When Nephi had finished reading, his brothers desired to know the true meaning of the words they had heard. Are they to be understood spiritually and not literally? This question may not appear to be important today, but it is one that has come down to us through many centuries. Is the Bible to be read literally, as any other book, or, has it a mystic sense, understood only by the initiated?
Philo, (20 B.C. to 40 A.D.) the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher, a contemporary of our Lord, was the great advocate in his day of the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, and he exerted an altogether remarkable influence upon the early church fathers and, through them, on the whole church. His philosophy was the Platonic, according to which all the things which our senses tell us exist are mere passing shadows, while the ideas in our minds are the realities. That is to say, an individual man, a horse, a book, etc. are only ephemeral phenomena, while the genus man or horse, or the class of objects we call books are the lasting things in the universe.
But Plato was also a Jew, and he believed in the literal inspiration of the Scriptures. How could this theory of the Bible be reconciled with his platonic philosophy? He found his solution in the "allegorical" interpretation of the Bible, which, by the way, is no interpretation at all but a re-writing of the text.
Clement of Alexandria (Circa 150-215 A.D.), recognized four ways of interpreting the Scriptures, viz., The literal, the mystical, the moral and the prophetic. In his mystical system, the various details of the uniform of the high priest, for instance, had each a special meaning. The mitre signified the royal authority of our Lord. The breastplate of the ephod was a symbol of good works. The 360 bells on the priestly robe signified a year, viz., "the acceptable year of our Lord," and so on.
Origen, the most famous of the Alexandrian church fathers (185-253 A.D.), undertook the impossible task of harmonizing the Platonian philosophy of Philo with Christianity, as this great Jew had endeavored to do for said philosophy and Judahism. He, therefore, found in the words of the Scriptures a three-fold meaning, corresponding to the body, soul, and spirit of man. To him the letter was the "body." But, in addition to the literal sense, there was a moral and also a spiritual sense. In speaking of the Mosaic story of the creation, for instance, he asked if anyone can believe that the first three days were without sun, moon and stars, and the first day without a sky, even. These things, he suggests, are said figuratively by means of history, which is not to be understood literally, but as significant of certain "mysteries."
Some of these church fathers were so anxious to get a standing among the worldly wise of their day that they willingly reconstructed their theology in order to get room in it for pagan philosophy. 1