Theology in 3D

Joseph Retyped

Ken Casillas | February 27, 2019
New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

My fellow bloggers have asked me to respond to Greg’s recent post on Joseph as a type of Christ. I touched on this topic in a 2017 article. Now I have the opportunity to expand on my understanding.

Though Greg lists various impressive similarities between Joseph and Christ, he commendably puts the emphasis on the broader context of the Joseph story: “Joseph serves as a type of the work of Christ because he saved his people and brought them into unity with one another.” Despite my terminological quibbling below, this statement approaches my bottom line.

I also appreciate Greg’s use of Hebrews 5 to encourage the discovery of types as an exercise in Christian maturity. I wonder, however, about his conclusion that identifying Joseph as a type “is a softball lob across the plate compared to the fast pitch of Jesus and Melchizedek.” Melchizedek combines the two highly symbolic offices of priest and king, and his out-of-the-blue appearance in Genesis naturally compels the reader to consider his significance more deeply. Does Joseph have that sort of symbolic freight in Genesis? That question brings me to my main question: what is a type?


My understanding of typology has been shaped especially by J. Barton Payne (The Theology of the Older Testament, 355–60) and Michael P. V. Barrett (Beginning at Moses: A Guide to Understanding Christ in the Old Testament, 243–68). Barrett defines a type as a “picture prophecy” or a visual (as opposed to verbal) prediction (243–45). He also holds that “typology is not an interpretation technique; it is a method of divine revelation” (246). Though some subjectivity is inevitable in the identification of types, specific contextual factors help to keep one’s interpretation as objective as possible. In this regard, Barrett (and others) propose the following guideline (252):

One of the key contextual clues in identifying a person, thing, or event as typical is determining whether it was clearly symbolic. . . . Divinely intended types were divinely used symbols. In other words, all types are also symbols, although not all symbols are necessarily types. . . . This assumption is both a safeguard and a clue for identifying types. If God is using a particular person, thing, or event to illustrate by analogy some truth, then it ought to be clear from the context (the whole expanding context). . . .

In identifying types (particularly those not explicitly identified in the New Testament), I advise that we stay within the canonical context. The question is whether the person, thing, or event was “canonically symbolic.” Determining the canonical context means that we factor in all the revelation that precedes the issue in question, but not the revelation that follows. The reason for this should be clear. If I am trying to figure out whether something was an object lesson at any particular time, I should limit myself to the corpus of revelation at that time.

By way of example, it seems clear that in their original context Israel’s kings, priests, tabernacle/temple, and sacrifices functioned as object lessons Yahweh was using to symbolize truths to the original audience. This symbolic character naturally lent itself to a predictive dimension. Does Joseph function as a symbol in his context? Given the paucity of revelation at the time of the patriarchs and even at the time of Moses, I’m not sure, and so I’m not sure whether Joseph played a predictive function.


This narrow approach to typology differs from the way that typology is often understood today. For instance, though he urges caution, Robert L. Plummer defines types as patterns in God’s works that come to a consummation in Christ. Thus, “typological interpretation” is not so tied to the original context but is a matter of “looking back to see the providential foreshadowing of God” (40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, 208). Plummer even says, “Virtually any of God’s interventions and revelations prior to Jesus can be followed with the words ‘how much more then in Jesus. . . .’ This is biblical typology” (165).

I actually agree with Plummer’s basic drift here. And Stephen does something like it in relating Joseph’s experience to Christ: a rejected figure becomes God’s successful deliverer (Acts 7:9ff). I just struggle over calling this sort of thing typology. A providential pattern perceived after the fact doesn’t seem to be the same as a pictorial prophecy. Consequently, I tend to use the more general rubric of “Christotelic interpretation” to describe what Plummer and Stephen are talking about. I intend to blog about that sometime.


Before wrapping up, let me make a couple of qualifications. First, those who use a broader meaning of “type” as a providential pattern could argue that their definition branches off of how Paul uses typos in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and typikōs in 1 Corinthians 10:11. I would reply that I am trying to use “type” the way Paul uses typos in Romans 5:14. So maybe we can compromise and agree on a general definition and a technical definition. We would just need to clarify how we are using the term in a particular discussion.

Second, scholars like James Hamilton and Sam Emadi blend antecedent revelation and later revelation to argue in detail that Jospeh is a type of Christ. Hopefully some day I will have the time to dig into their work and perhaps moderate my view.

In the meantime, maybe Layton can take up this question for us: Is typology, however defined, an exercise in biblical theology or systematic theology? Some of both? And depending on the answer, to what degree should we be dogmatic about types?

At the end of the day, we can all rejoice in what God did for and through Joseph. His deliverance and exaltation in Egypt did more than save the lives and relationships of his family members. God had promised Abraham that in him all families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Physically speaking, Joseph blessed “all the earth” by saving them from famine (Gen 41:57). His amazing success demonstrated that Yahweh was able to accomplish the ultimate blessing he intends for the nations. Whatever hermeneutical label you use for that, it compels wonder and worship!

Photo credit: sciencefreak,

10 responses to “Joseph Retyped”

  1. Andrew says:

    Would it be safer to refer to Joseph as a *preview* of Christ? This would allow us to appreciate the parallels and similarities with out stumbling over the specific theological term “type.”

