Reading Joshua with the Early Church: Ten Quotes from the Patristics

joshua07C. S. Lewis has said that for every three books we read from our century, we should read one from an earlier century. This is not because other places and other periods of time do not have a lock on truth. Other centuries have many errors, but—and this is Lewis’s point!—they do not share the same errors that we do. Thus, by reading books from other eras, we are given problems, solutions, and perspectives (read: wisdom) that we cannot find in our own time period.

When it comes to the book of Joshua, we find an example of this in the connections that the Early Church made between Joshua, son of Nun, and Joshua (Jesus), son of Mary, son of God. In the last few centuries, modern scholars have provided copious literary analyses of Joshua; they have proven Joshua’s vocabulary comes from Deuteronomy; and they have corroborated the form and content of Joshua with other ancient Near Eastern covenant documents, as well as archaeological research.

Yet, what continues to be lacking in today’s studies are the canonical connections that filled the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and others. In the first three centuries of the Church, especially as the Church grappled with the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, these early apologists made numerous connections between Joshua and Jesus.

In particular, these Church Fathers made much of the name of “Jesus,” or “Joshua,” or as it is found in Hebrews 4:8 and 4:14, Iēsous. Indeed, as any reader of the Greek New Testament will discover the name translated “Joshua” in 4:8 is the same name translated “Jesus” in 4:14. While our English Bibles lead us to view these names as different (Joshua and Jesus), the Greek name is the same.

Similarly, Jude 5 (ESV) speaks of “Jesus” who saved Israel out of Egypt. Here again the name Iēsous appears in multiple early manuscripts.[i] While Jude may have been saying that Jesus of Nazareth, who is the eternal Son, led Israel out Egypt, there is better evidence for seeing a typological connection in Jude 5. The God of Israel led Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land by means of Joshua (Iēsous), who is a type of Christ. Or as Richard Ounsworth puts it, “Joshua’s role as savior of his people . . . points toward the fulfilment of this foreshadowing of Christ by one who shares Joshua’s name” (Joshua Typology in the New Testament13).

Evaluating Patristic Exegesis: An Excursus

 (If you want to just hear what the Church Fathers have to say about Joshua and Jesus, you can skip this).

Indeed, this sort of typological reasoning—where Hoshea’s renaming to Joshua in Numbers 13:16 prefigures Jesus Christ—is not commonplace in modern scholarship. And there may be some good reasons for this: some in the early church did make fanciful connections between the Old and New Testaments. These “incidental resemblances,” as Jean Danielou describes them, are based on accidental properties more than meaningful connections in the text of Scripture.[ii]

This being the case, many have dismissed the early Church Fathers as being too allegorical to be trusted. But this fails to appreciate many of the observations they make from the text of Scripture. In the early church we find pastors and theologians offering typological and allegorical interpretations of Scripture—and often side-by-side in the same work. Many times, these men do not make clean distinctions between typology and allegory. Declaring their interpretive method is not always their strong-suit. Rather, a reading of the Bible that intuitively moves to Jesus is their strength, and that is why many are returning to the Patristics today.

Differences of opinion range about how the Church Fathers read the Bible. Some want to dismiss the Church Fathers because of the allegories found in them. Or at least, they want to caution against reading the Bible like them, because the allegorical approach found in them undermines the author’s intent.

Others want to embrace the figural approach of the Patristics, even playing down the difference between allegory and typology, because this division so the argument goes is a modern invention. Such advocates for the Patristics are usually happy to blur the line between typology and allegory—between author-intended types, echoes and allusions found in the canon of Scripture and reader-recognized connections that may go beyond the human author’s original intention.

I am definitely of the opinion that we must discern the human author’s intention. It is in discerning the grammar, syntax, diction, and rhetoric of the human author that we have sufficient ground to discern the divine author’s intention. It concerns me when interpreters seek to find the divine author’s intention beyond or apart from that of the human author.

Still, I am saddened when those who are most concerned with authorial intent fail to see (or reject a priori) the connections that are found all throughout the Bible. Often self-proclaimed “text-driven” interpreters do not see how Moses and other Old Testament authors wrote with Jesus in view, even putting in the Old Testament literary clues (i.e., types, shadows, and patterns) pregnant with meaning that would be discerned in the fullness of time. Similarly, they restrict prophecy to singular predictions or types, instead of seeing how the whole fabric of the Tanak (the Law, Prophets, Writings) leads us to Christ.

