Northrop Frye: The Bible and English Literature

The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 9

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University



I've been building up a pattern of imagery in the Bible, and the pattern of imagery is necessarily somewhat static as I outline it. But of course the Bible is a narrative as well as a structure of imagery: things happen; and I think we are at the point now where we need to examine some of the narrative structures in the Bible as well.

Now you remember that in almost the first lecture we suggested that the history of Israel in the Old Testament presents a series of falls and rises where Israel turns to apostasy and gets into trouble, is invaded or conquered by another country, and then is sent a deliverer after the Israelites have changed their minds, and is brought back to something approximating its former state. And this you might represent as a U-shape of falling and rising. That U-shape is found everywhere in the Bible, not only in the historical parts, but in such things as the Book of Job and Jesus' parable of the prodigal son.

We saw that there was a series of these narrative movements, and that the first historical one, that is, the one following the 'fall' out of the garden of Eden, is the descent into Egypt and subsequent deliverance of Israel. That sequence is the model for all the others. The captivity and the return from Babylon are thought of simply as a repetition of the deliverance from Egypt. Over and over again, in the Psalms and elsewhere, Jehovah says, 'I am the Lord thy God which brought thee out of the land of Egypt'.

Jehovah has actually been described by a German scholar as the 'out-of-Egypt-bringing-God'—which is the kind of thing Germans do. The deliverance from Egypt therefore is the model for everything else that happens. Part of the reason is that although usually the descent is an error or a sin—that is, an apostasy—on the part of Israel, this is not true with the Exodus account. The Israelites seem to have done nothing wrong, as far as we can see, in entering Egypt. But once they got there, the Pharaoh changed from the one to whom Joseph was an advisor to a later Pharaoh who was determined on genocide.

Once again, the Biblical account is a story, not a history, and it is not the historical Egypt that is the 'furnace of iron' from which Israel is delivered, but the spiritual Egypt. The deliverance from Egypt, which is where the history of Israel properly speaking begins, is the theme of the Book of Exodus. Now in a sense, the descent—whether it's caused by apostasy or not—is really not an event at all. If it's caused by infidelity to God, it's a pseudo-event, it's a failure to act. The deliverance, consequently, is the one thing that happens. As the Exodus is the model for every deliverance in the Old Testament, we can say that, metaphorically, the Exodus is the only thing that really happens in the Old Testament. Hence, in the Christian Bible, the Exodus would be, more than any other event in the Old Testament, the type of the most important antitype of Christianity, that is, the Resurrection of Christ.

I've tried to show that the progression of events in the Old Testament, although it deals with historical material, is not anything that we would call a history. Similarly, the life of Christ as portrayed in the Gospels, though it is the life of a real person, is not presented in any recognizable form of biography. The life of Christ is presented as the antitype, as the real form, the real meaning, of the story of the Exodus.

We begin with the story of the birth of the hero whose life is threatened. That is a story very much older than the bible: it was told about a Mesopotamian king, Sargon, centuries before the time of the Exodus. The story of Moses is that his birth was a threatened one: the Pharaoh of Egypt says that all male Hebrew children that are born are to be killed, which corresponds to the Slaughter of the Innocents in the New Testament, the two characters involved being the Pharaoh of the Exodus and Herod.

Now as a matter of fact, there were various massacres of children ordered by Herod, and one of his own sons was killed in one of them. The Emperor Augustus when he heard the news, remarking on the fact that Herod, although he was not a Jew, nevertheless observed the Jewish dietary laws, said that it was obviously much safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son. But in any case, one of these slaughters of innocents is identified with a particular slaughter from which Jesus escapes, just as Moses escapes in the earlier account.

You notice the similarity of Moses' being concealed in what is called an ark, a kibotos, and Jesus' being born in the manger. And then you remember that in the Gospel account, Jesus is taken to Egypt by Joseph and Mary. In the earlier account, Moses grows up in Egypt, and the names 'Joseph' and 'Mary' recall the 'Joseph' who led the Israelites into Egypt in the first place and the 'Miriam' who was Moses' older sister. In fact, there is a sura of the Koran that identifies the 'Miriam' of the Exodus story with 'Mary' of the Gospels. Naturally, Christian commentators on the Koran say that this is ridiculous: but we must remember that the Koran is speaking from a totally typological, ahistorical point of view; and from that point of view, the identification makes sense.

According to Matthew, Jesus was taken to Egypt to get him out of the way of Herod, but also to fulfill the prophecy in Hosea: 'Out of Egypt have I called my son'. It is quite clear that Hosea is talking about Israel, so that again the fact is established that the life of Jesus is being presented as an individualized form of the Exodus.

