Reading Backwards

Article by   August 2015
Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. 240 pages $29.99/£19.99

I had the pleasure of hearing much of the present book in its oral form as the Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge, which Professor Hays delivered in 2013-2014. Striking in both the lectures and now in the book is the boldness, within the current academic climate, with which Hays contends that the Old Testament is to be read as testimony to Christ. Illustrative of this is the quotation of John 5.46 on the front cover: 'If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.' This work, numbering only 109 pages of argument and a couple of dozen pages of endnotes, is offered as a promissory note of a larger volume expanding on the subject.

Hays states that the main thesis of this book is that the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament. The symmetry of this statement is intentional. On the one hand, the Old Testament can only be understood in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, but on the other, the Old Testament continues to exert pressure in how the Gospel is to be understood, and stands in judgment over any articulation of the Christian gospel. The hermeneutical key to the exploration of this symmetrical statement is the concept of figural interpretation, a method Hays draws from Erich Auerbach. In figural interpretation, an intertextual connection is made between an earlier event or person and a later one, such that the former is seen as prefiguring the latter, and the latter involves or fulfils the former. It is Hays' contention that the evangelists are frequently engaged in this practice as they take up the Old Testament. Hays insists that the evangelists are not concerned with isolated proof-texts and predictions so much as with the creative reinterpretation of Israel's scriptures which, when read in the light of the gospel, illuminate the person of Christ. The primary theological Ertrag to which Hays draws particular attention is that the evangelists consistently evince, in their different ways, a Christology in which Jesus shares in the divine identity. (Hays is particularly indebted to Richard Bauckham's work on this subject, especially God Crucified.) 

He begins with Mark's Gospel, showing particular enthusiasm for its 'indirect and allusive' appropriation of OT Scripture: Mark 'for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions' (p.17). A prime example of this is the way in which Mark draws on Job 9 in the walking-on-the-water incident. Not only does the walking-on-the-water episode highlight Jesus' divine identity by way of allusion to LXX Job 9.8's statement that it is God 'who alone stretched out the heaven and walks upon the sea as on dry ground'. Mark also, in a more oblique and mysterious way, alludes to the same Job passage when he talks of Jesus' intention to pass the disciples by (Mk 6.48): this picks up the reference in Job, 'Look, he goes beyond me and I do not see him; he passes me by but I do not recognise him' (LXX Job 9.11). In such a passage, Mark's tantalising reference to Job underscores the paradoxical quality of Jesus' revelation evident in his near by-passing. This is one characteristic example which leads to Hays characterising Mark's Gospel as 'proclamatory mystagogy' (p.33).

By contrast, far from being a mystagogue, Matthew is a 'careful scribe' (p.36). In his chapter on Mark, Hays at one point rebukes himself for blurting out in prosaic terms what Mark himself only hints at, and on Hays' reading Matthew is to some extent guilty of similar blurting. Nevertheless, Matthew is also engaged in figural reading, an example of which can be seen through Hays' careful analysis of Matthew's 'Emmanuel' motif in conjunction with the quotation of Hosea's 'out of Egypt I have called my son'. Hays notices astutely that shortly after what is quoted in Hosea 11.1 there appears a reference to God being 'the holy one in your midst' who brings salvation (Hos. 11.9-11). That Matthew combines the Son-out-of-Egypt theme with Isaiah's Emmanuel motif is therefore a very strong example of 'the artful literary and theological effect of Matthew's narrative' (p.41), though some scholars would no doubt see this as more speculative. Hays rightly argues that the divine Christology of Mark is probably amplified further in Matthew, noting, for example, Matthew's addition of the disciples' cry 'Lord, save us!' during the storm. (In fact, this too may be an example of Matthew drawing on the OT, in particular the Psalter: the address 'Lord, save (me)' in Matt. 8.25 and 14.30 resembles extremely closely Pss. 11.2, 105.47 and 117.25.) The 'Emmanuel' motif is moreover, as Hays rightly avers, a fairly clear instance of this emphasis on the identification of Jesus with the God of Israel (contra the more indirect relationship between Jesus and 'God with us' in the argument of Kupp.)

Hays' discussion of Luke is indebted to the excellent study by C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke. Here Hays focuses in particular on the dramatic irony in Luke 24 and the emphasis there on the way in which the disciples failed to understand not only Jesus' teaching but also Old Testament Scripture. Again, the emphases on divine Christology come out in Luke, despite the common attempts by scholars to dilute Luke on this point. Jesus is the divine son and the 'dawn' who visits from on high in the infancy narrative, the Lord - as in Mark - whose way is paved for by John the Baptist, and finally, nothing less than the redeemer of Israel.

'Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image' (p.78). This is partly what explains the relative paucity of OT references in John, even though John is - qualitatively speaking - no less of an Old Testament theologian than Luke is.  'Reading backwards' is in a sense most explicit in John's Gospel, because it is clearly stated that it was only after the resurrection that the disciples remembered and understood both Scripture and the words of Jesus (cf. Mk 9.9?). Hays again naturally presses the case for divine Christology here, rejecting a supersessionist reading of John on the one hand, while seeing Jesus as in a certain respect identified as the Temple (82: 'Jesus becomes, in effect, the Temple').

