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Philo’s Psychological Exegesis of Cain and Abel

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Cain's Fight, Fernand Cormon, 1880

Cain is egoism, Abel is holiness.

TN HE STORY of Cain and Abel in Chapter 4 of Genesis follows immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and, like the latter, is a ethical myth of great and fundamental significance.

Here the Bible first presents in allegorical form one of it’s main themes: the primal conflict or psychomachia within the human soul between good and bad dispositions, vice and virtue, worldliness and piety. The same contrast and conflict symbolized by Cain and Abel is recapitulated and developed throughout the Bible in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Noah and the wicked men, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and their various enemies, and, later, in St. Paul’s analysis of the ‘earthy-minded ‘ and ‘heavenly-minded’ person.

The Jewish philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC − c.50 AD), exerted considerable influence on Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible. He dedicated several books to the story of Cain and Abel, which he interpreted, as he usually did, according to a mix of Platonic, Stoic and Pythagorean ethical philosophy and Judaism. Philo’s allegorical exegetical insights are unmatched in excellence (and supported by modern cognitive science) — but tend to be obscured by his discursive writing style. In order to present Philo’s interpretations in a more accessible way, the key points of his commentaries are here excerpted and re-arranged to correspond to the Genesis account verse-by-verse. …
Link for full article:

Art: Cain Fleeing Before Jehovah’s Curse (1880), Fernand Cormon (1845–1924, French)


Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]


English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2

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A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2


[1] Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
[2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD;

and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalms 1:1–2)

 Επου θεω

pdf version

illuminated_THE Bible is a key to salvation. Psalms is a key to the Bible.[1] Psalm 1, a proem, is a key to Psalms;[2] and its key verses 1 and 2.[3] Careful study and meditation on these verses therefore profits us greatly.


          [1] Blessed is the man

In the Septuagint, the Greek word translated as Blessed is makarios, which means either blessed or happy; both are understood to apply here.

Also, consider that when one feels especially blessed, with this is much joy. We may therefore read here, “this man is blessed, happy, joyful, and lacks nothing.” Such, then, is our goal.

After the goal is stated, we are warned of three principal obstacles. These are three categories of mental error — which, as we will see, correspond to Plato’s three divisions of the human soul. (Republic 4.434d–4.445e, 9.588b–9.591e; Phaedrus 246a-e; 253c–256c)

          that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

Counsel of the ungodly aptly describes the principal sin to which the rational or logical division of our mind (Plato’s logistikon) is vulnerable. This, our faculty of discursive reasoning, is prone to entertain innumerable schemes, plans, anxieties, and similar vain thoughts. Some such thoughts involve positive projects we imagine; some concern needless fears and anxieties; some, of guilt and remorse. All such ruminations are almost always baseless and imaginary. Attention to ones thoughts will reveal the seriousness of this problem: one can seldom go a minute, or even a few seconds, without ungodly counsel.

The word walketh is appropriate here, because once one accepts the initial impulse to follow such thoughts, they lead the mind — for minutes or even hours — on a journey; yet they lead nowhere, or certainly nowhere good.

          nor standeth in the way of sinners,

The way of sinners refers to mental errors of the concupiscent nature, or what Plato called epithymia (or the epithymetikon). These are temptations to inordinate or untimely sensory pleasures, such as over- or improper indulgence in food, drink, sex, etc.

It is called standing, because such temptations characteristically assault us when we are, so to speak, mentally stationary — that is, not actively applying our minds in ways connected with our spiritual development, helping others, or attending to productive tasks. “An idle mind,” it is said, “is the devil’s workshop.”

          nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

No less problematic (and, for religious people, often more so) are mental errors of our irascible and honor-seeking nature — what Plato called thumos (or our thymoeides). A principal form of such temptations is ones tendency to judge, condemn, or criticize others. Hence this is like a seat upon which one sits and presumes to pass judgment.

Again, by observing the thoughts one may easily see this strong, chronic tendency to find fault with people and things, and, in short, to think negatively.

          [2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD;

We are next told that the blessed man is one who delights in the law of the LORD.

Here the law of the Lord must not be mistakenly understood as meaning written rules, commandments, prohibitions, and so on. To orient ones life to codified rules is legalism. Legalism does not bring happiness.

Law (in Hebrew, Torah) here is properly understood as the promptings of the Holy Spirit which gently guide us to do God’s will.

