Levels of Meaning in Scripture

By George A. Boyd © 1993

Excepted from Religions, Cults, and Terrorism: What the Heck Are We Doing?

When we examine the meaning of scriptures, we discover there are two major approaches to understand them: exoteric and esoteric methods. Exoteric methods include literal, analogical and symbolic strategies for understanding the scripture.

Literal – a one-to-one correspondence is presumed, where words describe actual historical events and people’s experience of them. Symbolic material is interpreted factually. For example, the image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible (Revelations 6: 2-8) would be interpreted literally as four odd looking men riding on horseback.

Analogical or Metaphorical – the correspondence infers a deeper level of meaning, exemplified or personified by the person’s behavior on in the historical events. This same scripture may be metaphorically seen as representing Christ conquering by love and truth, followed by war, famine and death.

Symbolic or Metalogical – the correspondence is reduced to a cryptic code or pattern which can be uncovered and decoded by reason. The words or letters may be presumed to have specific hidden meanings, which are analyzed and evaluated separately. The words can be converted to numerical values, which are believed to refer to similar levels, or similar archetypes, within a spiritual cosmology. These may be correlated to other symbols that have similar meanings, such as astrological or mythic symbols.

Exoteric Methods are marked by an attempt to analyze, analogize, or penetrate the meaning from outside. Esoteric methods, by contrast, begin with a union with the scripture’s essence ideas, its core of truth, which is revealed or discovered within. Esoteric methods include revelatory, noetic, spiritual, and essential ways of knowing.

Revelatory – here the light of intuition reveals what the scripture means, and opens its multi-faceted purport. Revelation brings understanding of the scripture. This penetrating intuitive knowledge arises from the Superconscious mind, which a meditator may experience as an inner light or an inner voice. This type of knowing is also called Illumination.

Noetic – the attentional principle penetrates and enters into the essence idea of the scripture. The attention is fully focused on the idea, and as awareness opens to this band of the Great Continuum of Consciousness, different layers of meaning are uncovered. This type of knowing is called contemplation.

Spiritual – the spirit travels the path of the Nada to the level of the essence idea. This brings understanding to the spiritual heart. This type of knowing is called spiritual insight.

Essential – the ensouling entity unfolds along its Path and becomes one with the mystery revealed by the scripture. This brings about essential knowledge, awakens the faculty of wisdom. This type of knowing is called Unitive Wisdom, or Samadhic Knowledge.

Exoteric and Esoteric Approaches to Symbols

Literal interpretation interprets symbols as objects. This type of interpretation views the scriptures as actual fact; hence this interpretation is held to be infallible truth. Literal interpretation of scripture leads to fundamentalistic and authoritarian belief structures, marked by black and white thinking, an unwillingness to countenance any other interpretation of the passages, and an insistence that others must believe the way that they do.

Analogical methods often convey their truths by means of stories or metaphors. Wisdom tales, parables and fables are examples of the analogical method. The wisdom tale recounts the exploits and teachings of saints and sages. The parable uses common examples to make deeper truths clear. Fables commonly use animals or fairy tale characters to reveal insights. The meaning of the symbol is seen to be a simile or metaphor.

Symbolic or Metalogical methods attempt to uncover the hidden meaning in scriptures by analysis. These methods include using:

  • Anagrams – there are letters that stand for words. Christ could be made into an anagram, for example, of Courage, Hope, Inspiration, Saintliness and Truth.
  • Cryptographs – this method rearranges letters of words. The innocent term Santa, in Santa Claus, may be ominously rearranged to spell Satan, which may lead to other associations or correspondences.
  • Gematria – this method assigns numerical values to Hebrew letters, and then finding words that add up to the same amount. These are purported to refer to a similar level or archetype on the Tree of Life, or Kabala.
  • Correlation – this associates symbols to other symbols. For example, a symbol may be assumed to correspond to another symbol found in astrology or alchemy, to the purported meaning of a number in numerology, or to one of the tarot cards. This relates different ideas to pull out associated threads of meaning.
  • Linguistic analysis – this follows the changes of words over time as they migrate from one language to another, or come to mean different things in new cultural contexts. The word messiah, for example, referred to someone who was anointed by chrism oil by the Hebrew king. Later, it referred to a secular warrior king, who was expected to deliver the Jewish people from Roman bondage. Christians identified Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and point to how he fulfills Biblical prophecy of the Savior and Deliverer.
  • Hermeneutics – this examines the meanings of scripture by looking at different translations or previous interpretations by other scholars. The same text may be compared in different versions of the Bible, or its translations from Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic contrasted.

Esoteric methods often view symbols as a template, from which many other meanings can be gleaned. As a meditator contemplates a symbol, different associations and ideas may occur to him.

Alternately, symbols may be seen as markers of stages on the path. For example, those who enter the sixth Subplane of the Second Planetary Initiation see the vision of the Heavenly City or New Jerusalem.

Symbols as markers of stages on the path may be used to as a guide to the spirit, which opens the Path of the Nada to the level where that symbol dwells in the Plenum. They may also be used as markers of stages of Initiation for the Soul, which becomes One with the symbol in the state of Samadhi.

If we hope to penetrate beyond the outer veil of exoteric understanding, we must find the keys to unlock the Superconscious intuition, the attentional principle, the spirit and the Soul. Those who learn to meditate gain access to these esoteric methods of understanding the symbols of scripture. Jnana Yoga methods activate the intuitive or revelatory mind and awaken contemplative understanding. Nada Yoga stimulates spiritual insight. The transformational methods of Mantra Yoga and Guru Kripa Yoga bring about Unitive Wisdom.

We teach these esoteric methods in the in-person Mudrashram® Master Course in Meditation and the by-mail and online Accelerated Meditation Program, and invite our readers to learn them to enhance their ability to understand the scriptures of their faith.