Detecting the presence of typological interpretation in the New Testament

‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man will be lifted up’ John 3:15

Typological interpretation is one of the best-known but least understood features of scriptural interpretation in the New Testament. John 3:15 is a great example of it from the Prayer Book Communion reading for Trinity Sunday I preached on this morning – the past is seen to set a pattern for its future – in this case prefiguring the cross of Christ. As the bronze snake was lifted up for the healing of the people of Israel, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, would be raised up on high to offer salvation to those who believe in him. Both past and present in the typology are brought together beautifully in this sculpture from Israel.

The question that interests me is this: ‘how do we know when typological interpretation is being used?’ In the case of John 3:15, it perhaps seems obvious. Past and present are related to each other quite explicitly. But scholars are quick to spot typological interpretation where there is far less evidence. For example, is Ex 19 interpreted typologically in 1 Pet 2? Is Peter saying there that just as God’s people Israel were his ‘holy nation’, so to is the Church in the present? This is certainly what scholars like Joel Green maintain. But what is the evidence? How do we know that Peter, like a modern reader, recognised that a text has a prior meaning in its original context from which, through some process or other, we find meaning for the present? The truth is that there is no evidence at all that Peter would have shared this assumption. Indeed, the evidence seems to point the other way: that Peter saw Scripture as utterly and exclusively orientated towards Jesus Christ and the Church (1 Pet 1:10-12, as in my analysis in Written to Serve). Could it be that much of our concern to see typological interpretation is anachronistic, an attempt to see New Testament authors read texts in a way we think legitimate? Might there actually be less typological interpretation in the New Testament than generally assumed?

This is what I hope to think and write about over the next few weeks. I’ve had a major period of writer’s block for the last two months, partly due to parish busyness and helping out a little bit at Moorlands. But I’ve finished my studies on Ignatius of Antioch now and hope to get stuck into typology!


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