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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER II. PAGAN METHODS OF INTERPRETING THE SCRIPTURES.
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Contrast between the Christianity of the New Testament and That of the Later Centuries—Gnosticism and Allegorical Interpretation—Testimony of Harnack and Bauer Concerning the “Hellenization of Christianity”—Hatch on “Pagan Exegesis”—The “Fathers” as Allegorists; Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Barnabas, and Others—Examples: “The Red Heifer a Type of Christ”; “Spiritual Circumcision”; “Scriptural Significance of Foods”; “The Cross in the Old Testament”; “Why Are There One Hundred and Fifty Psalms?” “The Ph?nix a Type of the Resurrection”; “Gnostic Exposition of the Decalogue”; “Types of Christ”; Various Examples from Augustine.

The student of history cannot fail to note the wide difference between the Christianity of the New Testament period and that of the fourth century. The religion which Christ taught was a direct outgrowth of Judaism. His mission was “not to destroy but to fulfil.” This He did by giving a higher conception and a broader view of all which Judaism had held hitherto. He gave a new meaning to the fatherhood of God. He explained and enforced the moral precepts of the Old Testament, developing their deeper spiritual sense, and giving them a new application to the inner life of men. He enlarged Judaism without destroying[32] it. He clarified and intensified the ten commandments. He discarded the outward formalities of the Jews, and “reached the heart of things” by His interpretation of the ancient Scriptures, by His new precepts, and by His example. He developed Christianity within the Jewish Church, making it the efflorescence of all that was best in the ancient dispensation.

Christ presented love for God, for truth, and for man, as the mainspring of action in all religious living. Under His teachings Christianity arose as a new life, springing from the law of God, written in the hearts of men. New Testament Christianity was a life born of love, and finding expression in loving obedience. It was a system of right living, as in the divine presence, and by the help of the divine Spirit. Men were drawn to each other and to Christ by the power of this love. Such was Christianity at its birth.

The earliest Christian congregations were communities for holy living, upon the ground of a mutual faith in Christ. They expected still greater revelations of Him, and through Him, in the near future. The facts connected with His life and the memory of His teachings formed the soil in which Christianity had its earliest roots. A common hope and the struggle for holy living according to the law of God bound these communities together.[33] They were made up of Jews alone, or of Jews and those Gentiles who had been converts to Judaism. Beyond this common hope there was no settled doctrine, no formal ecclesiastical organization. There were no written scriptures except the Old Testament. As the history of Christianity progressed, its enlarging spirit brought about a conflict with the narrower phases of Judaism, and hence more or less antagonism towards certain Judaistic interpretations of the Old Testament.

The Christianity of the third and fourth centuries presents the strongest possible contrast when placed alongside of that which existed during the New Testament period. The Sermon on the Mount was the promulgation of a new law of conduct. “The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts, and partly of dogmatic inferences.”[25] Some adequate reason must be found for this difference. How did this change in the central character of Christianity come to pass? By what influences was it transformed from a system of right living to a system of metaphysical belief; to right thinking rather than right doing? The answer is suggested by the fact that this change in character is contemporaneous with the transferring of Christianity from Semitic to Greek influence. Thus we are brought to face the fact[34] that the religion of a given people at a given time bears certain definite relations to the mental attitude of that time. Religion is a part of common life which cannot be separated from its surroundings. While we may consider religious problems as distinct from other questions, they can never be understood except as a part of the complex life with which they are interwoven.

We therefore must commence by inquiring after the characteristics of the pagan world into which the infant Christianity passed when the stream of its history left the soil of Palestine and entered the field of Greek and Roman influences.

Long before the time of Christ the Oriental religions had developed a system of philosophy in which were the seeds of that which in later times was known as gnosticism. This claimed to hold within itself “the knowledge of God and of man, of the being and the providence of the former, and of the creation and destiny of the latter.”[26] In its journey westward this system had mingled with Jewish thought and given rise to the Kabbalists or Jewish Gnostics. In the Oriental religions all external phenomena expressed a hidden meaning.[35] Applying this doctrine to the Scriptures, the Jewish Gnostics taught that a hidden meaning was to be found in all laws, ceremonies, and rituals. They invented the theory that a secret tradition had been handed down from the time of Moses; the interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures had been greatly perverted in this way. Gnosticism said: “Nothing is what it seems to be; everything tangible is the symbol of something invisible. By this means the history of the Old Testament was sublimated into a history of the emancipation of reason from sense.”[27] This application of the allegorical method of interpretation to the Old Testament enabled pagan philosophers to draw from it whatever fancies they chose. This method also favored a tendency among the early Christians to interpret the Old Testament so as to find upon every leaf of the book some reference to Christ and the Christian religion. Thus gnosticism had prepared the way for the obliteration of the concrete positiveness of the Old Testament, and destroyed its authority in a great degree.

The entire Grecian world was thoroughly permeated as to its literature and philosophy with the spirit and practice of gnosticism. It formed the bridge between Judaism on its intellectual side, and the Oriental, Grecian, and Egyptian cults. When[36] the infant Christianity came in contact with Greek thought, gnostic influences and tendencies assailed it on every hand. Thus, through a gnostic element already within the Jewish Church, and the cultured, powerful gnostic influences in the pagan world, nascent Christianity was like the traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves. The intellectual unrest of the age favored the process of corruption which went rapidly forward.
Biblical Exegesis.

Whatever touches the Bible and its interpretation touches Christianity at a vital point. The fundamental difference between the pagan gnosticism and Christianity lay in the fact that Christianity was a revealed religion, finding its beginning and end in the divine love and life unfolded in Christ Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. On the contrary, gnosticism found its source in human reasoning, human philosophy, and speculations.

