The word is derived from the Greek ἀλληγορία, used of a mode of speech which implies more than is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the language. This method of interpreting literature was practised at an early date and among different peoples. When ideas of a primitive age were no longer tenable, respect for the ancient literature which embodied these ideas was maintained by disregarding the ordinary import of the language in favour of a hidden meaning more in harmony with contemporary notions.
The word ‘allegory’ has come to be used more particularly of a certain type of Scripture interpretation (q.v.) current in both Jewish and Christian circles. Its fundamental characteristic is the distinction between the apparent meaning of Scripture and a hidden meaning to be discovered by the skill of the interpreter. In allegory proper, when distinguished from metaphor, parable, type, etc., the veiled meaning is the more important, if not indeed the only true one, and is supposed to have been primary in the intention of the writer, or of God who inspired the writer.
Jewish interpreters, particularly in the Diaspora, employed this means of making the OT acceptable to Gentiles. They aimed especially at showing that the Jews’ sacred books, when properly interpreted, contained all the wisdom of Greek philosophy. This interest flourished chiefly in Alexandria, and found its foremost representative in Philo (q.v.), who wrote early in the 1st cent. a.d. His Allegories of the Sacred Laws is one of his chief works, though all his writings are dominated by this method of interpretation. Similarly Josephus (q.v.), a half-century or so later, says that Moses taught many things ‘under a decent allegory’ (Ant. Proœm. 4). Allegory was used freely also by Palestinian interpreters, though less far apologetic than for homiletic purposes. They were less ready than Philo to abandon the primary meaning of Scripture, but they freely employed allegorical devices, particularly in the Haggadic midrāshîm.
When Christians in the Apostolic Age began to interpret Scripture, it was inevitable that they should follow the allegorical tendencies so prevalent at the time. Yet the use of this method is far less common in the NT than in some later Christian literature, e.g. the Epistle of Barnabas (q.v.). St. Paul claims to be allegorizing when he finds the two covenants not only prefigured, but the validity of his idea of two covenants proved, in the story of Hagar (q.v.) and Sarah (Gal 4:24–30).
Allegorical colouring is also discernible in his reference to the muzzling of the ox (1 Co 9:9f.), the following rock (10:4), and the veil of Moses (2 Co 3:13ff.). The Epistle to the Hebrews is especially rich in these features, which are much more Alexandrian in type than the writings of St. Paul (e.g. 8:2, 5; 9:23; 10:1; 11:1, 8; 12:27f.). Certain Gospel passages also show allegorical traits, where in some instances the allegorical element may have come from the framers of tradition in the Apostolic Age (e.g. Mk 4:13–20=Mt 13:18–25=Lk 8:11–15; Mk 12:1–12=Mt 21:33–46=Lk 20:9–19; Mt 13:24–30, 36–43, Jn 10:1–16; 15:1–8).
Literature.—See list appended to art. Interpretation.
q.v. quod vide, which see.