Book Review: Reading Backwards by Richard Hays

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Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, changed the landscape of understanding Paul’s use of the Old Testament with his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and now seeks to write a “Gospel-focused sequel” to this work (ix). Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press) is the product of the Hulsean Lectures in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and with minor changes made for this publication. Thus, this book feels like a primer for understanding the Gospel writers use of the Old Testament primarily focused on their figural Christology. I look forward to a full-fledged “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” type work that examines the fourfold witness in more detail. Nevertheless, this work is a helpful starting point in understanding the Gospel writers figural interpretation.

The thesis of the book argues that “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels (5).” Hays works this out by primarily focusing on how this effects the Christology of each of the Gospel writers. He does this through six short chapters (lectures):

  1. “The Manger in Which Christ Lies”: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture
  2. Figuring the Mystery: Reading Scripture with Mark
  3. Torah Transfigured: Reading Scripture with Matthew
  4. The One Who Redeems Israel: Reading Scripture with Luke
  5. The Temple Transfigured: Reading Scripture with John
  6. Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics

At the outset Hays lays out his methodology building on the work of Erich Auerbach and his definition of “figural interpretation.” According Auerbach,

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spritual act (2)[1].

Thus, figural interpretation can only occur after both events have happened, which changes the significance of each event. Hays argues that this form of interpretation is not necessarily dependent upon the authorial intent of the original writer but respects the historical reference of the text being used (15). When the Gospel writers employ this type of hermeneutic they are not twisting the Old Testament scriptures but are reading backwards in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension can we go back and reread the Torah, Writings, and the Prophets.

Hays then argues that each Gospel writer has a distinct voice and purpose for their figural reading of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Mark is shrouded in mystery and the figural exegesis is “evocative” shedding light into this mystery. For example, Hays argues that Mark 1:2–3 is subtely showing that the Lord of the Old Testament is Jesus, which is spoken about in Isaiah 40:3. This example alone is just one of the many places Mark quietly shows that Jesus is the Lord of the Old Testament (21). Mark’s Christology is a narrative that can only be understood by putting together the pieces of the whole story. Each figural reading builds upon one another to give us a robust but mysterious portrait of Jesus.

Unlike the mysterious Mark, the Gospel of Matthew is bold, clear, and didactically explains Jesus’ divine identity. Beginning and ending with the “Emmanuel” theme Matthew shows how Jesus is God incarnate explicitly through Old Testament fulfillments and figural rereadings of the Scriptures. One interesting figural rereading that Hays examines is a possible subtle allusion to Genesis 28:12–17 in Matthew 28:20. Hays argues that Jesus is playing the same role as God when he says in Genesis 28 “Behold I am with you…” and Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold I am with you…” in Matthew 28:20 (48). Along with the explicit high Christological statements through Matthew this subtle allusion shows a figural rereading of the Genesis story showing Jesus’ “embodiment of Israel’s God (52).”

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” This passage, Hays argues, “is to bring us up short and send us back to the beginning of the Gospel to reread it, in hopes of discerning more clearly how the identity and mission of Jesus might be prefigured in Israel’s Scripture (56).” This rereading will show how Luke shows Jesus’ divine identiy narratively. Hays explains that Luke presents this narrative divine identity in two ways (58): 1) mouths of characters in the story (see Luke 4:16–21) and 2) implicit correspondences (allusion and echo). These allusions and echoes manifest themselves in several ways:

  1. Jesus as the awaited Lord of the new exodus (62)
  2. Jesus as Kyrios (64)
  3. Receptin and rejection of the divine visitation (68)
  4. Jesus as object of worship (69)
  5. Jesus desires to gather Jerusalem under his wings (69)

Hays concludes by arguing that the modern assumption of Luke’s “low” Christology does not take account of his many allusions and echoes that show Jesus is divine and the one who will redeem Israel (72).

The Gospel of John is the most “figural” of the Gospels but also contains the least amount of explicit Old Testament citations and allusions. Hays argues that John 1:45 gives us the clue to understanding and seeking out the figural rereading of John. Hays argues, “If Luke is the master of the 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).” When Jesus references Numbers 21:8–9 in John 3:14 Hays argues that this allusion is more “visual” rather than “auditory” (78). The allusion to the serpent is only given by a couple words: Moses and serpent. Hays then suggests that John may also be alluding to the “lifting up” of the suffering servant in Isa 52:13 (LXX).

The conclusion is worth the price of the book alone. Not arguing against modern critical readings but arguing that we need to broaden our hemerneutical lense lest we miss what the Gospel writers are saying. Hays asks, “what if we learned to read Israel’s Scripture not only through the lenses of modern critical methods but also through the eyes of John and the other authors of the canonical Gospels (93)?” This book aptly gives us a taste of the imagery and figural readings the Gospels present us.

The final chapter gives a helpful overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each Gospel writers figural rereading. For example, the strength of John’s gospel is the “poetic reading of the texts (101).” This allows us to Jesus as the divine Word that “underlies and sustains all of creation (101).” John’s weakness is that it can lend its hand to “anti-Jewish and/or high-handedly supersessionist thoelogies (102).” This opens the door for some readers of the Gospel for “ahistorical quasi-gnostic spirituality (102).” But as stated at the beginning a figural rereading of the Old Testament does not “deny the literal sense but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the literal historical sense (102).” Hays then examines 10 ways the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament.

So, what can be said about this provocative argument that we should be engaged in a figural rereading of the Old Testament scriptures? I think that Hays’ overal argument is valid and that the Gospel writers do present us with a model of how to read the Old Testament in light of Christ. Many ways which the Gospel writers reference the Old Testament are only valid because of the resurrected Jesus. To say that Moses lifting up to the serpent speaks of Christ being lifted up on the cross can only happen after the subsequent event. This involves a “rereading” of the story in Numbers.

One area of critique that I would have of Hays’ own rereading of the Gospels and his rerereading(?) of their interpretation of the Old Testament is that he sometimes seems to stretch the ways in which the Gospel writers allude to Old Testament passages. Is John really symbollically alluding to both the serpent being lifted up and the suffering servant being lifted up? Personally, it seems better to possibly argue for our own rereading of both the Gospels and the Old Testament. Is it possible for us to say that this John’s allusion to the lifting up of the serpent can also be reread figuratively (to use Hays’ language) to that of the suffering servant in Isaiah? That is, do we need to discern some type of authorial intent of John alluding to Numbers and Isaiah or can this be our own rereading of the text?

With this critique aside, the overall argument of this book is one which New Testament interpreters need to wrestle with. Indeed, the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and likewise the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament.

You can purchase the book here.


  1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 73.  ↩