Dr. Schaff describes its influence when he says:

“It exaggerates the Pauline view of the distinction of Christianity from Judaism, sunders Christianity from its historical basis, resolves the real humanity of the Saviour into a doketistic illusion, and perverts the freedom of the Gospel into Antinomian licentiousness. The author or first representative of this baptized heathenism, according to the uniform testimony of Christian antiquity,[37] is Simon Magus, who unquestionably adulterated Christianity with pagan ideas and practices, and gave himself out, in pantheistic style, for an emanation of God. Plain traces of [of the existence of] this error appear in the later epistles of Paul to the Colossians, to Timothy, and to Titus, the second epistle of Peter, and the first two epistles of John, the epistle of Jude, and the messages of the Apocalypse to the seven churches.”[28]

This rapid survey of the field shows us that gnostic influences represent what Professor Harnack calls “The acute vulgarization of Christianity, or its Hellenization.” We are therefore prepared to accept his testimony relative to the influence of the Gnostics as formulators of Christian doctrine. The following are his words:

“Under this view the Gnostics should be given their place in the history of dogmas as has not been done hitherto. They are simply the theologians of the first century; they were the first to transform Christianity into a system of doctrines. They were the first to elaborate tradition systematically; they undertook to prove Christianity to be the absolute religion, and by it to hunt down all other religions, including Judaism; but to them the absolute religion, so far as its content was concerned, was identical with the results of religious philosophy, for which a revelation was to be sought as a foundation. Thus they became Christians who tried by quick measures to win Christianity for the Hellenic culture, and the Hellenic culture for Christianity. To this end they would[38] surrender the Old Testament that they might make it more easy to establish the union between the two powers, and to gain the possibility of proclaiming the absoluteness of Christianity....

“We may also consider the majority of the gnostic efforts as efforts to transform Christianity into a theosophy, or, so to say, into a system of revealed metaphysics, with a complete disregard for the Jewish Old Testament foundation, on which it originated, and by the use of the Pauline ideas. We can also compare later writers, such as Barnabas and Ignatius, with the so-called Gnostics, by which the latter will be seen to possess a well formulated theory, and the former to be in possession of fragments which bear a remarkable likeness to said theory.”[29]

Bauer, a careful student of gnosticism, gives a description of its mission and methods which shows how it was prepared to exert such a controlling influence on the history of early Christianity, and how destructive that influence was in the matter of biblical interpretation. He says:

“Gnosis and allegory are essentially allied conceptions; and this affords us a very marked indication of the path which will really lead us to the origin of gnosticism; for we shall find that allegory plays an important part in most of its systems, especially in those which exhibit its original form.

“It is well known that allegory is the soul of the Alexandrian religious philosophy. Nothing else, indeed, can[39] enable us to understand the rise of the latter, so closely is allegory interwoven with its very nature. Allegory is in general the mediator between philosophy and the religion which rests upon positive tradition. Wherever it is seen on a large scale, we notice that philosophical views have arisen side by side with, and independently of, the existing religion; and that the need has arisen to bring the ideas and doctrines of philosophy into harmony with the contents of the religious belief. In such circumstances, allegory appears in the character of mediator. It brings about the desired conformity by simply interpreting the belief in the sense of the philosophy. Religious ideas and narratives are thus clothed with a figurative sense, which is entirely different from their literal meaning. It was thus that allegory arose before the Christian time among the Greeks. The desire was felt first by Plato, and afterward still more strongly by the Stoics, to turn the myths of the popular religion to account on behalf of their philosophical ideas, and so to bridge over the gulf between the philosophical and the popular mind; and with this view they struck out the path of allegory, of allegorical interpretation of the myths. It is well known what extensive use the Stoics made of allegory when they wished to trace their own ideas of the philosophy of nature in the gods of popular belief, and the narratives concerning them.

“But in Alexandria, this mode of interpretation assumed still greater importance. Here it had to solve the weighty problem, how the new ideas that had forced their way into the mind and consciousness of the Jew, were to be reconciled with his belief in the authority of his sacred religious books. Allegory alone made it possible to him,[40] on the one hand, to admire the philosophy of the Greeks, and in particular of Plato, and to make its ideas his own; and, on the other, to reverence the Scripture of the Old Testament as the one source of divinely revealed truth. The sacred books needed but to be explained allegorically, and then all that was wished for, even the boldest speculative ideas of the Greek mind, could be found in the books themselves. How widely this method was practised in Alexandria, may be judged from the writings of Philo, in which we see the most extensive use made of allegorical interpretation, and find the contents of the Old Testament blended intimately with everything that the systems of Greek philosophy could offer. But it would be quite erroneous to think that it was nothing but caprice and the unchecked play of fancy, that called forth this allegorical explanation of the Scriptures, which came to exercise such influence. For to the Alexandrian Jew, at the stage of scriptural development which he had now reached, with his consciousness divided between his ancestral Hebraism and modern Hellenism, this allegorizing was a necessary form of consciousness; and so little did he dream that the artificial link by which he bound together such diverse elements was a thing he had himself created, that all the truth which he accepted in the systems of Greek philosophy seemed to him to be nothing but an emanation from the Old Testament revelation.

“Now the gnostic systems also, for the most part, make very free use of the allegorical method of interpretation; and this is enough to apprise us that we must regard them under the same aspect as the Alexandrian religious philosophy. As far as we are acquainted with the[41] writings of the Gnostics, we see them to have been full of allegorical interpretations, not indeed referring, as with Philo, to the books of the Old Testament (for their attitude toward the Old Testament was entirely different from his); but to those of the New, which were for the Gnostics what the books of the Old Testament were for Philo.

