Both Christians and Muslims have appealed to typology to find (or attempt to find, as a critic might say) their central religious figures, Jesus and Muhammad, in the previous scriptures. What do we mean by this term?
As a hermeneutical category, typology establishes a parallel or correspondence between a person, event or institution in the OT (the type) and another person, event or institution in the NT (the antitype) (Evans & Novakovic, 2013, 986)
This definition is written with regard to the New Testament, but it could equally be applied to the Qur’an in light of its appeal to the former scriptures (the Torah and the Gospel).
Let us consider a New Testament example of typology:
14 So [Joseph] got up, took the child [Jesus] and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hosea 11:1] (Matthew 2:14-15. All Bible citations are from the NIV)
As Kevin DeYoung (2010) says, ‘you really have to get creative with Hosea to make it look like he was knowingly predicting a Messianic flight to Egypt.’ Hosea 11:1 is reflecting back upon the faithfulness and love of God in rescuing Israel from Egypt: ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’
So what on earth is Matthew doing here? Passages like this used to puzzle my rather literalist (fundamentalist) mind years ago. However, as DeYoung (2010) explains, Matthew is using typology to portraying Jesus ‘as the true and faithful Israel.’ As DeYoung points out, like the leader of Israel Moses, Jesus had to flee a murderous ruler (Exodus 1, Matthew 2). Jesus, like Israel, passed through the waters (Exodus 14, Matthew 3; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:2), and was tested in the desert (Exodus 15:22ff., Matthew 4). Jesus also goes up the mountain to promulgate his law (Exodus 19ff., Matthew 5). Matthew is portraying Jesus as re-living the experiences of Moses and of Israel, except fulfilling them; whereas Israel rebelled in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus 15-17), Jesus was faithful (Matthew 4). While Moses gave the law, Jesus came to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
If the New Testament only used typology, perhaps the critic could rightly object that there is a degree of flexibility and subjectivity in such a method, as the proposed parallel was not in the (human) mind of the Old Testament author (though it may have been the intention of the Holy Spirit inspiring them). I leave it between the bible reader and God to weigh up how striking and how satisfying the typological correspondences are between Jesus and the Old Testament. I for one find the Gospel and New Testament teaches and accounts of Jesus to satisfyingly complete the themes and answer the questions posed in the Old Testament (such as on reversing the fall, the problem of sin and its solution, the necessity for sacrifice, and the motif of God himself coming to Israel).
Direct messianic prophecies
However, the more subjective approach of typology can be supplemented by more objective ‘direct messianic prophecies’. I say ‘more objective’ because Christians claim that these Old Testament passages were actually written with Jesus as the intended referent, unlike with typology where the human author may not have had such an intention (though the Holy Spirit may have).
There is of course dispute between Jews and Christians over the meaning of these passages; obviously, otherwise all Jews would become Christians! Remember that the Qur’an chastises Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah (Q 4:150-152, 157-160). There is also dispute between Christians and Muslims over those passages that seem to teach the deity of the Messiah (Isaiah 9:6-7?; Malachi 3:1; Daniel 7:13-14; Zechariah 12:10. Cf. Reymond, 1990) or his suffering and death (Zechariah 12:10; Daniel 9:25; Isaiah 52:13-53:12) on behalf of the sins of others (Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Daniel 9:25?; Zechariah 12:10?, cf. Zechariah 13:1). Perhaps the most popular of these passages for Christians, as well as Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah, is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (see interesting video here for non-Christians hearing this text, including a couple who recognise the description as being Jesus). Such direct messianic prophecies help to convince Christians, as well as non-Jews who become Christians, that Jesus is indeed the Messiah; this then helps them to see typological approaches as legitimate.
Indeed, one can even find an ‘interlocking’ (a term I borrow from a different context in McGrew, 2017) between typological and direct forms of messianic prophecy. The typological theme of Jesus as the ‘true Israel’ fits well with a direct messianic understanding of Isaiah 41-42 and 49 (part of the set of ‘Servant Songs’ in Isaiah). In Isaiah 41:8-9 Israel is identified as the Servant of the LORD, yet in the following chapter they are described as ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’, disobedient to the LORD (42:18-25). And so by the time we return to the Servant theme in Isaiah 49 the ‘Servant’ who is addressed (‘You are my servant, Israel’, v. 3) is sent on a mission ‘to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself’ (v. 5), and then to be ‘a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ (v. 6). An individual ‘Israel’ is obedient where the nation of Israel has failed.
Our Muslim friends may note in passing that a few chapters later it is this servant who suffers for the sins of others (Isaiah 52:13-53:12); they may also note that in ch. 49 he has a gentile mission (v. 6), and is not only sent to the Jewish people. But the key point I am making is that the typological correspondence between Israel and Jesus that Matthew employs can also be found as direct messianic prophecy in Isaiah 49. This grants it further legitimacy.
Muslim desire to find Muhammad in the Torah and the Gospel
Now, Muslims have also attempted to use typology to find Muhammad predicted in the Bible. The Muslim desire to find Muhammad in the Bible is in large part due to Q 7:157:
156 [Moses said] Grant us good things in this world and in the life to come. We turn to You.’ God said, ‘My punishment I bring on whoever I will, but My mercy embraces all things. ‘I shall ordain My mercy for those who are conscious of God and pay the prescribed alms; who believe in Our Revelations; 157 who follow the Messenger — the unlettered [i.e. ummi, ‘unlettered’ or ‘gentile’] prophet they find described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel — who commands them to do right and forbids them to do wrong, who makes good things lawful to them and bad things unlawful, and relieves them of their burdens, and the iron collarsb that were on them. … (Abdel Haleem translation)
God is speaking to Moses about Muhammad being found ‘described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel’, therefore presumably speaking about a future time after Moses when Muhammad will actually arrive. At that time Muhammad is said to be found ‘described [lit. ‘written’, maktūban] in the Torah that is with them [ʿindahum]. Given that we have entire copies of the Torah and the Gospel centuries before the time of Muhammad (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls, Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), and that they are virtually the same as the Torah and the Gospel that we have today, Muslims need to find Muhammad written in our present day Torah and Gospel (N.B. ‘the Gospel’ has historically been used to refer to the fourfold ‘Gospel according to Matthew…according to Mark…etc.).
