A Tale of Two Fishermen: Peter, Jesus, and the Meaning of 153 Fish

people standing on brown wooden dock

If you have ever fished, or known someone who has, then you know the temptation to embellish. What began as a small catch, becomes a medium catch, becomes a large catch. Maybe this is a stereotype, but fishermen are notorious for letting their stories grow over time.

The same can be true with Scripture, especially in books like Revelation, Daniel, or John. When a biblical author uses symbolism to portray his message, the true words of God can be enlarged, exaggerated, or embellished over time.

This method of embellishment often is often associated with something called allegory, as interpreters of Scripture take something in text of Scripture and interpret it by something outside of Scripture. This extra-biblical ‘thing,’ might be a philosophy, a moral imperative, or a doctrinal truth. But what it is not is something that immediately comes from the text of Scripture.

Historically, this allegorical method of interpretation has taken a number like 153—the number of fish in Peter’s catch (John 21:11)—and turned the fish into a symbol for something else. For instance, Augustine, who is at times helpful and at other times allegorical, derived from this number a proof text for the Trinity (See Klink, John, 902). How so?  

Well if you add 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 all the way up to 17, you arrive at the total of 153. One hundred fifty-three is a perfect triangle number for 17. Even more, when you add the 10 Commandments to 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, you get 17, which gives you a triangular number of 153 that symbolizes the Trinity.

It’s as simple as that. Can’t you see it? No? Neither can I. Continue reading

A Text Filled with Types: 10 Things About Joshua 5–6

michel-porro-vfaFxFltAvA-unsplashAs we continue to work our way through the book of Joshua, here are ten things about Joshua 5–6.

1. The structure sets the action.

In every passage, the structure of the narrative sets the direction for the action. So far in Joshua, we have observed multiple chiastic structures (“narrative arcs”) that have organized the events of the Joshua 1–5. In Joshua 5:13–6:27, however, there doesn’t seem to be a chiasm, but we can make a handful of observations to help us see the story.

First, Joshua 5:13–15 should be read with Joshua 6, especially verses 1–5. Verses 2–5 present the words of Yahweh that come from the Angel of the Lord in Joshua 5:13–15. In this reading, Joshua 6:1 serves as a parenthesis  highlighting the condition of Jericho.

Second, there are three literary patterns that add to the drama. Ken Mathews lists these in his commentary:

(1) First is the prediction/fulfillment pattern. The Lord predicts “the wall. . . will collapse” (6:5), and the prediction is fulfilled when “the wall collapsed” (6:20). (2) Second is the familiar command/obedience pattern. The Lord instructs Joshua (6:2-5), and Joshua relates the instructions to the people, who obey (6:6—14), resulting in the destruction of the city (6:15—27). (3) Last is the six-plus-one pattern. The number “seven” occurs eleven times. The pattern recalls creation’s seventh day—the day of consecration. (Mathews, Joshua, 48–49)

Third, the LORD’s words in verses 2–5 can be divided into directions for days 1–6 (vv. 2–4a) and day 7 (vv. 4b–5). This division is followed by a division in chapter, where verses 6–11 tell us the events of the first day and verses 12–14 tell us the events of days 2–6. All told, these verses should be read together. Next, verses 15–24 recount the climactic events of day 7, with verse 15 highlighting the seven circles, verses 16–19 giving explicit instructions about the city, and verses 20–24 following those directions, step by step. Continue reading

Does Paul Interpret Moses Allegorically? A Few Lexical Notes on Galatians 4:24

allegoryNow this was written allegorically: these women are two covenants.
One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.[1]
– Galatians 4:24 –

What does ἀλληγορούμενα mean in Galatians 4:24?

To answer the question about the lexical meaning of ἀλληγορούμενα is difficult, because it is only used once in the New Testament. That being said, I think we can say a few things, acknowledging that this word and its immediate context (Gal 4:21–31) is a hotbed for interpretive disagreement. That said, here are a few notes on the matter which came from a recent Sunday School class. Continue reading

Learning to Read Moses’ Allegory: Matthew Emerson on Galatians 4:21–31 and Paul’s Reading of the Pentateuch

paul.jpegIn his illuminating article on Galatians 4:21–31, Matthew Emerson shows how we should learn to read Moses from the Apostle Paul. In a passage that typically is used as an example for how to not read the Old Testament like Paul, Emerson makes the opposite case. And I believe he is exactly right.

In his article,“Arbitrary Allegory, Typical Typology, or Intertextual Interpretation? Paul’s Use of the Pentateuch in Galatians 4:21–31,” he lists a number of historical and contemporary approaches to Paul’s use of allegoreō in Galatians 4:24. In what follows, I will list some of his findings (all the quotations are from his article) and summarize his compelling argument for learning how to read Moses from Paul in Galatians 4:21–31. If you can get to his article, I encourage you to read it in full.

Continue reading

On “Speaking Allegorically”: An Engagement with Friedrich Büschel in the TDNT


[Here is the first in a few blogposts following up from today’s Sunday School lesson on Galatians 4:21–31 at Occoquan Bible Church.]