“In order to give their own ideas a Christian stamp, they applied the allegorical method, as much as possible, to the persons and events of the Gospel history, and especially to the numbers that occur in it. Thus for the Valentinians the number thirty in the New Testament, especially in the life of Jesus, was made to signify the number of their ?ons; the lost wandering sheep was for them their Achamoth; and even the utterances of Jesus, which contain a perfectly simple religious truth, received from them a sense referring to the doctrines of their system.

“The lately discovered Philosophoumena of the pseudo-Origen who undertook the task of refuting all the heresies show us even more clearly than before what an extensive use the Gnostics made of allegory.

“They applied it not merely to the books of the Old and New Testaments, but even the products of Greek literature, for instance, to the Homeric poems; their whole mode of view was entirely allegorical.

“The whole field of ancient mythology, astronomy, and physics, was laid under contribution to support their views. They thought that the ideas that were the highest objects of their thought and knowledge were to be found expressed everywhere.”[30]


Hatch offers important testimony as to the pagan elements in early exegesis, in these words:

“The earliest methods of Christian exegesis were continuations of the methods which were common at the time to both Greek and Gr?co-Jud?an writers. They were employed on the same subject-matter. Just as the Greek philosophers had found their philosophy in Homer, so Christian writers found in him Christian theology. When he represents Odysseus as saying,[31] ‘The rule of many is not good; let there be one ruler,’ he means to indicate that there should be but one God; and his whole poem is designed to show the mischief that comes of having many gods.[32] When he tells us that Heph?stus represented on the shield of Achilles ‘the earth, the heaven, the sea, the sun that rests not, and the moon full-orbed,’[33] he is teaching the divine order of creation which he learned in Egypt from the books of Moses.[34] So Clement of Alexandria interprets the withdrawal of Oceanus and Tethys from each other to mean the separation of land and sea.[35] And he holds that Homer when he makes Apollo ask Achilles, ‘Why fruitlessly pursue him, a god,’ meant to show that the divinity cannot be apprehended by the bodily powers.[36]

“Some of the philosophical schools which hung upon the skirts of Christianity mingled such interpretations of[43] Greek mythology with similar interpretations of the Old Testament. For example, the writer to whom the name Simon Magus is given, is said to have ‘interpreted in whatever way he wished both the writings of Moses and also those of the Greek poets’[37]; and the Ophite writer, Justin, evolves an elaborate cosmogony from a story of Herakles narrated in Herodotus,[38] combined with the story of the Garden of Eden.[39]...

“A large part of such interpretation was inherited. The coincidences of mystical interpretation between Philo and the Epistle of Barnabas show that such interpretation were becoming the common property of Jews and Jud?o-Christians. But the method was soon applied to new data. Exegesis became apologetic. Whereas Philo and his school had dealt mainly with the Pentateuch, the early Christian writers came to deal mainly with the prophets and poetical books; and whereas Philo was mainly concerned to show that the writings of Moses contained Greek philosophy, the Christian writers endeavored to show that the writings of the Hebrew preachers and poets contained Christianity; and whereas Philo had been content to speak of the writers of the Old Testament, as Dio Chrysostom spoke of the Greek poets, as having been stirred by a divine enthusiasm, the Christian writers soon came to construct an elaborate theory that the poets and preachers were but as the flutes through which the breath of God flowed in divine music into the soul.”[40]

The Fathers as Allegorists.

Beginning with Justin, the leaders of thought in the Church, from the middle of the second century, were men who had been brought up as pagan philosophers, or educated under pagan influence. It was therefore unavoidable that this corrupting system of exegesis should be applied to the books of the New Testament. This was done by the Gnostics, according to their theory that the true meaning of all writings was hidden. Christ’s life presented many difficulties to the philosophers. To explain its seeming contradiction, they resolved the mission of Christ into a series of superhuman movements, and the New Testament into a sort of hieroglyphic record of those movements. Instance: Simeon, taking the young Christ in his arms in the temple,

“was a type of the Demiurge, who, on the arrival of the Saviour, learned his own change of place, and gave thanks to Bythus. They also assert that by Anna, who is spoken of in the Gospel as a prophetess, and who, after living seven years with her husband, passed all the rest of her life in widowhood until she saw the Saviour, and recognized Him, and spoke of Him to all, was most plainly indicated Achamoth, who, having for a little while looked upon the Saviour with his associates, and dwelling all the rest of the time in the intermediate place, waited for Him till He should come again and restore her to her proper[45] consort. Her name, too, was indicated by the Saviour when he said, ‘Yet wisdom is justified by her children.’ This, too, was done by Paul in these words, ‘But we speak wisdom among them that are perfect.’ They declare also that Paul has referred to the conjunctions within the Pleroma, showing them forth by means of one; for, when writing of the conjugal union in this life, he expressed himself thus: ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.’”[41]

Another instance is found in the interpretation which they made of the raising of Jairus’ daughter:

“They maintain further, that that girl of twelve years old, the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, whom the Lord approached and raised from the dead, was a type of Achamoth, to whom their Christ, by extending himself, imparted shape, and whom he led anew to the perception of that light which had forsaken her. And that the Saviour appeared to her when she lay outside of the Pleroma as a kind of abortion, they affirm Paul to have declared in his Epistle to the Corinthians (in these words): ‘And last of all, He appeared to me also, as to one born out of due time.’ Again, the coming of the Saviour with His attendants, to Achamoth is declared in like manner by him in the same epistle, when he says: ‘A woman ought to have a veil upon her head, because of the angels.’ Now that Achamoth, when the Saviour came to her, drew a veil over herself through modesty, Moses rendered manifest when he put a veil upon his face. Then,[46] also, they say that the passions which she endured were indicated by the Lord upon the cross. Thus, when He said, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ he simply showed that Sophia was deserted by the light, and was restrained by Horos from making any advance forward. Her anguish again was indicated when He said, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death’; her fear by the words, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’; and her perplexity, too, when He said, ‘And what I shall say, I know not.’”[42]
This Method Opposed by Some.

