New Moses

Dale C. Allison, Jr., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

Dale Allison 1993 book is a superb case study in the New Testament’s use of the Old. Though he focuses on only a single typology (Christ as a new Moses) in only a single gospel (Matthew), Allison’s book carries important implications for the study of the New Testament in general. He demonstrates that no one can hope to understand Matthew’s gospel without continual recourse to Old Testament paradigms, models, and types. Typology is not ornamentation to Matthew’s gospel; it is fundamental, the ground level of Matthean Christology and gospel. As Allison writes toward the end of the book,

“the Gospel is like a chapter in a book. Scripture citations and allusions — which are anything but a detachable ornamentation — direct the reader to other books and so teach that Matthew is not a self-contained entity: much is missing. The Gospel, in other words, stipulates that it be interpreted in the context of other texts. This means that it is, in a fundamental sense, an incomplete utterance, a book full of holes. Readers must make present what is absent; they must become actively engaged and bring to the Gospel a knowledge of what it presupposes, that being a pre-existing collection of interacting texts, the Jewish Bible. The First Gospel is a mnemonic device, designed (to use the current jargon) to trigger intertextual exchanges which depend upon informed and imaginative reading (284-285). Further, the allusiveness of Matthew’s gospel is a “dense” allusiveness, one whose allusions spark off in several directions simultaneously. This makes the gospel especially difficult going for late modern readers,

for we live in a time of verbal inflation, of throw-away utterances. The sheer volume of verbiage produced by our society, for paper and for wave transmission, has reduced the value of words, so that we now need more to say less. The result is that we are not so accustomed to the phenomenon of a few words signifying much, or of paragraphs in which every sentence bears meaning to be penetrated. But Matthew was so accustomed. . . . For him it was the most natural thing in the world to construct a sentence pointing in two or more directions at once” (285).

All of this means that enormous effort will be required for modern readers to read the Bible rightly. We have to learn to put away modern habits of reading and writing, and seek to read like an ancient reader. Allison’s book is a model of such reading, a wonderful step in the recovery of those ancient habits.

Typological interpretation is often seen as an arbitrary tour de force that says more about the ingenuity of the commentator than about the skill of the writer. To deflect the charge of arbitrariness, Allison opens the book with several pages explaining the various ways in which “one text may be linked to another” (19-20). He enumerates six:

1. Explicit statement, as when Jesus compares His “lifting up” to the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness.

2. Inexplicit citation or borrowing. Here Allison points to the verbal similarities between 2 Kings 1:8 and Mark 1:6, which help to fill out the connection of Elijah and John the Baptist

3. Similar circumstances, as in the circumstantial parallels between Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan and Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea.

4. Repetition of key words or phrases. Allison points to similarities of language between 2 Kings 4:42-44 and John 6, which not only involve feeding a multitude but share phrases and words.

5. Similar narrative structure, as in the similarities between the sequence of events in Elijah’s call of Elisha and Jesus’ call of His disciples.

6. Word order, syllabic sequence, poetic resonance. This is a more subtle kind of allusion, involving not so much the meanings of words as their sounds. Allison points out that John 1:1 echoes Genesis 1:1 not only because both begin with the same phrase but also because the rhythms and word-order are similar in the two passages. Another example may help as well. Henry Beard’s brilliant poems by cats of famous poets (Poetry for Cats) all make use of this kind of allusion. Instead of Eliot’s famous “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo,” Beard’s poem reads “Into the rooms the cats run to an fro/ auditioning for a Broadway show.” Most of the delight and humor of the poem comes from the poetic interplay of the original with Beard’s parody.

Once a textual connection is established, it is possible to read the two texts together, or to read one text in the light of another. The Jordan river opens to Joshua, and that indicates (with other things) that Joshua is being presented as a “new Moses”: For the alert reader, information given in book of Joshua is refracted through the lens of the life of Moses and the accounts of his life in Exodus-Deuteronomy. The textual connections thus provide support for seeing Joshua as a kind of “antitype” of Moses.

