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by on September 17, 2013

                                                                                          Allegorically Speaking

                                                                                             by Marco M. Pardi


When I was young my Jewish friends were fond of reciting aphorisms. One of these was, “Never ask a rabbi for the time unless you are ready for a lecture on the nature of the cosmos and the role time plays therein.”

Perhaps meant as a caution, I took it as encouragement to meet with a rabbi.  Confined within the mundane, I sought the portal to the mysterious. Although I never got to meet with a rabbi, at least not in the official sense, I quickly discovered the arcane joys of seeking the backdoor embedded in every word; if “time” opened onto cosmos, what else awaited?   

Over the years, studying languages became a hobby and at times a necessity.  And, as serious students quickly discover, mere translation is not only inadequate, it can also be deeply misleading.  An occasionally troublesome issue within a language Family, such as the Romance languages, translation of words without full understanding of their cultural matrix often leads to gross errors of misinterpretation from one language Family to another.

In making this point to college classes of Anthropology students being introduced to linguistics I use examples drawn from culturally based texts with which most are familiar.  A marvelous example is the collection of writings called the Bible.  

Transliterated from centuries of oral traditions among a non-literate people, the writings can be characterized as partly historical, partly hagiographic, and partly pedagogical. Mere translation, particularly across the cultural divide separating the Semitic cultures from the Greco-Roman and later the Anglo-Saxon cultures should be an obvious “Freshman mistake”. Yet, there are still those who cling to unquestioning belief in the inerrancy of literal translation.

At least in the West, one factor the Bible had going for it was the systemic elimination of other texts and even people who would see or portray the cosmos differently. Another factor was, and sadly still is the tendency of the K-12 school system to teach “history” is discrete regional/national chapters, with little if any elucidation of the shared undercurrents. Some students think Marco Polo discovered China; few students know that Alexander’s armies penetrated to India. Consequently, the deep and rich exchange of ideas throughout the “Old World”, including the undeniably Buddhist undertones within the Sermon on the Mount are largely unknown.

In keeping with the drive toward “fundamentalism”, the position that each and every word of a sacred text is literally the inerrant word of a divine being, a sub-field of archaeology has arisen: Biblical archaeology. For many, it appears the underlying ethos is that discovery of the physical truth of an account proves the truth of the divine author’s existence.

This is a curious position inasmuch as we have encyclopedic knowledge of the archaeology of Pharaonic Egypt, but I do not see much current push for the worship of Ra.

However, examination of the cultural matrix for which the Hebrew language is a voice elucidates a form of communication which is exquisitely distinct from the reductionist Greek materialism through which that voice would later be translated.  The cultural substrate of the Hebrew language is fundamentally symbolic, allegorical, and, to some, even oblique in its preference for suggesting the way rather than immutably carving out the way for the listener, or reader, to ponder the deeper meaning of the message within the utterance.          

Thus, when we remove identifiers and read a story of the confrontation of two brothers, one a farmer and one a herdsman, and how the farmer killed the herdsman (who clearly was the “good, traditional son” favored by the divine) most in the modern West would think of Cain and Abel, not Romulus and Remus, of whom the same story is told.  Further, those who attach to the historical validity of the event entirely miss the point. It is a sorrowful story of the passing of an old and cherished way of life before a new and uncertain way of life; it is the transformation from pastoralism to agriculture, and all the fundamentally life changing ramifications therein.  

Some “fringe” literalists have spent hours and dollars trying to recreate just the right notes on a ram’s horn to crack and dislodge blocks erected into a wall.  After all, the book says Joshua did it at Jericho…..right?

Hebrew culture tell us that the shofar, the ram’s horn, was far more than an instrument used in battle; it was and is a primary symbol of the wellspring from which the Hebrew culture emerged: Pastoralism.  Nomadic pastoralists encountering a walled city can mean only one thing: A dynamic confrontation of the nomadic, open range way of life with the settled, territorial way of life. This is a confrontation of pastoralism and agriculture. Any student of the American West knows the history of the range wars between cattle and sheep herders and settled farmers. Barbed wire arose for a reason.

Lacking barbed wire, and needing an accommodation between these two opposing cultures, the Hebrews supposedly marched around the walled town for several days blowing their shofroth (pl.) until “the walls came tumbling down”.   

While biblical literalists might blow their lungs out, those who understand Hebrew culture might look at this another way. The blowing of the shofar is symbolic of the broadcasting of the principles, values, and beliefs of the culture. The collapse of the walls is the collapse of the resistance to this culture; an accommodation was reached.

Later writers of this folklore (pastoralists are commonly non-literate), especially Greek or Greek influenced, would embellish with glorious accounts of a battle won and enemies slain. Incidentally, as we will see shortly, Hebrew culture also portrayed the loss of one’s faith as death. Instead of bashed brains strewn about, there may well have been changed minds. Even the most spurious efforts at “biblical archaeology” have failed to document damage at Jericho beyond the earthquakes common to the region. 

What Christians call “the New Testament” is a more frank attempt at hagiography, mainly of “Jesus” (Greek), Jeshuah (Aramaic), or Joshua (Hebrew). But, again, hagiography can be overt to the point of ridiculous or it can be so subtle as to float over the readers. “Do not cast your pearls before swine” comes to mind.

Most historians agree that Jesus probably did exist, though there are strong reasons for doubt. One reason for doubt is the rather formulaic structure of his biography. Entries such as virgin birth and escape from persecution as an infant, each easy to understand, were standard Must Haves for the resume of any serious hero.

