Bible Interpretation Quotes

These quotes are a peek into the way early Christians interpreted the Bible. After reading through the writings of the early churches for many years, I find their approach to the Old Testament (though not the new) to be very figurative. These are examples.

Rose Creek Village Woods"This is the path. Walk in it." (Is. 30:21)

Pseudo-Barnabas, A.D. 80-130

Abraham, the first who enjoined circumcision, looked forward in spirit to Jesus and practiced that rite, having received the teachings of the three letters. For [the Scripture] says, "And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household." (This is a combination of Genesis 14:14 with Genesis 17:26-27)

     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 Ι (iota), and Eight by Η (eta). You have Jesus [the first two letters of Jesus in Greek, which is Iesous). And because the cross was to express grace by the letter Τ(tau), he says also, "Three Hundred." He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one [Τ].

     He knows this, who 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 you are worthy. (Letter of Barnabas 9)

[God] points to the cross of Christ in another prophet, who says, "And when shall these things be accomplished? And the Lord says, 'When a tree shall be bent down, and again arise, and when blood shall flow out of wood.'" [from an unknown apocryphal book]. Here again you have an intimation concerning the cross, and the one who would be crucified.

     Yet again he speaks of this in Moses, when Israel was attacked by strangers [Ex. 17:8-16]. 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 [by raising his hands], and of the One about to suffer on it. For unless 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 stood 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 he let down his hands again, they were again destroyed. For what reason? That they might know that they could not be saved unless they put their trust in him [others read "the cross" here]. (Letter of Barnabas 12)

Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150

Pray that above all things the gates of light may be opened to you because these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 7)

"The offering of fine flour, sirs," I said, "which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist [i.e., communion or Lord's supper; Eucharist means thanksgiving]. (Dialogue with Trypho 41)

The prescription that the twelve bells [Ex. 28:33, though Scripture doesn't give the number of bells] be attached to the [robe] of the high priest, which hung down to the feet, was a symbol of the twelve apostles. They depend on the power of Christ, who is the eternal Priest, and it is through their voice that all the earth has been filled with the glory and grace of God and of his Christ. Therefore, David also say, "Their sound has gone forth into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world" [Ps. 19:4]. (Dialogue with Trypho 42)

For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years [of life; he died at 930 years old]. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, "The day of the Lord is as a thousand years," is connected with the subject. (Dialogue with Trypho 81)

Atehnagoras, A.D. 177

We are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it. (A Plea for the Christians 35)

Irenaeus, A.D. 183 – 186

[The gnostics] gather their views by reading from things that are not Scripture. To use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand. They attempt to adapt the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles to their own peculiar assertions with an air of probability ... In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art of adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

   Their behavior is like someone who takes a beautiful image of a king, constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, then separates this likeness of the man into pieces, rearranges the gems, and fits them together into the form of a dog or of a fox—and that but poorly executed. They then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed. They point to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but which have now been transferred by the latter artist, with bad effect, to the shape of a dog. In this way they exhibit the jewels and deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and they persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. (Against Heresies I:8:1)

From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death in obedience to his Father on the same day on which Adam died when he disobeyed God. He died on the same day on which he ate. For God said, "On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death." The Lord, therefore, recapitulating this day in himself, underwent his sufferings on the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, the day in which man was created. Thus, he granted him a second creation by means of his suffering, which is the one that comes out of death. And there are some as well who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year, for since "a day of the Lord is as a thousand years," he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing the sentence of his sin. (Against Heresies V:23:2)

Clement of Alexandria, c. A.D. 190

The first man … succumbed to pleasure, for the serpent allegorically signifies pleasure crawling on its belly, earthly wickedness nourished for fuel to the flames. (Exhortation to the Heathen 11)

And the Instructor, as I think, very beautifully says, through Moses: "If any one die suddenly [near a person who has taken a Nazarite vow], immediately the head of his consecration shall be polluted, and shall be shaved" [Num. 6:9], designating involuntary sin as sudden death. And He says that it pollutes by defiling the soul. Therefore he prescribes the cure with all speed, advising the head to be instantly shaven; that is, counselling the locks of ignorance which shade the reason to be shorn clean off, so that reason (whose seat is in the brain), being left bare of the dense stuff of vice, may speed its way to repentance. (The Instructor, Bk. I, ch. 2)

Origen, A.D. 220-250

Origen has not just quotes, but a long passage on Bible interpretation, and I have made a page discussing his ideas.

