One of primary hermeneutical methods of the Orthodox Church when she reads the Old Testament is that of typology. The typological method of interpretation affirms the unified witness of both the Old and the New Testaments and that the two Testaments are inter-illuminating, as noted by Fr. John Breck, “the relation between the two Testaments is a ‘typological’ relationship, in which God’s promises of salvation, expressed by events in Israel’s history as well as by oracles of the prophets, will be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and in the life of the Church.”i By interpreting the Old Testament in this way the Orthodox Church is in hermeneutical continuity with the early Church; as witnessed by the way the New Testament texts make use of the Old Testament. The New Testament authors read the Old Testament ‘retrospectively’, a process described by G. K. Beale that happened, “after Christ’s resurrection and under the direction of the Spirit [where] the apostolic writers understood certain OT historical narratives about persons, events, or institutions to be indirect prophecies about Christ or the church.”ii As noted by both Breck and Beale the primary way the New Testament authors read the Old Testament, according to the typological method, was Christocentrically. Three ways that Jesus is seen to be the fulfillment of an Old Testament type are through direct associations, patterns, and echoes. An example of a direct association is found in Matthew 12:40-41 where Jesus proclaims, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Here Jesus is indicating that Jonah’s experience of being inside a great fish for three days was a foreshadowing – or a type – of His own death; which lasted three days. Likewise when He says in vs. 41 that, “indeed a greater than Jonah is here,” He identifies Himself as a new Jonah-like figure. Through the patterns of events and the echoes of language Jesus is likewise portrayed as a new Moses in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 2:13-14 it says, “now when they had departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’ When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt. This event follows a similar pattern in Exodus 2:15 where Pharaoh seeks the life of Moses – just as Herod sought the life of Jesus – and therefore had to flee his home and go into a foreign land – just as Jesus had to flee from Israel and go into the foreign land of Egypt. This association of Jesus with Moses is further emphasized by the echo of Exodus 4:19 in Matthew 2:19-20. In Matthew’s text it says, “Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” The angel’s words, and commission to return home, directly echo the words of the Lord to Moses in Exodus 4:19, “Now in those days, after some time, the king of Egypt died. So the Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.’” Since the New Testamen authors read the Old Testament Christologically they not only found types of Jesus in the Old Testament but also, as both Breck and Beale likewise affirmed, about the Church and other figures related to the Church. This can be seen clearly in the way that the Synoptic Gospels apply Isaiah 40:3-5 to John the Baptist and see him as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. Alongside this recognition of prophecy fulfillment in John the Gospel writers likewise portray John as an anti-type of both Ishmaeliii, Elijahiv, and Samuelv. The prophecy fulfillment of Isiah 40:3-5 by John was due to his relationship to Jesus – Who was, and is, the Lord Himself – so it was only natural that the Virgin Mary was also found within the pages of the Old Testament due to her relationship to Jesus. Just as John was found to be the fulfillment of a prophecy so the Virgin Mary was seen as the fulfillment to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, “behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel;” thus the prophecy is quoted in Matthew 1:23 and is applied to the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary. The pages of the Gospel not only present Mary as the fulfillment of prophecy but they also portray her as an anti-typical figure, being a new Hagarvi, Hannahvii, and Jaelviii. Seeing in the Virgin Mary the fulfillment of different Old Testament types within the pages of the New Testament allows us to approach the Old Testament with a Mariological lense to shed further light on her identity. When we approach the Scriptures with this Mariological lense we discover that the virgin birth was not only the subject of prophecy but had also been typified within the Old Testament; and not only her virgin birth but her perpetual virginity as well. Normally when the subject of the perpetual virginity of Mary is debated the discussion revolves around two issues from the Gospels, as the modern Orthodox writer Seraphim Hamilton explains, “There are two principal objections to the perpetual virginity of Mary. First, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are cited…The second objection to the perpetual virginity of Mary is that Matthew 1:25 says that “Joseph knew her not, until she had given birth to a son”, ostensibly implying that he did have conjugal relations with her afterwards.”ix While the discussions regarding these issues are importantx the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is more strongly established when rooted in a typological reading of the Old Testament. By examining texts from the early Church Fathers, the Orthodox lectionary, hymonography, as well as from the way the New Testament makes associations between Mary and other objects, we can see a fuller vision of Mary’s virginity and it’s perpetuity.
