Multiple Meanings

In contemporary times, people often debate about literal interpretations of different Biblical stories. For example, whether the world was created in a literal seven days or whether the term “day” in Genesis 1 might not correspond perfectly to the twenty-four-hourdays experienced on Earth.

The earliest Christians, however, did not hold to a strictly literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Because they believed that the Scriptures were wholly true and inspired by God, they believed that many stories of the Old Testament implicitly spoke about the truths that were revealed more fully in the events surrounding Jesus' life.

discussion question

What is typology?

In a Christian context, typology is way of reading the Bible in which Old Testament figures, events, or prophecies are interpreted through the lens of Jesus Christ. Practically speaking, typology allowed Christian interpreters to fully integrate some of the more difficult parts of the Old Testament in a Christian context.

The Church Fathers saw multiple meanings in every passage, especially in the lives of the great ancestors of the faith, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. They interpreted everything through the lens of Christ, and saw references to Jesus and Mary throughout the text.

In allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, passages contain additional meanings apart from the plain sense of the text. These meanings would have been readily understood within the whole context of faith. One of the most famous and universally accepted uses of allegorical interpretation was used in the Song of Songs, the great love poem of the Old Testament. This book was seen as not just a love poem between two individuals, but more profoundly, a love poem between God and Israel, God and humanity, or in later understanding, humanity and Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.

Typological interpretations allowed later thinkers to look back on earlier texts and to understand them as precursors of things that were yet to come. Typology was also used more broadly by many Christian thinkers to refer not only to the Old Testament, but also to elements of other religions, showing how they were all fulfilled in Christ.

One example of this kind of typological interpretation is Jonah, who was often viewed as a type of Christ because he spent three days in a dark, deathlike place (the belly of the fish) and then was brought back into the light of day. Similarly, the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 12) is understood to foreshadow Jesus' on the cross. Just as Abraham was called to offer his only son as a sacrifice, so too, according to Christian belief, God gave up his only son for the life of the world.

These typological and allegorical interpretations extended beyond Christ to his mother Mary, who came to be seen by the Church Fathers in many of the most significant events of the Old Testament. Typological interpretation allowed for a clear sense of Mary's significance as well as the way in which her actions helped to bring many of the Old Testament stories together into a more complete picture of creation, fall, and redemption.

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