More needs to be said on this debate, but let me sum up and get to Joshua. In the bankruptcy of biblical-theological awareness, textual clues connecting Joshua, son of Nun, with Joshua, son of Mary, son of God, are often missed. It’s at this point, I contend, that reading the Church Fathers is helpful. I am not advocating every instance of these men’s methods; I am advocating their intuitive ability to see Christ in all of Scripture. That difference is critical and needs further commentary—just not here.

In what follows here, I will give a sampling of quotations from Barnabas, Tertullian, Origen, etc. I do not believe everything written below matches the principles of typology I would argue for in a class on hermeneutics—though much of it does. Rather, what we observe below are readers of the Bible who intuitively see the Old Testament and its various persons, events, and institutions as types pointing to Christ. In short, they read the Old Testament as Christians, not Jews. In historical context, these men often wrote against Jewish apologists who denied Christ. That will be evident in some of the quotes below. All in all, as we listen to these men we should gain a greater appreciation for the name “Joshua” and how this historical this historical leader in Israel is given a name that is intended to point to Christ.

With those caveats in place, let me share a bevy of quotes which speak about the connection between Joshua and Jesus.[iii] I will not offer commentary or criticism on these quotations. In some instances, I will offer a brief summary. On the whole, I want to make you aware of the way Joshua has a long and rich tradition in the church of pointing to Christ. Truly, as Hebrews 3–4 and Jude 5 indicate, there is a Joshua typology in the Bible, and these quotations below will help us see it all the more clearly.

Reading Joshua with the Early Church

1. The Epistle of Barnabas

Composed between 70–132 AD, this epistle provides one of the first looks at how the early church understood Joshua as a type of Christ.

What, again, says Moses to Jesus (Joshua) the son of Nave, when he gave him this name [Num. 13:16], as being a prophet, with this view only, that all the people might hear that the Father would reveal all things concerning His Son Jesus to the son of Nave [Nun]? This name then being given him when he sent him to spy out the land, he said, “Take a book into thy hands, and write what the Lord declares, that the Son of God will in the last days cut off from the roots all the house of Amalek.[iv]

2. Justin Martyr (100–165)

In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr makes a long and compelling argument for seeing Joshua as “a figure of Christ.”[v] From Justin’s argument with Trypho the Jew, we can summarize at least five parallels between Jesus and Joshua.

  1. Just as other Old Testament names (Abraham and Sarah) find significance, so too does the renaming of Hoshea to Joshua (Num. 13:16).
  2. Just as Joshua led the people of God, so too does Jesus.
  3. Just as Joshua distributed the inheritance, so too does Jesus.
  4. Just as Joshua told the sun to stand still in the sky and it did (Josh. 10:12–14), so too Jesus is the light of God who will provide light eternal for his people (Rev. 21:23; 22:4).
  5. Just as Joshua circumcised the Jews a second time—a curious expression in Joshua 5:2—so too Jesus will circumcise his people with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

These five connections are but a few of those which unite Joshua and Jesus. Importantly, they are found both in Jesus’s states of humiliation and exaltation. But clearly it is the latter condition, in Jesus’s state of glory, where more connections may be found. Hence, Joshua typology shows up often in Revelation, not just the Gospels. Going forward in history, these connections will also be picked up by Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa in the East and Cyprian and Tertullian in the West.[vi]

3. Tertullian (155–240) . . . and Justin Martyr again

In chapter 9 of An Answer to the Jews, Tertullian makes another long argument for connecting Joshua and Jesus.[vii] Again, if we summarize Tertullian’s points, we discover a number of critical truths which emerge from a section filled with Scriptural references.

  1. The renaming of Joshua points to the future figure of Jesus Christ.
  2. The reason Moses renames Hoshea is because he is in conversation with the true Joshua. The role Joshua will play is intended by God to foreshadow the arrival of the Son, who was before Joshua.
  3. The description of an “Angel” leading Israel is not just an angelic being. Joshua is called an angel for the sake of the magnitude of his life and ministry. (This connection with the angel may also serve as background for Jude 5.)

Continuing his consideration Joshua and Jesus, Tertullian turns to Moses and Joshua in chapter 10 of the same book (An Answer to the Jews),

But, to come now to Moses, why, I wonder, did he merely at the time when Joshua was battling against Amalek, pray sitting with hands expanded, when, in circumstances so critical, he ought rather, surely, to have commended his prayer by knees bended, and hands beating his breast, and a face prostrate on the ground; except it was that there, where the name of the Lord Jesus was the theme of speech—destined as He was to enter the lists one day singly against the devil—the figure of the cross was also necessary, (that figure) through which Jesus was to win the victory? Why, again, did the same Moses, after the prohibition of any “likeness of anything,” set forth a brazen serpent, placed on a “tree,” in a hanging posture, for a spectacle of healing to Israel, at the time when, after their idolatry, they were suffering extermination by serpents, except that in this case he was exhibiting the Lord’s cross on which the “serpent” the devil was “made a show of,” and, for every one hurt by such snakes—that is, his angels—on turning intently from the peccancy of sins to the sacraments of Christ’s cross, salvation was outwrought? For he who then gazed upon that (cross) was freed from the bite of the serpents.[viii]