Moses organizes the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus gathers twelve disciples. The crucial event of the Exodus is the crossing of the Red Sea, where the Egyptian army is drowned, the event in which the nation of Israel is born, so that the story of Israel symbolically starts with the passing over the Red Sea. The corresponding event in the life of Jesus is the baptism in the Jordan, where he is recognized audibly as the Son of God. It is at the baptism that the two oldest gospels, Mark and John, begin: the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke are later material. I don't mean that John is the oldest Gospel as we now have it, but that the kernel of it is in fact older.

There follows the forty years wandering in the desert, as, immediately following the baptism, Jesus wanders forty days in the desert, the period which is commemorated in Lent and which was the period, according to the Synoptic Gospels, of the Temptation. By withstanding the Temptation, Jesus fulfills the law, which was also the reason for the forty years in the desert for the Israelites.

The law is received from the top of a mountain. So, in Matthew, is the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the kernel of so much of the gospel. And if you look carefully at the Sermon on the Mount, you will see that a great deal of it consists of a commentary on the Ten Commandments. There is also the miraculous provision of food, similar to the miraculous feedings during the ministry of Christ.

The Old Testament types of Judas are Korah, Nathan and Abiram, the people who are swallowed up in the earth because they led rebellions. The type of the Judas story is not so much in the Exodus as in the prophecy of Zechariah. In 11:12, God is represented as breaking his contract with his people: 'And I said unto them, If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, Cast it to the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the Lord'. Those two themes, the potter's field and the thirty pieces of silver, are connected in this prophecy of Zechariah, in which God is represented as being betrayed by his people and sold for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the Book of Exodus is the symbolic price of a slave.

In Numbers 21, there is an account of a rebellion of the Israelites against their leadership. And the Lord, who is always on the side of the establishment, 'sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died'. Verse 8: 'And the Lord said to Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived'. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to this lifting up of a serpent in the wilderness as a type of his own Passion. In other words, the brazen serpent on the pole is an Old Testament type of the Crucifixion, and is accepted by Jesus as such. The dead body of Christ on the cross is symbolically the body of the serpent of death and hell which Christ leaves behind him. Or as Michael explains to Adam in Paradise Lost: but to the cross he nails thy enemies,/The law that is against thee and the sins/Of all mankind'. Thus, the natural body dies on the cross and rises a spiritual body: the analogy is the serpent that sheds its skin.

We are then told that Moses dies in the wilderness. He climbs a mountain from which he can see the Promised Land, but he has already been told he cannot enter it because of the fact that he performed one of his miracles in a fit of bad temper: so his successor Joshua is the one who invades and conquers Canaan. Now the hidden link in the typology here is that Joshua and Jesus are the same word: 'Jesus' is simply the Greek form of 'Joshua'. Consequently, the conquest of the Promised Land is the same thing as Jesus' opening up of the spiritual Promised Land in his conquest over death and hell. From the point of view of Christian typology, the fact that Moses dies in the wilderness means, among other things, that the law alone, which Moses personifies, cannot redeem mankind. Thus, when, at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary to cal her child Jesus, or Joshua, the typological meaning is that the reign of the law is now over, and the assault on the Promised Land has begun.

Now this is the long version. There is also a short version, and the short version is even more important typologically. You remember that I gave you an account of the quest of Christ in the Bible that had him descending metaphorically from the sky down to the surface of this earth in the Incarnation: then came his death on the cross, descent to hell, harrowing of hell, return to the surface of this earth, and the Resurrection and the Ascension back to heaven again. Now that can split in two, if you like, and what we've been dealing with is very largely the parallel between the Exodus story and Christ's life in the upper air, that is, his descent to the Egypt of this world, his ministry, his death and his Resurrection. But then there is this whole underworld sequence which takes the three days and two nights of the Easter weekend. That sequence corresponds to the crux of the Exodus account, which consists of three main events. One is the Passover; the second is the passing through the Red Sea; and the third is the reaching of the other side. These correspond in the gospel account to the Crucifixion and death; the descent to hell, which is usually given in subterranean rather than submarine imagery, but is still the same imagery; and the Resurrection from the tomb on the third day.

