Within the context of his theological argument in his letter to the Galatians, rejecting circumcision as necessary for salvation, Paul employs the contrast between Hagar and Ishmael and Sarah and Isaac within Abraham’s household. In Galatians 4:24 he says “which things are to be interpreted allegorically” (hatina estin allēgoroumena). However, most people when they read the word “allegory” tend to think of myth or fictional story composed to express an entirely different level of meaning such as Pilgrim’s Progress or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. However, this was not what Paul meant when he chose to use this verb allēgorein to describe his interpretation of this story from Genesis.
According to Büchsel (TDNT, vol. 1, 260) the verb allēgorein first appears in the writings of the Jewish authors Philo and Josephus. The cognate noun similarly is used in first century A.D. Greek writers. The kind of interpretation defined by these terms was practiced for many centuries previously, but was referred to by the noun huponoia, indicating something that was hinted at, a suggestion. Within Stoicism particularly this method of interpretation was applied to the writings of Homer and the stories in Greek mythology to derive moral and cosmological meanings from the immoral and selfish antics of the gods.
So Paul did not invent either the Greek verb allēgorein or the method of interpreting essential, cultural/religious documents, such as Homer’s Illiad and The Odyssey. However, the terms seem to be coming into vogue at the time he was writing. In the centuries before Jesus appeared, Greek scholars and philosophers struggled with the characterization and escapades applied to the Greek pantheon. Some, such as Plato, went so far to urge the banning of Homer’s material from the education of youth because he refused to acknowledge it as the fountain of Greek knowledge about human and divine matters or medicine or warfare or politics or law. However, others were much more keen to rehabilitate and use the Homeric materials. Their apologetic for this was the practice of “allegory.” According to Folker Siegert (“Early Jewish Interpretation in a Hellenistic Style” — chapter four of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The History of Its Interpretation. Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (until 1300), edited by Magne Sæbo) they argued that Homer did know and express more information than his poetic expressions proposed, but one had to interpret his “enigmatic expression” (133). Many Greek writers considered Homer to be a poet inspired by the gods. The verb allēgorein means “to say one thing but mean another.” Heraclitus wrote a work in the first century A.D. about Homeric allegory. In it he defines allegory as “the trope which consists in speaking about one thing, but which in fact refers to another thing different from the one mentioned.” He regards Homer as a “theologian” who expresses religious, ethical and cosmological ideas through his poetry, but these ideas are conveyed by the story. The wise person presses behind these stories of human endeavour and heroism to discern Homer’s true intent. He wrote that “Homer is pitilessly charged with lack of respect towards divinity: all of his stories would be irreverent, unless we interpret them as allegories.” This interpretative tradition regarding the Homeric materials stretches back to the 5th or 6th century B.C.
When we come to the Jewish tradition, Philo represents the most advanced and sophisticated use of this Greek method of interpretation. However, we find examples in prior writings by Aristobulus and in the Epistle of Aristeas, both of which date to the mid-second century B.C. Philo applies this method specifically to the Mosaic corpus in his commentaries on the Pentateuch. He used both the verb and its cognate noun frequently. He wrote three treatises on Genesis entitled “Allegorical Interpretation.” In Legum Allegoria III.4 we find a good example of the way Philo used this interpretative technique. He comments on the text “Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…” (Genesis 3:8). He says that “were one not to take the language as figurative (allēgorēseie), it would be impossible to accept the statement, for God fills and penetrates all things and has left no spot void or empty of His presence.” Philo used allegorical interpretation to make sense of what otherwise in his view would be nonsense given Yahweh’s nature. Obviously Moses must have been communicating another message than what the literal language implies. So Philo says “it is possible to take it in this way. In the bad man the true opinion concerning God is hidden in obscurity, for he is full of darkness…” (III.7). In using this method Philo does not deny the reality of the text, but presumes that the writer intends to provoke the reader to deeper thought, “that you may think and interpret (allēgorēs)” (III.238).
Josephus both criticizes allegorical methods and employs them to his own advantage. He calls critics of Judaism such as Apollonius Monon who use allegorization to defend the actions of the Greek gods, “crazy fools” (Against Apion 2, 255). True Greek philosophers did not use “the worthless shifts to which the allegorists have resort.” He cites as proof Plato’s refusal to allow Homer’s epics to be studied in his proposed “republic.” In the introduction to his Jewish Antiquities (1.24-25) he admits that Moses, the lawgiver, “shrewdly veils in enigmas” some things, and “others he sets forth in solemn allegory (allēgorountos),” but “wherever straightforward speech was expedient, there he makes his meaning absolutely plain.” He resorts to allegory in his determination to defend the nature of the tabernacle’s construction, furniture, and priestly garb. “Every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe” (Jewish Antiquities 3, 180). Note the parallels between Josephus’ characterization of Moses and Herclitus’ characterization of Homer.
When Paul incorporates the story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael and interprets it as “allegory” in his argument, he is not denying the literal reality of these events. Abraham was an historical figure, he married Sarah and Hagar was his concubine, these women had sons by Abraham, and Ishmael was Isaac’s senior. Paul also regarded Moses as a prophet and the Genesis narrative was Holy Scripture, inspired by God’s Spirit. Important though the literal story might be to the understanding of Israel’s history, Moses intended to communicate more than these historical events, otherwise why would Moses have included these incidents in Scripture? There must be another message than what the literal language implies — as I noted earlier. Paul accesses this other meaning by applying his general knowledge of God’s purposes in the Messiah Jesus to this Genesis text. He invites the Galatian audience to discern this other meaning with him and affirm its truth.
In using allegorical interpretation Paul assumes that Jews and non-Jews in his audience would be familiar with this mode of discerning meaning in a religious, literary text. Educated non-Jews would be introduced to this method of literary interpretation in their studies of Homer. Presumably educated Jews would have been introduced to this method of interpretation in their study of the Torah. So when Paul used this method in Galatians 4, he would be viewed as employing a valid, honoured and sophisticated means for interpreting sacred scripture. In fact he may have used it to earn more respect from those who opposed him, by demonstrating his grasp of Moses’ intent, an intent which others did not perceive or understand. Not only had Yahweh spoken about the Messiah and his mission in his specific promises to Abraham (cf. Galatians 3). Yahweh also had indicated the shift in covenants through the narrative of Sarah and Hagar and Abraham’s two sons.