Typology--a legitimate approach to OT passages?

Abbreviations/Major resources


In Matthew 2.15, Matthew narrates the return of the young Jesus from Egypt to Palestine, following the murder attempts by Herod. He then quotes Hosea 11:1 ("out of Egypt have I called my Son") and says this passage was fulfilled by Jesus' return. Even a cursory glance at Hosea 11.1 will reveal that it is talking about the Exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt--it doesn't appear to be a messianic prophecy on the surface at all. It this a blatantly obvious mistake by Matthew? Is he so ignorant that he cannot even read the Hosea passage correctly?! Or maybe he is so dishonest and manipulative so as to 'twist the scripture' to serve his polemical purpose. Or maybe he just innocently 'confused' and he sees Jesus 'everywhere' he looks--finding Jesus perhaps in OT passages where He is not, but with all good intentions.

What Matthew has actually done, is to look at a concrete historical event (i.e. the Exodus of Israel from Egypt) and see in it a foreshadowing of an event in the life of "Ideal Israel, as embodied in the royal, prophetic, and priestly figure--the Davidic Messiah". He has looked at a historical datum, and interpreted it 'typologically'--as a figure or prototype of something to come in the future (from the OT perspective), which he sees as 'fulfilled' in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

Typology was one of the MAJOR ways the NT authors 'looked at' OT history. And as often as they looked through typological eyes--they saw their promised Lord and Messiah foreshadowed.

  1. What is "typology" and why is this an issue? 

  2. SO. .what is the issue we have to concern ourselves with here? So. ..to decide in this matter, we will need to investigate a few questions:

    Fortunately, we have an ABUNDANCE of data on these questions. 

  3. Did 1st and 2nd century Judaism "use" typology in approaching the OT?
  4. Since the NT was written by Palestinian Jews, we will focus on 1st-2nd century Palestinian Judaism (as opposed to Hellenistic Judaism). For Palestinian Judaism, our two main sources of data are the Jewish Pseudo-epigrapha (dominantly eschatological writings) and the rabbinical writings [specifically the haggadah of the Tanniam--see Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (New York, 1959), 109ff].

    Goppelt (GT:32-41) catalogs the "great wealth of Scripture interpreted typologically" (p.32) in these writings: 

    His summary: "It is no accident that typology is used by these expositors almost exclusively in the shaping of their eschatology; it is the consequence of their general philosophy." (GT:57)

    [Since Goppelt was first written in German, the vast body of literature known as the Dead Sea Scrolls has been analyzing, demonstrating that the Qumran community engaged in MAJOR typological interpretation. The Qumran group considered itself the eschatological remnant foretold by the prophets (LONG: 38-45). ]

    My summary: The non-Christian biblical interpreters of the NT era accepted and used typological perspectives in their hermeneutical work. The NT writers are accordingly using STANDARD approaches of their day to understanding the OT. 

  5. Did the OT writers/recipients "use" typology for THEIR self-understanding? This is probably the MOST important of the questions, for the OT folk DIDN'T view OT passages 'typically', then it will be considerably more difficult to defend typological interpretation of NT writers as legitimate. [Needless to say, this would also be a problem to the non-Christian writers who used it as well--as noted above.]
  6. Specifically what we need to look for are passages in the OT that:

    1. interpret their present experience in terms of a person, event, place, rite, etc from the historical or primeval past (retrospective);
    2. predicts the future on the basis of some such person, event, etc. (predictive);
    3. and events that were 'set up' typologically in a predictive passage, and interpreted so AFTER the predicted event occurred(!).

    Like the NT-era Judaic writings, the OT materials afford us a surprising abundance of examples of inner-biblical typological 'thinking' (much more than I expected when I started this study, believe me!)

    Let's start with the FIRST CASE: passages which interpret their present experience in terms of a person, event, place, rite, etc from the historical past. Are there any of these in the OT? The answer is 'yes', although the preponderance of this type of thinking occurs in predictive contexts we can see definite uses of it in retrospective passages. [Some of these will look like simple examples of simile or metaphor, but the notions of simile/metaphor and types are strangely linked--see below, in the 'theoretical' section]

    The above are some examples of how present experiences were understood from the perspective of a type. But the dominant use of types was in the predictive role, and this use generally dealt with major themes--exile, restoration, Messiah, the Kingdom of God. [The data is rather substantial here, so I am going to have to be selective in the examples I give.]

    SECOND CASE: Examples of the PREDICTIVE use of types.


