Jesus, Jonah, and Typology (Part One)

“A typology is a belief that objects, events, persons, and institutions exist and occur in relationship to other corresponding objects, events, persons, and institutions. For earthly things, when considered antitypes, there are prior and corresponding heavenly prototypes or archetypes which were the patterns by which the earthly things were created.” George Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews: Translation, Comment and Conclusions, (Anchor Bible, 1972) xxiv-xxv.

I would add, and it is an important addition, that according to typology, the earthly antitype or copy is an imperfect reproduction of the type or original, and that in so far as the product has being or existence, it shares in the being of the original. One of the classic works on typology, but taken solely as a means of reading Scripture, is Leonhard Goppelt’s Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New. Published in German in 1939, not an auspicious year to be exploring new horizons in New Testament scholarship, it was translated into English, and published in 1982 as Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New.

There is a very good foreword by E. Earle Ellis, and Goppelt makes some important preliminary comments. But here I am going to dive straight into Chapter 4, which is titled: “The Synoptic Gospels and Acts: Jesus Christ.”

Jesus and Typology

It might surprise people to learn that Goppelt believed that the typological interpretation was well and truly alive in the days when the Lord was on earth, and that is why people said that He was like a prophet. Goppelt points out that:

The notion that history repeats itself is a pallid form of the typological approach. The fact that this notion was applied to Jesus is evidence of its vitality in his day: people thought that in Jesus “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets” had returned.” (62)

I omit the biblical references, but they are in the book. An important methodological point is that:

In Jesus’ relationship to the prophets of the Old Covenant there is a wealth of typological connections. These are indicated by direct quotations and by allusions which are often difficult to detect. We will begin with the clear passages in which Jesus is placed explicitly in a typological relationship to the OT prophets either by God or by Jesus himself. (62)

In other words, especially because this area is so new to people, Goppelt begins with what is clear, then works out to what is less evident. This is a good principle for approaching any problem in life.

Reading the Gospels with our luminous eye, we notice is how often Our Lord says that there is now something greater on earth. I suggest that this is central to the typological view of history: the heart of history is the life of the Lord. His life, mission, and sacraments, is right in the middle of the circle which is the universe and history. Whatever has happened or can happen in history, whether it occurred before or after the first century A.D., is a point on the periphery of the circle, and looks in towards the centre.[1] This is why the Gospels so often refer to the fulfilment of prophecy in the life of the Lord.

Jesus explicitly states that He is the Law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17) Then He commences a series of teachings: “you have heard … But I say to you” wherein the Old Testament teachings are perfected. (Matthew 5:21-48). This ends with a teaching which assumes a special meaning when one understands typology: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) It means to more fully live on earth in accordance with the pattern of heaven. This, incidentally, is the key to the Orthodox teaching on deification, which people so often find it hard to understand.

This idea of “perfection” is an essential feature: speaking of what Our Lord said about John the Baptist, Goppelt stated: “An era in God’s redemptive history corresponding to the former age gas come to an end. Now the kingdom of God has begun. What was vaguely hinted at in the former age has come to perfect fulfilment. In this comparison of Christ “the prophet” with the “Elijah who has returned,” it is clear that a genuine Christian typology is very different from the notion that the past will be repeated in a somewhat heightened form.” (64-65) This ancient interpretation tells us that we are seeing a movement from a lesser to a greater reality: when we see the type itself, we see the consummation of what had been prepared.

I am now going to show how reading with the luminous eye, we find three points of contact between Our Lord and the prophet Jonah; points of typological contact.

Jesus and Jonah: The First Point of Contact (Repentance and Judgment)

Jesus is alluding to the repentance of the people of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah 3:6-8, when He says “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 12:21). He said this, obviously, so that they would learn the lesson from history. The logic of what Our Lord says here is that there is a pattern in history, and we should learn from it.

Our Lord returns to this in Matthew 12:41-42 “At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the teaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.”

Goppelt says that in this passage: “… the typological connection is stated explicitly. Jesus compares his own influence in Israel with the preaching of the prophet Jonah in the heathen city of Nineveh. Both are a summons to repentance in God’s name, but “one greater than Jonah is here,” one who is greater than a prophet.” As with Jesus being greater than John the Baptist, this teaching is called by Goppelt typological heightening. The idea that history repeats itself contains “nothing that goes beyond the possibilities of the old.” But that is not typology. With typology, history does present us with something better. Goppelt says of Jesus that:

… the claim that something greater is here, something more than a continuation of the old, something that fulfils the old on a higher level. This makes it especially clear how the comparison of Christ and Jonah is related to the comparison of Christ and Solomon. … This comparison is not mere homiletical speculation. It indicates how God has ordered history and how he will view these people in the judgment, … The typological relationship of the saying and, consequently, its power to convince are based on the relationship between Jesus and Jonah. What gives the saying special poignancy is that it deals with heathen in the past, but with Israel in the present. This is what reveals the typological significance of the present moment: salvation and judgment are nearer now than ever before. (65)


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