There is a term in biblical Greek, τύπος, that translates into English as a “pattern,” or a “model,” or a “figure.” Typology became known as the study of those characters in Hebrew scripture whose lives or behavior appeared to mysteriously parallel the life or character of Jesus of Nazareth. Typology within the Christian faith is an ancient practice, dating back to the time of the Fathers of the Church and even to the time when the four Gospels were assembled. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, draws many parallels between the life of Jesus and Hebrew scripture.
Typological study fell out of favor in the late nineteenth-century and throughout the twentieth century as modern scholars, applying historical-critical methodologies, objected to typology on various grounds. Modern scholars have argued that typology projects a Christian understanding or bias onto Hebrew scripture, when the role of the scholar is to understand the document in the time it was written.
Consequently, the biblical scholar who engages in typology is accused of engaging in a sort of anachronistic exercise, where the views of a later generation are imposed on a text that should be understood in its own right. Scholars of the modern period (1850-2000), usually employed by state-sponsored or government-owned schools in Europe, have dismissed a fundamental premise of Christian biblical scholarship – namely that Christian’s are obliged to view Sacred Scripture through the hermeneutic of the life of Jesus. In other words, for a Christian, the Gospels become a key that unlocks meaning in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament.
Typology in the Old Testament
Many of the patriarchs of Hebrew scripture are understood to be types of the messiah, or Jesus Christ. Abel was slain unjustly by his brother Cain. Abraham was called to be a father of a great nation. Jacob, the younger brother, received the blessing of Isaac, and hence would also be destined to be the ancestor of a great nation. Moses, perhaps the most obvious archetype of the messiah, led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. David, once a shepherd boy and the slayer of a great enemy of the people of Israel, united God’s people under one king. Daniel, the prophet, was both wise and never known to have offended God.
Joseph, son of Israel
The account of Joseph, among the youngest sons of Jacob, has some typological features that parallel the life of Christ. However, the parallels with Jesus are not abundantly obvious for two reasons. First, Joseph was married, and lived long enough that he knew his great-grandchildren. Secondly, Joseph died a natural death, at a time when the people of Israel were relatively prosperous. Joseph was so well-regarded by his father that Joseph was granted two tribes of Israel – those of Ephrain and Manassah, his sons.
While the character of Joseph in the Book of Genesis is portrayed as being in his prime when he is young and charismatic, the fairly obvious parallels with the life of Jesus may yet evade the reader. The first reading (number 383) for the Wednesday of the fourteenth week of ordinary time introduces us to Joseph when he has already established himself as an officer of the court in Egypt, and his brothers seek his help due to a famine in Canaan (Israel).
The parallels with the story of Jesus are rather interesting in Genesis 28. Joseph’s brothers are locked up for three days, paralleling the time Christ spent in the tomb. Upon their release from jail, Joseph tells his brothers (who do not recognize him) that they must return to Canaan to bring back their youngest brother. The brothers publicly agree to do what they privately think is impossible – to bring their brother back from the dead. The brothers assume they had left Joseph for dead in a well, and now Reuben chides his brothers, and now the reckoning comes for his blood.
The Younger Brother
The parallel between Joseph and Jesus is best understood in the context of the biblical metaphor of the older and younger brother. In Genesis 4, Cain, in a fit of jealousy, slays his younger brother Abel. In Genesis 27, the younger brother Jacob receives his father’s blessing at the expense of Esau, who gives away his blessing for bowl of soup. In Genesis 37, Joseph, among the younger of his twelve brothers, is thrown into a well. In the Lucan Gospel, the prodigal son leaves his father, wastes his inheritance, returns to his father and in treated to a feast, while the older brother – intensely jealous – refuses to enter the tent.
When Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son, he tells us who the proverbial ‘older brother’ might be. The beginning of Luke chapter 15 begins thus:
…but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable…
and so Christ explains that the ‘older brothers’ are certain teachers of the law, and those who have been offered God’s covenant, but who nonetheless have hardened hearts. Cain was called by God, Joseph’s brothers were called by God, Esau was called by God, and the prodigal son’s older brother was called by his father. Yet, due to their stubbornness and selfishness, they rejected God’s call. Having squandered their inheritance and what rightfully belongs to them, the covenant is extended to the younger brother – Abel, Jacob, Joseph, the prodigal son, and Jesus.