Reviewed by Sam Emadi
In many ways the publication of Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) breathed new life into the modern scholarly discussion of the NT use of the OT. Borrowing (and slightly altering) the concept of intertextuality from literary criticism and the idea of metaleptic reading from the work of John Hollander, Echoes sparked resurgent interest in reading the New Testament within the symbolic framework provided by Israel’s Scriptures. Since that time, scholarly discussions of intertextuality, typology, and NT use of the OT (from both evangelical and critical viewpoints) typically proceed with at least some tip of the hat to Hays’ contribution to the field.
Since Echoes, Hays has produced other major monographs and edited volumes on intertextuality in Scripture. His most recent contribution, Reading Backwards, examines how each of the four gospel writers “draw upon Scripture—both explicitly and implicitly—in their narrative depiction of Jesus’ identity” (xi). Originally delivered as the Hulsean Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2013, Hays indicates that Reading Backwards is a “progress report” on a much larger project on the same topic.
Hays’ thesis is simple “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels” (4, emphasis original). Furthermore, Hays is not interested in intertextuality for its own sake. In this work he is seeking to uncover how the Gospels “viewed in light of their intertextual engagement with Scripture” bear witness to Jesus’ divine identity (ix).
In Chapter one, building on the work of Erich Auerbach and Hans Frei, Hays defends the notion of figural reading in the face of modern historical criticism’s incredulity toward the unity of Scripture and the Christological character of the OT. At the heart of this chapter is Hays’ thesis which is worth repeating, “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and –at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or, to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and—at the same time—we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT” (4, emphasis original).
Hays demonstrates that the Gospels appropriate the imagery and symbols of the OT “in order to provide both hermeneutical guidance and theological depth” (12). The Evangelists’ theology, and more specifically their Christology, is only fully known in light of their creative identification of Jesus with Israel’s God known in and through Israel’s Scriptures. As Hays wryly quips, “the sweet, infinitely inclusive Jesus meek and mild, so beloved by modern Protestantism, is a Jesus cut loose from his OT roots” (12).
This reinterpretation of Israel’s traditions along Christological lines is Hays’ primary subject of interest in the four succeeding chapters. In chapter two, Hays argues that Mark weaves an intertextual narrative that identifies Jesus with Yahweh. Mark’s Christology emerges not from explicit declarations that Jesus is God but “through the poetics of allusion” (31). At the same time, Mark’s account highlights that “the identity of Jesus as the mysterious embodiment of Israel’s God can never be separated from his identity as the Crucified One” (32).
Chapter three explores these same themes in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as “God with us.” As Hays summarizes, Matthew’s radical claim is that “the one who was crucified and raised from the dead is himself the embodiment of the God who rules over all creation and abides with his people forever” (53). In chapter four, following the work of C. Kavin Rowe, Hays shows that Luke’s narrative Christology, in contrast to modern critical readings, depicts Jesus as Israel’s redeemer, thereby identifying him with Yahweh. Similarly, in chapter five, Hays explores these same ideas in John with relation to Israel’s liturgical institutions (temple, feasts, etc.).
Finally, in chapter six Hays considers the strengths and weaknesses of each Evangelists’ hermeneutic and also posits 10 ways the Evangelists teach us to read Scripture.
1. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic necessarily entails reading backwards, reinterpreting Israel’s Scripture in light of the story of Jesus. Such reading is necessarily a figural reading, a reading that grasps patterns of correspondence between temporally distinct events, so that these events freshly illuminate each other (104).
2. More specifically, Scripture is to be reinterpreted in light of the cross and resurrection (104-105).
3. Similarly, the Evangelists’ diverse imaginative uses and transformations of the OT texts summon us also to a conversion of the imagination (105).
4. For the Evangelists, Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world (105-106).
5. The Evangelists’ interpretation of Israel’s story is “in no sense a negation or rejection of that story” but rather its “transfiguration and continuation” (106).
6. The Gospel writers approach Scripture as a unified whole, but their reading of it is not undifferentiated (106).
7. On the whole, the Bible the Evangelists read was the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament (107-108).
8. The Evangelists’ allusions to the Old Testament are characteristically “metaleptic”: “that is, they nudge the discerning reader to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn” (107).
9. The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel (107-108, emphasis original).
10. The Evangelists “consistently approach Scripture with the presupposition that the God found in the stories of the OT is living and active” (108-109).
Reading Backwards is an enormously enriching examination of the Christology of the four gospels. Overall, I have great appreciation for Hays and for the sneak peak he is affording his readers of his larger project to come. Hays packs so many good exegetical and biblical-theological observations into Reading Backwards that a complete account of his interpretive victories runs the risk of simply reproducing chapters 2-5 of the book. His treatment of the “Immanuel theme” in Matthew is brimming with fresh exegetical insights on familiar texts. Likewise, Hays’ brief, but powerful, portrayal of Luke’s high Christology provides a devastating critique of modern critical conclusions on Luke’s Christology and a helpful distillation of Bauckham and Rowe’s larger works on the same subject.
More broadly, Hays offers perceptive observations on the different narrative styles of the Evangelists and their methods of alluding to the OT. For example, Hays shows that “it is not Luke’s style to develop sustained sequences in which the patterns coincide and run parallel; rather, almost as soon as we recognize one such narrative convergence, the moment has passed, and a different image appears on the backdrop, perhaps suggesting an entirely different set of linkages” (59).