In strongly patriarchal societies, where the female is viewed as a neutral vessel for the “seed” of the male. virgin birth signals an entirely new beginning, unadulterated by any mortal genitor. Escape from persecution in infancy signals the hand and intent of a divine power, foiling the often Draconian efforts of mere mortals to squelch a person/movement in its infancy. After all, the infant could not have been the instrument of its own delivery from danger.

Hebrew mythology weaves the threads of numerology throughout its fabric; Noah’s flood of 40 days and 40 nights, the Exodus and the subsequent 40 years in the wilderness; trials and tribulations. The tradition is continued in Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the desert, wherein he confronts Shaitan.

But water also plays a primary role, as well it should. Just as Genesis tells us that creation came forth from the watery, primordial Abyss, so too does the newborn emerge from the gushing waters of its mother’s hidden place. Traditional Judaism used the mikveh, a ritual immersion bath, to fully immerse a hitherto “unclean” person to be then brought forth as purified, a practice continued by some Christian sects as baptism. The clear implication being a symbolic re-enactment of the emergence from the “death” state of the primordial to the “life” state of the Word infused world.

Indeed, much Hebrew tradition points to the ethic that an unpurified person, or a person who has transgressed the many cleanliness laws, was viewed as “dead” in the social sense; it being important here to recognize that there was no distinction between religious view and social membership. They were one and the same. Again, not so unknown among other religions, whose members view unbelievers or apostates, even if family members, as “dead” to them.

So it seems quite plausible that Jesus, in his fame as a developing and eloquent rabbi, was called upon to “raise Lazarus from the dead.” The grotesque details attendant upon this scenario derive, in all likelihood, from Greek hagiographers not knowledgeable of the symbolism of Hebrew culture and enthusiastic to pump up the imagery of an actual life snatched from death as much as possible. He simply brought Lazarus back to the faith.

In another example of water being equated with the line between death and life, we read of him “walking on water” and admonishing his apostles to trust in him (his teachings) while tossed about on an angry sea. Perhaps being what many biblical scholars have called a reformist rabbi, it was certain that there would be social turmoil and efforts to get his followers to recant (the waves threatening the faith of his apostles). Walking above the waters is the symbolism for keeping his new interpretation of the faith, despite the efforts of the larger establishment to pull him and his followers back down into the greater body, the uniform sea of conformism.

Finally, we have the famous wedding feast at Cana.  Leaving aside the amusing problem of reconciling changing water into wine with the fundamentalist proscription of alcohol, we have an opportunity to consider this purported event from two perspectives.

In that era wine was consumed regularly not as a symptom of wanton dereliction but as a simple health measure. Even as it is today, the water in many parts of the Levant is suspect at least, if not outright dangerous. Wine was safer by far. It is therefore easy to see water, in that context, as a more transparently identifiable risk factor for illness and even death. And, symbolism is portable; the concept of risk to socio-religious integrity may be symbolized by a universally recognized association with danger – water, which has been drawn from polluted sources. It is possible to read that the wedding feast conversation was spiraling among the various guests into dangerous “waters”. The request to Jesus to do something about the “water”, to replenish and reinvigorate the wine, may well have been a request to utilize his eloquence to avert a conversational melt-down, to change the discourse from water to wine.

Another, and perhaps simpler interpretation comes from experiences many readers have had: psychic displacement.  How often have we been at parties, or wedding feasts, at which the central social lubricant ran dry; we ran out of wine or whatever formed the template for jovial interaction?  Invariably, people start saying, “It’s getting late….” and head for the door.  Once the movement has started it quickly swells into a full scale escape.

But, there have been times when someone at the party has been so charismatic, so engaging, that time seems to fly by and we suddenly wonder how long we have been out of wine. In effect, the water we have been drinking for the past few hours has been “wine like”; we’ve been psychically displaced from the prior focus, the wine, to the new focus, the captivating conversation we’ve been having.

Western hagiography of Jesus has been grounded in Western Aristotelian reductionism so thoroughly that it completely misses the point of cultural symbolism and allegory. It insists on some kind of magician. Instead of appreciating what must have been the profound teaching and conversational abilities of this individual, it asks us to believe there was a three year run of Israel’s Got Talent.

If Jesus existed, I’m guessing he was a person from whom I would gladly have asked the time.     

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  1. As always excellent reading and thought provoking. I am certain Jesus existed, just not a supernatural Jesus. It is amazing scholars have been debating about the translations and meanings of the stories in the Bible since the beginning of the Bible. And I suppose that will continue for all of time.


  2. Thank you, Mary. As you know, people still kill each other over these interpretations. Marco


  3. Rose Palmer permalink

    Once again you amaze me with your depth of knowledge and logical train of thought. I have long believed that the Bible was more a collection of allegory than a recitation of literal history, but you have put your strong knowledge of history, language, and cultural diversity to create an undeniably reasonable explanation of these stories. What was once simple belief is now knowledge.
    I’ve never been religious by any conventional definition, seeking instead to search for truth in all parts of my existence. Did Jesus exist? I tend to believe that he was a wise and caring teacher, not entirely unlike yourself. I’d love to hear what he had to say; I have no doubt he would add much to my truth.


    • Thank you, Rose. I find the subject matter fascinating, and am often saddened in seeing people entirely miss the point. Marco


  4. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    Splendid, thoughtful and informative and very well structured. I am going to find the time to pay more attention to your blog from now on; I can learn a lot.


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