Some of the early Fathers, those who were least tinctured with Greek thought, especially Tertullian, opposed this method at the first. He declared that it was one of the arts of Satan, against which Christians must wrestle. But the system was too deep-seated in all the prevailing currents of influence to be displaced. Even while Tertullian was opposing it, it was tightening its grasp upon the Christian communities; a grasp which is by no means yet removed. Starting first at Alexandria and strengthened by the union of Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology, it gathered force like an increasing tide, and overwhelmed all other forms of exegesis. A pertinent example is found in Clement of Alexandria, in a philippic against the Sophists:

“Look to the tongue and to the words of the glozing man,
But you look on no work that has been done;
But each one of you walks in the steps of a fox,
And in all of you is an empty mind.”

Clement of Alexandria comments on this as follows:

“This, I think, is signified by the utterance of the Saviour, ‘The foxes have holes, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.’ For on the believer alone, who is separated entirely from the rest, who by the Scripture are called wild beasts, rests the head of the universe, the kind and gentle Word, ‘Who taketh the wise in their own craftiness. For the Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain’; the Scripture calling those the wise (σοφο??) who are skilled in words and arts, sophists (σοφιστ??).”[43]

In another place the story of the feeding of the multitude by Christ is explained in these words:

“And the Lord fed the multitude of those that reclined on the grass opposite to Tiberias with the two fishes and the five barley loaves, indicating the preparatory training of the Greeks and Jews previous to the divine grain, which is the food cultivated by the law. For barley is sooner ripe for the harvest than wheat; and the fishes signified the Hellenic philosophy that was produced and moved in the midst of the Gentile billow, given, as they were, for copious food to those lying on the ground, increasing no more, like the fragments of the loaves, but[48] having partaken of the Lord’s blessing, had breathed into them the resurrection of God-head through the power of the Word. But if you are curious, understand one of the fishes to mean the curriculum of study, and the other the philosophy which supervenes. The gatherings point out the word of the Lord.”[44]

Christianity, according to the New Testament, could not be developed under such exegesis. These pagano-Christian leaders had still greater love for the allegorical method because it enabled them to “explain away” the difficulties which they found in considering Christianity—as they conceived of it—to be the product of the Old Testament. From the first they had identified the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge, the creator of the world and of matter, in which was only evil. They claimed that Jehovah could not make a revelation for all time, nor one worthy of their confidence. Hatch, speaking of the Old Testament, says:

“An important section of the Christian world rejected its authority altogether; it was the work, not of God, but of His rival, the god of this world; the contrast between the Old Testament and the New was part of the larger contrast between matter and spirit, darkness and light, evil and good. This was the contention of Marcion, whose influence upon the Christian world was far larger than is commonly supposed.”[45]

Further Examples.

Still further examples of the fanciful perversions of the Scriptures, by the Fathers, are presented in order that the reader may be left without a doubt as to the ruinous effects which the pagan allegorizing methods produced upon the infant Church.

The Epistle of Barnabas, falsely attributed to the companion of Paul, is a notable example of unmeaning allegories which totally pervert the Scriptures. Take the following examples:


“Now what do you suppose this to be a type of, that a command was given to Israel, that men of the greatest wickedness should offer a heifer, and slay and burn it, and that then boys should take the ashes, and put these into vessels, and bind round a stick purple wool along with hyssop, and that thus the boys should sprinkle the people one by one, in order that they might be purified from their sins? Consider how he speaks to you with simplicity. The calf is Jesus; the sinful men offering it are those who led Him to the slaughter. But now the men are no longer guilty, are no longer regarded as sinners. And the boys that sprinkle are those that have proclaimed to us the remission of sins and purification of heart. To these He gave authority to preach the gospel, being twelve in number, corresponding to the twelve tribes of[50] Israel. But why are there three boys that sprinkle? To correspond to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, because these were great with God. And why was the wool [placed] upon the wood? Because by wood Jesus holds His kingdom, so that [through the cross] those believing on Him shall live forever. But why was hyssop joined with the wool? Because in His kingdom the days will be evil and polluted in which we shall be saved, [and] because he who suffers in body is cured through the cleansing efficacy of hyssop. And on this account the things which stand thus are clear to us, but obscure to them, because they did not hear the voice of the Lord.”[47]

Chapter ix. discusses the spiritual meaning of circumcision. The closing portion of the chapter is as follows:

“Yea, the Egyptians also practise circumcision. Learn then, my children, concerning all things richly, that Abraham, the first who enjoined circumcision, looking forward in spirit to Jesus, practised that rite, having received the mysteries of the three letters. For [the Scripture] saith, ‘And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household.’ What then was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted—ten by I, and eight by H. You have [the initials of] Jesus, and because the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter T, he says also, ‘three hundred.’ He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one. He knows this, who[51] has put within us the engrafted gift of His doctrine. No one has been admitted by me to a more excellent piece of knowledge than this, but I know that ye are worthy.”[48]

The tenth chapter, which treats of the Spiritual Significance of the Precepts of Moses Respecting Different Kinds of Food, can be quoted only in part; portions of it are unfit for the public eye, and yet these portions, gross as they are, are solemnly set forth as an exegesis of Scripture. The chapter follows here, except the grosser sentences:

“Now, wherefore did Moses say, ‘Thou shalt not eat the swine, nor the eagle, nor the hawk, nor the raven, nor any fish which is not possessed of scales?’ He embraced three doctrines in his mind [in doing so]. Moreover, the Lord saith to them in Deuteronomy, ‘And I will establish my ordinances among this people.’ Is there then not a command of God that they should not eat [these things]? There is; but Moses spoke with a spiritual reference. For this reason he named the swine, as much as to say, ‘Thou shalt not join thyself to men who resemble swine,’ for when they live in pleasure they forget their Lord; but when they come to want they acknowledge the Lord. And [in like manner] the swine, when it has eaten, does not recognize its master; but when hungry it cries out, and on receiving food is quiet again. ‘Neither shalt thou eat,’ says he, ‘the eagle, nor the hawk, nor the kite, nor the raven.’ ‘Thou shalt not join thyself,’ he means, ‘to such men as know not how to procure food for themselves by labor and sweat, but seize on that of[52] others in their iniquity, and, although wearing an aspect of simplicity, are on the watch to plunder others.’ So these birds, while they sit idle, inquire how they may devour the flesh of others, proving themselves pests [to all] by their wickedness. ‘And thou shalt not eat,’ he says, ‘the lamprey, or the polypus, or the cuttle-fish.’ He means, ‘Thou shalt not join thyself or be like to such men as are ungodly to the end, and are condemned to death.’ In like manner as those fishes above accursed, float in the deep, not swimming [on the surface] like the rest, but make their abode in the mud which lies at the bottom....

“Moses then issued three doctrines concerning meats with a spiritual significance; but they received them according to fleshly desire as if he had merely spoken of [literal] meats. David, however, comprehends the knowledge of the three doctrines, and speaks in like manner: ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly,’ even as the fishes [referred to] go in darkness to the depths [of the sea], ‘and hath not stood in the way of sinners,’ even as those who profess to fear the Lord, but go astray like swine; ‘and hath not sat in the seat of the scorners’ even as those birds that lie in wait for prey. Take a full and firm grasp of this spiritual knowledge. But Moses says still further, ‘Ye shall eat every animal that is cloven-footed and ruminant.’ What does he mean? [The ruminant animal denotes him] who on receiving food recognizes Him that nourishes him, and being satisfied by Him, is visibly made glad. Well spake [Moses] having respect to the commandment. What then does he mean? That we ought to join ourselves to those that fear the Lord, those who meditate in their heart on[53] the commandment which they have received, those who both utter the judgments of the Lord and observe them, those who know that meditation is a work of gladness, and who ruminate upon the word of the Lord. But what means the cloven-footed? That the righteous man also walks in this world, yet looks forward to the holy state [to come]. Behold how well Moses legislated. But how was it possible for them to understand or comprehend these things? We then, rightly understanding his commandments, explain them as the Lord intended. For this purpose He circumcised our ears and our hearts, that we might understand these things.”[49]

Chapter xii. is a meaningless discussion of the cross as prefigured in the Old Testament. A part of the chapter will suffice.

“In like manner he points to the cross of Christ in another prophet, who saith, ‘And when shall these things be accomplished?’ And the Lord saith, ‘When a tree shall be bent down, and again arise, and when blood shall flow out of wood.’[50] Here again you have an intimation concerning the cross and Him who should be crucified. Yet again he speaks of this in Moses, when Israel was attacked by strangers. And that He might remind them, when assailed, that it was on account of their sins they were delivered to death, the Spirit speaks to the heart of Moses, that he should make a figure of the cross, and of Him about to suffer thereon; for unless[54] they put their trust in Him they shall be overcome forever. Moses, therefore, placed one weapon above another in the midst of the hill, and standing upon it, so as to be higher than all the people, he stretched forth his hands, and thus again Israel acquired the mastery. But when again he let down his hands, they were again destroyed. For what reason? That they might know that they could not be saved unless they put their trust in Him. And in another prophet he declares, ‘All day long I have stretched forth my hands to an unbelieving people, and one that gainsays my righteous way.’ And again Moses makes a type of Jesus [signifying] that it was necessary for him to suffer, [and also] that He would be the author of life [to others] whom they believed, to have destroyed on the cross when Israel was falling.”[51]

Justin Martyr is an eminent example of one who perverted the Scriptures while claiming to explain them. Witness the following from the account of his conversion to Christianity:

“And when I had quoted this, I added, ‘Hear then how this man, of whom the Scriptures declare that He will come again in glory after His crucifixion, was symbolized both by the tree of life, which was said to have been planted in paradise, and by those events which should happen to all the just.’ Moses was sent with a rod to effect the redemption of the people; and with this in his hands, at the head of the people, he divided the sea. By this he saw the water gushing out of the rock; and when he cast a tree into the waters of Marah, which[55] were bitter, he made them sweet. Jacob, by putting rods into the water troughs, caused the sheep of his uncle to conceive, so that he should obtain their young. With his rod the same Jacob boasts that he had crossed the river. He said that he had seen a ladder, and the Scripture has declared that God stood above it.

