It is now generally assumed, as part of modern intellectual culture, that the Bible was always interpreted literally until scientific knowledge and historical relativism began to dispel its authority. Then people of reason, and Biblical scholars themselves, began to subject the sacred texts to the same kind of critical analysis as other repositories of traditional knowledge received in the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, a ‘fundamentalist’ reading of the Bible, and the concept of verbal inerrancy, are largely modern: a fruit, indeed, of mass literacy and populist choice. For most of its existence – a point brought out well in Karen Armstrong's ‘Biography’ of the Bible – there was never a single interpretation of the way in which the texts were to be understood. Minds were less troubled than they have since become by apparent inconsistencies in the Scriptural passages, or by how events which plainly followed the deaths of the authors (Moses, for example) could have been recorded by them. There were several reasons for this. For a start, believers were innocently unaware of that species of relativistic thinking which modern attitudes impose upon us; their sense of reality lacked the harsh rationalism which makes the people of today sceptical of recognising the authority of the past. More significantly, the Bible texts were interpreted allegorically, not only by Philo and Origen and the Alexandrian school of the second and third centuries, but by probably a significant majority of Jewish and Christian scholars until the end of the Middle Ages.
Allegory is now so out of fashion as an interpretative tool that it has virtually passed from the scene (and has become lodged in New Age speculations), but it is as well to remember that such a method accepted the diversity inseparable from human agency in the composition of texts,