In Orthodox theology, we use a particular method to interpret certain historical events in the Old Testament (OT). That method of interpretation is called typology. In each case, the events of the OT (the “Types”) prefigure future events that the Son of God will fulfill in His Incarnation, life, and ministry, as confirmed in the New Testament (which we call the Antitypes). In this post, we explore typology in a bit more depth and look at some examples of typology within the Scriptures.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Different levels of meaning
The Church believed that Scripture had different levels of meaning, from the literal, historical, and moral to the allegorical, typological, and mystical. A passage having one particular meaning did not mean it could not have another alternative meaning. Therefore, typology is simply one among many levels of interpretation employed when analyzing passages of Scripture. And through this lens, we can see how the Lord “sketched out” that which He would “accomplish under the new covenant” (St. John Chrysostom). Types are in action what prophecies are in words; through them both, the Lord reveals to us truths about Himself, His Mother, the Church, the Sacraments, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. John the Baptist: The first to confirm typology in the New Testament
It is within the NT that we see that typology is the key to understand the OT’s events and prophecies, which were “a shadow of good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). When Jesus approached him at the Jordan, St. John the Baptist exclaimed: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Here, St. John not only asserts that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 53:7), but also makes the first recorded public declaration linking the Person of Jesus with an OT event, the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover (Exodus 12:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18, 19). The ultimate sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God was also foreshadowed in type by Abraham’s offering of his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).
Typology in the Scriptures
Typological interpretations of OT events and persons saw them as prefigurations of events in Christ’s life, or other aspects of the NT. As St. Paul expresses 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.”
In the Gospels, Christ often refers to OT events that typologically pointed forward to Himself. These include the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15), the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:11-36; John 6:30-35; 47-51), and Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:1-11; Matthew 12:39, 40). Saints Peter and Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also reveal truths found in OT Types. Among these are Adam/Christ (Genesis 2:7-19; 15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22), Melchizedek/Christ (Genesis 14:18-20; Hebrews 6:19-20) and Noah and the Flood/Baptism (Genesis 7:1-8:19; 1 Peter 3:20-21).
Other types in the Scriptures
Here are some other examples of typology you can find in the Scriptures. Keep in mind, this list is not exhaustive, as the Scriptures abound with so many more examples of typological connections.
Genesis 37-50. Joseph was 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, saving the world from famine. Likewise, Christ dies and resurrects from the dead, saving the world from sin and death. Other parallels between Joseph and Christ include being betrayed for silver, being falsely accused, and facing false witnesses.
- Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac
Genesis 22. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to Him, which foreshadows God sacrificing His Son for mankind. When Isaac asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham prophesied, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
- The Jewish Tabernacle
Jesus describes himself as “the door”, and the only “way” to God, represented in the single, wide gate to the tabernacle court. Moreover, the various layers of coverings over the tabernacle represent Christ’s godliness (in the intricately-woven inner covering) and his humanity (in the dull coloring of the outside covering).
- The Burning Bush
As the bush burnt without being consumed, so the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Incarnate God without suffering any harm or losing her virginity.
Typology vs. Allegory
A lot of people mistake typology for allegory. But there is a distinct difference between the two. Typology stresses the connection between actual persons, events, places, and institutions of the Old Testament, and their corresponding reality in the New Testament which they foreshadowed. We went through a couple examples of this in the previous section of this post.
Allegory, on the other hand, finds hidden or symbolic meaning in the Old Testament, which is inherent in text. But allegory does not depend on a future historical fulfillment. Perhaps the best example of allegory in the Scriptures is the Song of Solomon, which the Fathers interpret as an allegory of God (the lover) and His love for his people (the beloved). Another example is 1 Corinthians 9:8-10, in which the law’s forbidding of muzzling an ox while it treads the corn has the hidden meaning that a minister of the Gospel should be supported by the people he ministers to.
The allegorical approach also often sees multiple correspondences in a given narrative that illustrate something. For example, St. Paul explicitly uses allegory in Galatians 4, in which he sees the child of the slave woman (Hagar) as representing those under the Law, while the child of the free woman (Sarah) as representing those under the New Covenant. Moreover, he sees the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael as representing the inferiority of the Old Covenant.
Typology is simply a method through which the Church Fathers, and we as Orthodox Christians, interpret the Scriptures. We see the events in the Old Testament foreshadowing and looking forward to the New Testament through types, revelations (theophanies), and prophecies. Conversely, we also see the New Testament pointing back to the Old through antitypes and fulfillment. It is through typology that we can see the true unity of the Two Testaments in the Scriptures, together one comprehensive Mystery that reveals to us our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Keep Reading: Why The Orthodox Kiss Icons