I brought in a translation of an Easter hymn by St. Ambrose, which dates from the fourth century A.D. And it says, 'For these are our paschal solemnities, in which the very lamb is slain, by whose blood the doorposts of the faithful are made holy. This is the night in which thou, Lord, didst first lead our fathers, the children of Israel, out of Egypt and make them cross the Red Sea on dry foot. This is the night in which Christ broke the bonds of death and rose again as a victor from hell'. There's another hymn of the sixth century: 'Protected from the destroying angel on the eve of the Passover, we have been snatched from the harsh rule of Pharaoh. Now Christ is our Passover, the lamb that was sacrificed. Christ is risen from the grave, returning as a victor from hell'. The typology on which those hymns are based is this parallelism between the killing of the lamb as the sacrificial victim, which saves the life of the Hebrew children; the descent to hell, where the Egyptian firstborn were all killed, and later their army was drowned in the Red Sea; and then the passing through the sea, the deliverance from the water to the other side.

The Gospels could hardly insist more strongly than they do on the parallelism between the feast of the Passover and the time of the Crucifixion of Christ. That's written all over the Passion accounts in all the Gospels, and it contrasts rather strikingly with the determination of the time of Jesus' birth. There is no New Testament evidence whatever about what time of year Jesus was born, and as far as we can see, the Church seems to have been content to take the winter solstice festival from other religions. The great rival of Christianity in the early days was Mithraism, which was a sun-god religion; and in Mithraism, the most important event of the calendar was the winter solstice, the birthday of the sun, which was celebrated on the 25th of December. There are many reasons why the winter solstice date is a very good one for Christmas as well, but it's just possible that the fact that there's no Gospel authority for it accounts for the fact that Christianity has never established anything more than squatter's rights on Christmas. It's been a pagan festival from the very beginning.

I'm trying to get out from under that either-or dilemma, which I don't believe in. I think that it seems utterly clear that the Gospel writers are trying to tell us something: they are not trying to prevent us from knowing something else. But what they are trying to tell us is what, from their point of view, really happened. Now, a historian tries to put you where the event was. If he's talking about the assassination of Caesar, he tries to make you see what you would have seen if you'd been present at the assassination of Caesar. But if you'd been present at the Crucifixion of Christ, you might not have seen what the Gospels portray at all, because what you would have seen might have missed the whole point of what was really going on. You and I would have seen only a mentally unstable political agitator getting what was coming to him.

I don't think the Gospels are very interested in reliable witnesses. The only witnesses they care about are the early group of primitive Christians that formed around the Resurrection. They disregard the normal kind of historical evidence, accounts of travelers coming by and that sort of thing. That's what a biographer would pick, but the Gospel writers are not biographers. Mostly, the people like Thomas who wanted evidence were told to read the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. With Thomas, of course, the desire for visible and tangible evidence of the Resurrection was granted. But Thomas was also told that if he hadn't bothered with that kind of evidence, he might have understood the Resurrection more clearly. What I think that means is not that an uncritical attitude is closer to the truth than a critical one: I think what it means is that the more trustworthy the evidence, the more misleading it is.

The point that I want to return to when we come to the Book of Job is that no serious religion ever tries to answer anybody's questions, because in any serious or existential matter the progress in understanding is a progress through a sequence of formulating better questions. An authoritative answer blocks off progress; it blocks off all advance. The answer consolidates the assumptions in the question, and brings the process to a dead stop. That is what I mean when I say that the more trustworthy the evidence, the more misleading it is. Trustworthy evidence means a kind of authority that stops you from asking any more questions.

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani 

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University




We return in this program to the principle of typology first introduced in program 3. At the center of the Bible's typological organization of symbols is the life of Christ in the New Testament, considered as the antitype of which the story of the Exodus in the Old Testament is the type. There are two versions of this parallel. The long version is based upon Christ's ministry on earth, from his threatened birth to his death and resurrection, matched in the Exodus story by the order to slaughter the Hebrew firstborn males, the raising of the brazen serpent and the assault on the Promised Land. The short version is an underworld sequence in which the three days of the Passion correspond to the Passover, the drowning of the Egyptian army, and the passage of Israel through the Red Sea. Thus, the Bible is constructed as a 'double mirror': events in the Old and New Testaments reflect each other, and not any historical reality outside the Bible.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

