Typology (theology)

Typology (theology)
The Ascension from a Speculum Humanae Salvationis ca. 1430, see below.

Typology (Greek tupos, a.k.a. figura in Latin) in Christian theology and Biblical exegesis is a doctrine or theory concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Events in the Old Testament (a term linked with Supersessionism, see Hebrew Bible) are seen as pre-figuring events or aspects of Christ in the New Testament, and, in the fullest version of the theory, that is seen as the purpose behind the Old Testament events occurring. The theory began in the Early Church, was at its most influential in the High Middle Ages, and continued to be popular, especially in Calvinism, after the Protestant Reformation, but in subsequent periods has been given less emphasis.[1]

Typology, derived from the Greek word for "mark", posits that Old Testament events or statements are the "types" pre-figuring an aspect of Christ and his revelation, who is the "archtype" to each type. The Early Christians, in considering the Old Testament, needed to decide what its role and purpose for them was, given that Christian revelation and the New Covenant might be considered to have replaced it, and many specific Biblical rules and requirements in books like Leviticus were no longer being followed. See also Leviticus 18.

One purpose of the Old Testament for Christians was to demonstrate that Christ's first coming had been prophesised and foreseen, and the Gospels already contain many passages that explicitly and implicitly link Jesus to old Testament prophecies. Typology greatly extended the number of these links by adding to those based on phrases in the Old Testament others based on the similarity of Old Testament actions or situations to an aspect of Christ.

Typology is also a theory of history, seeing the whole story of the Jewish and Christian peoples as shaped by God, with events within the story acting as symbols for later events - in this role God is often compared to a writer, using actual events instead of fiction to shape his narrative.[2]


Origins and development

What is referred to as Medieval allegory began in the Early Church as a method for synthesizing these seeming discontinuities between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament. While both testaments were studied and seen as equally inspired by God, the Old Testament contained discontinuities for Christians, for example, the Jewish kosher laws and male circumcision. The Old Testament could therefore be seen in places not as a literal account, but as an allegory, or foreshadowing, of the events of the New Testament, in particular how the events of the Old Testament related to the events of Christ's life. Most theorists believed in the literal truth of the Old Testament accounts, but regarded the events described as shaped by God to provide types foreshadowing Christ. Others believed that some parts of the Bible are essentially allegorical; however the typological relationships remain the same whichever view is taken. The doctrine is stated by Paul in Colossians 2:16-17 - "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." It also finds expression in the Letter to the Hebrews.

The development of this as a systematic view of the Hebrew Bible was influenced by the thought of the Hellenistic Jewish world centered in Alexandria, where Philo and others viewed the Bible in philosophical terms(foreshadowing was a then famous literary devise among the Greeks) as essentially an allegory. Even borrowing some Platonic concepts from their Pagan neighbors. The system was Christianised by Origen, and spread by figures including Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose. Saint Augustine recalled often hearing Ambrose say that "the letter kills but the spirit gives life" and he in turn was a hugely influential proponent of the system, though also insisting on the literal historical truth of the Bible. Isidore of Seville and Rabanus Maurus were influential as summarizers and compilers of works setting out standardized interpretations of correspondences and their meanings.[3] Jewish typological thought has continued to develop in Rabbinic literature, including the Kabbalah, with concepts like the Pardes or four approaches to a Biblical text.

Jacob's Ladder from a Speculum Humanae Salvationis ca. 1430, pre-figuring the Ascension above

Typology was very frequently expressed in art; many typological pairings are found in sculpture on cathedrals and churches, and in other media. Popular illustrated works expounding typological couplings were among the commonest books of the late Middle Ages, as illuminated manuscripts, blockbooks, and incunabula (early printed books). The two most successful compilations were the Speculum Humanae Salvationis and the Biblia pauperum.

