Allegorical readings of literary or religious texts always begin as counterreadings, starting with denial or negation, challenging the literal sense: "You have read the text this way, but I will read it differently." David Dawson insists that ancient allegory is best understood not simply as a way of reading texts, but as a way of using non-literal readings to reinterpret culture and society. Here he describes how some ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian interpreters used allegory to endorse, revise, and subvert competing Christian and pagan world views.
This reassessment of allegorical reading emphasizes socio-cultural contexts rather than purely formal literary features, opening with an analysis of the pagan use of etymology and allegory in the Hellenistic world and pagan opposition to both techniques. The remainder of the book presents three Hellenistic religious writers who each typify distinctive models of allegorical interpretation: the Jewish exegete Philo, the Christian Gnostic Valentinus, and the Christian Platonist Clement. The study engages issues in the fields of classics, history of Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, literary criticism and theory, and more broadly, critical theory and cultural criticism.
David Dawson is Assistant Professor of Religion at Haverford College.
"This approach to allegory, which discriminates among past disputes and present positions, will confirm . . . that the varying sociocultural functions of allegory . . . needed the fuller exposition Dawson has given them."—Frank Kermode
"During the last few years scholars have, really for the first time, begun to take allegorical interpretation seriously as a subject of study. Dawson's book is the best so far. He is careful to situate allegory historically as a cultural practice. Allegory is not a technique of willful misreading or subjective play. It is the way ancient Alexandria, made up as it was of multiple conflicting traditions and incompatible forms of life, made sense of itself. Dawson's close study of how ancient writers actually worked—how they studied and thought—is a model of historical and critical research. Classicists, literary and cultural critics, biblical scholars and theologians of every tradition will have much to learn from this superb and beautifully written book."—Gerald L. Bruns, University of Notre Dame