“But that this was not the Father we have proved from the Scriptures. And Jacob having poured oil on a stone in the same place is testified to by the very God who appeared to him, that he had anointed a pillar to the God who appeared to him. And that the stone symbolically proclaimed Christ, we have also proved by many Scriptures; and that the unguent, whether it was of oil or of stacte, or of any other compounded sweet balsams, had reference to Him we have also proved, inasmuch as the word says, ‘Therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.’ For indeed all kings and anointed persons obtained from Him their share in the names of kings and anointed; just as he himself received from the Father the titles of King, and Christ, and Priest, and Angel, and such like other titles which He bears or did bear. Aaron’s rod which blossomed, declared him to be the high priest. Isaiah prophesied that a rod would come forth from the root of Jesse [and this was] Christ. And David says that the righteous man is ‘like the tree that is planted by the channels of waters, which should yield its fruit in its season, and whose leaf should not fade.’ Again, the righteous is said to flourish like the palm tree. God appeared from a tree to Abraham, as it is written, near the oak in Mamre. The people found seventy willows and twelve springs after crossing the Jordan. David affirms that God comforted[56] him with a rod and staff. Elisha, by casting a stick into the river Jordan, recovered the iron part of the axe with which the sons of the prophets had gone to cut down trees to build the house, in which they wished to read and study the law and commandments of God; even as our Christ, by being crucified on the tree, and by purifying [us] with water, has redeemed us, though plunged in the direst offences, which we have committed, and has made [us] a house of prayer and adoration. Moreover, it was a rod that pointed out Judah to be the father of Tamar’s sons by a great mystery.”[52]

Still more confusing fancies, under the name of exegesis, appear near the close of the Dialogue. Witness the following:

“‘You know then, sirs,’ I said, ‘that God has said in Isaiah to Jerusalem, “I saved thee in the deluge of Noah.”[53] By this, which God said, was meant that the mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i. e., with his own wife, his three sons, and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power. For Christ being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the[57] waters with his household. Accordingly, when the prophet says, “I saved thee in the times of Noah,” as I have already remarked, he addresses the people who are equally faithful to God, and possess the same signs. For when Moses had the rod in his hands he led your nation through the sea. And you believe that this was spoken to your nation only, or to the land. But the whole earth, as the Scripture says, was inundated, and the water rose in height fifteen cubits above all the mountains; so that it is evident this was not spoken to the land, but to the people who obeyed Him, for whom also He had before prepared a resting-place in Jerusalem, as was previously demonstrated by all the symbols of the deluge; I mean that by water, faith, and wood, those who are afore prepared, and who repent of the sins which they have committed, shall escape from the impending judgment of God.’”[54]

Another illustration of the utterly unmeaning and fanciful interpretations of Scripture is found in Fragments from Commentaries on Various Books of Scripture, by Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome. He is explaining why there are one hundred and fifty psalms. The main reason adduced is that fifty is a sacred number, and the Psalms, on account of the destruction of God’s enemies, should contain not only one set of fifty, but three such, for the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. The sacred character of the number fifty is explained as follows:


“The number fifty, moreover, contains seven sevens, or a Sabbath of Sabbaths, and also over and above these full Sabbaths, a new beginning in the eighth, of a really new rest that remains above the Sabbaths. And let any one who is able observe this [as it is carried out] in the Psalms with more, indeed, than human accuracy, so as to find out the reasons in each case, as we shall set them forth. Thus, for instance, it is not without a purpose that the eighth Psalm has the inscription, on the wine presses, as it comprehends the perfection of fruits in the eighth; for the time for the enjoyment of the fruits of the true vine could not be before the eighth. And again, the second Psalm inscribed, on the wine presses, is the eightieth, containing another eighth number, viz., in the tenth multiple. The eighty-third again is made up by the union of two holy numbers, viz., the eighth in the tenth multiple, and the three in the first multiple. And the fiftieth Psalm is a prayer for the remission of sins, and a confession. For, as according to the Gospel, the fiftieth obtained remission confirming thereby that understanding of the jubilee, so he who offers up such petitions in full confession hopes to gain remission in no other number than the fiftieth. And again there are also certain others which are called songs of degrees, in number fifteen, as was also the number of the steps of the temple, and which show thereby, perhaps, that the steps (or degrees) are comprehended within the number seven and the number eight. And these songs of degrees begin after the one hundred and twentieth Psalm, which is called simply a Psalm, as the more accurate copies give it. And this is the number of the perfection of the life of man. And the hundredth Psalm, which begins thus, I will sing of mercy and judgment, O Lord, embraces the life of the saint in[59] fellowship with God. And the one hundred and fiftieth ends with these words, Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”[55]

Clement of Rome, one of the earliest Fathers from whom anything genuine has come to our time, presents other prominent examples of myth and allegory, as follows:

“Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia, and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a ph?nix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays, a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and, bearing these, it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and, having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and finds that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.”[56]


Here is a pagan sun-myth gravely set forth as fact, and made to illustrate a Christian truth; an example of what was common in the writings and theories of those who became leaders in the Church.

The Bible, with its simple truths and plain ethical teachings, was an insipid book to men whose tastes had become abnormal and perverted through feeding on such pagan fancies and superstitions.

One more example from Clement of Alexandria. It must be remembered that the “Christian” writers who condemn gnosticism as a heresy still claimed that there was a “true Christian gnosticism”; the difference between them and those whom they condemned was in degree more than in kind. The following extracts are from Clement’s Gnostic Exposition of the Decalogue. It needs little to show that when the law of God was thus expounded, its power and authority were practically destroyed. Such expositions were part and parcel of the lawlessness which was the unavoidable fruitage of gnosticism. Clement says:

“And the Decalogue, viewed as an image of heaven, embraces sun and moon, stars, clouds, light, wind, water, air, darkness, fire. This is the physical Decalogue of the heaven.

“And the representation of the earth contains men, cattle, reptiles, wild beasts; and of the inhabitants of the water, fishes and whales; and again of the winged tribes, those that are carnivorous, and those that use mild food;[61] and of plants likewise, both fruit-bearing and barren. This is the physical Decalogue of the earth.

“And there is a ten in man himself: the five senses and the power of speech, and that of reproduction; and the eighth is the spiritual principle communicated at his creation; and the ninth, the ruling faculty of the soul; and tenth, there is the distinctive characteristic of the Holy Spirit, which comes to him through faith.