In the first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Friedrich Büchsel notes how “allegorical exposition” is common among ancient people including “Indians, Mohammedans, Greeks, Jews and Christians.”[1] In particular, allegorical interpretation arose when something in the text brought modern offense, as is the case of Homer. This too carried over in Christian interpretation. Where various Old Testament texts seemed to oppose accepted theology, allegorical interpretations were made to smooth out the differences. Büschel notes, “In method, . . .  the Jewish and Christian interpretation of the OT is dependent on this allegorical exposition of Homer.”[2]

Büschel goes on to report Aristobulus as the first Jewish interpreter to adopt an allegorical approach and he learned it from the Greeks: “It can hardly be doubted that he took over the allegorical method from the Greeks, for he is saturated with Greek culture and uses the same method to interpret Greek poetry.”[3] Still, the greatest name associated with allegory is that of Philo. Philo may have been influenced by Greek culture but never at the expense of the literal sense. If anything, he upheld the literal sense of the Law and then went beyond the literal sense. This kind of polyvalent approach adumbrates that of other known ‘allegorists’ like Origen. In his own day, Büschel calls Philo “a theologian of the centre who avoids extremes and can combine diverse elements.”[4] In fact, it would be misleading to label Philo an extreme if that implied he forsook the legal requirements of the Law. Rather, as Büschel concludes,

In this matter we should bear in mind the highly complicated nature of Philo’s theology. It maintains an artificial balance between a legal and literalistic Judaism on the one side and an intellectual and spiritualistic mysticism on the other, never inclining too much to either the one or the other, but keeping the two in equilibrium.[5]

While Greek approaches to literature influenced Aristobulus and Philo, it also impacted the Jews in Palestine. For instance, one positive fruit of this allegorical approach was the inclusion of Song of Songs in the canon. “Only by means of allegorising could this collection of love songs be understood as a representation of the love which binds Israel to God.”[6] Additionally, the nature of “allegory” is different in Palestine. “Among the Palestinians allegorical interpretations are both rarer and less arbitrary; the distance between the literal meaning and the allegorical is much less.”[7] This difference stems from the Palestinians distance from Greco-Roman philosophy and from their closer adherence to the text. Nevertheless, it is apparent that among Jews there is a polyvalent approach to the text (“For the Palestinians, too, it is in keeping with the dignity of Scripture that it has many meanings”[8]), and thus an openness to reading the Scriptures allegorically. Continue reading

Irenaeus of Lyons: A Faithful Church Father

A Man Worthy of Consideration and Imitation (Heb. 13:7)

After surveying Irenaeus Against Heresies it is evident that the Bishop of Lyons is a man committed to Scriptures and thus worthy of emulation in many ways. His vehement opposition to Gnostic heresies, his unwavering commitment to the Word of God as authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient, and his robust biblical theology are examples worthy of ponder and imitate. In his grasp of the Bible and in his bold proclamation thereof, Irenaeus incarnates Titus 1:9 admonition to elders, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

Nevertheless, there are things that Irenaeus did in his exposition of Scripture that modern expositors should be cautious to repeat. First, Irenaeus’ habit of allegorizing details within narrative passages is not a legitimate hermeneutic procedure. Finding more than three allegorical meanings to the ax head in Elisha narrative, and comparing the three spies sent to Jericho to the Trinity[1] are spurious interpretations at best and potentially harmful.

Second, his pattern of making typology fit the most intricate detail of the event is problematic (i.e. Lazarus’ clothes, clean and unclean animals). Though Irenaeus was constrained from major error because of a strong apostolic doctrine, those who have weak doctrine and strong imaginations will be the next generation of Gnostics, or liberals, or postmoderns. Patience, humility to admit we don’t know everything,[2] and increasing textual evidence based on ongoing exegesis must be required for all typological interpretations.

Finally, there is wisdom in focusing on the main details of the Gospel and not on peripheral non-essentials. In a handful of instances, Irenaeus taught peculiar doctrines (i.e. Christ living to the age of 50; six days of creation correspondent to six millennia) by defining one passage of Scripture with another, that in all likelihood should not have been combined. The causes of this are manifold, but the principle lesson is that doctrinal formulation should be founded on the clearest and most abundant biblical evidence. Such Scriptural data must recognize the unfolding nature of progressive revelation and form its doctrines in accordance with the canonical shape of the Bible.

Today, the church stands on the shoulders of men like Irenaeus, and benefits from his stalwart commitment to the truth and the right interpretation of Scripture. Yet, there is one other aspect of his theological enterprise that should not go unnoticed. At the end of Books III and IV, Irenaeus prays for his opponents. He was not cold theologian, but a doctrinally-committed pastor whose theology shaped his prayer and his polemics.  This too, and perhaps, this most is worthy of emulation.  I fear too much pugilism and too little prayer is offered today in debates that surround interpretation of the Bible.

So, as we close our evaluation of Irenaeus of Lyons, may we give thanks to God for this faithful saint and consider his life and imitate his biblical faith.[3]

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

[1] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[2] Something that Irenaeus demonstrated in his own position of ecclesial authority (see. Adversus haereses 2.28.3).

[3] For the Gnostics, Irenaeus prays, “We do indeed pray that these men may not remain in the pit which they themselves have dug, but separate themselves from a Mother of this nature, and depart from Bythus, and stand away from the void, and relinquish the shadow; and that they, being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ maybe formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all. We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves” (Adversus haereses 3.25.7).