Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus’ apostles and followers were often confused by his parables. Throughout the Gospels, we find the apostles sheepishly asking Jesus to interpret for them the parable he had just preached publicly. Among the enigmatic statements of Jesus, the sign of Jonah must have been utterly baffling for those who heard it. Yet from our perspective, this statement feels easier to interpret than other parables, like some of those read during Lent. Jesus is the Son of the Man, and after his Crucifixion, he was buried in the earth and rose again after three days. The “sign of Jonah” points to the Crucifixion, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus’ own statement, Jonah and his three days in the belly of the whale becomes a type for the three days Jesus was buried near Golgotha before his Resurrection. Interpreting Old Testament people, places, or events as pointing to ones in the New Testament, usually, Jesus Christ himself is called typology, and is one of the most important ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible. In commemoration of this Friday’s “Remembrance of the Prophet Jonah,” this week we will explore the method of Biblical interpretation known as typology. Typology illuminates how the Old Testament is a continued source for Christian theological thinking and how typological interpretation is central to many of our most important Armenian Christian sources.
Biblical interpretation—commenting on, explaining, further exploring, or trying to understand—is something that any reader of the Bible undertakes every time they open to a passage and try to make sense of it or figure out how to apply it to their own life. It has also developed over the years into an important genre of Christian writing and a subset of academic theology. Two technical terms for Biblical interpretation are exegesis, which emphasizes expounding a text, and hermeneutics, which emphasizes the problem of understanding. Both exegesis and hermeneutics can be applied beyond Biblical interpretation, but both practices developed out of the specific task of interpreting Scripture. Interpretation is as old as the Biblical texts themselves: Jewish scholars had developed traditions of Biblical commentary before the Christian era. The Mishnah is a kind of commentary on the legal provisions found in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Christian Bible. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates that he is a skilled exegete, a commenter and interpreter on Scripture. Thus, Biblical interpretation begins concurrently with the Christian Bible. There are even some scholars who would insist that there is no text that is not simultaneously interpreted, that it is impossible to “directly access” “just the text.”
If this sounds academic, recall that some of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the Christian Church have been connected to the debate over how to read the Bible. At the heart of the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of sola scriptura, “only Scripture,” which rejects any authority for the interpretation of scripture beyond the individual believer. In essence, sola scriptura asserts “just the text” and the believer. While the Protestant Reformation is perhaps the most notorious schism over the question of Biblical interpretation, the early Christian church was roiled by the heretic Marcion, who asserted that God the Father whom Jesus speaks of in the New Testament is distinct from the Yahweh of Jewish Scripture. He rejected what became known as the Old Testament. In other words, Marcionism was as much about how to read the Old Testament in light of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as it was about the character of God.
Throughout Christian history, there have been schools of thought, methods, and debates about how to read the Bible. As we have mentioned before, Alexandria and Antioch, two of the great early Christian centers and sources, have become associated with two different methods of interpretation: Alexandria with the allegorical and Antioch with the literal. Another classic list of methods of interpretation was first suggested by Origen, an important Alexandrian thinker of the second and third centuries. It was developed later in the Christian West by John Cassian and became solidified as the “four-fold” senses of scriptural interpretation common throughout the Medieval Christian West: literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. Recent developments in the academic study of theology have led to new “schools” of Biblical interpretation, such as the historical-critical method. Neither the new developments nor the older standard Christian versions fully capture the ways Armenian sources have interpreted scripture, however.
|Exegesis and Hermeneutics in the Churches of the East||Edited by Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian, this collection details methods and practices of Biblical Interpretation in Eastern Christian Churches.|
|Against Marcion||Included in the collection Ante-Nicene Fathers, this important tract by the early Chruch Father Tertullian argues against Marcion for the unity of the God of the Old and New Testaments and thus for how to read the Old Testament.|
|The Historical-Critical Method||About the contemporary method of Biblical interpretation known as the “historical-critical” method. At St. Nersess.|
Starting with Jonah, “the sign of Jonah,” and the concept of typology may help us begin to develop the Armenian methods of interpreting scripture and the broader exegetical methods Armenian vartabeds and sources have deployed through the centuries. First, we should be clear that typology as a method of interpreting scripture is not unique to Armenians. In fact, Armenian sources treat types and typology a little differently from other Christian exegetes. We can see some of the salient characteristics of typological interpretation in Christ’s use of Jonah: one person, place, or event is the type, which points to another person, place, or event, such that the second is the ultimate meaning and fulfillment of the first. For Christian interpreters, Jesus Christ, as the Word of God and very principle of rational order in the created universe, is the fulfillment of all meaning. So, Jonah becomes a type of Christ, the ultimate meaning of Jonah’s three-day “burial” in the belly of the sea monster and his “rebirth” when the whale spits him out is, in fact, the three-day burial of Jesus and the Resurrection.