A parallel may be drawn here with the Chinese concept of Dao, which may be understood as the Universal Law that governs all things benignly and providentially. To follow this Law is to live in accord with Nature — a principle that has only positive connotations, and is never considered onerous or ‘against ones grain.’

We are to gently follow God’s will instead of willfully pursuing our own schemes and plans. For this to become a habit is the journey of a lifetime and a main task of salvation.

Ones reconciliation to God’s will is the message of the entire Bible. In the Old Testament, it is expressed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the New Testament, the entire life of Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection, epitomize the principle.

This condition is also called the Reign (or Reigning) [4] and Kingdom of God in ones heart and soul. Indeed, this reconciliation of wills is the main ethical concern of all religion.

The Greek word translated as delight is hedone, which may also mean pleasure (hence our English word, hedonism). In this state, God’s Law may be experienced as a delightful pleasure.

To achieve this state of reconciliation to God’s will is not only to feel blessedness and delight, but it also joins two basic elements of ones nature: the pleasure-seeking and the duty-seeking. The two become one in purpose.

A practice to recommend is to repeat these verses silently, as wit a mantra. And, so, these guides always near, one may ask in succession of each thought that occurs: Is this ungodly counsel? The way of sinners? The scoffer’s seat?

The bad thoughts being rejected, those remaining are more likely to accord with God’s will.

We end here, for it is better to discover for oneself the deeper meanings of Scripture. A basic interpretative approach has been outlined here; that, with what has been said elsewhere (Uebersax, 2012, 2014) is enough.

We may only mention one further promise of Psalm 1: the blessed man will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3a). This can be understood as a restoration of the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9.[5]

The Tree of Life also appears Revelation 22:1–2, in the very last chapter of the Bible. The whole saga of Scripture, then, concerns a journey from self-will and the fall into sin — whence the Tree of Life is lost — to its restoration, which is a restoration of our soul as a godly Garden of virtue and delight.

Thus we do not err when we say that within these few verses the Bible’s entire message of salvation is epitomized. Wisdom is near for those who seek it, and for this we should be grateful.

Copy of book_end


Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John S. ‘Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible‘.

Christian Platonism website. <>. September, 2014.

Uebersax, John S. ‘Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis.’ Christian Platonism website. <>. November, 2013.

John Uebersax, 25 March 2015


[1] Origen, The Philocalia, 2.3 (G. Lewis, tr., 1911, p. 32); St. Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, 10.1 (A. Way, tr., 1963, Fathers of the Church 46:151–152).

[2] St. Jerome. The Homilies of Saint Jerome. Vol. 1. Homily 1 (M. Ewald, tr., 1964, Fathers of the Church 48, p. 3).

[3] St. Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, 10.3 (A. Way, tr., 1963, Fathers of the Church 46:154–155).

[4] Uebersax, John S. ‘Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?‘ <>. July, 2014.

[5] The Tree of Life is watered by four rivers (Genesis 2:10–14).

The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

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The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

Gustave Dore - Banishment of Adam and Eve

(A summary appears following the article.)

We address here what can be termed the monomyth of fall and salvation. By monomyth we mean a core myth that is expressed in different forms by different cultures. By fall and salvation here we do not mean so much the ultimate eternal destiny of a soul, but a cycle which recurs frequently within ones life — perhaps even on a daily basis.

We borrow the term monomyth from the writings of the noted mythographer, Joseph Campbell. Campbell (1949) explored in detail a different, but related and somewhat overlapping monomyth, which we might call the heroic quest. The heroic myth somewhat neglects the question of why the hero needs to go on a quest to begin with; it’s as though the quest is the result of someone else’s difficulties or negligence. The fall and salvation monomyth, on the other hand, pays much more attention to moral failing of the protagonist as causing the need for redemption.

In any case, it is vital to understand that our approach here is psychological more than religious in the traditional sense. That is, the goal here is to examine this myth in a way that would be of interest to religious and nonreligious readers alike. We take it as axiomatic, that is, that if there is such a thing as spiritual salvation in the sense of obtaining a propitious afterlife or immortality of soul, that this is congruent and consistent with the nearer task of obtaining psychological and moral well-being in this life. In short, then, it is the loss and re-attainment of an authentic psychological well-being that is our present concern.

We wish to be exceptionally brief here — and therefore extremely efficient — for the following reasons. First the present is not so much a self-contained work as much as one intended to serve as a reference or appendix for future articles that will discuss moral fall and salvation from a psychological viewpoint. Second, because it is likely this concept has appeared multiple times in the previous literature; unfortunately, partly due to its interdisciplinary nature, it is not immediately evident what the major touchstones of this literature are (besides those which are cited herein.) As new relevant references are encountered, they will be added to the References below.

Our initial premise is that myths express and communicate certain psychological and existential themes. These themes are of vital importance to individual welfare and to the integrity of society, but they either cannot be clearly stated in explicit, rationalistic terms or there is some reason not to, and they are instead expressed in metaphorical or symbolic terms via myth. In some sense, myths constitute a cultural ‘manual of life.’

A corollary is that in the degree to which the existential concerns of all human beings are the same, then the myths of different times and cultures reflect these common concerns and are structurally similar. This is helpful because our situation is then analogous to having multiple roadmaps of some terrain. Just as no single map is fully complete, accurate, and decipherable, neither is any single myth. Additional maps enable us to fill in gaps in some other map. The same principle applies to myths.

Structure of the Monomyth

The basic features of the monomyth of fall and salvation can be characterized as follows:

monomyth-fall-salvationFigure 1.  The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

  1. In their interior life, human beings characteristically go through a recurring cycle — which we can call an ethical cycle. By ‘ethical’ here we mean in the broad sense of that which pertains to happiness and choices in ones way of life. We do not mean the narrower sense of ethical as pertaining only to proper or normative social actions (e.g., business or professional ethics).
  2.  At least initially we can define this cycle by four characteristic parts or landmarks. To begin we can imagine a person in a state of happiness. We will adopt provisionally and without much comment the widely accepted view of Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) that the most significant moments of happiness correspond to certain peak (relatively short and intense) and plateau (somewhat more sustained, if less intense) experiences. Happiness here is not just emotional, but also implies feelings of fulfilment, satisfaction, and meaning, and enhanced cognitive function (including moral, intellectual, and aesthetic abilities). These states are the basis on which we could even imagine something like a paradise or Garden of Eden. Maslow and others have written extensively on characteristic features of these peak and plateau experiences. Of special interest to us here, however, are two features: (1) a sense of unity, such that one feels an absence of internal conflict, with all elements of oneself at peace, harmonized, and ‘pulling together’; and (2) feelings of reverence, piety, sacredness, humility, gratitude, and dependence on a higher power or something much greater than ones own ego. In the Christian tradition this is called the state of grace.
  3. These states, however, are impermanent. If we do attain such a ‘high’, the inevitable result is that we will eventually experience a fall or descent to a less happy and exalted condition. The fall may begin imperceptibly, but it typically progresses to such a point that we are not only aware of, but saddened by our lost paradise. Again, in Christianity this is sometimes called a fall from grace.
  4.  When the awareness and sadness over our lost happiness become sufficiently acute, and when the various life problems associated with being in an unhappy and conflicted state accumulate, there comes the turning point. We could call this, following St. Paul, the metanoia, literally, the change of mind. After this point our principle concern is to regain the state of lost happiness. Whereas before we were in the phase of the fall, now we are in the movement of ascent.
  5. Within the Platonic and the Christian traditions, three very broad phases or aspects of this ascent are called the (1) purification, (2) illumination, and (3) unitive phases. We can accept these as at least provisionally plausible, provided we don’t insist that these always occur in the same order and without overlapping. It might be more accurate to call these three aspects rather than stages of ethical ascent. Principles of process symmetry suggest a possible corresponding three-fold movement in the descending phase: progressive impurity, darkening or loss of illumination, and disunity and conflict.

That something like does in fact characterize the human condition can be deduced from many modern personality theories, the evidence of traditional religion, literature and art, common language and figurative expressions, and individual experience.

Jungian Personality Theory

The monomyth of fall and salvation is very similar to a model of cyclical personality dynamics advanced the Jungian writer Edward Edinger in a series books (e.g., 1986a, 1992, 1994); many of his works explicitly address this model in the context of myths and religion.

For Edinger (who is basically following Jung here) this cycle involves the relationship of the ego to a much greater entity, the Self. The ego is our empirical self, our conscious identify. The Self in Jungian psychology includes our conscious mind, the unconscious, our body, our social life, our spiritual soul, and all facets of our being. In many respects, the Self in Jungian theory has features which are customarily ascribed to God. It is mysterious, sacred, numinous, and very powerful.

edinger-cycle-adaptedFigure 2. Cycle of ego-Self separation and union (adapted from Edinger, 1992, p. 5)

Edinger describes a characteristic cyclical process of personality dynamics in which the ego alternates between phases of being more united with, and separate from the Self. The process, which recurs throughout life, could better be described as “spiral” rather than circular per se, because it allows for cumulative overall personality development.


Figure 3. Gradual separation of the ego from the Self (adapted from Edinger, 1992, p. 5)

The unitive state (leftmost panel in Figure 3) in the Jung/Edinger framework is one in which the ego subordinates itself to, and maintains an attitude of humility towards the Self. The ego receives direction from the Self by intuitions, inspirations, and perhaps dreams, and is guided by them.

The fall occurs, according to this view, when the ego no longer looks to the Self for guidance and direction. As it relies more and more on itself, the ego may become a virtual tyrant or dictator, seeking its own narrow interests and following a distorted view of reality. (Edinger calls this state ‘ego inflation’. ) Once headed in this direction, the person inevitably experiences progressively more unhappiness, accompanied by more pronounced, ineffective attempts by the ego to salvage things. In the later stages, the personality is marked by symptoms of conflict, neurosis, anxiety and neurosis, etc.   Eventually problems become sufficiently acute that the ego sees further progress along the same trajectory as impossible. A personality crisis ensues, which can be resolved only by the ego’s regaining a sense of proper humility (Edinger, 1986b). Thus chastised it must then begin the upward ascent.

We should, however, note peculiarities and potential biases of the Jungian framework, lest we too naively accept it in its entirety. Jung was much influenced by Nietzsche. To put the matter briefly, Jung (and Edinger) are Nietzschean in their reaction against the Apollonian elements of religious orthodoxy and classical philosophy, and in their overemphasizing the Dionysian elements of self-will and unrestrained personal freedom. As a result, it is hard to find much more than lip service paid by Jung or Edinger to any concept of virtue ethics. Instead they have a kind of neo-Gnostic orientation in which one is saved more by esoteric knowledge than by genuine moral reformation or renewal — or, for that matter, by any form of self-culture that requires work and discipline.

Nevertheless this example suffices to establish that there at least one plausible psychological basis for the fall/salvation monomyth, that it corresponds to something very basic and important in the human condition, and is something universal. We would therefore expect it to find expression in myths and religions across cultures.

Some examples will serve to illustrate the nature of the monomyth. We could look to virtually any culture or religion for suitable examples, but for brevity and convenience we will restrict attention to two here: the Bible, and ancient Greek myth, literature and philosophy.

The Bible

In the Bible the monomyth is presented continually and at many levels: in the lives of individuals, in the history of the Jews, and relative to all humankind. Indeed the Bible as a whole is, as it were, an epic portrayal of the monomyth that extends from the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden to the restoration of the Tree of Life and a soul’s attainment of the New Jerusalem in the final book, Revelation. The monomyth is the essential message of the Bible: to live in union with God or with God’s will, once in the state not to fall, and if fallen, to regain it.

The clearest portrayal of the descending arc is of course the fall of Adam and Eve. The psychological significance of this story has long been known to religious writers. It was thoroughly explained even before the Christian era by the Jewish Platonist philosopher Philo of Alexandria (Uebersax, 2012), who influenced such major Christian exegetes as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa in the West (just to name a few figures).

We find in the story of Adam and Eve not simply a turning away from God, but a complex psychological process which also involves a deliberate turn towards self-will, and a re-ordering of interests which mistakenly places sensual concerns above pursuit of higher, spiritual, moral, and intellectual goods and pleasures. The motif of the fall is recapitulated frequently throughout Genesis — for example in the stories of Cain, the flood, and the tower of Babel.

The exodus and wandering of the Jews as they are liberated from bondage to the Egyptians (symbolizing a mind dominated by passions), their wandering in the desert, and their eventual arrival in the Promised Land represents the upward arc of the monomyth.

As the Old Testament continues, the Jews or individual figures are continually falling (e.g., worship of idols, David’s adultery), and being called back to the upward journey by prophets.

Again, the motif of fall and salvation permeates the New Testament. There the central concept of the kingdom of heaven can, at the psychological level, be understood as basically corresponding to the state of grace. Virtually all of Jesus’ parables address the monomyth and its phases or aspects. A particularly good example of the complete monomyth, including fall and restoration, is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).

Greek Mythology, Literature and Philosophy

Similarly, the monomyth is found throughout Greek myth and literature. Its falling arc is symbolized by the ‘Ages of Man’ in Hesiod’s Works and Days (106–201), which describes a progression of historical epochs from a past Golden Age, through increasingly less noble Silver, Bronze, and ‘heroic’ ages, to the present, fallen, Iron Age. Here we see the characteristic Greek motif in which humility, union with God, and direction by God’s will is associated with happiness and harmony, but man’s pride (hubris) leads to a fall, conflict, and suffering. It seems universally agreed that Hesiod borrowed or adapted this myth from earlier Middle Eastern, Indian, or perhaps Egyptian sources (see e.g., Woodard, 2009). Just before this section Hesiod supplies another fall myth — that of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora (42–105).

The Iliad and the Odyssey taken together comprise a complete monomyth. The events of the Iliad begin with the famous Judgment of Paris, which thematically parallels fall of Adam and Eve. At the instigation of Strife (who assumes the devil’s role), and under circumstances involving a garden and apples, Paris, prince of Troy, is asked to judge who is fairest: the voluptuous Aphrodite, the domestic Hera, or the brave and wise Athena. Being bribed Aphrodite by the promise of a romance with the beautiful Helen, Paris chooses Aphrodite as fairest. He thus wins Helen. But since Helen is already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta, this leads to war between the Greeks and Trojans. In short, the story’s theme is that when Paris (symbolizing us), choose pleasure over virtue, the result is a war — and in fact a long, terrible one.

The upward arc of the Homeric cycle is symbolized by the Odyssey. There the protagonist, Odysseus, after the Trojan War ends, must undergo many difficult trials before finally returning to his homeland, where he is reunited with his wife, father, and countrymen, and lives in peace.

Amongst the tragic poets — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — the peril of hubris is, of course, is a staple motif.

Virtually all of Plato’s dialogues might be construed as, in one way or another, concerned with the monomyth — especially the upward movement (anagogy) of the soul brought about through philosophy (love of Wisdom), and moral and mental renewal. This is particularly clear in the many myths Plato employs, especially in the Cave Allegory of the Republic and the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus.

Similarly the hierarchical metaphysical system of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus, with its emphasis on the reciprocal movements of emanation and return, could be understood as a metaphor for the ethical/psychological monomyth (Fleet, 2112; Hadot, 1998, 2002).

Summary and Conclusions

The purpose of this article could be understood as to survey the vast and complex array of data which constitute the great myths of humanity, and to bring into focus one part: the portrayal of a core psychological dynamic which we may at least provisionally call the cyclical process of fall and salvation. We have proposed, based on the frequency with which this monomyth is encountered, that it must logically express some core existential concern of human nature. It is universal in that people in every culture and condition must grapple with it. Because it symbolizes something that is psychologically real, we should be able to understand it by studying it in terms of scientific cognitive and personality psychology.

To accept that the monomyth expresses core psychological concerns does not, per se, commit us to any particular theological or doctrinal position. It is fully compatible with a religious or a non-religious view of man. That is, what a religious person may call “following God’s will” is evidently some experiential and phenomenological reality. An atheist may accept the reality of this subjective experience and simply conclude that the person is ‘merely’ following their higher unconscious, or, say, their right brain hemisphere (McGilchrist, 2009).

But in any case, the cultural evidence of the monomyth suggests that human beings have traditionally associated such a state of pious humility as corresponding to perhaps the greatest happiness and psychic harmony obtainable. It is the height of hubris to disregard our myths and traditions simply because they originate in a religious climate that may no longer be fashionable amongst some segments of the intelligentsia.

Moral philosophers and cognitive scientists alike should scientifically study religious mythos — and in particular that concerning fall and salvation. By this the former will gain deeper understanding of man and the nature of religious salvation. The latter will gain insight into phenomenological realities that cannot be ignored if we are to have any effective science or technology of human happiness.

1st draft


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, 1949.

Edinger, Edward F. The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament. Toronto, 1986a.

Edinger, Edward F. Encounter With the Self: A Jungian Commentary on William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Toronto, 1986b.

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston, 1992.

Edinger, Edward F. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Boston, 1994.

Fleet, Barrie. Plotinus: Ennead IV.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies. Las Vegas, 2012.

Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus:The Simplicity of Vision. Trans. Michael Chase. Chicago, 1998.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA, 2002.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. R.C.F. Hull, Trans. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9, part 1. Princeton, 1959 (repr. 1969, 1981).

Jung, Carl G. (author); Segal, Robert Alan (editor). Jung on Mythology. London, 1998.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Woodard, Roger D. Hesiod and Greek Myth. In: Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 83–165.

Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis

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I’ve recently written about an approach to biblical interpretation that is, on the one hand, scientific and psychological, and, on the other, non-reductionistic and faithful to Christian teaching (e.g., here, here, and here). It takes as its basic principles: (1) that a central concern in every Christian life is the injunction of St. Paul, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2); (2) that this transformation must include a psychological metamorphosis that encompasses both the modern meaning of psyche as mind and its classical meaning as soul and, and includes the moral, intellectual, volitional, and desiring aspects of human nature; (3) that the Bible supplies a detailed plan for effecting this psychological transformation; and (4) much of this plan is ‘encoded’ in figurative language and requires careful attention and a contemplative frame of mind to recognize and understand.  The approach I’ve suggested could be described as a more modern version of the allegorical methods used by Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judeaus) and by many Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  The question considered here is what to call this method.

Below are some alternative terms and various pros and cons of each.  The terms are grouped into three categories.  In the first are several terms that seem basically correct, but perhaps too general.  The second includes those terms which I consider the best of those currently in use.  The third lists several modern terms that are questionable, but which are included for completeness.

I also thought it might be helpful generally to list all the various terms in use today to denote this sort of allegorical exegesis in one place.  The short bibliography at the end contains some references that appear especially pertinent, but is by no means comprehensive.  I hope to add information to this post as I run across new terms or references of interest.  The present, then, could be considered just a down payment or first installment.

General Terms

allegorical exegesis.  This is perhaps the most widely used term today, but it has two drawbacks:  (1) it is nonspecific, as there are a variety of different ways to allegorically interpret Scripture (psychologically, morally, prophetically etc.); and (2) over the centuries, ‘allegory’ has come to mean a figurative story that is not actually true (as in a fable).  Thus, ‘allegorical exegesis’ might imply to some people that what is being interpreted (the Old Testament or the New Testament) is not historically true. This connotation of non-historicity is not implied by the etymology of the word itself, which comes from alla (different) and agora (assembly) – thus allegory literally suggests  ‘that which one would not say in the crowd’ or basically a hidden meaning as opposed to a more obvious one.  Nevertheless, even in ancient times the word allegory tended to imply that something had only figurative meaning.

parabolic interpretation. From the Greek word parabole.  Because of its connection to the word parable, this term may again tend to suggest that the material being interpreted is not literally true.

figurative interpretation.  The principal disadvantage with this term that it is very nonspecific.  It gives no clue at all as to the kind of truths that are being figuratively represented, or the principles by which they are decoded.

nonliteral interpretation.  Even less specific than figurative; too generic to be of much use.

mystical exegesis.  This could, following ancient Greek usage, imply a secret meaning.  That is problematic in itself, because nonliteral meanings, while they may be subtle or hard to see, are not necessarily secret in the sense of being reserved for a few initiates.  Further the term might be understood as denoting a connection with religious mysticism (e.g., withdrawal from the world, pursuit of ‘mystical experiences’ etc.), which is not necessarily or even usually the case with the form of exegesis being considered here.

hyponoia.  Another word used by the ancients, meaning basically ‘knowledge beneath the surface.’  Like the other terms above, this doesn’t indicate the nature of deeper knowledge being sought, or how it is obtained.

Preferred Terms

noetic exegesis.  This term was apparently first used (at least, in connection with Biblical interpretation) by Eric Osborn (1995, 2005), and later by Blossom Stefaniw (2010). ‘Noetic’ here has two relevant aspects.  First it implies a search to uncover meanings in Scripture that help to improve or transform the nous (i.e., the ancient Greek word for what we might call the Intellect or higher Reason, and which in Greek patristic literature is sometimes considered to be the immortal human soul itself).  Second, the method itself can be properly called noetic insofar as it seeks to go beyond literal meanings of words (understood by discursive thought, or dianoia) to the deeper intelligible truths discernible only to the apprehending, nondiscursive part of the mind (nous).

One possible limitation of this term is that the form of exegesis we are considering involves more than just the apprehending, noetic intellect.  Discursive thinking is also involved in relating intuited principles to one another other or to facts and memories, to envision applications in ones life, and so on. For example, reading the story of Cain and Abel, it might strike one as a noetic inspiration that the two figures symbolize competing negative and positive elements of ones mind or psyche.  But then one might go on to compare these two figures with other, similar pairs – Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, etc.  To elaborate the noetic insight would involve use of other mental powers.

The term gnostic exegesis, more or less a cognate, has some ancient precedent, but would likely invite unwanted associations to Gnosticism if used today.

sapiential exegesis.  This could serve about equally well as noetic exegesis as a terminological convention.  It implies both that the object of exegesis is to gain wisdom, and that wisdom is needed to apply the method.

anagogical exegesis.  This is a very interesting term, used by some Church Fathers and also in the Middle Ages.  Originally it meant ‘going or being led higher’, which could be understood in this context to mean any or all of the following: seeking a higher meaning in Scripture; using exegesis to attain a higher level of mental/spiritual development; elevating one’s mind by interpreting Scripture; or contributing generally to an uplifting movement or current of thought (Laird, 2007).  In the Middle Ages, “anagogical” exegesis often became focused on finding allusions to the afterlife of the soul in Scripture, a different usage which might conflict with the more sapiential meaning of the term.  Also, even in the older and original sense (i.e., of the Church Fathers), anagogical exegesis spans two somewhat distinct levels of meaning of Scripture:  those corresponding to what Origen called the psychic (soul) versus pneumatic (spiritual) levels. Relative to Origen’s distinction, our principle interest here is psychic level – i.e., the level of psyche: mind, intellect, rationality, will, desire, and emotion.  The other, higher Origenistic sense of anagogy, which suggests a connection to higher mystical states, including an apophatic union with God free from all concepts or thoughts, is not our immediate concern here.

spiritual or pneumatic exegesis.  As suggested above, it could be argued that these terms should be reserved for a level of exegesis that relates to the highest levels of spiritual development and union with God, e.g., apophatic experience.

theoria or theoreia.  This term, often used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in connection with exegesis, has two relevant meanings for us.  First it can mean contemplation in a sense that is basically the same as noesis:  an understanding of the intelligible meaning of Scripture, as opposed to its historical and literal meanings. Second, it can imply what we today might call a theoretical or scientific understanding, i.e., of the rules and principles of our moral purification and spiritual advancement as  figuratively presented in Scripture.

Psychological Terms 

Finally to be considered are four modern psychological terms.

psychological exegesis.  This term is appropriate, provided we understand psyche in the traditional sense that includes both mind and soul.  However, left unqualified or taken out of context, the term might be misunderstood to imply a connection with modern, reductionistic psychological theories. An alternative term, following Origen, might be psychic exegesis.

depth-psychological exegesis.  This term has been used in recent decades mainly  by certain German scholars.  However ‘depth psychology’ can have several different meanings.  Most who have used the term have meant it in a fairly restrictive sense as implying a basis in psychoanalytic or Jungian theory;  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (2008) made some harsh criticisms of depth psychological exegesis, but he was referring to this more restrictive meaning of the term.

My own view is that the kind of exegesis we are considering here is accurately termed ‘depth psychological’ in the sense that it includes in its scope certain processes in the depths (or heights) of the human psyche, but not in the sense of corresponding to Freudian or Jungian theory.

psychodynamic exegesis.  Most of the problems with the preceding term would apply here as well.

existential exegesis.  A good term in that it implies existential relevance to the individual, but it potentially inherits all the ambiguity associated with the nebulous word ‘existentialism’.


Overall, of all the terms considered here, perhaps the best are sapiential exegesis, noetic exegesis, and anagogic exegesis.

In the end, we might consider that this form of exegesis may be such that it is inherently impossible to define a single term.  Why?  Because perhaps the very mental processes were are investigating here – noesis, intellection, discernment, etc. – are the very ones by which we know intelligible principles and assign or interpret names.  In other words, it may be something of an ‘error of logical typing’  to try to name the very processes by which we name things. I wouldn’t insist on this view, but it does seem like a possibility.  However to the extent it might be true, we may need to content ourselves with a more ‘poetic’ or intuitive approach to naming this style of exegesis:  to have, for example, multiple names, each one highlighting a different aspect, and to use these different names in a fluid and flexible way.

The passage below shows that even as inspired an exegete as  St. Gregory of Nyssa recognized the difficulty of finding a single term for this form of exegesis.  In the passage below, from the Prologue to his Homilies on the Song of Songs, he uses a wide range terms.

In the end, we should not forget that this form of interpretation is not a name or concept, but an experience.

By an appropriate contemplation [θεωρίας] of the text, the philosophy [φιλοσοφίαν] hidden in its words becomes manifest once the literal meaning has been purified by a correct understanding [έννοίαις]. …

I hope that my commentary will be a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden (in the Song of Songs) leads to a spiritual condition of the soul [πνευματικήν τε και αϋλον τής ψυχής κατάστασιν]. …

Because some members of the Church always think it right to follow the letter of holy scripture and do not take into account the enigmatic [αινιγμάτων] and deeper meanings [υπονοιών], we must answer those who accuse us of doing so. … If anything in the hidden, deeper [έπικρύψεως έν ύπονοίαις], enigmatic [αινίγμασιν] sense cannot be cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word [Logos] teaches and as Proverbs says [Pro 1.6], understand [νοήσαι] the passage either as a parable [παραβολην], a ‘dark’ saying [σκοτεινόν λόγον], sage words [ρήσιν σοφων], or as a riddle [αινιγμάτων].

With regards to anagogy [άναγωγής θεωρίαν], it makes no difference what we call it – tropology [τροπολογίαν] or allegory [άλληγορίαν] – as long as we grasp the meaning [νόημα] of (Scripture’s) words. …

They instruct not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries [γνωσιν των μυστηρίων] and to a pure way of life [καθαράν πολιτείαν] for those who have diligent minds.

St. Paul also uses exegesis [έξηγήσει] looking to what is most useful, and he is not concerned about what to name the form of his exegesis [έξηγήσεως]. … And there is a passage where he calls the more obscure comprehension and partial knowledge [γνωσιν] a mirror and a riddle [αΐνιγμα ](1 Cor 13, 12).  And again he says the change from literal[σωματικων] meanings to noetic [νοητά] is a turning [έπιστροφην] to the Lord and a removal of the veil (2 Cor 3, 16).  But in all these different figures and names for noetic interpretation [νουν θεωρίας] he is describing one form of teaching to us,  but we must [sometimes] pass over to the immaterial  [αϋλόν] and noetic interpretation [νοητην θεωρίαν] so that more corporeal thoughts are changed into something perceived by the intellect and rational mind [νουν και διάνοιαν], the more fleshly meaning of what is said having been shaken off like dust (Mt 10, 14).

And he says, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3, 6), because in many passages the historical account does not provide examples of a good life if indeed we stop at the bare facts.

All these and similar examples should serve to remind us of the necessity of searching the divine words, of reading [προσέχειν τη άναγνώσει] them and of tracing in every way possible how something more sublime [ύψηλότερος] might be found which leads us to that which is divine and incorporeal [θειότερά τε και άσώματα] instead of the literal sense [διάνοιαν].

Unless a person contemplates the truth through philosophy [φιλοσοφίας ένθεωρήσειε την άλήθειαν], what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable [μυθωδες].

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 5.10-7.5; based on (with a few word changes) McCambley (1987) and Heine (2012), pp.362–363; MPG  44 775ff.; italics mine.


Beier, Matthias.  ‘Embodying Hermeneutics: Eugen Drewermann’s Depth Psychological Interpretation of Religious Symbols‘. Paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New Brunswick, NJ, March 1998.

Heine, Ronald E. ‘Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory.’ Vigiliae Christianae, 38(4), 1984), pp. 360–370.

Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lauro, Elizabeth Ann Dively. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Martens, Peter. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford University Press, 2012.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. ‘Notations on the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa.’  < >  Accessed 23 Nov. 2013.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs. Hellenic College Press, 1987.  ISBN 0917653181

Norris, Jr., Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. (Introduction)

Osborn, Eric Francis. ‘Philo and Clement: Quiet Conversion and Noetic Exegesis.’ Studia Philonica Annual, 10, 1998, 108–124.

Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. ‘Biblical Interpretation in Conflict.’ In: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (author), José Granados (editor), Carlos Granados (ed.), Luis Sánchez Navarro (ed.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008.

Stefaniw, Blossom. Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Peter Lang, 2010.