1. The Exodus-Gospel parallel, long version:

Massacre of Hebrew Children

Slaughter of Innocents

Moses Escapes

Jesus Escapes

Moses Grows Up in Egypt

Jesus Taken to Egypt

Moses Organizes 12 Tribes

Jesus Gathers 12 Disciples

Crossing Red Sea

Baptism in Jordan

40 Years in Desert

40 Days in Desert

Law Received on Sinai

Sermon on the Mount


Miraculous Feedings

Brazen Serpent


Joshua Conquers the Promised Land


2. The Exodus-Gospel parallel, short version:



Passing Through the Red Sea

Descent to Hell

Reaching Other Side


Biblical Passages Cited

  • Exodus 1:16.—Pharaoh's order to slaughter all Hebrew male firstborn.
  • Matthew 2:16.—Slaughter of the Innocents.
  • Luke 2:7.—The manger.
  • Exodus 2:3.—The ark of bulrushes.
  • Matthew 2:14.—The flight to Egypt.
  • Hosea 11:1.—'I called my son out of Egypt' referring to Israel.
  • Mark 1, John 1.—The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
  • Exodus 14.—Crossing of the Red Sea.
  • Matthew 4:2.—Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness.
  • Deuteronomy 9:5.—'I have led you 40 years in the wilderness'.
  • Matthew 5—Sermon on the Mount.
  • Exodus 19.—The Ten Commandments given on a mountain.
  • John 6.—Miraculous provision of loaves and fishes.
  • John 6:49.—'Your fathers ate the manna of the wilderness'.
  • Exodus 17.—Water from the rock.
  • Exodus 16.—Manna.
  • Numbers 21:9.—Raising of the brazen serpent.
  • John 3:14.—The brazen serpent accepted by Jesus as the type of his own death.
  • Joshua 1.—Assault on the Promised Land by Joshua.
  • Matthew 1:21.—Mary told to call her child 'Jesus' or 'Joshua'.

The Teacher's Perspective

The importance of the principle of typology to the structure of the Bible is reflected, so to speak, in the 'double mirror' organization of The Great Code itself. It may make things clearer to the class to say that typology, however, is not so much a structural element itself, like myth and metaphor, but a dynamic informing principle by which those imaginative elements recreate themselves in an expanding series of contexts. It provides the energy by which the initial opposition between descriptive and metaphorical senses of Scripture is rescued from a situation of unimaginative deadlock and transformed into a dialectical process of expanding levels of meaning, polysemous meaning, to use the term employed for it by Dante. The teacher should stress that this program does not consist only of a set of resemblances: the real importance of the Exodus-Gospel parallel is that it holds latent within itself the principle that the entire meaning of the Bible is potentially present in any single Biblical passage: like the mustard seed in the parable, each verse is potentially a starting point for an expanding process, an opening out of vision according to the infinitely recreative power of the Word. The correlative section in The Great Code is its closing passage, pp. 220-33.

Typology is an aspect of the Bible's social concern, and may be considered an application of the pressure of that concern on the Bible's imaginative elements of myth and metaphor. It is easy to see this developing historically: out of the writings of the Church Fathers, engaged in the day-to-day tactical organization and administration of the Church through the centuries, emerged the science of scriptural interpretation, called hermeneutics in its later developments. As sects and heresies multiplied according to whether they inclined to a descriptive and historical or to a more symbolic interpretation of Scripture, the Church by the Middle Ages had in reaction formulated the notion of a fourfold series of phases of comprehension. This does not mean that typology is a later invention of the Church: the basis for the medieval method lies within the Biblical texts themselves, and it is impossible to imagine the composition of the Book of Revelation and the Epistle to the Hebrews outside of a theological frame of mind. But it does mean that typology is the aspect of the Bible thrown into relief whenever the anxiety of social concern begins to sharpen.

Typological interpretation began to decline in the 19th century under the impact of what Prof. Frye calls (The Great Code, Chapter 1) the descriptive phase of language. As it did so, the medieval theological system of polysemous meaning began to be replaced by various secular philosophical analogies to it. As typology is or implies a theory of history, these conceptual analogies were usually bound up with an evolutionary (or revolutionary) vision of history. The class may wish to discuss various examples of these, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit, used by Prof. Frye as an analogy to his own procedure in the final pages of The Great Code.

Later 19th century thinkers largely reacted against Hegel: Marx disliked Hegel's Idealism and developed his own dialectical materialism in response to it; Nietzsche disliked what he felt to be its naive optimistic progressivism, and replied with his vision of the eternal recurrence of the same. Science lent new prestige in the 19th century to the principle of causality (discussed in The Great Code, pp. 81-81, as the opposite rhetorical principle to typology), and Darwin's theory of evolution spawned various semi-philosophical analogies to itself, whether optimistic as in George Bernard Shaw and in various forms of a scientific theory of progress, or pessimistic as in Hardy, the common factor being an attempt to fuse scientific with theological thinking. The challenge to institutional Christianity posed by these phenomena was in most cases direct and explicit, and is still very much ongoing. The point to be made to the class is that they all reflect the impact of what is essentially typological thinking, a future-directed vision of a recreative power at work through history.

