Typology in Midrash
Not infrequently the student of midrash encounters statements behind which stands an identification of a person or event with another, usually an early and defining person or event. So, for example, the king Shelomo realy represent "the King who has Peace", that is G-d Himself.
It is important to realize that this is not classic typology in which one thing is being said but another one is meant. In Jewish literature, the representer and the represented share the same characteristic or quality; the former serves as an example of the latter without losing its own individuality. To put it differently, both are specific examples of a general phenomenon and therefore can stand for one another without detracting from the individuality and reality of both. A good explanation invokes the Sinai Rock - those pieces of rock that purportedly come from Mt. Sinai. The surface of every rock has a pattern created by veins of mineral in the shape of a bush. This pattern persists and were you to chip any individual piece, the same patters will be found on both chips or pieces.
For well over a century the Midrashic characterization of Balaam has been of particular interest to scholars who have sought to understand Talmudic and Midrashic attitude to the founder of Christianity. As is well known, there are few passages directly and unambiguously referring to early Christians; statements about Balaam are far more plentiful and some of them sound a lot like anti-Christian polemic.
Though not the first to discuss it, T. Travers Herford analyzed all the sources comprehensively in his 1903 book "Christianity in Talmud and Midrash". He writes the following on p. 69:
"I do not mean that whenever Balaam is mentioned, J. is intended, or that everything said about the former is really meant for the latter. I mean that wherever Balaam is mentioned, there is a sort of undercurrent of reference to J., and that much more is told of Balaam than would have been told if he and not J. had really been the person thought of."
What he is expressing is the thought above. Balaam is not the same as the Nazarene and is not meant to be; however, their essential similarity is such that what applies to one also applied to the other.
I would suffice with following passages to demonstrate that this suggestion has merit.
1. Sanhedrin 106b A certain heretic said to R. Chanina: Have you ever heard how old Balaam was? He answered: Nothing is written about it. However, from what is written "Men of blood and deceit shall not leave out half of their lives.." - he must have been 33 or 34 years old. The heretic said to him: "you have answered well. I had seen the chronicle of Bilaam and therein it is written: "Balaam the lame was 33 years-old when he was killed by Pinchas, the Robber".
2. Sanhedrin 106a And (Balaam_ took up his parable and said Alas, who shall live when G-d does this? R. Shimon ben Lakish said: Woe to him who makes himself live by the name of G-d )( play on the word "msumo, read as mishmo).
3. The Jewish Encyclopedia, entry Aquilas (Professor Louis Ginzberg), uses the supposition that Balaam is a stand-in for Christianity to explain a passage in Gittin 56b that describes that Onkelos sought advice regarding his conversion to Judaism, first from Titus and then from Balaam. Epiphanius, a gentile writer, relates that Aqiula was born a Greek from Sinope in Pontus and was sent by his uncle Emperor Hadrian to supervise rebuilding of Jerusalem under the name Aelia Capitolina.. There, Aquilas first became a Christian and subsequently a Jew. Titus and Balaam accordingly represent these two stages on his path to Judaism.
On the other hand, several passages refer to Balaam and J. as different persons. I do not, however, believe that this invalidates the argument that Balaam can sometimes stand for J, only that it does not always stand for J. If the supposition about the midrashic method expressed above is correct, this objection is of no importance. As long as Balaam and J. share the essential characteristic, it can be described with reference to either one or the other.
The suggestion that Balaam stands in for Christianity has occasioned much comment and much disagreement. I refer you to a discussion by Rabbi Gil Student from a contrary perspective at http://talmud.faithweb.com/articles/jesus.html#balaam. Though it remains a source of much controversy to our own day, the suggestion is instructive in that it forces us to think and focus on a potentially important feature of Midrashic method.
1 The point was first made by Steinsaltz, to my knowledge. See the extended discussion with comparison to how symbol and metaphor in greek thought differ from the Semitic use of types in S.A. Handelsman, The slayers of Moses: The emergence of Rabbinic interpretation in modern literary theory, SUNY Press, 1982, pp. 60-66
2 Same as Greek-English Achilles
3 Most scholars think that Onkelos and Aquilas were the same person, the former simply being a corrupted version of the latter.
4 See Ephraim Urbach, "Rabbinic Exegesis About Gentile Prophets And The Balaam Passage" (Hebrew), Tarbitz (25:1956), pp. 272-289 (courtesy of Rabbi Gil Student).