Yet, the question remains, “When is an allusion an allusion?” To provide some objective guidelines for his study, Allison sets the following parameters: 1) Texts can only refer to texts that existed at the time they were written. Matthew cannot allude to Dante’s Inferno. 2) An allusion is more probable if it is part of a tradition that the author would have access to. 3) Some combination of the above links is necessary to establish a connection of two texts. 4) The type should be prominent. A typological connection between Moses and Jesus is more likely than one connecting Jesus with the third cousin of Joab. 5) A proposed typology is more convincing if “its constituent elements have been used for typological construction in more than one writing” (22). 6) Finally, “two texts are more plausibly related if what they share is out of the ordinary” (23). It will not do, for example, to claim that two texts are typologically connected on the basis of the fact that both employ the definite article.

Armed with these procedures and guidelines, Allison goes on to examine Moses typologies in the Old Testament, extrabiblical Jewish literature, and early Christian literature. He convincingly shows that many Old Testament figures were implicitly or explicitly compared to Moses, including Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Elijah, Josiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Ezra, and the Suffering Servant. Early Christian figures described in Mosaic terms include Peter, Paul, Gregory Thaumaturgis, Antony the Great, Constantine, and Benedict of Nursia. Nearly half the book is occupied with this “background” material, but it is all very fascinating (especially the discussion of Josiah as new Moses) and it enables Allison to establish a context for Matthew’s use of this typology. Matthew would have been aware of the tradition of associating important Jewish leaders with Moses. Though Allison does not make much of the point, his review of Old Testament literature also indicates that the image of Moses was cumulative; by the time of Matthew’ gospel, Moses had not only appeared as a prophetic figure and deliverer of Israel, but as a king (Josiah) and Messianic figure.

In chapter 4, Allison examines a number of texts from Matthew to establish whether they are making use of a Mosaic typology. For the most part, he sees a strong comparison of Jesus and Moses in the early chapters, but he does express reservations on a number of texts that have been interpreted as containing Mosaic typologies. Many of the texts where he discovers a Mosaic background are familiar — the infancy narratives, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration. Others are unusual and illuminating. He examines, for example, the arguments for a structural parallel between the plagues of the exodus and the miracles of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 8-9. Allison ends up rejecting this parallel, but it seemed that the case in favor of Mosaic typology was quite strong. Jesus’ miracles, for example are arranged in triads, just as the plagues are; as the new and better Moses, Jesus brings a series of miraculous anti-plagues to Israel-Egypt. Allison’s lengthy discussion of Matthew 11:25-30 in the light of Exodus 33:11-23, Numbers 12:1-8, and Deuteronomy 34:9-12 was especially provocative. Matthew draws a parallel between the unprecedented communion that Moses had with Yahweh and the exclusive claims that Jesus makes regarding His knowledge of the Father. The passage also makes a connection between the “yoke of Jesus” (11:29) and the yoke of the law, and Jesus declares that He is meek, which is the leading virtue of Moses in Numbers 12. Those who are “weak and heavy laden” are those laboring under the Pharaoh-like leaders of Israel, and Jesus promises that as the “meek” one He will lead them out of bondage in a new exodus.

I have three significant reservations about the book. First, Allison cites a great deal of Jewish literature to establish his typologies. So long as these are part of an effort to show the historical plausibility of a Mosaic typology in the gospel, they are legitimate. At times, however, he goes beyond this to treat the extra-biblical Jewish typologies as an independent theological source alongside the Hebrew Bible. In his discussion of the infancy narratives, for example, he appeals to various Jewish traditions concerning Moses’ miraculous birth to strengthen his case (144ff). I am skeptical that Matthew would have treated such speculations as fodder for a Mosaic typology. Second, Allison does not spend enough time showing how the various Mosaic passages work together. He provides a helpful overview of the Mosaic typologies in Matthew 1-8, but devotes most of his attention to isolated passages. The book would have been stronger if he could have shown not only a periodic use of Moses as a model for Jesus, but a pattern in the development of this model. Finally, the comparatively meager analysis of the sequence and development of the Mosaic typology makes it difficult to see a rationale: What’s the point of all the Mosaic typologies? Certainly, they provide a perspective on the person and ministry of Jesus and they enhance the reader’s delight in the gospel, but it is not clear what kinds of theological conclusions should be drawn from them.

In short, there are some gaps in the book. Overall, however, The New Moses is a most satisfying monograph, one that will repay diligent study and will shed fresh light in a hundred different directions.

Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute.