems pretty safe to conclude that Mark intended this to be an allegory for the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end temple cult of Judaism into perpetuity; the fig tree represents the Jewish Temple and its withering represents the Temple's destruction. It is even possible that Mark placed the House of Unripe Figs near Jerusalem because he was equating the two (i.e. Jerusalem is the House of “Unripe” Figs because Judaism is no longer producing fruit).
There is more allegory than this in Mark (like the Barabbas pericope / the name Peter, the Legion exorcism, the Feeding of the Multitude, etc.), but since non-Gnostic Christians read Mark literally, we ended up with its “corrections” like Matt and Luke, and the subsequent Catholic tradition. The only reason they read it literally was because they – unlike the Gnostics – thought that its historicity and a literal reading were essential to the proto-Orthodox faith, a faith that all modern Christians have inherited.
So I have no problem with allegory as it seems to have been originally intended, like in the gospel of Mark or even in Deutero-Isaiah. The problem with modern Christian apologists' use of allegory (the apologists in this case are almost always liberal Christians) is that they are using it as a get out of accountability card to shield their faith from critique. The bigger problem with allegory, as proto-orthodox Christians have used it, which modern Christians have inherited, is that it destroys the original beauty of the Jewish scriptures and twists it to make it fit a preconceived Christian conclusion. If we read the Jewish Bible the way it was intended, then it would seem that Marcion was right; that Christianity and Judaism have either no relation or a very superficial relation to each other and Christians should give the Jewish Bible back to Jews as Marcion intended.
In short, the problem with allegory in Christian tradition is that it will always be abused by Christians to prove the truth of their Christianity, whether it is Justin Martyr writing in 150 CE or Karl Giberson writing in 2011. Unlike Mark, there is no art in their allegory. There is only apology.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 17, 2011 in apologetics


One response to “The Problem With Christian Allegory

  1. beowulf2k8

    August 30, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Its evolution. The more mutable the survivable. You think you can kill Christianity with facts: “This passage doesn't meant that” but you can't because they can make that passage mean whatever they want. The ultimate in survival of the fittest. Imagine an organism that could grow any limb it needed. If it needed to fly, it could turn its arms into wings. If it needed to swim, it could turn them into fins. This is what Christianity does in religion: it becomes whatever it needs to be to survive, as its founder–Paul–says: to the Jews I became a Jew, to the Greeks a Greek; I became all things to all men so that I might by all mean win some.

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