Alleged Allegory in Galatians 4

Is the use of the Agar/Hagar figure in Galatians chapter 4 a legitimate and Biblical use of allegorical interpretation?  Does Paul’s lone use of the word “allegorized” (allegoroumena), a hapax legomenon, indicate that he has both intended and applied the allegorical method?  Does true allegory appear anywhere in the New Testament?  If that claim could be established, would it then legitimate the qualified rejection of literal interpretation and liberal use of allegorical (spiritualized, anagogical) interpretation by the Alexandrian School of theology, in particular by Neoplatonists Clement and Origen, and later interpreters like Augustine?

(See other articles describing Christian Neoplatonism and the Alexandrian anti-literal bias.)

Paul wrote,

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?  For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.  Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.  For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.  But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.  For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.  Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.  But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.  Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free (Gal 4:21-31, KJV).

C. H. Peisker describes allegory, in its original meaning, as an antiquated literary form akin to a parable or riddle (“Parable, Allegory, Proverb” in Colin Brown, ed., NIDNTT, vol. 2, pp. 743 ff.).  He offers the example of its prophetic use in Ezekiel 17, which is called a riddle in many Bible versions.  “Allegory,” he writes, “is a freely invented story, which says something other than it appears to say on the surface by heaping metaphor on metaphor.  It is a continuous metaphor….”  As he quotes H. Weinel, “Allegory seeks to present truth to our minds in a more expressive form by painting it in a series of pictures, which indicate but at the same time conceal the intended truth.”

According to Peisker, the Old Testament forms he describes as allegory are, in the New Testament, called “parables.”  The key to understanding the meaning of a parable is not, as in later application of allegorical method, identifying many hidden meanings or points of comparison, but just a single point.  Over-identification of details is inappropriate.  Moreover, the point of a parable is not to frame hidden meanings as gnosis but to illuminate, to the “initiated listener,” the unknown in terms of the known.

Such over-identification of details is particularly pronounced in Origen’s allegorical interpretation of the blind men at Jericho (De Principiis 4.2.45) and Augustine’s fanciful version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Quaestiones Evangeliorum 2.19).

In contrast to NT literary forms, A. T. Hanson defines an allegory as “an explanation of the text that replaces the literal sense and has a purely arbitrary connection with it.”  A type, on the other hand, is “a pattern or set of circumstances which reproduces beforehand that set of circumstances” to which it points.  The Hagar passage, Hanson concludes, is “really an elaborate piece of typology” (See my earlier article, “What Is True Typology?“).

Paul’s use of Hagar in Galatians 4 is clearly not arbitrary.  Rather, Paul demonstrates, in Colin Brown’s words, “a common principle underlying the original OT [passage] and the application which Paul draws.”  Thus Paul uses Hagar, in rabbinic fashion, as an illustration of a principle (i.e., the bondage of the Law), or else identifies Hagar as a type of the bondage broken by the Promise.  By the above definitions, he is neither creating nor interpreting an allegory.

Copyright © 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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