In a final chapter Hays summarises the key points, and offers a comparison of the evangelists' Christological interpretations of the OT, in the course of which he - more controversially - discusses what he sees as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the several Gospels' approaches. Mark and Luke are to some extent the favourites, the former because of his 'fusion of restraint and evocative power' and the latter because of the allusive richness of his writing and the clear narrative of continuity with Israel's past. Matthew and John come in for some criticism. Or rather, in John's case there are 'potential dangers': for example, the Fourth Gospel's dualism lends itself especially to a Gnostic interpretation, hence Irenaeus's need to contend for a Catholic interpretation against a Valentinian one. One might respond, however, that the same was the case in the second century for Luke: it was not just Marcionite mutilators of Luke against which Irenaeus argued, but also (AH 3.14.3-4) the Valentinians, 'venturing to understand Luke in bad ways' (interpretari audentes male). As Origen put it in the following century, innumerabiles quippe haereses sunt, quae evangelium secundum Lucam recipiunt - 'more than man can number are the heresies that have accepted the Gospel according to Luke' (Hom. in Luc. 16.5). In the case of Matthew, Hays clearly prefers Mark's subtle allusion to Matthew's aforementioned blurting, although on the other hand it is Matthew's lack of systematizing with which Hays finds some fault when it comes to the diversity of OT motifs which Matthew projects onto Jesus: 'it is not always clear that he has reflected systematically or coherently on how to integrate the resulting picture' (p.98). Aside from the question of how much any of the evangelists can be shown to do such integration (e.g. Mark holds the identification of Jesus with God, and the distinction between Jesus and God, 'in taut suspension' on p. 27), it is not clear why such a project would not also be in danger of falling victim to 'wanting to construct a fixed dwelling for Jesus... rather than responding in awe and wonder' as Hays himself figurally puts it in relation to Matthew's confessional statements (p.99). Hays leaves this last observation about Matthew in the interrogative, however. In relation to 'potential dangers', it is of course difficult sometimes to evaluate how much authors are responsible for misunderstandings or misuses of their works, and Hays elsewhere also points the way to how lacunae in some Gospels are compensated for in others both in this discussion and in his subsequent discussion of the need to take into account the diverse plurality of the Gospels.  

One final question relates to the extent to which Hays sees figural interpretation as the way to understand the evangelists' use of Scripture. Are there other correspondences which might be seen as prospective rather than retrospective, and not merely a matter a reception but also of production? (These antitheses feature in the gloss on Auerbach's explanation of figural reading on p. 2.) In other words, might not some of the correspondences be the result of intended predictive senses, rather than hidden meanings only being - for want of a better word - generated in the act of evangelical discernment? At times Hays seems to concede that there may be other ways in which the evangelists draw upon Scripture, as in the comment that 'some of the senses [of the OT] are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively' (p.104). Hays appears to have a distaste for 'isolated proof-texts and predictions' (pp.15-16), taking it to be a 'blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus' (94). On the other hand, just as Peter appears to interpret Pentecost fairly straightforwardly as a direct fulfilment of a passage in Joel which is about Pentecost without remainder ('this is that!' - Acts 2.16), so also one might also wonder whether the evangelists might have taken some of the OT in the same more straightforwardly predictive manner. The evangelists may well have thought that passages such as Zechariah 12-13 (Matt. 26.31; Jn 19.37) and Daniel 7 were more future-oriented prophecy, just as for 1 Peter it was revealed to the prophets that they were addressing not their own generation, 'but you' (1.12). At times Hays seems to say something like this, as in the discussion of the fulfilment passages in John (pp. 79-81): for example, he remarks that the Psalms 'foreshadow--or as John might prefer, express' the suffering of Jesus (p.81). It might have been more clearly signalled that here John was engaging in something slightly different from figural reading, if that is what Hays sees him as doing. The tone is in danger of sounding negative towards the idea of direct promise and fulfilment, though such a theme is often in Scripture tied to the idea of God's faithfulness. The Johannine statements that Jesus makes promises so that, when they are fulfilled, the disciples might believe (13.19; 14.29; cf. 16.1, 4) are acts of grace rather than crass astrology. 

I have concentrated in these last two paragraphs on critical notes, but overall it must be said that the book is marvellous. Its brevity gives it a fresh and uncluttered quality. It is beautifully composed - my prosaic summaries above certainly do not do justice to the quality of the writing. (Baylor University Press can also be commended for producing a handsome volume.) One can only applaud the boldness of the argument as well. The discussion of how the individual evangelists construct their Christologies through drawing on the OT is masterful, and it is dripping with insightful treatments of the kind mentioned above (and which one hopes will be followed up at greater length in the editio maior). Professor Hays is to be congratulated upon offering in this brief book a great deal more substantive scholarship than is provided in most books many times the length. Richard Hays, it has been noted, does not write as many books as some of his contemporaries (though he has written half-a-dozen or so), but when he does write a book, it is a book that should be read. This one is no exception, and it is one to which I will turn back again and again.

Simon Gathercole is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies and Fellow at Fitzwilliam College at University of Cambridge. His most recent book is Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker, 2015)

1709 What Every Christian.jpg
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login