Example of Jonah

An example of typology is the story of Jonah and the fish from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament Jonah told the men aboard the ship to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard. Jonah told them that by taking his life, God’s wrath would pass and the sea would become calm. Subsequently Jonah then spends three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish before he is spat up onto dry land. Typological interpretation of this story holds that it prefigures Christ's burial, the stomach of the fish being Christ's tomb: as Jonah was freed from the fish after three days and three nights, so did Christ rise from His tomb after three days and three nights. In the New Testament Jesus can be thought to invoke Jonah as a type: “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, "This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Luke 11:29–32 (see also Matthew 12:38–42, 16:1–4). Jonah called the belly of the fish "She'ol," the land of the dead (translated "the grave" in the NIV).

Thus, whenever one finds an allusion to Jonah in Medieval art or Medieval literature, it is usually an allegory for the burial and resurrection of Christ. Another common typological allegory entails the four major Old testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel prefiguring the four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or the twelve tribes of Israel foreshadowing the twelve apostles. There was no end to the number of analogies that commentators could find between stories of the Old Testament and the New; modern typologists prefer to limit themselves to considering typological relationships that they find sanctioned in the New Testament itself, as in the example of Jonah above.[4]

Other Old Testament examples

Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant[5]. In the Sermon on the Mount he commented on the Law. Some scholars consider this to be an antitype of the proclamation of the Ten Commandments or Mosaic Covenant by Moses from mount Sinai.

Sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis Chapter 22 brings us the story of the preempted sacrifice of Isaac. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him, cited as a foreshadowing of God sacrificing His Son. When a suspicious Isaac asks his father “where is the lamb for the burnt offering” Abraham prophesied "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And indeed a ram caught by its horns awaited them, which is also seen as a type for Christ, the lamb that God provides for sacrifice.


Genesis Chapters 37-50 has the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is commonly cited as a Christ type in the story[6]. Joseph is the only son (at that time) of his mother and a very special son to his father. From his father’s perspective Joseph dies and then comes back to life as the ruler of Egypt. Actually Joseph’s brothers deceive their father by dipping his coat in the blood of a sacrificed animal. Later Joseph’s father finds that not only is Joseph alive but he also is the ruler of Egypt that saves the world of his day from a great famine. Other parallels between Joseph and Jesus include, both are rejected by their own people, both became servants, both are betrayed for silver, both are falsely accused and face false witnesses. Additionally, both attain stations at the "right hand" of the respective thrones (Joseph at Pharaoh's throne and Christ at the throne of God), and both provided for the salvation of gentiles (Joseph a physical salvation in preparing for the famine, while Christ provided the deeper spiritual salvation). Finally, Joseph married an Egyptian wife, bringing her into the Abrahamic lineage, whereas Christ's relationship with the church is also described in marriage terms in the New Testament.


Moses, like Joseph and Jonah, undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection. Moses is placed in a basket and floated down the Nile river, and then is drawn out of the Nile to be adopted as a prince (floating the body down the Nile river was also part of an Egyptian funerary ritual for royalty).[7]

While in the wilderness, Moses put a brazen serpent on a pole which would heal anyone bitten by a snake who looked at it (Numbers 21:8). Jesus proclaimed that the serpent, was a type of Himself, since "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up" (John 3:14) and "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." (2Co 5:21)

In a battle with the Amalekites, Exodus 17:11 states that "as long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning." Commentators interpret Moses' raised hands as a type of Jesus' raised hands upon the Cross, for when Jesus' hands were raised as He died, a figurative battle with sin was waged, the end result being victory - that "all will be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)

Inanimate types

Other types were found in aspects of the Old Testament less tied to specific events. The Jewish holidays also have typological fulfillment in the life of Christ. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. Furthermore, many people see the Spring Feasts as types of what Christ will accomplish in his first advent and the Fall Feasts as types of what Christ will accomplish in his second advent.

