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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

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Greek - be an allegory

A popular form of literature in which a story points to a hidden or symbolic parallel meaning. Certain elements, such as people, things, and happenings in the story, point to corresponding elements in another realm or level of meaning. The closer the resemblances between the two realms, the more detailed is the allegory. The best allegories are interesting, coherent stories in their own right and through the story provide new insight into the realm they depict (e.g., Pilgrim's Progress and The Narnia Chronicles). Semitic parables, including the Gospel parables, have varying amounts of allegorical elements. Those with many corresponding elements in both realms are properly called allegories.

Allegorical interpretation, sometimes called allegorizing, is interpretation of texts that treats them as allegorical, whether or not their author intended them to be allegories. Allegorical interpretations even of true allegories can be misleading, either in incorrectly identifying the corresponding elements in the referent or in identifying corresponding elements where no correspondence was originally intended. Either allegorizing error usually detracts from the coherence of the message the author intended. Such unwarranted allegorizing was prevalent in the later church fathers and often ludicrous in gnostic circles.

Nathan's parable of the rich man who slew a poor man's beloved pet lamb in 2 Samuel 12:1-4 has allegorical reference to David's actions in causing Uriah's death in order to take his wife. But it was just different enough that David did not initially recognize the referent and pronounced judgment on the wicked rich man. Nathan's "You are the man!" struck David to the quick precisely because he recognized the parallels between his actions and the rich man's, between Uriah and the poor man, and between Uriah's wife and the ewe lamb. The allegory told by the wise woman of Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14:4-7 similarly opened David's eyes to a new perspective and caused him to spare the life of Absalom. (Other Old Testament allegories include Isa 5:1-6; Ezek 17:1-24; 24:3-14; Dan 2:31-45; 4:10-33; 7:1-28; 8:1-27.)

The parables of Jesus have a wide range of degrees of allegorical reference. The parable of the sower is followed by an allegorical interpretation (Mark 4:14-20) that has been widely criticized, but on examination, the common objections turn out to support authenticity. For example, birds as a symbol for Satan, rather than being alien were commonly used to depict Satan in rabbinic literature (e.g., Jub 11:5-24), where birds devour seed in the process of sowing. If the Gospel tradition progressively allegorized the parables, as many allege, it is surely odd that the earliest Gospels (Mark, Matthew) contain the most allegorical elements, whereas the later Gospels contain progressively less (Luke, John).

In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses the story of the children of Sarah (Isaac) and Hagar (Ishmael) and the images of Jerusalem above and Mount Sinai as a double allegory, both pairs contrasting the covenant of freedom and the covenant of slavery. This allegory adds an earthy, emotional appeal to Paul's arguments for freedom in Christ.

Philip Barton Payne

See also Parable

Bibliography. P. B. Payne, Gospel Perspectives, pp. 163-207.


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Allegory'". "Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology".
<>. 1897.


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