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The Allegorical Sense of Scripture

  • MARK SHEA

One of the standing temptations of the biblical student is to oversimplify by seizing on one truth and using it to discount other, equally important truths. One such oversimplification consists of the habit some modern people have of exalting the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture into a flat denial of the possibility of any other senses of Scripture at all.

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This means something. This is important. - Roy Neary, contemplating his sculpted pile of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

As we mentioned in the last chapter, one of the standing temptations of the biblical student is to oversimplify by seizing on one truth and using it to discount other, equally important truths. One such oversimplification consists of the habit some modern people have of exalting the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture into a flat denial of the possibility of any other senses of Scripture at all. This posture of "liberal fundamentalism" says, in effect, "The human author said it. There's nothing more to it. That settles it." According to this notion, all attempts to seek any second meanings in Scripture are to be dismissed (in the words of one modern scholar) as "a sort of weasel word" whereby the reader can make the biblical text mean anything he likes.

This denial of a second sense in Scripture can lead to curious results, as a friend of mine discovered one evening watching one of those "Mysteries of the Bible" shows on TV. On the show were a couple of theologians eager to get their 15 minutes of fame on the tube. So rather than talk about the Faith, they obligingly told the camera that Jesus was not born of a virgin and based their claim on the allegation that St. Matthew misunderstood the prophet Isaiah.

It's like this, said the scholars: A couple of centuries after Isaiah wrote, the Hebrew Bible (including the book of Isaiah) was translated into Greek (since many Jews were spread over the Greek-speaking ancient world and were forgetting their Hebrew just as European immigrants to the United States forgot their Yiddish in an English-speaking culture). This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (that is, the Old Testament) is called the Septuagint.

Now in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 we read the prophecy that "the 'almah' shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name 'Immanuel.'" "Almah" means in Hebrew "young woman" and refers to any young woman, virgin or not. But when the Jewish translators of the Septuagint translated Isaiah into Greek (decades before the birth of Christ), they did not translate the term as "young woman" but as "parthenos" which means "virgin." Later on, after Christ comes, St. Matthew is reading this Greek translation, not the original Hebrew when he declares of the Virgin Birth, "All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.'" But, said the TV theologians, we now know St. Matthew was mistaken to believe in the Virgin Birth since Isaiah did not say "virgin" but "young woman."

So my friend was wrestling with what seemed an inevitable set of conclusions: a) the Septuagint translation is flat wrong; b) Matthew was ignorant of the actual meaning of Isaiah; c) he therefore derived his belief in the Virgin Birth from a mistaken translation of Isaiah and d) the Church therefore erred in defining its dogma of the Virgin Birth of Christ by mistakenly seeing a second "spiritual" meaning in the text of Isaiah when, in reality, there was (and could only be) Isaiah's original, literal meaning.

This is however, to enter into a whole complex of mistakes, not clarifications. To find out what's really going on, let's look again at the New Testament use of Old Testament Scripture.

The first and most obvious point in the New Testament, as we saw in chapter 5, is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The apostles came to believe this, not because they saw the Virgin Birth, but because they saw the risen Christ. And the risen Christ, as we saw previously, is the one who did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17) and, after his resurrection, tells his disciples that "Moses and all the prophets" had written "concerning himself" (Luke 24:26-27). This is where the apostles get the idea that the whole life and ministry of Christ "fulfilled the Scriptures." So far so good.

What is not so good however is that it is easy for the modern reader to adopt a kind of "checklist" mentality about messianic prophecy, as though every first century Jew had an agreed-upon set of "Messianic Verses" in the Old Testament against which all messianic claimants were measured. Indeed, many books of Christian apologetics today lay out precisely this sort of schema:

Prophecy:SourceFulfillment
The Messiah must...In the Old Testamentin the New Testament
Be the born in BethlehemMicah 5:1Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-7
Be adored by great personsPsalm 72:10-11Matthew 2:1-11
Be sold for 30 pieces of silverZechariah 11:12Matthew 26:15

and so forth. One could easily get the impression that all a first century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around, ticking off prophecy fulfillments on his Old Testament Messianic Prophecy Checklist and he ought to have known everything that Jesus was going to do before he ever did it.

But, as we have seen, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is precisely why St. Paul writes that the New Covenant was "veiled" until the gospel took away the veil (2 Corinthians 3:14). It is also why he declares the gospel was "not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5). In short, Paul insists the deepest meaning of the Old Testament was seen only after the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

This is why nobody before these events says, "Why, it's plain from Scripture that the Messiah will be born of a virgin, rejected by the chief priests, handed over to Gentiles, crucified with thieves, risen, ascended, and that he will abrogate the circumcision demand for Gentiles as he breaks down the barrier between man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Gentile." Even the disciples themselves, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the crucifixion, much less the resurrection, one little bit even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from the Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even while they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his graveclothes (John 20:1-10).