It is about God—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that these men, filled with the Divine Spirit, mainly write. It next followed, necessarily, that they should instruct mortals by divine teaching … and then should tell us what this world is and why it was created, and from where the great and terrible wickedness which covers the earth had sprung.

   Since, then, it was the intention of the Holy Spirit to enlighten [only] those holy souls who had devoted themselves to the service of the truth with regard to these and similar subjects, the following purpose was kept in view. … For the sake those who either could not or would not give themselves to this labor and toil by which they would deserve to be instructed in … things of such value and importance, [God purposed] to wrap up and conceal … in ordinary language—under the covering of some history and narrative of visible things—hidden mysteries. (De Principiis IV:1:14)

Therefore, the narrative of the visible creation is introduced, along with the creation and formation of the first man, then the descendants which followed from him in succession … In addition, the description of battles is given in a wonderful manner … by which certain unexplainable mysteries are made known to those who know how to investigate statements of that kind.

   By an admirable discipline of Wisdom, the Law of truth, even the prophets, is implanted in the Scriptures of the Law … as a kind of covering and veil of spiritual truths. This is what we have called "the body of Scripture" so that in this way what we have called the "covering of the letter," woven by the art of Wisdom, might be capable of edifying and profiting many, while others derive no benefit. (De Principiis  IV:1:14)

But if in all instances of this "covering" the logical connection and order of the Law had been preserved, we would certainly not believe … that anything else was contained in it except what was indicated on the surface. So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks—interruptions—to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle [of the narratives] certain impossibilities and incongruities. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

In this way, the very interruption of the narrative might … present an obstacle to the reader, so that he might refuse to acknowledge the way that leads to an ordinary meaning, and—being excluded and barred from it—we might be called to the beginning of another way, so that … passing to a loftier and more sublime road, [God] might lay open the immense breadth of Divine Wisdom. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit so that when we find that events lying on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to investigate the truth that is more deeply concealed and to a meaning worthy of God in the Scriptures, which we believe to be inspired by him. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

So that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture.

   Now who is there, pray, who is possessed of understanding, who will regard the statement as appropriate the first day, the second, and the third, in which both evening and morning are mentioned, happened without sun, moon, and stars? The first day was even without a sky! (De Principiis IV:1:16)

No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the  afternoon in paradise and that Adam lay hidden under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture so that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will obviously cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. (De Principiis IV:1:16)

It is very easy for anyone who wishes to gather out of holy Scripture what is indeed recorded as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having reasonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account. (De Principiis IV:1:16)

Let no one entertain the suspicion that we do not believe any history in Scripture to be real because we suspect certain events related in it not to have taken place. Nor [let him suppose] that no precepts of the law are to be taken literally, because we consider certain of them, in which either the nature or possibility of the case so requires, incapable of being observed. Nor [let him suppose] that we do not believe those predictions which were written of the Savior to have been fulfilled in a manner palpable to the senses. Nor that his commandments are not to be literally obeyed. We have to state in response, therefore, since we clearly hold such an opinion, that the truth of the history may and ought to be preserved in the majority of instances.

    For the passages which hold good when accepted historically are much more numerous than those which contain a purely spiritual meaning. (De Principiis IV:1:19)

I have no doubt that in numerous instances an attentive reader will hesitate between whether this history or that can be considered literally true or not and whether this or that precept should be obeyed according to the letter or not. Therefore, great pains and labors are to be employed until every reader reverentially understands that he is dealing with Divine and not human words inserted in the sacred books. (De Principiis IV:1:19)