Tertullian’s reading of Moses’s words, along with the symbols of prayer, battle, and the serpent, are worth considering further. Clearly, Tertullian is placing the meaning of these events at the time of Moses and in the words he wrote. He is not suggesting later readers would see these events as types of Christ; he is arguing that Moses intended them to be seen symbolically, as pointers to Christ. Why? Because God revealed these things to him.

Importantly, Tertullian teaches us to see Moses and Joshua together. Typology is not simply found in individuals; it is also found in paired relationships. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Elijah and Elisha all play important roles together, so too does the relationship between Moses and Joshua. As Justin Martyr says elsewhere

The two Advents of Christ were symbolically announced and told beforehand by what Moses and Joshua did. For the one of them, stretching out his hands, remained till evening on the hill, his hands being supported, and this reveals a type of nothing else than the Cross: the other, whose name was altered to Jesus, led the fight, and Israel conquered. Now this took place in both these holy men and prophets of God, that you may perceive how one of them could not bear up both the mysteries: I mean the type of the Cross and the type of Name. For this is, was, and shall be, the strength of him alone, whose name every power dreads [sic]” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 111.2).

5. Origen (184–253)

Entering the third century, Origen also sees the place of Joshua typology. And importantly, as Jean Danielou observes concerning this embattled figure, Origen’s allegorical exegesis is left behind when he approaches Joshua. Danielou believes this comes from the fact that Origen is following the traditional approach to Joshua observed in Justin, Tertullian, and others. But clearly, Danielou states, “In the Homilies on Joshua, Origen appears quite differently [i.e., non-allegorical]; . . . He takes up and develops the traditional themes: the name of Joshua, the victory over Amalek, the salvation of Rahab.

What follows are quotations that Danielou has collected his chapter on Joshua (“The Mystery of the Name of Jesus”).[ix]

God has given to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ a name which is above every name. That is why, at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth” (I. 1; 825A).

We meet the name of Jesus for the first time when we see him as head of the army. From this first acquaintance with the name of Jesus I learn the mystery of its symbolism: Jesus is the leader of the army (ibid.)

We must explain the death of Moses, for if we understand how Moses died we shall understand how Jesus reigns. If you see Jerusalem destroyed, the altar overthrown, no sacrifices or holocausts, nor priests nor Levites—when you see all this finished, say that Moses the servant of the Lord is dead. if you do not see anyone come three times before the face of the Lord, or offering gifts in the temple, killing the Paschal lamb, eating unleavened bread, offering first fruits, or consecrating the first born, when you see none of these things being done, then say that the Lord’s servant Moses is dead. But when you see peoples embracing the faith, churches being built, altars no longer drenched with animals’ blood, but consecrated with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, when you see priests and Levites no longer occupied with the blood of goats and bulls, but with the word of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit, then say that Jesus has taken and occupies the chief place in succession to Moses, not Jesus the son of Nave, but Jesus the Son of God (II, 1;834B).

6. Eusebius (ca. 260–340)

Whereas earlier Patristics served as apologists, pastors, and theologians, Eusebius was the first church historian. Well-acquainted with all those who went before him, he too saw in the name of Jesus as key link between Joshua and Joshua.

Moses was inspired by the divine Spirit to foresee clearly the name of Jesus; and he deemed this name worthy of special honour. Till it was made known to Moses, it had never been on man’s lips before: he bestowed the name of Jesus on him first of all, and only on him, who he knew would succeed (in type and symbol) after his death to the supreme command. His successor had not previously been called Jesus, but his parents had called him Auses [Hoshea]. Moses called him Jesus, giving him that name as if it were a mark of great distinction, far greater than a kingly diadem; for of a truth Jesus the Son of Nave himself bore the image of our Saviour, who after Moses and that typical service which Moses transmitted, succeeded to the Headship of a pure and true religion. (Hist. Eccles. I, 3).

Importantly, Eusebius places the name of Jesus as inspired by the Spirit in the life and writing of Moses. The connection between Joshua and Jesus is not formed in the New Testament or after the close of the canon; it is given to Moses as a prophetic witness to Jesus, just like Jesus said about Moses in John 5:46: Moses wrote about me!