And yet, these same apostles speak of the resurrection (like the Virgin Birth) as a "fulfillment" of the prophecies. What then do they mean if they do not mean the prophecies were "predictions" which everybody based their understanding of Messiah upon?

They mean that Christ fulfilled, brought to fruition, and was the ultimate Case in Point toward which all the Old Testament was straining and pointing. They mean he was the One toward whom the law and prophets were being pointed by his Spirit even when the sacred writers themselves did not know quite what they were pointing toward (1 Peter 1:10-11). This is why the early Church never had difficulty with an issue which often vexes modern minds: namely, why the New Testament often takes Old Testament texts out of their immediate context and sees them as applicable to Christ. For the early Church does not see the Old Testament as talking about something different from Christ, but rather sees it in relationship to him. What appear to us to be separate themes and events in the Old Testament, appear to the New Testament writers as so many spokes on a wheel all connected to the Hub who is Christ.

So, for instance, Hebrews 2:13 quotes Isaiah 8:18: "Here I am, and the children God has given me." In its literal sense, Isaiah is speaking about his own disciples with no hint of messianic intent behind these words. Yet the author of Hebrews sees Christ, far more than Isaiah, fulfilling the text. Why? Because Christ and his Church are, most fully, what Isaiah and his disciples were in a kind of foreshadow. The words of the book of Isaiah, like all words, are signs signifying something, in this case Isaiah and his own disciples. But Isaiah and his own disciples are, in their turn, also signs signifying something even greater: Christ and his Church. For Christ and his Church are the ultimate Case in Point of what Isaiah and his disciples were: "signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion" (Isaiah 8:18). Isaiah and his disciples do indeed fulfill the passage in an immediate and literal sense. But the early Church sees no particular reason why this forbids the God whom Isaiah worshipped from fulfilling it even more profoundly when He becomes incarnate and establishes his Church. Therefore the author of Hebrews, reading the Isaian passage with hindsight through the lens of the entire life and ministry of Christ, sees an allegory hidden in it by God of which Isaiah himself knew nothing.

Likewise, with Isaiah 7:14, we find that the passage has a much more immediate fulfillment than the birth of Christ. The Immanuel Prophecy comes in an hour of national crisis during the reign of Ahaz, one of the lousier kings of Judah and descendants of David. The northern kingdom of Israel has formed an alliance with Syria against Ahaz' southern kingdom of Judah and as a result the Judeans are in a muck sweat about the future of their country. So Isaiah goes to Ahaz, tells him not to worry about the alliance since God will take care of Judah, and offers Ahaz the chance to "ask a sign of the Lord your God" (Isaiah 7:11) to assure him that everything will be fine. Ahaz refuses, ostensibly because he is too pious to put God to the test, but really because he does not want obey Isaiah. It is then that the Immanuel Prophecy is given: "Behold the almah shall conceive and bear [or 'is with child and shall bear'] a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [which means 'God with us']." What does Isaiah mean?

Most immediately and literally, Isaiah seems to have in mind the promise of a successor to Ahaz, namely Hezekiah, who will carry on the line of David so that, as Nathan had prophesied to David long ago "your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). In other words, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that "God is with" the Davidic throne still and his kingdom will not be defeated by the menacing alliance to the north. And this prophecy is fulfilled. The menacing alliance against Judah fails and Hezekiah is born. The prophecy in its most immediate sense is fulfilled, not by a virgin birth, but by the pregnancy of the wife of Ahaz and the birth of a new "son of David" to carry on the Davidic line.

However, there remains in pre-Christian Jewish tradition a persistent belief in larger and second meanings in its Bible. As we have seen, there is, for instance, a growing sense that the prophecy of Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 7 (despite these immediate fulfillments) speaks not so much of an everlasting political rule, but of some higher and greater Throne. That is why, when the political rule of the house of David finally does fail, Israel continues to remember Nathan's words and wonders what deeper meaning they might have. In the same way, Israel is told to await a Prophet by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) and, indeed, many prophets appear. Yet Israel, instead of seeing them as the final fulfillment of Moses' promise, instead comes to believe that some Great and Ultimate Prophet is coming; an august Somebody of whom the Old Testament Prophets are just dim images or foreshadows. This is why the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was "The Prophet" (John 1:21). And so, as we have seen, the Jews slowly develop over time the strong belief that there is, in the Bible, a mysterious inner meaning as well as the slowly dawning awareness that Somebody is coming some Anointed One or Servant or Prophet or Son of David or Son of Man (the titles are fuzzy in the Old Testament) who will make clear the tantalizing hints and "utter things hidden since the creation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).