Science fiction, for obvious reasons, is a good place to look in literature for examples of typological vision. When examined closely, a work like Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy contains a view of history very much like the Bible's, but with emphasis shifted toward the potential of human creative power to take upon itself the burden of directing that history. Asimov has a Moses who does not reach the Promised Land (Hari Seldon), a law ('psychohistory') and a chosen people (the Foundation), even an Antichrist (the Mule); what is even more interesting is that he has a Second Foundation which is clearly the antitype to the first one: it is the Second Foundation which accomplishes the final redemption of time, and imaginatively speaking, it is no accident that its members clearly resemble spirits. It is worth examining an essentially popular and straightforward romance in this case precisely because it demonstrates the pervasiveness of a typological treatment of symbols.

Within the Bible itself, the Book of Revelation and the Epistle to the Hebrews present themselves most thoroughgoingly as recreations of Old Testament symbolism. Students are by now familiar with this tendency in the Book of Revelation, where the tree and water of life, as well as the 'hidden manna' of 2:17, are returned by God to man. In addition, the four spirits of Ezekiel's vision reappear in Revelation 4:6; the reed for measuring the Temple in Ezekiel 40:3 is also in Revelation 11:1; and the olive trees, candlesticks and two witnesses from Zechariah 3-4 show up in Revelation 11:3-4. Students may in fact review practically the whole pattern of Biblical symbolism from the Book of Revelation—the Lamb, the bride, Jerusalem, the Temple, and so on—all these images now seen not as shadows of a promise but as images of infinite fulfillment at the end of time.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is organized around the theme of the recreation of the Jewish law by the Christian gospel, and its tone is less visionary and more polemical: 'For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect' (10:1). It is concerned to establish Christ as the perfected form of the high priest of the law, whose Old Testament type is Melchizedek (7:1-3); and some scholars feel that the repeated imagery of the perfect high priest, perfect tabernacle, and perfect sacrifice as existing only in eternity (8:1-6), and a pervasive interest in 'the patterns of things in the heavens' (9:23) betrays some influence of Platonism on the author of Hebrews. At the center of the book is the idea of the gospel as the 'new testament' (9:15), superior to the old Mosaic covenant in that Christ's blood was shed once and for all time: it does not need to be repeated because it is continuously present in eternity. In passing, finally, the class may note the remarkable pun on 'testament' as a will which occurs in 9:15-17.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

  • Revelation 2:17.—'hidden manna'.
  • Revelation 4:6.—The four 'creatures'.
  • Revelation 11:1.—The measuring reed.
  • Revelation 11:3-4.—The antitype of Zechariah 3-4.
  • Hebrews 7:1-3.—Melchizedek.
  • Hebrews 9:1-9.—The Old Testament sanctuary and tabernacle as types of a more perfect tabernacle (Christ himself) 'not made with hands' (9:11).
  • Hebrews 9:19-28.—The 'new Testament'; Christ as the only perfect sacrifice.
  • Hebrews 10:1.—'For the law having a shadow of things to come'.
  • Genesis 14:18.—Melchizedek.
  • Psalm 110.—Melchizedek.

2.    Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

  • Chapter Four. Typology I.
    • pp.78-86. The nature of typology.
  • Chapter Seven. Myth II.
    • pp. 171-74. The Exodus-Gospel parallel.
  • Chapter Eight. Language II.
    • pp.220-33. The principle of polysemous meaning, or phases of interpretation.

3. Other

  • 'Figura', Erich Auerbach, translated by R. Mannheim in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, 1959. Classic essay on literature and typology.
  • Typology and Early American Literature. ed. Sacvan Bercovich, 1972. See especially the Annotated Bibliography, as well as other books by Bercovich.

Suggested Essay or Discussion questions

  1. Discuss the origins of American consciousness as influenced by the contrary traditions of Puritanism and rational Deism. Compare the attitude of a Deist like Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason with that of Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth's poem The Day of Doom (1662). Is the influence of typological thinking confined only to the Puritan side of the picture? Discuss Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which contains probably the most elaborate treatment of this conflict of traditions in modern American literature.
  2. How does the idea of polysemous meaning and phases of interpretation transform the question of 'belief' that was raked in the first program of this series?
  3. Examine Blake's hymn 'Jerusalem' and the 'Battle hymn of the Republic' in light of this program's discussion of the attitude to history inherent in typology.
  4. Examine Swift's Tale of the Tub as a satire of mistaken methods of interpreting the Bible.