Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

Written by Richard B. Hays Reviewed By Kenneth D. Litwak

Richard Hays has been a major contributor in recent decades to the important topic of the use of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers. He has influenced many others (including this reviewer) to write articles, monographs, and dissertations on “Echoes of Scripture” in various New Testament books. In the preface—which is important to read—Hays describes the origin, purpose, and approach of this book, which began life as a series of lectures. Hays explains that this book may be thought of as an arrabon, a “down payment,” toward a book that he has been writing for some time that he, “half-jesting,” calls Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (subsequently published under that title by Baylor University Press in June 2016). It is important to know that the latter book, much larger in size, is the basis for the smaller book being reviewed, not vice-versa as one might expect. Readers unfamiliar with Hays’s previous, widely-influential book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul¸ might not see the connection. In these essays, Hays seeks to “distill a few narrowly focused insights about the fourfold witness of the gospels to the divine identity of Jesus, viewed in light of their intertextual engagement with Israel’s Scripture” (p. ix).

The opening chapter of this book introduces Hays’s model of “figural reading.” Hays offers examples of how the Old Testament teaches us to read the New Testament, and how the New Testament teaches us to read the Old Testament. Hays states that, “The Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration” (p. 15, emphasis original). He contends that “the Gospel writers summon us to a conversion of the imagination,” and that “we will learn to read Scripture rightly only if our minds and imaginations are opened by seeing the scriptural text . . . through the Evangelists’ eyes” (p. 4). In saying this, Hays is directly challenging a historical-critical reading of the canonical gospels and the Scriptures of Israel. Figuration is not the same as prediction. Recognizing figuration is always retrospective. It is evident from this first chapter that Hays wants late modern people in the church to have their eyes opened, like those on the road to Emmaus, to understand Israel’s story through the lens of Jesus’s story.

Chapters two through five treat Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John respectively, in the order of composition accepted by most New Testament scholars. Regarding Mark’s Gospel, Hays states that Mark uses Scripture generally in an “indirect and allusive” way and that, while Mark’s story is intelligible without recognizing the Scriptures “woven” into the fabric of Mark’s gospel, and that “[m]any of the key images in this mysterious narrative are drawn from Israel’s Scriptures” (p. 17). While Hays characterizes Mark’s use of Scripture as “allusive,” he does not mean ignore explicit quotations. Through scriptural allusions, readers of Mark’s Gospel are led to see Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. Hays repeatedly asserts the mysterious character of Mark’s narrative. This mystery, akin to Mark’s account of the meaning of parables in Mark 4, involves elements of Israel’s story. Mark does not state Jesus’s identity propositionally, but by interweaving Israel’s story to show that Jesus both embodies the God of Israel and the Crucified One. If we would read Scripture through Mark’s eyes, we must do the same, superimposing the story of Jesus on top of the story of Israel. Alas, Hays does not tell us precisely how to do this, but he has offered examples in the chapter on Mark of how Mark does this.

In chapter 3, “Torah Transfigured: Reading Scripture with Matthew,” Hays asserts that Matthew, unlike Mark, “presses narrative claims about Jesus” and links them to Scripture (p. 36). Hays believes, quite rightly, that the New Testament authors do not pull scriptural texts out of context. Rather, they expect their implied readers to understand the Old Testament intertext in light of its original context. Hays therefore argues that when Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, “Matthew’s use of the quotation actually depends upon the reader’s recognition of its original sense” (p. 41), which speaks of God’s love for Israel, his son, as seen in the Exodus from Egypt.

Chapter 4 describes the way that Luke, no less than Mark or Mathew, uses scriptural intertexts to present the divine identity of Jesus, but more subtly and “insistently portrays Jesus as the embodied Presence of Israel’s Lord and God” (p. 58). This conclusion differs sharply from that of many modern scholars. Luke primarily uses scriptural allusions and echoes to show through “implicit correspondences” (p. 58; emphasis original) a pattern of promise-fulfillment.

While John’s Gospel does have explicit quotations of the Old Testament, there are far fewer than in the other gospels; according to Hays, John evokes Scripture more through imagery than through literary echoes. In Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Hays roundly rejects “midrash” as a useful description of how Paul interprets Scripture, as it really tells us nothing about what is actually happening. So it seems quite odd that Hays describes the “midrashic” use of Proverbs 8 in John’s prologue. Hays’s criticism of midrash as an interpretive method in Paul is important because a) that is not what Jewish midrash looks like; and b) as Hays notes, saying that Paul used a specific scriptural text midrashically is not enlightening regarding Paul’s hermeneutics. In the same way, John’s prologue is not like a Jewish midrashic text. So Hays would do well to pick a different term, perhaps “model” or “inspiration.” While Matthew takes a dialectic approach to connecting Scripture to the story he is telling, John “presents both the scriptural text and the word of Jesus as enigmas that become comprehensible only retrospectively, only after the resurrection” (p. 85).

This retrospective element is a core part of all that Hays says about the ways the Evangelists used the Scriptures of Israel. For no one would have read the texts the gospels cite, allude to, or echo as pointers to the promised Davidic Messiah, let alone as pointing to a future person who would embody Israel’s God. It is only when looking through the hermeneutical lens of Jesus’s words, life, death, burial, and resurrection that one can see what the gospel writers saw. At the start of the book, Hays refers to Martin Luther’s description of Christ in the Old Testament as being like Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. As such the Old Testament both reveals and conceals aspects of Jesus. However, Hays does not go looking for ways that the Evangelists found some random text that contains perhaps the right words and explain it as a prophecy about Jesus directly. Even allowing for a Christocentric reading of Scripture, as the early Church Fathers practiced, the Evangelists did not read or understand Scripture as containing a large quantity of prophecies that Jesus directly fulfilled.