7. Cyril (313–386)

Next, Cyril of Jerusalem continued the tradition of Joshua typology, when he wrote.[x]

Moses conferred these two titles (Jesus and Christ) on two most special men: changing the name of his own successor in the government, Auses [Hoshea], to Jesus [Joshua]; and surnaming his brother Aaron, Christ, that by two special men he might represent at once the High priesthood and the Kingdom of him who was to come, the One Jesus Christ . . . and Jesus the son of Nave was a type of him in many things. When he began his government of the people he began at Jordan, whence Christ also, after Baptism, began his Gospel. The son of Nave appoints the Twelve, who were to divide the inheritance; and Jesus sends for the Twelve Apostles, the heralds of truth, into the whole world (Cyril, X, 11; P.G. XXXIII, 676B).

8. Zeno of Verona (ca. 300–80)

Adding to the composite of Joshua typology, Zeno makes a connection between Joshua’s “second circumcision” (Josh. 5:2: “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time”) and that of Christ.

Jesus the son of Nave is a type of Christ, who is known as the Saviour of all, both by his name and his work. It is he, indeed, because he is called a stone, who has really fashioned the stone knives, that is to say, men formed by his teaching, for the spiritual circumcision of mankind. (I, 13; P.L. XI, 351A-B).[x]

9. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

We can add Augustine to the list of Church Fathers who made connections between Joshua’s name and Jesus.

He will see Joshua lead the people into the Promised Land, for it was not without reason that this Leader, right from the beginning, bore his name. (Contra Faust. XII, 322) [xi]

10. Jerome (347–420)

Finally, Jerome translator of the Vulgate, also saw the significance of Joshua’s name and ministry.

Joshua was a type of the Lord, not only by his name, but also in his work. (Epist. LIII; P.L. XXII, 545)[xi]

Seeing Jesus in the Person and Work of Joshua

All in all, these ten Patristics hold a similar vision of Joshua. The man renamed by Moses is a type of Christ. Both in his name (Joshua) and his actions, we learn something of Jesus Christ. And by paying closer attention to the intended typology of the Old Testament authors, we are better prepared to see who the Old Testament points to Christ and prepares us to know and love Jesus.

Therefore, the next time you read Joshua, take time to consider how this man was providentially created and commissioned to be a type of Christ. Truly, this is not simply a retrospective reading of the Old Testament. Rather, with the light of the New Testament, we can see how this man’s entire life served as a prophetic and forward-pointing type of Christ.

May such a reading of Joshua give us greater confidence in God’s Word and greater vision to see Christ in all Scripture. Indeed, it is only as we see how the Bible leads us to Christ that our hope is increased and our faith in the gospel is strengthened (Romans 15:4).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[i] On the manuscript evidence for Iēsous instead of kurios, see Richard Ounsworth, Joshua Typology in the New Testament, 10–13.

[ii] A whole debate on what makes a connection meaningful could be offered, but that is not the point here.

[iii] I have found these quotes in two books on the subject—Joshua Typology in the New Testament by Richard Ounsworth and From Shadows to Reality by Jean Danielou.

[iv] In The Epistle of Barnabas, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, 1885, 1:145.

[v] Here is the full quotation from Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, 1885, 1: 255–256.

Chap. CXIII.—Joshua was a Figure of Christ.

What I mean is this. Jesus (Joshua), as I have now frequently remarked, who was called Oshea, when he was sent to spy out the land of Canaan, was named by Moses Jesus (Joshua). Why he did this you neither ask, nor are at a loss about it, nor make strict inquiries. Therefore Christ has escaped your notice; and though you read, you understand not; and even now, though you hear that Jesus is our Christ, you consider not that the name was bestowed on Him not purposelessly nor by chance.

But you make a theological discussion as to why one ‘α’ [alpha] was added to Abraham’s first name; and as to why one ‘ρ’ [rho] was added to Sarah’s name, you use similar high-sounding disputations. But why do you not similarly investigate the reason why the name of Oshea the son of Nave (Nun), which his father gave him, was changed to Jesus (Joshua)? But since not only was his name altered, but he was also appointed successor to Moses, being the only one of his contemporaries who came out from Egypt, he led the surviving people into the Holy Land; and as he, not Moses, led the people into the Holy Land, and as he distributed it by lot to those who entered along with him, so also Jesus the Christ will turn again the dispersion of the people, and will distribute the good land to each one, though not in the same manner.

For the former gave them a temporary inheritance, seeing he was neither Christ who is God, nor the Son of God; but the latter, after the holy resurrection,4 shall give us the eternal possession.