“Besides, in addition to these ten human parts, the law appears to give its injunctions to sight and hearing, and smell and touch and taste, and to the organs subservient to these, which are double the hands and the feet. For such is the formation of man. And the soul is introduced, and previous to it the ruling faculty, by which we reason, not produced in procreation; so that without it there is made up the number ten, of the faculties by which all the activity of man is carried out....

“Is not man, then rightly said ‘to have been made in the image of God’?—not in the form of his [corporeal] structure; but inasmuch as God creates all things by the Word (λ?γ?) and the man who has become a Gnostic performs good actions by the faculty of reason (τ? λογικ?) properly therefore the two tables are also said to mean the commandments that were given to the twofold spirits—those communicated before the law to that which was created, and to the ruling faculty; and the movements of the senses are both copied in the mind, and manifested in the activity which proceeds from the body.”[57]

Even Tertullian, who inveighed so strongly against certain phases of gnosticism, as represented[62] in the Alexandrian schools, has given interpretations which are no less unreliable and fanciful than those which he condemns.

Hear him on “Types.”

“Types of the Death of Christ: Isaac, Joseph; Jacob against Simeon and Levi; Moses praying against Amalek; the Brazen Serpent.

“On the subject of his death, I suppose you endeavor to introduce a diversity of opinion, simply because you deny that the suffering of the cross was predicted of the Christ of the Creator, and because you contend, moreover, that it is not to be believed that the Creator would expose His son to that kind of death on which He had Himself pronounced a curse. ‘Cursed,’ says he, ‘is every one who hangeth on a tree.’ But what is meant by this curse, worthy as it is of the simple prediction of the cross, of which we are now mainly inquiring, I defer to consider, because in another passage, we have given the reason of the thing preceded by proof. First, I shall offer a full explanation of the types. And no doubt it was proper that this mystery should be prophetically set forth by types, and indeed chiefly by that method; for in proportion to its incredibility would it be a stumbling block, if it were set forth in bare prophecy; and in proportion, too, to its grandeur, was the need of obscuring it in shadow, that the difficulty of understanding it might lead to prayer for the grace of God. First, then, Isaac, when he was given up by his father, as an offering, himself carried the wood for his own death. By this act he even then was setting forth the death of Christ, who was destined by his Father as a sacrifice, and carried the cross[63] whereon he suffered. Joseph, likewise, was a type of Christ, not, indeed, on this ground (that I may not delay my course) that he suffered persecution for the cause of God from his brethren, as Christ did from his brethren after the flesh, the Jews; but when he is blessed by his father in these words, ‘His glory is that of a bullock; his horns are the horns of a unicorn; with them shall he push the nations to the very ends of the earth,’—he was not, of course, designated as a mere unicorn with its one horn, or a minotaur with two; but Christ was indicated in him—a bullock in respect of both His characteristics; to some as severe as a judge, to others gentle as a Saviour, whose horns were the extremities of his cross. For of the antenna, which is a part of a cross, the ends are called horns; while the midway stake of the whole frame is the unicorn. By this virtue, then, of His cross, and in this manner horned, He is both now pushing all nations through faith, bearing them away from earth to heaven; and will then push them through judgment, casting them down from heaven to earth. He will also, according to another passage in the same Scripture, be a bullock when he is spiritually interpreted to be Jacob against Simeon and Levi, which means against the scribes and the pharisees; for it was from them that these last derived their origin. [Like] Simeon and Levi, they consummated their wickedness by their heresy, with which they persecuted Christ. ‘Into their counsel let not my soul enter; to their assembly let not my heart be united; for in their anger they slew men,’ that is, the prophets; ‘and in their self-will they hacked the sinews of a bullock,’ that is, of Christ. For against Him did they wreak their fury, after they had slain His prophets, even by affixing Him[64] with nails to the cross. Otherwise it is an idle thing, when, after slaying men, he inveighs against them for the torture of a bullock. Again, in the case of Moses, wherefore did he at that moment particularly, when Joshua was fighting Amalek, pray in a sitting posture with outstretched hands, when in such a conflict it would surely have been more seemly to have bent the knee, and smitten the breast, and to have fallen on the face to the ground, and in such prostration to have offered prayer? Wherefore, but because in a battle fought in the name of that Lord who was one day to fight against the devil, the shape was necessary of that very cross through which Jesus was to win the victory? Why, once more, did the same Moses, after prohibiting the likeness of everything, set up the golden serpent on the pole, and, as it hung there, propose it as an object to be looked at for a cure? Did he not here also intend to show the power of our Lord’s cross, whereby that old serpent, the devil, was vanquished—whereby also to every man who was bitten by spiritual serpents, but who yet turned with an eye of faith to it, was proclaimed a cure from the bite of sin, and health for evermore?”[58]

The allegorizing method continued with great pertinacity. Augustine, the master mind of the fifth century, whose influence yet abounds in the doctrines of both Catholics and Protestants, was under its sway. With him, as with those who preceded him, this allegorical interpretation perverted the Scriptures and obscured truth. A single instance must suffice:


“Hence, also, in the number of the large fishes which our Lord, after His resurrection, showing this new life, commanded to be taken on the right side of the ship, there is found the number fifty, three times multiplied with the addition of three more [the symbol of the Trinity] to make the holy mystery more apparent; and the disciples’ nets were not broken, because in that new life there shall be no schism, caused by the disquiet of heretics. Then [in this new life] man, made perfect and at rest, purified in body and in soul, by the pure words of God which are like silver purged from its dross, seven times refined, shall receive his reward, the denarius. So that with that reward the numbers ten and seven meet in Him. For in this number seventeen [there is found] as in other numbers representing a combination of symbols, a wonderful mystery. Nor is it without good reason that the seventeenth Psalm is the only one which is given complete in the Book of Kings, because it signifies that kingdom in which we shall have no enemy. For its title is, ‘A Psalm of David in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.’ For of whom is David the type, but of Him who, according to the flesh, was born of the seed of David? He, in His church, that is, in His body, still endures the malice of enemies. Therefore the words which from heaven fell upon the ear of that persecutor whom Jesus slew by His voice, and whom He transformed into a part of His body (as the food which we use becomes a part of ourselves), were these: ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ And when shall this His body be finally delivered from enemies? Is it not when the last enemy, death, shall be destroyed? It is to that time that the number of the[66] one hundred and fifty-three fishes pertains. For if the number seventeen itself be the side of an arithmetical triangle, formed by placing above each other rows of units, increasing in number from one to seventeen, the whole sum of these units is one hundred and fifty-three: since one and two make three; three and three, six; six and four, ten; ten and five, fifteen; fifteen and six, twenty-one; and so on: continue this up to seventeen, the total one hundred and fifty-three.”[59]

The foregoing examples are neither isolated nor peculiar. They represent fully and fairly the prevailing methods of exegesis, falsely so called. Such men shaped the faith and governed the thought of Christianity west of Palestine after the middle of the second century. Other fruitage of their system will be found in another chapter, in the Antinomian and anti-Sabbath doctrines by which the authority of Jehovah and His word were still further undermined. A careful examination of the entire group of “Christian writings” of the first five centuries shows that the age was uncritical and utterly wanting in the learning and habits of thought which prepare men to interpret the Bible. It was brought down to the level of the pagan books with which these men were familiar, both as to its authority and as to the methods by which its meaning was sought. Indeed, its real meaning[67] was not sought; the main effort was to show how it accorded with pagan books, and with the philosophical speculations which were popular. If, in any case, it was recognized as the supreme authority, the prevailing methods of interpretation obscured and perverted its meaning, so that men were not governed by what it really taught. Men who did not have clear and correct views of the Bible could not impart them to others. The masses did not possess copies of the Bible, and could not have interpreted it critically had it been in their hands. Killen declares these Fathers to be untrustworthy and incompetent interpreters of the Bible. These are his words:

“Earlier writers, such as Origen or Clement of Alexandria, frequently expounded the word of God in the way in which Neo-Platonists explained the pagan mythology—that is, they regard it as an allegory from which they extract whatever meaning happens to be most agreeable to themselves—and too many continued to adopt the same system of interpretation. But among the Fathers of the fourth century there were some who followed sounder principles of exegesis, and carefully investigated the literal sense of the holy oracles. Still, comparatively few of the Christian writers even of this period are very valuable as biblical interpreters. These authors occasionally contradict themselves, and, without acknowledgment, copy most slavishly from each other. Jerome argues that the great duty of an expositor is, not so much to exhibit[68] the mind of the Spirit, as to set before the reader the conflicting sentiments of interpreters....

“But though we discover in these Fathers so many traces of human infirmity, we must make allowance for the time in which they lived, and for the prejudices in which they were educated. Christianity passed through a terrible ordeal when it suddenly became the religion of the Empire. Society was by no means prepared for so vast a change. Already the Gospel had suffered sadly from adulteration, and now it was more rapidly deteriorated. Many who were quite uninstructed became pastors of the Church; pagan forms and ceremonies were incorporated with its ritual; pagan superstitions were recognized as principles of action; and pagan philosophy corrupted theological science. A dense cloud of errors soon overspread the whole spiritual firmament.”[60]

This chapter may well close with the following quotation from Uhlhorn, which shows how nearly Christianity was ruined through the prevalence of this gnostic allegorizing system, which obscured or perverted the meaning of the Scriptures, and destroyed their authority. He says:

“I have already called gnosticism the antipode of montanism. Such indeed it was. If montanism was over-narrow, here we find an all-embracing breadth. Gnosticism knew how to utilize every mental product of the age. Elements, Oriental and Occidental, in a curious medley, philosophy and popular superstition—all were[69] collected and used as materials for the building of gnostic systems. The myths of the heathen may be found side by side with the Gospel histories, which were only myths to the gnostic. One proof text is taken from the Bible, and the next from Homer or Hesiod, and both alike are used by an allegorical exegesis to support the ready-made creations of the author’s fancy. Breadth enough, too, in morality; no trembling fear of pollution, no anxious care to exclude the influence of heathenism. It was no fiction inspired by the hatred of heresy, when the gnostics were said to be very lax in their adhesion to the laws of morality. Many of them expressly permitted flight from persecution.

“Gnosticism extended far and wide in the second century. There was something very imposing in those mighty systems which embraced heaven and earth. How plain and meagre in comparison seemed simple Christianity! There was something remarkably attractive in the breadth and liberality of gnosticism. It seemed completely to have reconciled Christianity with culture. How narrow the Christian Church appeared! Even noble souls might be captivated by the hope of winning the world over to Christianity in this way; while the multitude was attracted by the dealing in mysteries with which the gnostic sects fortified themselves by offering mighty spells and amulets, thus pandering to the popular taste. Finally some were no doubt drawn in by the fact that less strictness of life was required, and that they could thus be Christians without suffering martyrdom.

“But the victory of gnosticism would have been the ruin of Christianity. Christianity would have split into a hundred sects, its line of division from heathenism[70] would have been erased, its inmost essence would have been lost, and instead of producing something really new, it would have become only an element of the melting mass, an additional ingredient in the fermenting chaos of religions which characterized the age.”[61]

When the fountain of formative Christianity was thus widely and early corrupted, what wonder that the banks of the stream are covered with pagan débris, and that the waters are yet turbid from its sediment?

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