I recently described the powerful medieval theme of rooting the events of the New Testament in the places and objects of the Old. I cited for instance the Syriac writer Solomon of Basra around 1220, and what we can only call a complex mythological system:
As to the tree upon which our Redeemer was crucified, some have said that He was crucified upon those bars with which they carried the ark of the covenant; and others that it was upon the wood of the tree on which Abraham offered up the ram as an offering instead of Isaac.
Let me propose an idea here, which I term material typology. We all know the concept of typology, so that themes in the Old Testament prefigure the New. For example, Moses raising his arms to support the Israelites in victory prefigures Christ spreading his arms on the cross, while patristic writers used every possible Old Testament image of water and wood as a foretaste and prophecy of blood and the Cross in the New. That is a familiar notion.
But what we have here is a much more direct and material way of reading the Biblical tradition.
It’s not just that Old Testament concepts prefigure the New, but that there is a material continuity of objects and places. This event happened here because this was the exact site of X Old Testament event, and was moreover the grave of a particular (and highly relevant) Old Testament figure. Christ’s cross stood over Adam’s grave. That was not just any old collection of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the actual and very same objects that Adam took from Paradise.
That is of course a very Jewish approach, recalling midrashic writings.
We can trace the idea perfectly into early Islam, and the Quran. In Islamic tradition, Mecca is not just any random place in Arabia that happened to be the home of Muhammad. Mecca’s Kaaba was the first Temple, built by Adam, and it was the scene of the events involving Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael. From Adam to Abraham and Muhammad is a very clear trajectory.
The concept would have made wonderful sense across the Eastern Christian (and Jewish) worlds of Late Antiquity.