There is then, both clarity and obscurity concerning the messianic message of the Old Testament in the time of Christ. Certain texts (like the prophecy of Nathan concerning the covenant with David) are clearly understood by most Jews to be messianic. Yet at the same time, other passages are never dreamed of as referring to a Messiah until after Jesus of Nazareth's astounding career is over. Nobody, apparently, understands Psalms 69 and 109 beforehand as a prophecy of the Election of Matthias to the office vacated by Judas, nor understands the unbroken bones of the Passover lamb as a prophetic image of Christ's unbroken bones, nor sees in advance that Isaiah 53 bears witness to the crucifixion and resurrection. If they had, says St. Paul, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). All these things are only seen after the fact as eerily prophetic of Christ and his Church. They fill out the picture dimly sketched by the more widely acknowledged messianic prophecies, but only in hindsight.

This is why, rather than viewing their Hebrew Bibles as a source of proof texts to be strung together into a checklist, the early Christians see the Old Testament bearing inspired witness to the extraordinary man who had dwelt among them. They did not, for instance, read "Zeal for thy house will consume me" in Psalm 69 and then decide "Let's believe Jesus cleansed the Temple because of this verse." On the contrary, Jesus cleanses the Temple first (John 2:13-16) and then afterwards his disciples remember the verse and are struck by how it "fits" the event. This happens again and again in the New Testament. The disciples are as surprised as anybody else when Jesus heals the sick or raises the dead. They do not foresee the miracles of Christ by reading the Old Testament. Rather, the ministry of Christ happens and they then see an uncanny connection between what Jesus does and the weird way in which it fits the Old Testament. When Jesus is sold for 30 pieces of silver or his hands and feet are pierced on the Cross, the apostles do not discover this by sticking their noses into the book of Zechariah or Psalm 22. Rather, after Jesus is raised, they remember that these things were written and, blinking their eyes in amazement, say "It was staring us in the face all along and we didn't see it!" The Old Testament is not the basis of their belief in these things, it is the witness to these things.

And so, back to my friend and his worries about the Virgin Birth. First off, the translators of the Septuagint did not make a "wrong" translation of "almah" into "parthenos." Recall that the translation was made just a little bit before the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Hence, it was commonly assumed in the culture of the translators that a young woman, assuming she was unmarried, would also be a virgin. The translators of the Septuagint, faced with a choice between the Greek word for "young woman" and Greek word for "virgin" opted, for whatever mysterious reasons, to use the latter. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, it was not the smartest move in the world. But neither was it wildly beyond the pale. Words seldom mean one thing and one thing only.

Second, whatever may have been the mistaken (or was it providential?) motivations of the Septuagint translators, Matthew did not, in any event, derive his belief in Mary's virginity from Isaiah 7:14. He did not sit down one day, read Isaiah, and say to himself, "Let's see. Isaiah says something about a virgin here. So if I'm going to cook up a Christ figure, I'd better make him the son of a virgin so it'll fit with this text." On the contrary, the apostles encounter a man who does extraordinary things like rising from the dead and, when they inquire about his origins which they could only have known if Mary or Jesus volunteered them find he was born of a virgin. They then look at their Septuagint Bibles, run across this weird passage in the Greek text of Isaiah and see him reflected in this verse (because Jesus had told them that the law and the prophets are, in their deepest sense, about him). The Church's faith in the virginity of Mary originates not in a textual misunderstanding, but in the historical fact of the Virgin Birth of Christ to which the Septuagint translation bears curiously providential witness. The basis of the Church's Faith, then as now, is Jesus Christ himself.

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Acknowledgement

Mark P. Shea "The Allegorical Sense of Scripture." Excerpted from Chapter 7 of Making Sense Out of Scripture:Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did.

"Making Senses Out of Scripture is a wonderfully helpful guide for reading the Bible according to the Churchs living Tradition. It skillfully draws on the riches of the Catholic Faith and communicates Her deep truths very clearly, yet it is written with a witty and winsome style that makes the book as accessible to the beginning student of Scripture as it is to the advanced. I highly recommend it."
Scott Hahn, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology and Scripture, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Reprinted with permission of the author, Mark Shea.

The Author

Shea1Shea3Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He is the author of numerous books, including By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, Mary Mother of the Son Vol I, Mary Mother of the Son Vol II, The Work of Mercy, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ, and The Heart of Catholic Prayer. Mark is an award-winning columnist, contributing a daily blog to Patheos, a thrice-weekly blog and his "Corkscrew's Religion Chat Room!" column to the National Catholic Register. He is also known nationally for his one minute "Words of Encouragement" on Catholic radio and for his Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

Copyright © 2001 www.mark-shea.com
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