So that we may be taught that the world was originated, and not suppose that God made it in time, prophecy adds: "This is the book of the generation; also of the things in them, when they were created, in the day that God made heaven and earth" [Gen 2:4]. For the expression "when they were created" intimates an indefinite and dateless production. But the expression "in the day that God made," that is, in and by which God made "all things," and "without which not even one thing was made" [Jn. 1:3], points out the activity exerted by the Son. As David says, "This is the Day which the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it" [Ps. 118:24]. That is, because of the knowledge imparted by him, let us celebrate the divine festival, for the Word that throws light on things hidden, and by whom each created thing came into life and being, is called Day. (Miscellanies 6:16)

Augustine, c. A.D. 400

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according too a figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic [1 Cor. 10:11]. And he explains the statement in Genesis, And they shall be two in one flesh as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church [Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:32]. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis ch. 1, as found in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 41)

The world was made simultaneously with time—that is, if change and motion were created in the world's creation, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, for us to conceive, and hom much more [difficult] for us to explain! (City of God, 11:6)

George MacDonald, 1850-1900

Knowing that you do not heed his Word, why should I heed your explanation of it? You do not his will, and so you cannot understand him. (The Truth in Jesus [Minneapolis, MN: BethanyHouse; 2007] p. 67)

Philip Schaff, A.D. 1890

[Paul] was quite familiar with the typical and allegorical methods of interpretation; and he occasionally and incidentally uses Scriptural arguments, or illustrations rather, which strike a sober scholar as far-fetched and fanciful, though they were quite conclusive to a Jewish reader. [Footnote references the seed vs. seeds argument in Gal. 3:16; allegorical interpretation of Hagar and Sarag in Gal. 4; and the rock in the wilderness in 1 Cor. 10.] (History of the Christian Church, vol. I, sec. 30)

N.T. Wright, 1997

Thinking the thoughts of any great writer after him or her is a risky and tricky business. The best we can often do is an approximate guess. But the measure of success must always be to ask the question: does looking at Paul in a particular way illuminate passages that were previously puzzling? Does it enable his letters to gain a new coherence both with their particular situation and with one another? Does it give us a big overall picture of what Paul was about, without doing volence to the little details? Does it actually enhance the significance of those details? When we look at the treatment Paul has received in the twentieth century, we find again and again that the answer to all these questions is No. Gains in one area are balanced all too frequently by losses in another. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 12)

[Albert] Schweitzer bequeathed to us, in a nutshell, the four questions that are always asked about Paul.

  • Where do we put Paul in the history of first-century religion?
  • How do we understand his theology, its starting point and centre?
  • How do we read the individual letters, getting out of them what Paul himself put into them (the scholars' word for this task is 'exegesis', as opposed to 'eisegesis', which means putting in a  fresh meaning that Paul did not intend)?

And, what is the pay-off, the result, in terms of our own life and work today?

History, theology, exegesis and application: all writers on Paul implicitly or explicitly engage with these four questions. (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 14)

Michael S. Heiser, 2012

God didn‘t really fight a literal dragon at the beginning of creation and use parts of it to build heaven and earth[Ps. 74:13-14]. Rather, these are images that convey important ideas. The people of the biblical world knew nothing of physical science, and the biblical writers provide no coherent scientific process for the creation. They merely assert who was responsible (Yahweh) and describe his acts with imagery familiar to all at the time. They did so deliberately and for good reasons.

   The biblical writers drew on the mythological epics of Ugarit and Babylon to provide their own answers to two theological questions: Who is king of the gods? and Who controls the forces of nature? The answer to both questions was Yahweh, the God of Israel. Using ancient Near Eastern mythological imagery was logical since the imagery was familiar throughout the known world. Inserting Yahweh into these scenes made the theological message unmistakable to both Jew and Gentile; it would not be missed by anyone in the ancient Near East. (The Myth That Is True, 2012 draft, PDF version, p. 17)

For readers of the Bible long after Adam and Eve, the creation narratives are designed to make us long for life with God—to long for the eschaton, when all the earth is Eden anew, when God returns to earth as its immediate, present ruler. This restoration of Eden is the ultimate storyline of the Bible. (ibid., p. 22)


Custom Search



The Early Church History Newsletter

Delivered monthly.

Back issues available.



Don't worry—your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you the Early Church History Newsletter.