The Virgin Birth:
The apostolic work of interpreting the Old Testament typologically, and discovering Marian types, was continued by the early Church Fathers. One of the earliest, and most important, Church Fathers who presents Marian typology in his works is St. Irenaeus of Lyons. St. Irenaeus makes a connection between the virgin birth of Jesus and the creation of Adam from the untilled earth, “But whence, then, was the substance of the first formed? From the will and wisdom of God and from virgin earth – ‘for God had not caused it to rain’, says Scripture, before man was made, ‘and there was no man to till the ground’. So from this earth, while it was still virgin, God ‘took mud from the earth and fashioned man’ (Gen 2:7), the beginning of humankind. Thus the Lord, recapitulating this man, received the same arrangement of embodiment as this one, being born from the Virgin by the will and wisdom of God, that he might also demonstrate the likeness of embodiment to Adam, and might become the man, written in the beginning, ‘according to the image and likeness of God’ (cf. Gen 1:26).”xi Following the connection made by St. Paul between Adam and Jesus (who he calls in 1 Corinthians 15:45 the ‘Last Adam’) St. Irenaeus likewise sees Adam as a type of Jesus. He develops this Adamic typology even deeper by noting that he was created from ground which was untilled and upon which no rain had fallen. Adam is therefore born of God from out of the virgin womb of earth, typifying the birth of Jesus by the Spirit from the virgin womb of Mary.
A second type of the virgin birth is found in the prophecy of Daniel 2:44-45 (LXX), “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will not be destroyed forever, and his kingdom will not be left to another people. And it will pulverize and scatter all the kingdoms, and it will stand up forever; as you saw, a stone was cut from a mountain, not by hands, and it pulverized the earthenware, the iron, the bronze, the silver, the gold. The great God had made known to the king what must happen after this, and the dream is true, and its interpretation trustworthy.” This is the sixth scriptural lesson of the Great Vespers for the Nativity and Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc notes how it has been interpreted through a Mariological lens by patristic authors as well as in the hymnography of the Church, “Theodore of Cyrus interprets ‘not cut by hands’ as an indication of the virgin birth: ‘Therefore we are taught by both the Old and the New Testament that our Lord Jesus Christ has been designated by the stone. For he was cut out of the mountain without hands, being born of a virgin apart from any nuptial intercourse, and the divine Scriptures had always been accustomed to name him as having had his origin contrary to nature, the cutting out of a stone (Commentary on the Visions of the Prophet Daniel 2.34-35)…In the following herimos the emphasis falls on the ‘mountain of the Virgin’ bringing the Word forth: ‘For as a young babe from the mountain of the Virgin did the Word come forth to refashion the peoples’ (The Nativity, Matins, Ode Four, heirmos).”xii Just as in Irenaeus’ interpretation, which turned Mariological from his Christological approach, so Theodore and the hymnographer began with the New Testament motif of Jesus as the ‘stone’xiii and move onto seeing the mountain that the stone comes from as a Marian type. In both instances the connection made between the type and the Virgin Mary comes from the description of the type being untouched; whether Adam from untilled ground or the stone cut from the mountain without hands.
The Perpetual Virginity:
While the doctrine of the virgin birth is less controversial among Christiansxiv the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary has been a point of contention between the Orthodoxxv and many modern Christians for the last few centuriesxvi. While the texts of the New Testament themselves contain no explicit affirmation of the perpetual virginity of Mary nonetheless when applying a typological hermeneutic to the Old Testament the perpetual virginity shows up in numerous places.
The Church herself provides an example of Mariological typology in the dogmaticon of Friday Vespers in Tone 5, “in the Red Sea of old a type of the Virgin Bride was prefigured. There Moses divided the waters; here Gabriel assisted in the miracle. There Israel crossed the sea without getting wet; here the Virgin gave birth to Christ without seed. After Israel’s passage, the sea remained impassable; after Emmanuel’s birth, the Virgin remained a virgin. O ever-existing God who appeared as man, O Lord, have mercy on us!”xvii The hymn compares the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary with the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. In Exodus 4:22 God refers to Israel as His “firstborn son” and in multiple places in the New Testament Jesus is referred to as the “firstborn”xviii. The image of Israel crossing the Red Sea is in fact an image of a new birth from out of the womb of Egypt, as noted by Alastair Roberts, “In the morning, the Israelites passed through the bloodied doors and left Egypt. At this point, God establishes a new law, setting apart all of the firstborn of their animals and every son that opens the womb. The doors of the house are associated with childbirth elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 18:10; 1 Samuel 1:9; 2 Kings 4:15; 1 Kings 14:6-17); their opening is the occurrence of a new birth. As God brings his firstborn son to birth, he dedicates all of Israel’s firstborn sons to himself, and the firstborn sons of all who seek to destroy them die. Traveling out from Egypt, God brings the Israelites to the Reed Sea. The waters break and, through a narrow passage, the Israelites emerge blinking into the dawn of a new world of freedom, drawn out from the womb of Egypt. The waters then close over the sons of the Egyptians. As with the birth of Samuel and the news of Jesus’s birth, this event is greeted with rejoicing and song (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55).”xix The hymn makes the connection between Jesus and Israel as the firstborn and then moves on to see the opening of the Red Sea as a type of the opening of Mary’s womb. Since only Israel was able to pass through the opened sea, with it closing in after their crossing, it serves as a proper type of the perpetual virginity of Mary; since it was only Jesus Who passed through the womb of Mary.