    THIRD CASE: Events that were 'set up' typologically in an earlier, predictive passage, and interpreted so AFTER the predicted event occurred.

    Since typology only deals with generally large-scale events (e.g. exile, restoration, messiah), what we are looking for are passages that occurred AFTER one of those events, in which the OT writer REFLECTS BACK on that event--to see if they use the 'typical' image. In other words, if the exile is anticipated under the type of 'destruction of Sodom', for example, then do any of the POST-EXILIC writers/POST-EXILIC actions refer to it under that image? And since the only major 'late' events that occurred prior to the close of the OT period, were the exile and captivity, those will be the areas we need to investigate. [We will look at a 'smaller' example--of the Jacob/Esau struggle--to show a possible link between typology and prophecy.] 

    So, our THIRD CASE examples tie together the PREDICTIVE and RETROSPECTIVE uses of typology into a unified approach in understanding history.

    Although I have only surveyed some of the data, the number of cases of typical thinking is quite extensive. Horace Hummel (in Biblical Research (1964, 9:38-50), cited in BEALE:316) gives a list:

      "historical events (e.g., Exodus), individuals (e.g., Abraham; Moses; David), groups (e.g. the righteous; Israel; the wise man), laws (e.g. Pss. 15 and 24), nations (e.g. Israel; Edom, especially in Obadiah; Babylon, especially in Nahum; Gog and Magog), places (e.g. holy land, Jerusalem; temple), legends (e.g. creation; flood; Jonah), and the cult (in its very nature: a re-enacting of God's redemptive acts).

    Summary: The data from the OT shows quite clearly that typology was a mainstream interpretive approach to Israel's history, personages, events, and primeval history. Accordingly, NT writers were NOT employing an 'alien' method to the exegesis of the OT--indeed, they were squarely in the mainstream of accepted hermeneutical practice. 


  7. Did the ANE (Ancient Near East) "use" typology" for their self-understanding?

  8. Although this is not as critical an issue compared to the above two (i.e. did non-Christian writers in NT times use types? and did OT writers in OT times use types?), it may prove of value in assessing the legitimacy of the typological approach.

    We DO see typological thinking in Israel's neighbors, but not to the same extent and, in most cases, not in the same ways. 

    What we have seen so far:

    1. Typology is not prophecy and it is not allegory--it is a way of looking at history.

    2. The NT writers shared this view (and method of understanding OT history) with their NT-era non-Christian contemporaries.

    3. This view/method was used in the OT, and thus would have been part of the literary understanding of the OT writers/recipients. (In other words, the NT writers did not 'smuggle' this view backwards into the OT passages.)

    4. The ANE neighbors of Israel looked at SOME events as topological, but did not manifest the extensiveness of Israel in using this approach--their view of the end-times was not fashioned by the extensive prophetic words that shaped Jewish hopes for the future.

    5. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
  9. At this point I have documented the FACT of typological thinking as a major foundation in how Israel understood her history (and in many cases, her future). But I cannot help but ask the question as to HOW IN THE WORLD THEY COULD HAVE DEVELOPED SUCH A VIEW! What kinds of experiences did she have that would have engendered this type of view? What types of OTHER understandings would have informed this view?
  10. What we have to 'look for' in this case are passages/events/formative experiences that CREATED in Israel this particular belief that historical events/personages COULD BE SEEN as part of an escalating pattern. (Events that would have CONFIRMED this belief -- like case THREE above --are of slightly less importance over against EARLY events in the nation's history.) 

  11. Some SERIOUS theoretical issues surrounding typology (in my opinion):

  12. As a 20th century, western-civy, limited-Modernist thinker, this typology thing (now documented to a REALITY, in both OT and NT times and praxis) still 'bothers' me a little--in both its "imprecision" and its 'loose cannon on deck' possibilities. The precise area of discomfort for me, it seems, is in the relationships between typology (with its strong claims to a semi-prophetic status) and forms of literary 'analogy' (such as metaphor and simile). To put the 'doubt' question more explicitly: "Is typology really any different from metaphor, after all? And if it is no different, then how can we possibly attach prophetic significance to it? In that case, ANYTHING could be a 'prophecy'--with all the attendant abuses, mis-applications, etc." 

    1. The relationship between typology and metaphor

    2. I have noticed a few differences between types and metaphors: 

    3. Typology and Analogy

    4. Analogy is simply the epistemic (and maybe ontic) basis for metaphor; and as such, has essentially already been discussed above. Analogy is simply the point of similarity between type/antitype, and doesn't include the notions of ontic linkage, intensification, historical-setting, etc. discussed above. Analogy is present (epistemically) in all typology; the reverse is not true--hence, to identify the two is to misunderstand the data. 

