TYPOLOGY
   Perhaps the single most important concept for understanding early Christianity and the Middle Ages is typology. No idea, concept, or viewpoint so exercised control over every aspect of the medieval world view; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that once you master the dynamics of typology, you can at some level understand any aspect of early Christian and medieval culture: art, architecture, theology, political theory, poetry, and so forth.

   For all this, the concept had a narrow and contentious beginning. As Christianity quickly became a religion of the Greeks and the Romans, that is, a non-Jewish religion, certain tensions began to grow between the cultures that the Greeks and Roman Christians grew up with and the Jewish culture and faith that is at the foundation of the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul of Tarsus is the earliest person to try to bridge the gap between the Judaism of Jesus of Nazareth and the culture of the European Christians; to do so, he borrowed a concept from Roman jurisprudence, "the spirit and the letter", to ameliorate to some degree the legal and ethical strictures of the Torah and the Jewish religion. This concept, as it was applied in Roman courts, made a rigorous distinction between the literal meaning of statute law and contractual obligations and the intent of the framers of that law or contract. So the law might demand that a murderer be punished, but the lawmakers may intend that certain types of murder are universally justified, such as killing an enemy in a war. This concept "the spirit and the letter" would become Paul's principle philosophical instrument for translating Christianity into its European form.

   However, this created new problems for later Christians. If, as Paul claims, the teachings of Jesus are sufficient for salvation, then what should be done with the sacred scriptures of the Hebrews? Were they, like the literal meaning of the Torah, dispensible? Bitter feuds arose; books were arguing one point or the other. One Greek writer, Origen, wrote a book detailing the contradictions between the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings of Jesus; he ultimately argued that the Hebrew scriptures should be tossed out of the new religion.

   What in the end saved the Hebrew scriptures, or what would eventually be called the "old testament," was a new way of reading these scriptures to harmonize the content of the old testament with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This new way of reading was typology. In Greek, typos means "a blow" or "a mark left by a blow" (in John 20.25, the mark of the nails in Christ's hands are called "typoi"), or "image" or "model." For instance, if someone paints a portrait of you, you are the "typos" of the painting. In typological interpretation, the events of the Hebrew scriptures are "types" of the events of the life and teachings of Christ, that is, the events of the old testament prefigure the events and ideas of the new testament. Not only do the events in, say Jonah , have a literal meaning, say "Jonah was in the whale for three days," they also have a typological meaning, that is , they refer to some aspect in the New Testament, say "Christ was in the tomb for three days." Do you see how this works? It operates on the principle of metaphor: two events are distinct in some way but are also similar in some other way, and the meaning of the one affects the meaning of the other.

   This is all, in essence, a theory of history. It is a history that is, literally, spoken by God. Like all language, the history spoken by God is rational, orderly, and has both a surface meaning (the letter, i.e., the events) and a deeper meaning (the spirit, i.e., the life and teachings of Christ). This speech (sacred history represented by the Old and New Testaments) by God has a beginning (Adam and Eve), a middle (all the history of the Old Testament), and a conclusion (the life and teachings of Christ). It is the conclusion that gives all the meaning and value to all that had come before. So the two primary poles of typological interpretation are:

a.) the literal meaning of the Old Testament, that is, the things that have happened as recorded in the Old Testament
and
b.) the allegorical meaning of the Old Testament, that is, the events in the life and teachings of Christ that are similar to the events in the Old Testament.
What does this mean? That all of Hebrew history is to be interpreted as some aspect or prefiguration of Christ's life and mission; the meaning of all previous history is contained in full in the New Testament.

You may have noticed, however, that history in fact did not conclude with the life of Christ. For the early Christians, this was not much of a problem. Both Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus make a few cryptic remarks about the end of history, but they do agree on one thing: they both state explicitly that the end of history will occur during "this generation." So all the early Christians believed that the final judgement and conclusion of history was quite literally about to happen and they didn't worry overmuch about how to deal with all the history occurring after the life of Christ. But as A.D. time began to pile up, it became evident that all these events had to be accounted for somehow, so typological interpretation was extended to include history following the life of Christ. What is the meaning of the events following Christ's death? Their meaning was to be found in the New Testament, that is, the historical events of A.D. time, including the present, are metaphors for events in the life of Christ. For instance, if you have three days to your finals, the literal meaning of that event is that you have to suffer for three days on Nestea and Doritos. The typological or spiritual meaning? Christ in the tomb for three days. Or, Christ in the wilderness for three days. This spiritual meaning of events after the life of Christ is called the "tropological" meaning.

   When history does come to an end, the universe will be disposed in a constant, stable order. What will this order look like? We've already been told in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the universe at the end of time will resemble every aspect of Christ's teachings and life: in typological interpretation, this is called the "anagogical" meaning.

   Saint Augustine further enriched this complex and amazing system of thought by including non-sacred history. The history of Rome, the history of Greece, the history of Egypt, and the history of Persia, all these are also speeches by God. What is the spiritual meaning of these histories? That's right: the life and teachings of Christ. So: Coriolanus besieges Rome for three days. What's the spiritual meaning? Christ in the tomb for three days. You're catching on.

   Here comes the cool part. If everything that has happened, that is happening, and is about to happen is a metaphor for the life of Christ, that is, can be understood by finding something similar in the New Testament to explain that event, what's to prevent you from relating things not to the New Testament but to each other? Check it out: you have three days to your finals and we've decided the tropological meaning of that event is "Christ in the tomb for three days." However, it's also like Jonah in the whale for three days. It's like Coriolanus besieging Rome for three days. Isn't that cool? The medievals who organized their entire world around this concept of typology lived in this vast network of interrelated events, this amazing tapestry in which everything was similar, related, intertwined, and all revolving around one center of meaning: the life of Christ which repeated itself in every detail of history and the circumstances of individual lives. This is what is being expressed in the rose windows of the cathedrals, the image of the typological universe:

   This window, from Notre Dame cathedral, is a pictorial representation of how the medievals thought the world and history was organized. How does this represent time or history? If you were to draw history, what would you draw? How would you compare your drawing of history with this medieval representation of time and history? Send your ideas to me.

   What spelled the end of this world view? It's hard to say. The discovery of the New World confronted Europeans with an entire set of human histories that were either unwritten or written in illegible languages. It seemed that an entire section of humanity was functioning outside God's grand typological scheme. But the concept also fell victim to new ways of understanding history, such as the non-typological histories written from the twelfth century onwards. The more militant Protestants still continued the tradition and brought it over to the New World, but it was a much more spartan and watered-down affair than the medieval version. During the late Renaissance and the Enlightenment, this version of history would be replaced entirely by an entirely new scheme which was derived from typology: historical progress.

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