One of the Old Testament readings prescribed for the Vespers of both the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Dormition is Ezekiel 43:27-44:4. At the beginning of the forty fourth chapter the text says, “and he turned me by the way of the outer gate of the holies that looks to the east and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall go through it, because the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter through it, and it shall be shut.” That this text is read on the eve of Marian feasts reveals the recognition of a Marian type by the Church. Here the temple is seen as a type of the Virgin Mary and the gate which only the God of Israel shall go through is a type of the Virgin’s womb. Just as the gate of the temple shall be shut once the God of Israel has entered through it so the Virgin’s womb was closed after Jesus passes through it. Commenting on this text Walther Zimmerli states, “with regard to men a clear ruling has been given: no human foot shall cross the threshold over which Yahweh passed to His sanctuary.”xx By virtue of the indwelling of the Word of God within the womb of Mary she becomes a new sanctuary; and since the Lord has passed through the threshold of His sanctuary, the Holy Theotokos, no human foot shall pass through and the gate of her womb shall be shut.
The Gospel of Matthew is full of typological connections between Jesus and the figures of Israel. Matthew 1:20-21 the angel of the Lord says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…she will bear you a son and you will call his name Jesus.” This echoes the language of Genesis 17:19 where God says to Abraham, “Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac.” Here we see Matthew presenting Jesus as a new Issac, a connection made elsewhere in the New Testament as wellxxi, which in turn presents Mary as a new Sarah, and as Leroy Huizenga notes, “Sarah, after all, had one and only one son.”xxii While the typological connection between Sarah and Mary is imperfect – since Sarah was elderly, barren, and her conception of Isaac is natural – it’s unnecessary for every detail in a type and the anti-type to be identical. In this case the connection is between two details, the son of the promise and him being the only son of his mother. In the Gospel when Jesus speaks about His coming death and resurrection as being the sign of Jonah it doesn’t imply that all the details of Jonah’s life correspond with His own but rather He declares that someone greater than Jonah is herexxiii. Likewise is the connection between Sarah and Mary it would be appropriate to style Mary as one greater than Sarah.
In Luke 1:35 when the angel of God announces to Mary that she will conceive the Son of God he says to her, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” The language of being overshadowed echoes Exodus 40:29 where the glory of God overshadows the tabernacle, “but Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of testimony because the cloud overshadowed it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Within the tabernacle the glory of God rested between the two golden cherubim on top of the ark, as Exodus 25:22 relates, “there I will make Myself known to you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of testimony, about everything I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.” The image of the glory of God overshadowing the ark of the covenant presents Mary as a new ark – an ark of the new covenant – with the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. Mary can likewise be seen as an ark of the new covenant when examining the items that were placed inside the arkxxiv as well as comparing the stories of David retrieving the ark from the Philistines and Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.xxv The significance of the ark typology for the perpetual virginity of Mary is the fact that once the glory of God had overshadowed the ark no man was permitted to touch the ark. Just as no man was to touch the ark of the covenant, for the Lord Himself was enthroned upon the ark, so because the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary and the Word of God was enthroned within her womb so should no man touch the sanctified womb of the Holy Theotokos.
The typological connection between the tabernacle and Mary is not only limited to the ark of the covenant but Mary can be seen to be a fulfillment of the tabernacle itself. In an oration on the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos St. John of Damascus speaks about the tabernacle as being a type of the Virgin Mary, “let the tabernacle that was entirely covered with gold recognize that it cannot compare with her, along with a golden jar which contained manna, a lampstand, a table, and all the other objects from long ago. For they have been honored as her types, as shadows of a true archetype.”xxvi A further connection can be made specifically between the holy of holies and the Virgin Mary, as is identified by St. Germanos of Constantinople, “Today, she who is about to be welcomed by the sanctity of the Spirit into the holy of holies; she, who was raised in a most marvelous way beyond even the glory of the cherubim, is stored up in a most holy way and gloriously in the holy of holies, for a greater sanctity, at an innocent and impressionable age.”xxvii The sanctity of the holy of holies was due to the indwelling of the glory of God and therefore the Virgin Mary possessed a greater sanctity by virtue of the conception of the Word of God within her womb. The Gospel of John likewise makes a connection between Mary’s virginal womb, Jesus’ tomb (which no man had been laid in before), and the holy of holies.xxviii The importance of recognizing Mary as a new holy of holies is that only the high priest was allowed the enter the holy of holies; and only on the day of atonement to make purification for the sins of Israel. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus as the Great High Priest and since the womb of the Virgin Mary is a new holy of holies it is fitting that only Jesus, as the Great High Priest, enters into her womb.