    5. The relationship between typology and hyperbole (major issue for me!)
    6. This is more of an issue of 'how we detect' typology than 'what typology is and is NOT', but I want to mention it briefly here. (I will have to deal with it more substantially in the piece on Corporate Solidarity, but I can at least summarize by tentative conclusions on it here.)

      One of the 'tip-offs' in a passage to the fact that the text has a typological dimension is the use of hyperbole--the literary use of overstatement for effect and emphasis.. Consider the two main passages that are supposed to represent a typological address to Satan (Ezek 28 and Is 14):

        (Ezek 28:11ff) The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "'You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings. By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching. All the nations who knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more.'"

        (Is 14:3ff) On the day the LORD gives you relief from suffering and turmoil and cruel bondage, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended! The LORD has broken the rod of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers, which in anger struck down peoples with unceasing blows, and in fury subdued nations with relentless aggression. All the lands are at rest and at peace; they break into singing. Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, "Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down." 9The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you -- all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones -- all those who were kings over the nations. They will all respond, they will say to you, "You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us." All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.

      As indicated in the passages, BOTH passages are addressed to historical kings (one of Tyre, one of Babylon). There are numerous details in each passage that relate to obvious historical elements (e.g. trade, war, captives). But in each passage there are elements that SEEM to transcend what might meaningfully be said of kings (perhaps even of pompous ones!). In the Ezekiel passage, the reference to being in Eden, the anointed Cherub (n.b. this figure was the one represented over the mercy-seat!), the holy mount of God, etc. all point to a reality 'beyond/behind' the King of Tyre. To the original audience, it would PERHAPS have seemed like hyperbole (but the notion of solidarity may have made the communication more explicit in their minds). On the other hand, in the Isaiah passage, the possible hyperbolic sections (e.g. 'fallen from heaven', 'ascend to heaven') could easily have been ascribed to an arrogant king in the ANE. In this case the use of hyperbole was probably simply that--a literary overstatement to dramatize his arrogance. In the case of Tyre however, the overstatement WAY OVERSHOOTS the figure, and 'tips us off' that something is perhaps 'moving around behind the king of Tyre'--some super-human, malevolent intelligence.

      Other passages in which the typological significance is 'signaled' by the usage of hyperbole (or equivalent descriptive techniques) are: 

    7. Typology and the precision of prophetic understanding: I will have to address the issue of prophetic precision in a later piece on 'prophecy proper', but here we are concerned with the precision of TYPOLOGY.
    8. We have seen that the Israelite nation viewed the events and leaders of their history TYPOLOGICALLY--and therefore as both linked to past interactions between God and humans, and as linked to future interactions. But, with this conscious awareness, how much precision could they have had about those futures? The broad-brush-stroke patterns would have been obvious (e.g. messianic David, restoration to the Land), but the details were probably not apparent (e.g. WHICH descendent of David, the date of the Restoration to the Land). Prophecy proper contributed a reasonable amount of detail of course, but typology seems to set the large-pattern expectations of the people. Typology lent itself to retrospective insight--"This case is JUST LIKE that other time..." The predictions from the past would have been low (but not negligible) in precision; but the correlation in the future would have been high (but not perfect) in precision. 

    9. "Control factors" for typological 'exegesis':

    10. Although abuse of typology could 'mutate' the exegetical process into forms of pure metaphor, free-launch allegory, over-specification of historical types (e.g. the scarlet thread of Rahab as a type of Christ!--Joshua 2.18), the main thematic control resides in the major stated actions of God in history--the core content of the major events and leadership characters form the semantic locus of the intended communication of God in types. Isolated events, non-public characters, un-shared items do NOT appear to be the carriers of God's disclosure through types.


    Contrary to my expectations (honestly!), I have found typology to be pervasively used in both NT and OT times (both Judeo-Christian and non-Judeo-Christian), to be grounded in Israel's history and practice, to be 'controlled' from a hermeneutical perspective by its difference from metaphor, to be adequate in precision to 'point to patterns' in the future (while still being ambiguous enough to 'allow' multiple iterations of the same type--e.g Dan 9), and with enough structure to be useful in the OT prophetic task of calling the covenant people back to YHWH. [Strangely enough, there actually may be an argument for "God's existence" hiding in this strange and statistically weird phenomena--but more on that later, maybe ;>) ]

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