The sixth chapter sums up what Hays has presented in the previous five chapters. The Old Testament teaches us to read the gospels and the gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament by practicing the use of the hermeneutical key, “figural reading.” Figural reading is the “discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondences between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream” (p. 93). The intertextual elements in both can point to the other. However, these correspondences can only be seen retrospectively. As can be seen from Hays’s book, he does not mean typology. These correspondences can only be seen in the light of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. Only in light of Jesus’s story is it appropriate and “illuminating to read backwards” seeking in the Old Testament “unexpected foreshadowing of the later story” (p. 94, emphasis original). Hays explicitly rejects seeking to find in the Old Testament predictions of events in Jesus’s life as a “hermeneutical blunder” (p. 94). The previous chapters show how each Evangelist did his figural reading.

From this point of departure, Hays suggests some answers to questions about how the Evangelists compare or diverge in their figural readings of Scripture. He invites listeners into a conversation about matters of “urgent interest for all who are concerned about the integrity and the future of Christian biblical interpretation” (p. 95). Readers of this journal would want to know if the Evangelists offer one way to do this figural reading or multiple ways that might be in tension and what can we do with their approach. Hays says that each gospel writer takes a distinctive approach to the intertextual task. While Mark’s Gospel has great evocative power in his distinctive approach, it is so “subtle” and indirect (p. 97) that it may cause some readers to miss what he is doing. Matthew takes an opposite tack, providing “great clarity about how to approach the reading of Scripture” and clearly shows continuity between Israel’s story and Jesus story. However, according to Hays, “Matthew’s strongly assertive christological position can sometimes bleed over into a harsh polemical stance” (p. 98). Moreover, it is “not always clear that [Matthew] has reflected systematically or coherently” on his use of biblical motifs in his effort to show that they have all found fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Hays asks how Matthew could place the various identities of Jesus side by side in his narrative, e.g., new Moses and embodiment of Israel’s God. Moreover, Matthew’s “fondness for overt confessional statement stands in some tension with Mark’s reverent reticence” (p. 98). Two questions may be asked here. First, why is Mark the measure of what ought to be done? Second, even if Hays is correct about Matthew not being as systematic as Hays would be, should Christian biblical interpreters stand in judgment over what a gospel writer has done?

Hays sees significant strengths in Luke’s hermeneutical strategy. Luke boldly narrates continuity in Israel’s story past, present, and future. Luke also shows how the mission to the Gentiles is part of God’s longstanding plan for Israel to be the light to the nations. On the other hand, there is the misguided view of many German critics that Luke’s narrative shows “excessive confidence in the continuity of Heilsgeschichte” (p. 100). Hays mentions this to warn readers against falling into this trap. For this reason, Mark is needed alongside Luke in the canon to serve as a “counterweight to any possible triumphalism” (p. 100). Yet, what if Luke, as generally supposed, used Mark’s Gospel and chose to distinguish his approach from Mark’s?

John’s reading of Scripture is “profoundly poetic,” and John is “completely straightforward about setting forth his program of retrospective figural reading.” Instead of weaknesses, Hays sees “personal dangers for his reading strategy of the OT” (p. 101, emphasis original). John’s hermeneutic is presented in a polemical manner against other interpretive strategies. However, is that not true of all four gospels? Are they not all saying, “Don’t read Scripture that way because it is invalid. Read Scripture this way”? It is difficult to see how a hermeneutic that is reflected in the narrative polemically is a weakness or danger. It is useful to observe the polemical aspect but this is an observation. In general authors in the first century A.D. were far more ready to be polemical and castigate their opponents for wrong interpretations of the Scriptures of Israel (following in the steps of the prophets such as Ezekiel or Hosea who have much harsher things to say about Israel and Judah). So this criticism perhaps should only be an observation.

Terminology is important and those unfamiliar with Hays’s language of “echo” will need to consult his earlier work on that subject in Paul. Having some background in New Testament studies would also be helpful, though not essential, to benefit from this book. Given what Hays says in this book and elsewhere about figural reading of Israel’s Scriptures, he could have helped his readers by attending more closely to the Greek words he translates as “fulfill/fulfilled,” in order to show in what sense this is meant. Clearly, in cases like Hosea 11:1, Matthew cannot mean that Jesus fulfilled a predictive prophetic oracle that was for the future—a common issue assumption when scholars talk about prophetic “fulfillment” in the New Testament. These things aside, this is an excellent book for helping people get into the topic of the NT’s use of the OT, and putting forth a positive hermeneutical contribution to the ongoing discussion and debate. Hays makes the important point repeatedly that the writers are looking for their audiences to hear the allusions, echoes, and quotations, and consider how the original contexts, in contrast to those scholars who simply claim the gospel writers are prooftexting out of context. The latter is surely an inadequate reading of the biblical text. This book is highly recommended for all readers of Themelios, as an entrée to Hays’s fuller treatment in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.

Kenneth D. Litwak

Kenneth D. Litwak
Gateway Seminary
Ontario, California, USA

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