The former, after he had been named Jesus (Joshua), and after he had received strength from His Spirit, caused the sun to stand still. For I have proved that it was Jesus who appeared to and conversed with Moses, and Abraham, and all the other patriarchs without exception, ministering to the will of the Father; who also, I say, came to be born man by the Virgin Mary, and lives forever. For the latter is He after whom and by whom the Father will renew both the heaven and the earth; this is He who shall shine an eternal light in Jerusalem; this is he who is the king of Salem after the order of Melchizedek, and the eternal Priest of the Most High.

The former is said to have circumcised the people a second time with knives of stone (which was a sign of this circumcision with which Jesus Christ Himself has circumcised us from the idols made of stone and of other materials), and to have collected together those who were circumcised from the uncircumcision, i.e., from the error of the world, in every place by the knives of stone, to wit, the words of our Lord Jesus. For I have shown that Christ was proclaimed by the prophets in parables a Stone and a Rock. Accordingly the knives of stone we shall take to mean His words, by means of which so many who were in error have been circumcised from uncircumcision with the circumcision of the heart, with which God by Jesus commanded those from that time to be circumcised who derived their circumcision from Abraham, saying that Jesus (Joshua) would circumcise a second time with knives of stone those who entered into that holy land.

[vi] Danielou, From Shadows to Reality, 233–34.

[vii] Here is the full quotation, found in An Answer to the Jews in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, trans. S. Thelwall, ed. Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, 3:165–66.

In the course of the appointing of a successor to Moses, Oshea the son of Nun is certainly transferred from his pristine name, and begins to be called Jesus. Certainly, you say. This we first assert to have been a figure of the future. For, because Jesus Christ was to introduce the second people (which is composed of us nations, lingering deserted in the world aforetime) into the land of promise, “flowing with milk and honey” [Exod. 3:8] (that is, into the possession of eternal life, than which nought is sweeter); and this had to come about, not through Moses (that is, not through the Law’s discipline), but through Joshua (that is, through the new law’s grace), after our circumcision with “a knife of rock” [Josh. 5:2–9] (that is, with Christ’s precepts, for Christ is in many ways and figures predicted as a rock [1 Cor. 10:2]); therefore the man who was being prepared to act as images of this sacrament was inaugurated under the figure of the Lord’s name, even so as to be named Jesus. For He who ever spake to Moses was the Son of God Himself; who, too, was always seen [Num 12:5–8]. For God the Father none ever saw, and lived [Ex. 33:20; John 1:18, 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3].

And accordingly it is agreed that the Son of God Himself spake to Moses, and said to the people, “Behold, I send mine angel before thy”—that is, the people’s—“face, to guard thee on the march, and to introduce thee into the land which I have prepared thee: attend to him, and be not disobedient to him; for he hath not escaped thy notice, since my name is upon him” [Ex. 23:20, 21]. For Joshua was to introduce the people into the land of promise, not Moses. Now He called him an “angel,” on account of the magnitude of the mighty deeds which he was to achieve (which mighty deeds Joshua the son of Nun did, and you yourselves read), and on account of his office of prophet announcing (to wit) the divine will; just as withal the Spirit, speaking in the person of the Father, calls the forerunner of Christ, John, a future “angel,” through the prophet: “Behold, I send mine angel before Thy”—that is, Christ’s—“face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” [Mal. 3:1: comp. Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27]. Nor is it a novel practice to the Holy Spirit to call those “angels” whom God has appointed as ministers of His power.

For the same John is called not merely an “angel” of Christ, but withal a “lamp” shining before Christ: for David predicts, “I have prepared the lamp for my Christ” [See Ps. 132:17 (131:17 in LXX.)]; and him Christ Himself, coming “to fulfil the prophets” [Matt. 5:17], called so to the Jews. “He was,” He says, “the burning and shining lamp” [John 5:35]; as being he who not merely “prepared His ways in the desert” [and Isa. 40:3, John 1:23], but withal, by pointing out “the Lamb of God” [John 1:29, 36], illumined the minds of men by his heralding, so that they understood Him to be that Lamb whom Moses was wont to announce as destined to suffer. Thus, too, (was the son of Nun called) “Joshua,” on account of the future mystery of his name: for that name (He who spake with Moses) confirmed as His own which Himself had conferred on him, because He had bidden him thenceforth be called, not “angel” nor “Oshea,” but “Joshua.” Thus, therefore, each name is appropriate to the Christ of God—that He should be called Jesus as well (as Christ).[vii]

[viii] Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, trans. S. Thelwall, ed. Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, 3:165–66.

[ix] Found in Danielou, From Shadows to Reality, 238–39.

[x] Found in Danielou, From Shadows to Reality, 242.

[xi] Found in Danielou, From Shadows to Reality, 243.