One of the things you have to come to terms with when studying early Christianity is allegorical exegesis. Most academics don’t care for it (or actively despise it), but most of the early Christians had no such inhibitions. They saw Christ hiding behind every corner of the Old Testament. Origen was known to embrace apparent contradictions on the surface level to find the eternal meaning of the text. Of course, it wasn’t just Alexandrian flights of fancy where we find allegory. Paul tells the Galatians, after doing some OT exposition on the Hagar and Sarah, that “these things may be understood allegorically.” Likewise, he tells the Corinthians, “these things [the stories of the Israelites in the desert] happened as models for us, so that we wouldn’t desire evil, as they did.” Hebrews is in many ways, one extended meditation on Psalm 110, Jesus being a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus himself, of course, actively modeled his own work after those of the prophets, and employed parables (allegorical stories) in much of his teaching.
So how do we properly appropriate allegory? There are all sorts of weird pitfalls. I come from a movement where OT texts are regularly interpreted “prophetically” to say some strange things (ie, whatever the pastor wants the text to say at the moment). Allegorical exegesis often is far more dependent on the ingenuity of the allegorist than the text as the author construed it.
On the other hand, we are invited, even commanded, to read the Old Testament in light of Jesus. This doesn’t mean we can’t read them for historical content, or reconstruct what they would meant to their original audience (even if such a reconstruction is terribly fragile most of the time), but can we give these readings (valuable though they are) hermeneutical priority when “the reality, however, if found in Christ” ? Epistemologically, do we not have to start with Christ and work back into the OT, especially as Gentile believers?
Honestly, I love reading the OT through the eyes of the early Church. While I might be able to appreciate the history and language of early Christianity without a particularly strong faith, I don’t think I could ever appreciate the Old Testament without faith to spur me on. The early Church has been my entry way into the Old Testament. I never understood or enjoyed the Psalms until I started reading them in Greek, with John Chrysostom and Eusebius of Caesarea to guide me. I know one day I’ll learn Hebrew and be able to appreciate the OT without necessarily reading it along with the early Church. However, I’m quite content until then to read the OT in Greek, with some of the most brilliant saints of old to teach me.
So I suppose I’m a son in search of an answer. How do we embrace allegory without going off the deep end? How do affirm both the “original meaning” (insofar as it can be known), and what Christians down through the ages have seen it pointing to? What is the relationship between the two, and which has primacy?
Thoughts are welcome!