How do different translations affect typological interpretation and how misleading (if it is) can it be?
I first want to make sure we clarify the terminology in the question. By “translations” I will assume those versions of Scripture that seek to present a more or less literal rendering of the original text. I am not considering those which might more accurately be called “paraphrases.” A “typological interpretation” is the recognition that certain historical descriptions are so structured that they present pictures, or “types,” of spiritual truth. Common examples fill the book of Leviticus, where the ritual sacrifices illustrate aspects of the Lord Jesus’ sacrifice.
I do not know of a translation variation that would affect a valid type. If such a variation exists I would be interested in seeing it. The reason it is unlikely for a translation difference to affect a type is simply that translation differences tend to be “micro” changes in comparison to the overall structure of a passage that would contribute to a valid typological reading. Let’s take the example of the historical figure Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18–20, who is referred to as a type of Christ in Hebrews 7:1–10. What are the essential recorded historical attributes?
- His name was “Melchizedek.”
- He was king of Salem (which translates to “king of peace”).
- His ancestry and descendants are not mentioned.
- Time and place of birth and death are not mentioned.
- He received tithes from Abraham.
- He blessed Abraham.
The writer of Hebrews in chapter 7 combines these features to show a picture of Christ as our Great High Priest. It can be seen from this list that what was not mentioned is just as important as what was mentioned. More importantly, there could be a lot of variation in the translation of the passage, but so long as these essentials were not modified, the type would still be intact.
Since a typological structure is derived from the overall features of the passage, details could be marred by translation inadequacies and still leave the overall type intact. For example, the life of Joseph and his relationship to his brothers is a type of Christ and how He relates to His brethren “according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3), the Jewish nation. Details in the text could conceivably be poorly translated without damaging the overall picture.
Regarding the more general topic of different translations, I need to say that, being a work of man, every translation has its problems. Serious study should always include references to several good translations and reliable commentaries.
Finally, it is very important to remember that types are best understood as illustrations of truth learned elsewhere from plain Scripture. Thus, types can give us new insight into “old truth,” but they can never give us new truth.
“Hebrew Bible” photo by Jaroslav A. Polák is licensed under CC 4.0. Cropped from original.