Note a few things about this typology. First, there is a one-to-one correspondence, such that there is a singular correct interpretation. Jonah is a type of Jesus and the fulfilled meaning of Jonah’s three-day sojourn is found in Christ’s Resurrection. Next, this form of typology is directional and moves forward in time. Typological exegesis developed largely through the application of Old Testament types for New Testament ones. It was a method of charting the fulfillment of older Jewish types in salvation revealed through Christ Jesus. The directionality is not only temporal (from older to newer) but also in terms of meaning: the point of the “sign of Jonah” is to help us recognize the importance of Christ’s Resurrection. It reveals little new about Jonah himself.
Armenian commentators developed a form of Biblical interpretation that resembles this typology but is much more wide-ranging and capacious. As Dr. Roberta Ervine has written, describing St. Gregory of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, Armenian interpreters made use of “the repetition of motifs,” not simply the major types like Jonah or the Sacrifice of Isaac, but any repetition. “Exegesis was associative,” she suggests. In other words, the Armenian use of typology is different from the typology described above in at least two important ways. First, there is more than one “correct” interpretation. Rather than Jonah merely prefiguring Christ, any associative connection of threes, of burials, of rebirth, can be connected within the logic of the type or motif. The ultimate fulfillment of the type of Jonah is, of course, Jesus Christ. Yet Jonah may help us think about Lazarus, or the burial of the patriarchs in Genesis may illuminate Jonah. Which leads to the second difference: there is not merely a one-directional movement in Armenian use of types. Jonah may look back to the burials of the Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac at the Caves near Hebron, or he may look forward to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Armenian exegesis moves through types and motifs in this associative manner described by Dr. Ervine.
Not all Armenian interpretation of scripture follows such a method and some Armenian vartabeds sometimes felt the more allegorical and associative methods of their colleagues went too far. We are here only delineating a major trend in Armenian interpretation of scripture, albeit one that was highly influential. This associative typology of Armenian interpretation was not the only mode of interpretation, but it exhibited a major influence on Armenian sources. We will have occasion, in future pieces, to explore more fully the depth of the Armenian exegetical tradition and questions of Biblical interpretation and hermeneutics more broadly. Beginning with “the sign of Jonah” offers the opportunity to explain one of the key methods of interpretation used in Armenian sources. This method develops across genres in Armenian literature, though it is most developed in the commentary genre.
Commentaries are the main genre of interpretative literature. First and foremost, they comprise commentaries on scripture itself. These include texts like St. Gregory of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs or St. Nerses of Lambron’s Commentary of the Wisdom of Solomon. This ancient Christian genre develops with some of the universal Christian saints and sources we have explored before, such as St. John Chrysostom’s set of homilies on the Book of Matthew, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s commentaries, or St. Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis. Often, Biblical exegesis occurred during sermons, as we see with Chrysostom. Later Armenian exegetes had a thorough grounding not only in Scripture itself but also in these earlier commentaries.
Within the commentary genre, Armenians did not limit themselves to interpreting only the canonical books of the Bible. While there are mystagogies in many Christian traditions, there are more extant Armenian commentaries on liturgical services than in any other Christian tradition. Khosrov Antsevatsi, the father of St. Gregory of Narek, was one of several who penned a commentary on the Divine Liturgy. Others wrote commentaries on the Daily Hours. Armenians extended the commentary genre beyond written texts to interpret the church buildings themselves. This demonstrates the flexibility of hermeneutics when it is understood as interpretation: anything that can be interpreted falls under the purview of hermeneutics.
Commentaries extended scripture, demonstrating that interpretation—hermeneutics—is more than the interpretation of texts. At the same time, exegesis in the Armenian Christian tradition was never limited only to the genre of the commentary. History writing used the typological method to interpret historical events, such as the Battle of Vartanatz. Eghishe used the Biblical tale of the Jewish Maccabees to help understand the martyrdom of St. Vartan and his companions. Perhaps the largest corpus of exegetical material in the Armenian Christian tradition is sung: the sharagans are commentaries and interpretations of scriptural passages, often psalms. Like the Armenian associative typological interpretation, we can see that Armenian interpretative practices themselves extend in multiple directions. Over the past few months, we have only begun to scratch the service of the wealth of sources relating to Armenian practices of interpretation. The “sign of Jonah” will point us to continued reflection on Armenian exegesis.
|The Blessing of Blessings||St. Gregory of Narek’s Commentary on the Song of Songs. Translated with an incredibly useful introduction by Dr. Roberta Ervine.|
|Commentary on the Wisdom of Solomon||By Nerses of Lambron, translated with an introduction by Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian.|
|Commentary on the Divine Liturgy||By Khosrov Antsevatsi, translated with an introduction by Dr. Peter Cowe.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see versions of commentaries and miniatures of famous Armenian exegetes!