The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary cannot only be based upon the arguments made about the exact meaning of certain Greek words. While the literal meaning of the text is necessary in upholding a biblical understanding of the Virgin Mary it is of the up-most necessity then that this is supported by a typological view of the Virgin Mary; following the approach of the apostolic authors and the early Church Fathers themselves. When examining the Virgin Mary through typological eyes we can see the perpetual virginity of Mary with a clarified vision who’s womb is the impassable sea through which only the firstborn Son of God passes through, the east gate through which only the God of Israel enters in, the new Sarah who’s only child is the Son of the promise, the ark of the new covenant which no man can touch, and the new holy of holies where only the Great High Priest has access.
iJohn Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, p. 22.
iiG. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012, p. 14.
iiiCompare Genesis 21:20, “Thus God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the desert, and became an archer,” (speaking about Ishmael) with Luke 1:20, “So the child grew and became strong in the spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
ivIn 1 Kings 21 the King Ahab takes a vineyard that belongs to someone else and is confronted by the prophet Elijah. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark it is noted that the King Herod took his brother’s wife as his own and is confronted by John the Baptist. Likewise a comparison of 2 Kings 1:8, “he wore a garment of haircloth, and a girdle of leather around his loins, “ (speaking of Elijah) with Matthew 3:4, “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” (speaking of John the Baptist) shows another connection between John and Elijah.
vIn 1 Samuel 16 the prophet Samuel anoints David as the new King of Israel and the Spirit of God comes upon David. In the Synoptic Gospels John the Baptist baptizes Jesus and the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus (for further parallels between Samuel and John simply compare the infancy narratives of both – 1 Samuel 1-2:10 and Luke 1:2-25, 57-80).
viCompare the story of Genesis 16:11-12 where an angel of the Lord announces to Hagar the birth of her son Ishmael with Luke 1:26-38 where an angel of the Lord announces to Mary the birth of her Son Jesus.
viiCompare Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 with the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.
viii The Angel’s words in Luke 1:28, “blessed are you among women,” echo Judges 5:24, “Jael is blessed among women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; Blessed is she from among the women in the tents.”
xAnd in the author’s opinion the evidence weighs more strongly on the perpetual virginity of Mary when further reasearch is done on these two issues.
xiIrenaeus, Epid. 32(SC 406: 128).
xiiEugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 245-246.
xiii Such as in Mark 12:10-11, Matthew 12:42, and Luke 20:17.
xivThough there are many within liberal scholarship who denounce the virgin birth as a fabrication (see for example Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009, p. 78-82).
xvAs well as Roman Catholics and some traditional Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists (among others).
xviThough from the time that the doctrine has been discussed – beginning in the second century with the Proto-Evangelium of James – the perpetual virginity had been an accepted doctrine; being advocated by such luminary figures such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Jerome (among others) – with only a minor number of detractors (for a discussion of the fourth century debate over the perpetual virginity of Mary see Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016, p. 170-172.
xvii Quoted in John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, p.65.
xviii See for example Colossions 1:15, Hebrews 1:6, and Romans 8:29.
xxQuoted in Eugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 229.
xxiSt. Paul sees Jesus to be the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and his seed; Galatians 3:16, 29.
xxiv A Jar of Manna, Aaron’s budded staff, and the tablets of the Law (all of which are types of Jesus: the Bread from Heaven, the Great High Priest, and the Word of God Himself.
xxvi Oration found in: Mary B. Cunningham, Wider than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008, p. 62.
xxvii Mary B. Cunningham, Wider than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God, p. 147.
xxviii The tomb of Jesus in the Gospel of John after His resurrection is presented in symbolism that brings the holy of holies to mind: the two angels on either side of the tomb recall the golden cherubim on the sides of the ark of the covenant, the linen grave clothes left behind recalls the linen clothes of the high priest that he took off and left behind in the holy place. The connection between this tomb and the virgin womb is precisely in the language of John 19:41 where it describes the tomb as being, “new in which no one had yet been laid.” Likewise St. Ephrem the Syrian sees a connection between the sealed womb of Mary and the sealed tomb of Jesus (see John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006, p. 134-135).