In my quest to understand hermeneutics, I am at the stage of reviewing the different "layers of meaning" to the Scriptures. So far I have identified two layers; a "literal" meaning and a "divine" meaning.

To provide a classic example:

You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing. -Deuteronomy 29:4

  • This is an historical record of an actual command as to how the people of Israel should treat their oxen. As a result, this clearly had "literal" meaning.

In 1 Cor 9, Paul is talking about how ridiculous it is to expect a minister to serve at his own expense, and then supports his claim by quoting the above passage:

I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? -1 Corinthians 9:8-11

  • Paul explains that the reason that Deuteronomy 29:4 was written was to show us that ministers should receive support from those they are ministering to. As a result, it is easy to see that the Old command had a "divine" meaning - one that God was "concerned about."

I have just clearly shown from Scripture that there are at least 2 "layers" of meaning (at least in some cases).

I am curious if it can be clearly shown from Scripture that there are more than two "layers" of meaning?

I am not looking for claims which are overly theoretical or speculative - all answers should include clear Scriptural justification.

1 Answer 1


To answer how many layers there are in the scripture (even to say two) is to answer what the scriptures themselves do not say. *Strictly speaking these verses do not actually do much to establish a 'two layer' concept per se. A question is raised by simply saying; 'is it likely that God should be worried about the comfort and care of oxen, and be regardless of men?’ It is applying the accepted principle in one place, to a similar situation in another, where the principle applies even more. Paul does not say, 'Look there is a secret hidden layer here.' That would not support his argument at all. Rather he says 'Look, if this is true and obvious, how much more obvious is this also?’

Rather than provide an answer then I can leave a rough sketch of what has traditionally been thought simply for a good reference. I do not have in-depth knowledge on the subject; trust me when I say that my answer will make it seem that I understand more than I do!

I would like to draw attention to three distinct trends on the subject, Traditional Rabbinical, Philo’s Hellenistic, Catholic and Protestant. Ironically, in some ways Catholic has at times been similar to Hellenistic or Platonic and Traditional Protestant has in some ways been like Traditional Rabbinical. This should suffice for an answer for you can then draw you own conclusion.

Rabbinical Layers

For rabbinical views of biblical layers this is an excellent resource for Talmudical Hermeneutics. Here I will just pull out some excepts related to the 7 Rules of Hillel which were the first standard exegesis later followed by the 13 Rules of Rabbi Ishmael and the 32 Rules of rabbi Eliezer ben Jose HaGelili.

Seven Rules of Hillel:

Note: This is juts copying certain excerpts from this website with my comments in italics if the meaning does not seem clear. One needs to read the whole article for a better understanding.

(1) Kal va-Chomer (קל וחומר) -the conclusion may contain nothing more than is found in the premise

(2) Gezerah Shavah (גזירה שוה) - Argument by analogy, which infers from the similarity of two cases that the legal decision given for the one holds good for the other also. Note: This rules seem to open up the door for much creativity, similar to Philo’s Hellenistic usage but it is tightly controlled in that “the use of this method of hermeneutics is to be permitted only to an entire board or council, and is to be employed only when its results agree with the traditional halakah.”

(3) Binyan ab mi-katuv echad (בנין אב מכתוב אחד)

In "binyan ab mi-katub echad" ("A standard from a passage of Scripture") a certain passage serves as a basis for the interpretation of many others, so that the decision given in the case of one is valid for all the rest.

(4) Binyan ab mi-shene ketubim (בנין אב משני כתובים)

By this rule of "binyan ab mi-shene ketubim" ("A standard from two passages of Scripture") a decision in two laws having a characteristic in common (הצד השוה) is applied to many other laws which have this same characteristic

(5) The rules of "Kelal u-perat" and "perat u-kelal" ("General and particular, particular and general") is a limitation of the general by the particular and vice versa. This rule is complex and divided two different schools (Ishmael and Akiva)

(6) Ka-yotze bo mi-makom acher (כיוצא בו ממקום אחר)

The rule "Ka-yotze bo mi-makom acher" ("Like that in another place") refers to explaining a Biblical passage according to another of similar content.

(7) Davar ha-lamed me-inyano (דבר הלמד מעניינו)

Dabar ha-lamed me-inyano ("Something proved by the context") refers to definition from the context. Again there is division here, between Ishmael and Akiva. The method of solution of such opposing statements by the help of a third passage is a point of divergence between Ishmael and Akiva. Again I think under this rule traditional rabbinic exegesis has some similarities with Philo's Grecian methods, because some in rabbis’ uses of it, the literal meaning could actually be overturned in a sense from the light of another but it was not viewed as corrupting the integrity of the text. For example: “As Concerning the interpretation of words by a change of letters or vowels the rule is: אל תקרא ("Do not read so, but so"). Under this rule the integrity of the text itself is not assailed, the changes made being only for the purpose of explanation.”

Summary of Traditional Rabbinical Layers:

At a minimum I think we can safely say there was certainly more than the literal in rabbinical exegesis, however we do not directly see how many layers or dimensions of meaning were really toyed with by probably most rabbis until we look at Philo of Alexandria who merged traditional rabbinic thought with Grecian philosophy, something some of the early church fathers also did.

Philo of Alexandria’s layers:

Here I will simply paste summary statements by Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the messiah. He was a Jewish Christian Biblical Scholar who really seems to understand Philo well.

First about Hellenistic thought in general:

To those who thus sought to weld Grecian thought with Hebrew revelation, two objects would naturally present themselves. They must try to connect their Greek philosophers with the Bible, and they must find beneath the letter of Scripture a deeper meaning, which would accord with philosophic truth. (P55)

Rabbis would have utterly repudiated, on their express principle that ‘Scripture goes not beyond its plain meaning.’ They sternly insisted, that we ought not to search into the ulterior object and rationale of a law, but simply obey it. But it was this very rationale of the Law which the Alexandrians sought to find under its letter. It was in this sense that Aristobulus, a Hellenist Jew of Alexandria,164 sought to explain Scripture. (P56/57)

Now concerning Philo himself:

Even more extravagant was the idea, that a word which occurred in the LXX. might be interpreted according to every shade of meaning which it bore in the Greek, and that even another meaning might be given it by slightly altering the letters. However, like other of Philo’s allegorical canons, these were also adopted by the Rabbis, and Haggadic interpretations were frequently prefaced by: ‘Read not thus - but thus.’(P61)

Of course, all seemingly strange or peculiar modes of expression, or of designation, occurring in Scripture, must have their special meaning, and so also every particle, adverb, or preposition. Again, the position of a verse, its succession by another, the apparently unaccountable presence or absence of a word, might furnish hints for some deeper meaning, and so would an unexpected singular for a plural, or vice versa, the use of a tense, even the gender of a word. Most serious of all, an allegorical interpretation might be again employed as the basis of another. (P61)

We repeat, that these allegorical canons of Philo are essentially the same as those of Jewish traditionalism in the Haggadah, only the latter were not rationalizing, and far more brilliant in their application.183 (P62)

In his symbolical interpretations Philo only partially took the same road as the Rabbis. The symbolism of numbers and, so far as the Sanctuary was concerned, that of colours, and even materials, may, indeed, be said to have its foundation in the Old Testament itself. The same remark applies partially to that of names. The Rabbis certainly so interpreted them.187 But the application which Philo made of this symbolism was very different. Everything became symbolical in his hands, if it suited his purpose: numbers (in a very arbitrary manner), beasts, birds, fowls, creeping things, plants, stones, elements, substances, conditions, even sex - and so a term or an expression might even have several and contradictory meanings, from which the interpreter was at liberty to choose. (p62/63)

One illustration of Philo’s application of his methods:

Only one illustration of Philo’s peculiar method of interpreting the Old Testament can here be given. It will at the same time show how he found confirmation for his philosophical speculations in the Old Testament, and further illustrate his system of moral theology in its most interesting, but also most difficult, point. The question is, how the soul was to pass from its state of sensuousness and sin to one of devotion to reason, which was religion and righteousness. It will be remarked that the change from the one state to the other is said to be accomplished in one of three ways: by study, by practice, or through a good natural disposition (μͺθησις, ͺσκησις, εͺφυͺα) exactly as Aristotle put it. But Philo found a symbol for each, and for a preparatory state in each, in Scripture. The three Patriarchs represented this threefold mode of reaching the supersensuous: Abraham, study; Jacob, practice; Isaac, a good disposition; while Enos, Enoch, and Noah, represented the respective preparatory stages. Enos (hope), the first real ancestor of our race, represented the mind awakening to the existence of a better life. Abraham (study) received command to leave ‘the land’ (sensuousness). But all study was threefold. It was, first, physical - Abram in the land of Ur, contemplating the starry sky, but not knowing God. Next to the physical was that ‘intermediate’ (μͺση) study, which embraced the ordinary ‘cycle of knowledge’ (ͺγκͺκλιος παιδεͺα). This was Abram after he left Haran, and that knowledge was symbolised by his union with Hagar, who tarried (intermediately) between Kadesh and Bered. But this stage also was insufficient, and the soul must reach the third and highest stage, that of Divine philosophy (truly, the love of wisdom, φιλοσοφͺα) where eternal truth was the subject of contemplation. Accordingly, Abram left Lot, he became Abraham, and he was truly united to Sarah, no longer Sarai. Onwards and ever upwards would the soul now rise to the knowledge of virtue. of heavenly realities, nay, of the nature of God Himself. But the highest of all was the spiritual life which came neither from study nor discipline, but through a good disposition. Here we have, first of all, Noah, who symbolises only the commencement of virtue, since we read not of any special virtue in him. Rather is he rest - as the name implies - good, relatively to those around. It was otherwise with Isaac, who was perfect before his birth (and hence chosen), even as Rebekah meant constancy in virtue. In that state the soul enjoyed true rest (the Sabbath, Jerusalem) and joy, which Isaac’s name implied. But true virtue, which was also true wisdom, was Paradise, whence issued the one stream (goodness), which again divided into four branches (the four Stoic virtues): - Pison, ‘prudence’ (φρͺνησις); Gihon, ‘fortitude’ (ͺνδρͺα); Tigris, ‘desire’ (ͺπιθυμͺα), and Euphrates, ‘justice’ (δικαιοσͺνη). And yet, though these be the Stoic virtues, they all spring from Paradise, the Garden of God - and all that is good, and all help to it, comes to us ultimately from God Himself, and is in God. (Appendix - Philo versus Traditional Rabbinism P 1186)

Summary of Philo’s layers:

It would be almost safe to say Philo would accept a thousand layers if that best explained the aggregate compilation of all the wisdom of the world.

Catholic Layers

The pretty standard layers system for ancient Catholics is more or less this:

  1. literal (historical) - events
  2. allegorical (typological) - what you should believe, doctrine
  3. tropological (moral metaphor) - what your are to do
  4. anagogical (mystical interpretation ) - what mark you should be aiming for, your mystical hope

This can be found directly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The senses of Scripture

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".85

  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

Summary of Catholic Layers:

It seems pretty straight forward: four layers.

Protestant Layers

Protestants generally avoid Catholic practices in interpreting scripture and reject all use of a four layer system. Luther used the traditional layers in some ways, but mostly for illustration purposes, or rhetorical purposes. Really Luther adopted a historical layer that was Christ centered but 'kind of but not really' used an allegorical layer with respect to types of Messiah. (I am only saying this from what I have read of Luther). Even Calvin who clearly avoided such allegorical uses as childishness and hyper creativity, still used the allegorical method in a sense to support 'types of Messiah' and this easily crossed over into the mere allegorical uses on some occasions, juts not as much as Luther.

A glance at Luther's works show this break away from the Catholic tradition of exegesis to a historical-Christological interpretation:

“Avoiding both the rigid partition of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture practiced by the scholastics (historical, allegorical, tropological, anagogical) and the literal historical interpretation of Nicholas of Lyra, Luther worked his way toward a historical-Christological interpretation that was to be the core and center not only of his teaching but also of his preaching and living. A prophetic preview as it were of the whole series of lectures on Romans is sounded in the marginal gloss to de filio suo in Rom. 1:3: “Here the door is thrown open wide for the understanding of Holy Scripture, that is, that everything must be understood in relation to Christ.” (Luther’s Works Volume 25.11)

“Every psalm, all Scripture, calls to grace, extols grace, searches for Christ, and praises only God’s work” (Luther’s Works Volume 14, P196)

An interesting little find that I came across though was this:

I think, what I have already said: that revelation is given in accordance with the thinking of the people to whom it is given. (Luther's Works Vol 20, P169)

In this sense for example we can see the gospel of John was almost written to convert people like Philo as it starts out showing who the real logos is, an idea expressing the fabric of life found in Greek philosophy and adapted by Hellenistic Jews. Christ condescending to preach the same gospel to that type of person if you will.

Textual criticism and scientific approaches to interpretation have influenced many Protestants more towards extreme almost hyper literal frameworks, making Calvin seem like a poet in comparison, however this approach rarely makes it into a pulpit. The scientific analysis of secular texts as an ‘objective approach’ not relying on a spiritual layer or even necessarily believing in something spiritual to begin with, has made many Protestants fall under a Calvinistic approach that is even more literal than his. On the other hand, the average pulpit preacher often seems to make use of allegory without any real concern about the academic quality of such uses. (This is just my own unfounded observation).

In my own view, as I have argued before, hermeneutics using textual and historical analysis that is theologically neutral does not really exists, though I myself try to do this as much as possible and respect those who seem to be doing it as well. I think a certain amount of modern hermeneutics needs to incorporate scientific approaches, but not if they form a predetermined rule that disallows common biblical faith and sense that God himself is speaking in the scripture with an infallible witness. I think I represent the average Protestant in many ways.

Summary of a Protestant Layers:

Protestants seem to understand there are a literal layer and a spiritual layer, at least from the standpoint of God Himself giving us sight into the depths of His word and Old Testament shadows pointing to realities of Christ and His kingdom. Whether this ‘spiritual layer’ can be subdivided into 2,3,4, or a thousand layers, protestants generally seem not to care as the scripture itself does not speak along these lines. Another difference between Protestants is how frequently we can find the ‘spiritual layer’ in terms of ‘actual meanings imbedded in the scriptures’ rather then just ‘experiencing the scriptures power by the Holy Ghost’. I think you can see this variety by simply reading different Protestant commentaries. Some see Christ in many places, others juts see Him in places where the New Testament has verified that He is there.

Technically speaking I do not think of the scriptures of having any layers at all. To me there is simply the external word of God and it leads us into knowing the living word of God, which is Christ. The scripture does not say that there is a 'literal' and a 'spiritual' layer but that there is a 'carnal' or 'spiritual' understanding of scripture, depending on our relationship to the living word and how filled we are with it. Shadows and their anti-types do not have to be called a layer, just a different application or meaning of a single layer. Saying that there are 'two' layers could be a snare because it implies there must be a type or metaphor 'everywhere' on top of a literal. This too the scripture nowhere states. By saying this I am not opposing the word layers, or others uses of them, whether two, three, four, five, etc. I am just saying I do not personally think in terms of layers and do not automatically dismiss the many truths that can be drawn from scripture under the heading of one 'layer' or another 'layer'. I sort of have an open door policy while thinking the so called literal layer must be paramount when mixed with faith. It must be as the Spirit uses it to lead people from death to life, for dammed to justified, from heaven to hell, and if we make Christ center, this doctrine must be center for it glorifies Him above all else.

Conclusion: As we see so vividly in the middle ages, finding Christ 'everywhere' in scripture, behind every nook and cranny, does not automatically make Him 'center' even if He is actually there. It may remove Him from the center, unless those images, allegories or types are perpetually made to point directly to repentance and faith in the literal death of our Lord, as bearing the sins of the world. This is where the living word meets the literal and the sword has its sharpest edge.

  • So, to summarize, Christian theologians generally see two layers - a literal and a spiritual - whether they are Catholic or Protestant, but they differ on how to subdivide the "spiritual" layer. Jewish and secular theologians disagree with that strict division, but share some of the observations of Christian theologians.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 15:54
  • @Jas3.1 - You could say that for simplicity, but Protestants don’t usually think of layers as it implies a hidden meaning everywhere 'all on one layer, on top of the literal'. Some verses may have a single literal truth and no more. The literal is already ‘spiritual’ as it is infallible. Sometimes this is just semantics but as I have listed, each group has there own semantics and a clearly defined 'spiritual' layer seems to be primarily the Catholic semantic. Philo of Alexandria seems to have had up to a million layers and he has heavily influenced the Catholic Church compacting them into four
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 16:34
  • There are 4 layers in SP which map to the four voices of God's revelation (prophet, priest, king, judge). There are at least 7 layers of textual meaning. The first word of Ge 1:1 when read by teh letter says "a revelation to man, it is revealed that God spoke and created the heavens and the earth, his word did not return void, what he intended to do, he finished." It also contains the meanings "in the beginning was the word, ...he created six, ...there was a covenant with man at the center, and the ...son was totally devoted". the layers include shadow, riddles, etc.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 2:16

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