In contrast, Hays notes that “if Luke is the master of deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination” (78). Further, Hays notes that since John employs images more than verbal links we should read his reappropriation of the OT as “more visual than auditory” (78). Readers, therefore, should focus more on the narrative imagery of John’s stories than any clustering of verbal links with the OT.
These types of observations go a long way in establishing more sophisticated hermeneutical expectations for interpreters as they work in each book of the canon. Like the woodwind musician who knows that different notes require a different embouchure in order to play each note in tune, good interpreters will know that each Evangelist’s way of alluding to the OT may differ and will take these distinctive styles into account in the interpretive process.
I do, however, have a few complaints to register. For instance, Hays argues “there is…a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (2). From this statement and others throughout the book (see 93-94) Hays seems to assume that if a “type,” or in his terminology a “figural reading,” is only retrospectively discovered, then there must not be any predictive element in the original text. Rather the figural reading is imposed on earlier texts by virtue of the readers “act of imagination that perceives the figural correspondence” (41). In other words, figural reading is a reader-oriented hermeneutic that retroactively superimposes the story of Jesus over the Old Testament.
This approach to Scripture, however, does not take into account Scripture’s own claims concerning itself as a progressive revelation and thus later parts of Scripture may unpack latent meaning in earlier Scriptures previously incomprehensible without the light of further revelation. This seems to be at least part of what Paul communicates when he discusses the hidden “mystery” that has now been revealed by the Gospel (Rom 16:25-26) even though that mystery was, in some sense, already revealed in the OT itself (Rom 3:21).
Hays also seems to collapse epistemology and ontology in the task of interpretation. I agree that our epistemological awareness of figural correspondence may only happen retrospectively (a la Beale and others), but this does not necessarily mandate that the prospective features of the earlier Scriptures were not ontologically there in the OT. Our knowledge is retrospective, but only because God’s Word progressively unfolds—unpacking the meaning of God’s promises by showing us how those promises are fulfilled in Christ.
Not only are Jesus and the Apostles not performing retrospective hermeneutical transformations of Israel’s Scriptures, they even bear witness to the predictive character of the Scriptures they are interpreting—see, for example, Matt 2:4-6. Jesus’ statement that “Moses wrote about me” (John 5:46) seems more than an a mere invitation to a “conversion of the imagination” in our reading of the OT, but a declaration by Christ that he is actually there in the OT. Moses does not merely provide the interpretive matrix of symbols and narratives that now, when read in light of the cross and resurrection, prefigure the ministry of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ criticism seems predicated on the notion that the OT scriptures do in fact point to Christ and a right reading would lead them to faith in Jesus.
Finally, I also take issue with the liberty Hays feels to criticize the Evangelists’ use of the OT. Criticism of apostolic hermeneutics is inconsistent with the authority Scripture claims for itself. Furthermore, Hays never establishes the criteria he uses to judge the Evangelists. What stands out, however, is that Hays’ commitment to pluralism and particularly his disdain for supersessionism functions as the standard by which even the Gospels themselves are judged. Hays criticizes Matthew for his “harsh polemical stance toward other Jewish groups who represent different paradigms for interpreting Torah” (98). Even more forcefully Hays criticizes John as having “potential dangers in his hermeneutical strategy” (101, emphasis original). He comments, “it appears that his hermeneutic is framed polemically against rival interpreters; those who reject John’s readings are characterized in the text as diabolical and ontologically estranged from God (John 8:39-47). This Gospel’s approach to OT interpretation lends itself, therefore, all too readily to anti-Jewish and/or high-handedly supersessionist theologies” (101-102).
Of course, every biblical scholar (particularly in a post-holocaust era) should see supersessionism as theologically disastrous and politically dangerous, but not at the expense of denying the reality that Jesus brings the story of Israel to its climactic finale. Real discontinuity exists between the Old Covenant and the New/better Covenant. Israel is not superseded by the church, but it is fulfilled by Christ. Christ has redrawn the boundaries of Israel around himself and invites both ethnic Jews and Gentiles to partake in the fulfillment of God’s Old Covenant promises.
At this point, Hays’ affirmation that there are other “patterns of intertextual reception” (15) of the OT is at odds with the very message of the Evangelists he so ably articulated—Christ shares in the identity of Yahweh and has made good on God’s pledge of redemption promised and figured in the Old Covenant. Encouraging ethnic Jews to know their God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is not supersessionist. If what the Evangelists say about Jesus is indeed true then confessing the exclusivity of Christ and the exclusive “rightness” of the apostle’s interpretation of OT Scriptures is nothing less than inviting ethnic Jews to come enjoy the harvest of promises sown in their own Scriptures.
As N. T. Wright has noted, “to say that Jesus is God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God.” (Wright, Who Was Jesus?, 52). Reading Backwards will remind readers of the astounding ways the gospel writers unfold the mystery of the incarnation and depict Jesus of Nazareth sharing in the very identity of Yahweh. While Hays missteps methodologically and theologically on some accounts, his exegetical treatment of the Evangelists’ narrative Christology is a tour de force. Indeed, based on what we see in this initial installment of Hays’ work in the Gospels, his next volume is certainly worth anticipating.
Samuel Emadi is a PhD Candidate in Biblical Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Director of Research for the President of Southern Seminary. He is also a member at Third Avenue Baptist Church.
Buy the books
Reading Backwards: Figurative Christology And The Fourfold Gospel Witness