Allegorical interpretations of Genesis
An allegorical interpretation of Genesis is a reading of the biblical Book of Genesis that treats elements of the narrative as symbols
Christian symbolism
Christian symbolism invests objects or actions with an inner meaning expressing Christian ideas. Christianity has borrowed from the common stock of significant symbols known to most periods and to all regions of the world. Religious symbolism is effective when it appeals to both the intellect and...

 or types
Typology (theology)
Typology in Christian theology and Biblical exegesis is a doctrine or theory concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments...

. For example, Genesis 3 introduces a talking serpent, which many Christians understand to be Satan in disguise. This symbolism is accepted even by Christians who believe the story as a whole is based on a historical event. Many Christians in ancient times regarded the early chapters of Genesis to be true as both history and allegory.

Genesis is part of the canonical scriptures for both Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 and Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

, and thus to believers is taken as being of spiritual significance. The opening sequences of the book tell the biblical
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

 story of origins. Those who read Genesis literally believe that it teaches the creation of humanity and the universe in general in a timeframe of six successive days of 24 hour durations. Those who favor an allegorical interpretation of the story claim that its intent is to describe humankind's relationship to creation and the creator.

Some Jews and Christians have long considered the creation account of Genesis as an allegory
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

 instead of as historical description, much earlier than the development of modern science. Two notable examples are Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

 (4th century) who, on theological grounds, argued that everything in the universe was created by God in the same instant, and not in six days as a plain account of Genesis would require; and the 1st century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, who wrote that it would be a mistake to think that creation happened in six days or in any determinate amount of time.

Church historians on allegorical interpretation of Genesis

The literalist reading of some contemporary Christians maligns the allegorical or mythical interpretation of Genesis as a belated attempt to reconcile science with the biblical account. They maintain that the story of origins had always been interpreted literally until modern science (and, specifically, biological evolution) arose and challenged it. This view is not the consensus view, however, as demonstrated below:

According to the Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of Canterbury
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. In his role as head of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop leads the third largest group...

, Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams
Rowan Douglas Williams FRSL, FBA, FLSW is an Anglican bishop, poet and theologian. He is the 104th and current Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan of the Province of Canterbury and Primate of All England, offices he has held since early 2003.Williams was previously Bishop of Monmouth and...

: "[For] most of the history of Christianity there's been an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time.

Some religious historians consider that Biblical literalism
Biblical literalism
Biblical literalism is the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. A literal Biblical interpretation is associated with the fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to Scripture, and is used almost exclusively by conservative Christians...

 came about with the rise of Protestantism
Protestantism is one of the three major groupings within Christianity. It is a movement that began in Germany in the early 16th century as a reaction against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices, especially in regards to salvation, justification, and ecclesiology.The doctrines of the...

; before the Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

, the Bible was not usually interpreted in a completely literal way. Fr. Stanley Jaki
Stanley Jaki
Stanley L. Jaki, OSB was a Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey since 1975...

, a Benedictine
Benedictine refers to the spirituality and consecrated life in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century for the cenobitic communities he founded in central Italy. The most notable of these is Monte Cassino, the first monastery founded by Benedict...

 priest and theologian who is also a distinguished physicist, states in his Bible and Science:

However, the Russian Orthodox hieromonk
Hieromonk , also called a Priestmonk, is a monk who is also a priest in the Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholicism....

 Fr. Seraphim Rose
Seraphim Rose
Seraphim Rose, born Eugene Dennis Rose , was an American hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia who co-founded the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California. He also translated Orthodox Christian texts and authored several polemical works...

 has argued that leading Orthodox saints such as Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom , Archbishop of Constantinople, was an important Early Church Father. He is known for his eloquence in preaching and public speaking, his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and his ascetic...

 and Ephraim the Syrian believed that Genesis should be treated as a historical account.

Finding allegory in history

The New Testament contains an allegorical interpretation of a passage in Genesis. In , Paul treats the Genesis story of the sons of Abraham as an allegory.

Other New Testament writers took a similar approach to the Jewish Bible. The Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the four canonical gospels, one of the three synoptic gospels, and the first book of the New Testament. It tells of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth...

 reinterprets a number of passages. Where the prophet Hosea
Hosea was the son of Beeri and a prophet in Israel in the 8th century BC. He is one of the Twelve Prophets of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, also known as the Minor Prophets of the Christian Old Testament. Hosea is often seen as a "prophet of doom", but underneath his message of destruction is a promise...

 has God say of Israel, "Out of Egypt I called my son," , Matthew interprets the phrase as a reference to Jesus. Likewise, Isaiah's
Isaiah ; Greek: ', Ēsaïās ; "Yahu is salvation") was a prophet in the 8th-century BC Kingdom of Judah.Jews and Christians consider the Book of Isaiah a part of their Biblical canon; he is the first listed of the neviim akharonim, the later prophets. Many of the New Testament teachings of Jesus...

 promise of a child as a sign to King Ahaz is understood by Matthew to refer to Jesus. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews
Epistle to the Hebrews
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the books in the New Testament. Its author is not known.The primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his...

 saw symbolism in the rituals of ancient Israel, foreshadowing events in the life and death of Jesus.

Later Christians followed their example. Irenaeus of Lyons
Saint Irenaeus , was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, then a part of the Roman Empire . He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology...

, in his work Against Heresies
On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis
On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, today also called On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called , commonly called Against Heresies , is a five-volume work written by St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century...

from the middle of the 2nd century, saw the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent pointing to the death of Jesus:
In the 3rd century, Origen and others of the Alexandrian school
Catechetical School of Alexandria
The Catechetical School of Alexandria was and is a place for the training of Christian theologians and priests in Alexandria. The teachers and students of the school were influential in many of the early theological controversies of the Christian church.The earliest recorded instructor at the...

 claimed that the Bible's true meaning could be found only by reading it allegorically. Origen explained in De Principiis that sometimes spiritual teachings could be gleaned from historical events, and sometimes the lessons could only be taught through stories that, taken literally, would "seem incapable of containing truth."

Days of creation

Early Christians seem to have been divided over whether to interpret the days of creation in Genesis 1 as literal days, or to understand them allegorically.

For example, St. Basil rejected an allegorical interpretation in his Hexaëmeron, and affirmed 24-hour creation days:

Origen of Alexandria, in a passage that was later chosen by Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople. He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age...

 for inclusion in the Philocalia, an anthology of some of his most important texts, made the following very modern-sounding remarks:
And in another passage, writing in response to the pagan intellectual Celsus
Celsus was a 2nd century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. He is known for his literary work, The True Word , written about by Origen. This work, c. 177 is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity.According to Origen, Celsus was the author of an...

, he said:
Saint Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

, one of the most influential theologians of the Catholic Church, suggested that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. From an important passage on his "The Literal Interpretation of Genesis" (early fifth century, AD), St. Augustine wrote:

In the book, Augustine took the view that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in seven days like a plain account of Genesis would require. He argues that the six-day structure of creation presented in the book of Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way. Augustine also doesn’t envisage original sin
Original sin
Original sin is, according to a Christian theological doctrine, humanity's state of sin resulting from the Fall of Man. This condition has been characterized in many ways, ranging from something as insignificant as a slight deficiency, or a tendency toward sin yet without collective guilt, referred...

 as originating structural changes in the universe, and even suggests that the bodies of Adam and Eve were already created mortal before the Fall. Apart from his specific views, Augustine recognizes that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and remarks that we should be willing to change our mind about it as new information comes up.

In The City of God, Augustine also defended the idea of a young Earth. Augustine rejected both the immortality of the human race proposed by pagans, and contemporary ideas of ages (such as those of certain Greeks and Egyptians) that differed from the Church's sacred writings:
St. Augustine also comments on the word "day" in the creation week, admitting the interpretation is difficult:

Contemporary Christian considerations

In light of scientific findings regarding the age and origins of the universe and life, many modern Christian theologians, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant, have rejected literalistic interpretations of Genesis in favour of allegorical or poetic interpretations such as the literary framework view.

Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott
Ludwig Ott
Ludwig Ott was a Catholic theologian and Medievalist from Bavaria....

 in his authoritative Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, under the section "The Divine Work of Creation," (pages 92–122) covers the "biblical hexahemeron" (the "six days" of creation), the creation of man, Adam/Eve, original sin, the Fall, and the statements of the early Fathers, Saints, Church Councils, and Popes relevant to the matter. Ott makes the following comments on the "science" of Genesis and the Fathers:

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

 John Paul II wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Pontifical Academy of Sciences
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a scientific academy of the Vatican, founded in 1936 by Pope Pius XI. It is placed under the protection of the reigning Supreme Pontiff. Its aim is to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related...

 on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:
The "Clergy Letter" Project, drafted in 2004, and signed by thousands of Christian clergy supporting science and faith, states:
Prominent evangelical
Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s and gained popularity in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th century.Its key commitments are:...

 advocates of metaphorical interpretations of Genesis include Meredith G. Kline
Meredith G. Kline
Meredith G. Kline was an American theologian and Old Testament scholar advance in Archeology, both Assyriology and Egyptology.-Academic career:...

 and Henri Blocher who advocate the literary framework view. In Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation, evangelical
Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s and gained popularity in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th century.Its key commitments are:...

 author Gordon J. Glover argues for an ancient near-eastern cosmology interpretation of Genesis, which he labels the theology of creation:

Rabbinic teachings

Philo , known also as Philo of Alexandria , Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Yedidia, "Philon", and Philo the Jew, was a Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher born in Alexandria....

 was the first commentator to use allegory on Bible extensively in his writing.

Some medieval philosophical rationalists, such as Maimonides
Moses ben-Maimon, called Maimonides and also known as Mūsā ibn Maymūn in Arabic, or Rambam , was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages...

 held that it was not required to read Genesis literally. In this view, one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

. Indeed, Maimonides
Moses ben-Maimon, called Maimonides and also known as Mūsā ibn Maymūn in Arabic, or Rambam , was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages...

, one of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, wrote that if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science proved a point, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly. Before him Saadia Gaon
Saadia Gaon
Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period.The first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Arabic, he is considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature...

 set rules in the same spirit when allegoric approach can be used, for example, if the plain sense contradicts logic. Solomon ibn Gabirol
Solomon ibn Gabirol
Solomon ibn Gabirol, also Solomon ben Judah , was an Andalucian Hebrew poet and Jewish philosopher with a Neoplatonic bent. He was born in Málaga about 1021; died about 1058 in Valencia.-Biography:...

 extensively used allegory in his book "Fountain of Life", cited by Abraham ibn Ezra
Abraham ibn Ezra
Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was born at Tudela, Navarre in 1089, and died c. 1167, apparently in Calahorra....

. In 1305 Shlomo ben Aderet
Shlomo ben Aderet
Shlomo ben Aderet was a Medieval rabbi, halakhist, and Talmudist. He is widely known as the Rashba , the Hebrew acronym of his title and name: Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet.The Rashba was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1235...

 wrote a letter against unrestricted usage of allegory by followers of Maimonides, like Jacob Anatoli
Jacob Anatoli
Jacob ben Abba Mari ben Simson Anatoli was a translator of Arabic texts to Hebrew. He was invited to Naples by Frederick II. Under this royal patronage, and in association with Michael Scot, Anatoli made Arabic learning accessible to Western readers...

 in his book "Malmad ha-Talmidim". In spite of this Gersonides
Levi ben Gershon, better known by his Latinised name as Gersonides or the abbreviation of first letters as RaLBaG , philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, astronomer/astrologer. He was born at Bagnols in Languedoc, France...

 copied Maimonides' explanation the story of Adam into his commentary on Genesis, thinly veiled by extensive usage of the word "hint". The main point of Maimonides and Gersonides is that Fall of Man is not a story about one man, but about the human nature. Adam is the pure intellect, Eve is a body, and the Serpent is a fantasy that tries to trap intellect through the body.

The Zohar is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah and scriptural interpretations as well as material on Mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology...

Nahmanides, also known as Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, Bonastruc ça Porta and by his acronym Ramban, , was a leading medieval Jewish scholar, Catalan rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.-Name:"Nahmanides" is a Greek-influenced formation meaning "son of Naḥman"...

, often critical of the rationalist views of Maimonides, pointed out (in his commentary to Genesis) several non-sequiturs stemming from a literal translation of the Bible's account of Creation, and stated that the account actually symbolically refers to spiritual concepts. He quoted the Mishnah
The Mishnah or Mishna is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the "Oral Torah". It is also the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism. It was redacted c...

 in Tractate Chagigah which states that the actual meaning of the Creation account, mystical in nature, was traditionally transmitted from teachers to advanced scholars in a private setting. Many Kabbalistic
Kabbalah/Kabala is a discipline and school of thought concerned with the esoteric aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. It was systematized in 11th-13th century Hachmei Provence and Spain, and again after the Expulsion from Spain, in 16th century Ottoman Palestine...

 sources mention Shmitot - cosmic cycles of creation, similar to the Indian concept of yugas. According to the tradition of Shmitot, Genesis talks openly only about the current epoch, while the information about the previous cosmic cycles is hidden in the esoteric reading of the text.

A literal interpretation of the biblical Creation story among Jews today is rare among non-Orthodox groups. Indeed, most Conservative and Reformed denominations hold to the view that the creation story can safely be viewed as allegory.

The position of Orthodox Jews has, for some time, been more or less favorable of a literal approach, as evidenced by the uproar that occurred when modern-day biblical commentators expressed their nonliteral interpretations of the accounts related in Genesis, despite being based heavily on views taken by classical commentators such as Rambam and Ralbag
Levi ben Gershon, better known by his Latinised name as Gersonides or the abbreviation of first letters as RaLBaG , philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, astronomer/astrologer. He was born at Bagnols in Languedoc, France...

. Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Natan Slifkin
Natan Slifkin , also popularly known as the "Zoo Rabbi", is an ordained but non-pulpit serving Orthodox rabbi best known for his interest in zoology, science and for his books on these topics, which are controversial in the Haredi world.-Biography:Natan Slifkin was born and raised in Manchester,...

, in his work The Challenge of Creation, elaborates on his perspective as it relates to Judaism's
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

 encounter with science, cosmology and evolution. Reconciliation of modern science with orthodox literal interpretations is the subject of the works of Gerald Schroeder
Gerald Schroeder
Gerald L. Schroeder is an Orthodox Jewish physicist, author and lecturer at Aish HaTorah's Discovery Seminar, Essentials and Fellowships programs and Executive Learning Center, who focuses on what he perceives to be an inherent relationship between science and spirituality.-Education:Schroeder...

, a physicist and an expert of theology.

See also

  • Theistic evolution
    Theistic evolution
    Theistic evolution or evolutionary creation is a concept that asserts that classical religious teachings about God are compatible with the modern scientific understanding about biological evolution...

  • Framework interpretation
  • Biblical cosmology
    Biblical cosmology
    The various authors of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament provide glimpses of their views regarding cosmology.According to the Genesis creation narrative, the cosmos created by Elohim has three levels, with the habitable world in the centre, an underworld below and the heavens above...

  • Creation according to Genesis
    Creation according to Genesis
    The Genesis creation narrative describes the divine creation of the world including the first man and woman...

  • Creation-evolution controversy
    Creation-evolution controversy
    The creation–evolution controversy is a recurring cultural, political, and theological dispute about the origins of the Earth, humanity, life, and the universe....

  • Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church
    Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church
    Since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, the attitude of the Catholic Church on the theory of evolution has slowly been refined. For about 100 years, there was no authoritative pronouncement on the subject. By 1950, Pope Pius XII agreed to the academic freedom to...

  • The Challenge of Creation
  • Anastasius Sinaita
    Anastasius Sinaita
    Saint Anastasius Sinaïta or Anastasius of Sinai, also called Anastasios of Sinai, was a prolific and important seventh century Greek ecclesiastical writer, priest, monk, and abbot of Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai....

External links

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