  2. Greg Stiekes says:

    Great reply, Ken. I’m glad you decided to define terms. And I’ll say something about that soon. Meanwhile, I was surprised that you said that the comparison with Jesus using Melchizedek is more obvious than the comparison with Joseph. I mean, how many believers do you know who can discuss Jesus as the Melchizedekian Priest? Notwithstanding that the comparison is even spelled out for us in Hebrews 7? In fact, name two—and they can’t be seminary professors or pastors. On the other hand, I could ask any child in our church how Joseph and Jesus are similar and hear good answers.
    Why? Because the story of Joseph is much more familiar to them than the story of Melchizedek, precisely because Joseph doesn’t appear suddenly and then fade away with no comment. Also, there is much more material in the story of Joseph to draw upon—thirteen chapters of material, in fact!
    But all this should cause us great reflection. The writer of Hebrews suggests that his readers are not yet mature because they do realize for themselves—or, at least because he perceives their inability to comprehend—that Jesus Christ is a high priest after Melchizedek’s order (as opposed to Aaron’s).

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Thanks for this, Greg. Maybe I will take a poll on Melchizedek at church this Sunday. :} But to get at my point: strictly defined, typology isn’t just about identifying parallels b/t Jesus and someone/something in the OT. A child can draw any number of interesting parallels with any number of things in the OT. (As you know, the right answer to any Sunday school question is “Jesus.”) Likewise, adult allegorists are really good at finding parallels. But the study of typology is something beyond identifying parallels. It’s about identifying contextual clues that demonstrate with some degree of certainty that an OT feature was divinely designed as a pictorial prophecy of Christ’s person and/or work.

  3. Greg Stiekes says:

    Comment #2: Ken, you say, “Does Joseph function as a symbol in his context? Given the paucity of revelation at the time of the patriarchs and even at the time of Moses, I’m not sure, and so I’m not sure whether Joseph played a predictive function.”
    Can you clarify that statement? You’re keying off of Barrett’s observation, I realize. But think about what he is saying. What does the paucity of revelation at the time of the patriarchs have to do with anything? Following Barrett’s logic, what we ought to be considering is the time of the writing of Genesis. The time of around 1500 BC is the temporal locus of divine revelation, not a time of paucity but a time of unprecedented disclosure of God’s character and plan. And none of what I’m saying here is even to mention the fact that the story of Melchizedek itself comes before the story of Joseph. So maybe I’m missing your (and Barrett’s) point, but if Melchizedek can qualify as a type by virtue of the time of revelation there then why not Joseph?

  4. Ken Casillas says:

    Good questions in your comment #2, Greg. With OT narrative, the issue of the original date of the events vs. the date of writing tends to introduce challenges.
    As far as Melchizedek, I think that in whatever setting–the time of Abraham or especially the time of Moses–a religious/priestly figure naturally carried symbolic soteriological significance by virtue of his mediatorial role, offering sacrifices, receiving tithes, and whatever else priests did.
    I think it is a worthwhile question to ask whether Joseph functioned symbolically to his family at the time of events. If he did, that would lay a good foundation for understanding him as a type. But I can’t say for sure.
    What about the time of the writing of the story by Moses? I doubt that Moses or the people were seeing a historical-redemptive point in Joseph’s being rejected by his brothers, being sold for silver, being exalted after a period of humiliation and suffering, etc. I think the most we can say is that they saw him as a person the Lord used to deliver his people from famine and thereby assured them that God would preserve them through whatever obstacles were in the way of the fulfillment of all his promises. Is that enough to conclude that God designed Joseph as a pictorial prophecy? Hermeneutically, I am cautious about going that far.

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      But there several questions that are raised by what you say here. First, I grant that the timing of the actual Melchizedek account has to have a time-sensitive element, otherwise Abraham could not have paid tithes through Melchizedek, his priesthood could not have predated the Aaronic priesthood, etc. But what about the elements of the Melchizedek account that have no time constraint, for example, the fact that he seems to have no genealogy, that he is the king of righteousness and the king of peace?
      Second, if we ask the question whether Joseph was understood symbolically by his family as a type of Christ, are we asking the question of Melchizedek and what Abraham understood about him?
      Third, what difference does it make whether Joseph’s family understood him as a “type” in the first place? (Though they wouldn’t have used that kind of expression, I daresay.) You seem to want to locate the revelation in the actual story that is told in Genesis. But the revelation has to be tied not to the story in real time, but to the divine Word representing that story, telling us what happened centuries before. About 350 years had gone by between Joseph and the record of Joseph–from our perspective that’s like 100 years before the American Revolution. And the Melchizedek account is even older. Furthermore, there are hundreds of other things we can assumed happened in the lives of the patriarchs that are not written in the Genesis account, but God has limited our knowledge to what he says in the revealed word. So the question of a type, whether there is a type or not, has to be tied to written revelation, does it not?
      Fourth, even if we start with Moses (your last paragraph), you raise the common question of what did the OT authors know and when did they know it? I agree with you–they probably knew something. But is it even necessary that they understand what they are writing fully in order for us to understand it?

      • Ken Casillas says:

        I confess I don’t know all the answers to the questions you raise. But in general I think we are on safer ground hermeneutically if there is some clear symbolic significance to the proposed type in its original historical setting as well as its initial statement in Scripture. Later revelation then indicates (or at least suggests) more of the fullness of what was going on there, even though the original observers or the author/audience of the text didn’t understand it all. In this regard, did Adam function as a symbol/type in the Garden of Eden or did that start in the time of Moses (or Paul)?
        Ultimately, we’re dealing with the tension b/t grammatical-historical interpretation and the full meaning (or significance, if you like) of a text in the light of the entire canon. When it comes to the matter of identifying types that are not specified as such in Scripture, I think the burden of proof is on those who argue for a type not on those who question them.

        • Greg Stiekes says:

          So, you’re saying that we should identify a type only when it is called a type in Scripture? Sort of like the regulative principle for typology?

          • Ken says:

            No, I’m saying that if Scripture doesn’t explicitly identify something as a type, we should identify it as such only if there is some contextual indication of symbolism (not simply on the basis of perceived parallels to Christ based on later revelation).

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