Indeed, according to the popular Muslim interpretation that Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 are about Muhammad (for my disagreement see here), Jews and Christians ‘know him [i.e. the Prophet] as they know their own sons.’ (Sahih International).
One way of attempting to find Muhammad in the Torah and Gospel in the Bible is through typology, by seeing Old Testament figures as a type of Muhammad. This has been done, for example, with Moses and Joshua. Moses brought a law to a people and led them on an exodus out of Egypt; Muhammad brought a law to his people, whom he led on a hijrah from Mecca to Medina. Joshua was both a leader of a religious community, and a military leader; so too with Muhammad. The interested reader can find more precise details of correspondence between them, though many of these details are not to be found in the Qur’an but in the sīra and ḥadīth literature, whose reliability is more uncertain and which may have been created on the basis of the Torah.
Why a Christian might reject Muslim typology
So why are Christians not convinced by such parallels? One issue is that the parallels Muslims find seem to be ‘taking us backwards’. Christians like myself see a convincing trajectory throughout the course of Old Testament revelation, where certain problems become increasingly clear and it becomes increasingly clear that certain solutions are required. Almost as soon as a nation is created (Israel), and a law is given (the Torah at Sinai), the people sin (Exodus 15:22ff.). The rest of the Old Testament tells of how both the people of Israel repeatedly sin, ultimately leading to exile (cf. Jeremiah). Even their most celebrated leader King David commits great sin (2 Samuel 11-12), by committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed in battle to cover his crime.
The Old Testament therefore increasingly looks forward to a coming righteous Davidic king (e.g. Isaiah 11, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15), indeed, God himself will come and be the leader of his people that human kings could never live up to (Isaiah 9:6-7?; Malachi 3:1; Daniel 7:13-14; Zechariah 12:10. Cf. Reymond, 1990). Human sinfulness and need for atonement is highlighted in the detailed sacrificial system instituted in the Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; over time more is revealed about a human figure’s suffering and death (Zechariah 12:10; Daniel 9:25; Isaiah 52:13-53:12) on behalf of the sins of others (Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Daniel 9:25?; Zechariah 12:10?, cf. Zechariah 13:1). Although the law is given at Sinai, the sinfulness of humans mean that Israel fails to keep it; and so God says ‘a new covenant’ is needed, where God says he will ‘put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33), and that ‘26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ (Ezekiel 36:26-27). God promises to ‘pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.’ (Joel 2:28-29)
For a Christian, any proposed typology must fit within this broader canonical context. Any proposed prophet or Messiah must fit in with these themes about a righteous Davidic king, a figure who suffers on behalf of the sins of others, of God himself coming and ruling justly in a way that no human king could, and who pours out his Spirit to help his people to keep his law, which otherwise they could not do. To the Christian, typologies based on Moses and Aaron, without fulfilling any of these other themes, sounds like Muslims want to take us back to Exodus or Deuteronomy, back to the failed paradigm of law without Spirit, merely human (and also non-Davidic) rulers, and completely bypassing the requirement of atonement for sin.
Direct prophecies of Muhammad?
We have already mentioned how Christians bolster their typological interpretations with a foundation of ‘direct messianic prophecies’. Muslims have also attempted to find direct predictions of Muhammad in the Bible; indeed, it is probably the more common approach. Amongst the most popular passages are Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 42, dealt with here and here respectively. In due course I may do more articles on the other popular passages.
In conclusion, we have argued that Muslim usage of typology to find Muhammad in the Bible, a necessary task for Muslims in light of Qur’anic statements (Q 7:157, 2:146, 6:20, as the latter two are often understood), is often unconvincing to Christians. This is because it goes against the trajectory of Old Testament themes, and because there are a lack of convincing direct prophecies of Muhammad to lay the foundation for the more subjective method of typology.
BibleWorks 9 software.
DeYoung, Kevin (2010) ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son’. Uploaded 9th December 2010, accessed on 2nd March 2021. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/3133/
Evans, C. A., Novakovic L. (2013). Typology. In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; IVP.
Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel. The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
McGrew, Lydia (2017). Hidden in plain view: undesigned coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. DeWard Publishing Company, Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Reymond, Robert L. (1990) Jesus, divine Messiah: the Old Testament witness. Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publishing.
Steelman Apologetics, 2021. “Is Deuteronomy 18 About Muhammad?” https://steelmanapologetics.com/is-deuteronomy-18-about-muhammad/
Apologetics, Steelman. “Is Isaiah 42 a Prediction of Muhammad?” https://steelmanapologetics.com/is-isaiah-42-a-prediction-of-muhammad/
Steelman Apologetics, 2020. “The Qur’anic Paternity Test: Attempting to Recognise Our Own Sons ” https://steelmanapologetics.com/the-quranic-paternity-test-attempting-to-recognise-our-own-sons/
Tree of Life Ministries Israel. The Forbidden Chapter: Isaiah 53 in the Hebrew Bible. Youtube, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGz9BVJ_k6s