The Jewish Tabernacle is commonly seen as a series of complex types of Jesus Christ: for example, Jesus describes himself as "the door"[8], and the only "way" to God [9], represented in the single, wide gate to the tabernacle court; the various layers of coverings over the tabernacle represent Christ's godliness (in the intricately-woven inner covering) and his humanity (in the dull colouring of the outside covering)[10] The Showbread prepared in the Temple of Jerusalem is also seen as a type for Christ.

Post-biblical usage

As Erich Auerbach points out in his essay "Figura", typological (figural) interpretation co-existed alongside allegorical and symbolic-mythical forms of interpretation.[11] But it was typology that was most influential as Christianity spread both in late Mediterranean cultures, but also in the North and Western Euoprean cultures.[12] Auerbach notes that it was the predominant method of understanding the Hebrew scriptures until after the Reformation—that is, that the Hebrew texts were not understood as Jewish history and law but were instead interpreted "as figura rerum or phenomenal prophecy, as a prefiguration of Christ".[13] Typological interpretation was a key element of Medieval realism, but remained important in Europe "up to the eighteenth century".[14]

Further, typology was extended beyond interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures and applied to post-Biblical events, seeing them as "not the ultimate fulfillment, but [...] a promise of the end of time and the true kingdom of God."[15] Thus, the Puritans interpreted their own history typologically:[16]

Applied more liberally and figured more broadly, typology expanded into a more elaborate verbal system that enabled an interpreter to discover biblical forecasts of current events. Thus, the Atlantic journey of the Puritans could be an antitype of the Exodus of the Israelites; and the New England colony, a New Zion, to which Christ may return to usher in the Millennium. The first settlers were conservative, cautious typologists, but as Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Saviour in New England (1654; composed c. 1650) demonstrates, by the 1640s New England's sacred errand into the wilderness and the approaching Apocalypse were accepted antitypes of sacred history.[17]

In this way, the Puritans applied typology both to themselves as a group and to the progress of the individual souls:

Applied more broadly, typology enabled Puritans to read biblical types as forecasting not just the events of the New Testament but also their own historical situation and experiences. In this way, individual Puritans could make sense of their own spiritual struggles and achievements by identifying with biblical personages like Adam, Noah, or Job. But this broad understanding of typology was not restricted to individual typing; the Puritans also interpreted their group identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, identifying their community as the "New Israel."[18]

Typology also became important as a literary device, in which both historical and literary characters become prefigurations of later historical or literary characters.[19]

See also


  1. ^ A Study of Biblical Typology (Wayne Jackson, Christian Courier)
  2. ^ Typology Washington State University
  3. ^ Emile Male, The Gothic Image , Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century, p 131-9, English trans of 3rd edn, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions)
  4. ^ Jackson, see above
  5. ^ for example Hebrews 8:6
  6. ^ Learn the bible site
  7. ^ Burial customs [1] [2] [3].
  8. ^ John 10:9
  9. ^ John14:6
  10. ^ CH Raven, God's Sanctuary, John Ritchie Ltd., 1991, ISBN 9780946351312
  11. ^ Auerbach, Erich. "Figura". pp.54-57.
  12. ^ Auerbach p.58
  13. ^ Auerbach p.53
  14. ^ Auerbach p.61
  15. ^ Auerbach p.58.
  16. ^ See for instance, Sacvan Bercovitch, Typology and Early American Literature, U Mass Press, 1972.
  17. ^ Emory Elliott, "New England Puritan Literature" p.188 at Donna Campbell's American Literature site at WSU
  18. ^ American Passages Unit 3 Glossary
  19. ^ Auerbach's essay treats of figuration in Dante. For a collection of essays on this topic, see Earl Miner, Literary Uses of Typology from the Late Middle Ages to the Present, Princeton U Press, 1977. Of especial interest in this volume are Robert Hollander's essay, "Typology and Secular Literature: Some Medieval Problems and Examples" (pp.3-19) and Barbara Kiefer Lewalski's "Typological Symbolism and the 'Progress of the Soul' in Seventeenth-Century Literature" (pp.79-114).

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