Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness
by richard b. hays
baylor, 177 pages, $34.95

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n the heady days of the early Christian Church, Marcion was considered a very dangerous man. In the second half of the second century, bishops and theologians all over the Christian world, from Gaul in the west to Edessa in the east, worked energetically to expose him as a false teacher and discredit the simple idea now attached to his name. Jesus, taught Marcion, reveals a God of love and so liberates humanity from the horrors of serving and believing in the cruel, irrational, and despotic God of the Jews.

Few Christians today would go as far as Marcion in condemning the Old Testament and its portrayal of God. Thanks in part to the stimulus provided by the Marcionite heresy, Christian tradition affirmed the sacred authority of the Old Testament early on and has held fast to the affirmation ever since. Yet this ­affirmation has only sharpened specific questions about its status, which have dogged churches from antiquity to the Reformation and beyond. What is the role of the Old ­Testament in shaping Christian identity, ­practice, and belief? How necessary is it to understanding the Christian Gospel?

In the judgment of Richard Hays, renowned New Testament scholar and dean of Duke Divinity School, it is absolutely crucial. Following on his influential Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Hays, in his new work, Reading Backwards, has done for the four evangelists what he did for Paul in the earlier work. With subtlety and skill, he shows that the New Testament writers, far from dismissing Jewish Scripture, interacted in sophisticated ways with its themes, traditions, and vocabulary.

Reading Backwards is based on the Hulsean Lectures, which Hays delivered at the University of Cambridge in 2013 and 2014. Despite the lively, oral character of the prose, numerous endnotes and a discussion of relevant scholarship in the preface give this volume the feel of a conventional academic book. By Hays’s own admission, though, the book is small, a “sort of progress report” on what will eventually be a larger, fuller study of the “echoes” of Jewish Scripture in the four Gospels.

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hat the book lacks in fullness of argument and exposition, it makes up for in readability, coherence, and simplicity of design. In the first chapter, Hays introduces the book’s key concept. It is important to recognize that his objective in this book is not historical or historiographic. That is, he does not simply make the obvious point that the Old Testament is essential background for understanding the Gospel writers and their first-century contexts. His aim, instead, is hermeneutical, to make a point about how the Christian Bible ought to be read. “We learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT”—and here is Hays’s contribution—“we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels.”

Instead of reading in one direction, from Old to New, Hays describes a hermeneutical two-way street. To understand the Gospels, one must read forward from Israel’s Scriptures to their fulfillment in the life of Jesus. But the concept of fulfillment also entails a “retrospective reinterpretation of Israel’s traditions” that directs the reader back to the Old Testament; thus, the truth of the Gospels also becomes the basis for understanding Scripture. To understand Jesus and the Christian message, one must read the Gospels, but one cannot read them properly without following them “backwards” into the Old Testament.

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ays identifies the primary linkage between the Gospels and the Old Testament with the Gospel writers’ use of figural interpretation. According to Erich ­Auerbach and the “classic definition” found in his Mimesis, “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.” This definition, in conjunction with Hans Frei’s recognition that figural interpretation is what gives the scriptural canon unity and theological coherence, serves as the starting point for Hays’s examination of each of the four Gospels in chapters two (Mark), three (Matthew), four (Luke), and five (John).

Figuration works differently in each of the four Gospels. A central theme for Mark, for example, is the mystery of Jesus’s identity. Instead of stating flatly who Jesus is, Mark weaves OT allusions into his narrative in order to intimate a truth “too scandalous for direct speech,” one that ultimately identifies Jesus with the God of Israel. A prophecy about the return of Israel’s God to Zion (Isa. 40:9–10) is echoed in the opening of Mark’s Gospel (1:7–8). Biblical texts concerning the unique prerogative of God to forgive sin (Exod. 34:6–7; Isa. 43:25) yield the skepticism of the scribes who think it blasphemous for Jesus to absolve the paralytic (2:7). In an especially astute bit of exegesis, Hays points out that the story of Jesus walking on the water (6:45–52) does not recall Moses and the Exodus sea-crossing but rather the peerless God of Job 9:4–11, the Lord of creation who triumphs over chaos.

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here Mark is indirect and allusive, Matthew appears to leave little to the imagination. He tends to flag his OT references explicitly (“This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying . . .”). And the genealogy (Matt. 1:1–17) sets Jesus within a clear linear progression from Abraham to the coming of the ­Messiah. Yet Hays argues that despite his reputation as a prediction-­oriented proof-texter, Matthew’s strategy is figural. His Gospel does not depend so much on isolated prophetic fulfillments as on a broader parallel between Jesus who is ­Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23), and the God who abides with Israel in bondage and exile, who is found among Israel’s poor (25:40; cf. Prov. 19:17), and who remains with his people in ongoing covenant fidelity (28:20; cf. Gen. 28:12–17, Hag. 1:13).

The “road to Emmaus” passage in Luke 24 is in many ways the most important for Hays. When the two disciples fail to recognize him after the Resurrection, Jesus begins “with ­Moses and all the prophets” and explains to the disciples “all the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). In other words, Jesus ­addresses their doubt and confusion, not, as Walter Moberly points out, by offering new visions or miracles but rather by turning to Israel’s Scriptures—or, as Hays would say, by “reading backwards.” Hays details a number of other specific OT connections to show that, for Luke, Jesus must be understood as the kyrios of Israel who gathers Israel under his wings (13:34; cf. Deut. 32:10–12, Ps. 91:4), and who “visits” Israel to redeem them (1:68; cf. Exod. 4:31). In Luke’s Gospel, the “framework of expectation” in which Jesus is ultimately intelligible is furnished by the “Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms” (24:44).

No less than the other three, John’s Gospel makes the task of understanding Jesus a function of grasping OT figures. Central for John, according to Hays, is the significance of the Temple, which the evangelist identifies with ­Jesus’s body (2:21). Thus, “Jesus takes over the Temple’s function as a place of mediation between God and human beings.” This realization, moreover, helps make sense of John’s emphasis on Israel’s sacrificial system and festivals—the feasts of Booths (7:10–39), Hanukkah (10:22–30), and Passover (chapters 13–19)—as ideal venues for proclamations of Jesus’s identity. Beneath all of this, of course, is the famous evocation of creation and Genesis 1 in John’s prologue, where Jesus is identified with the Logos, “the divine Wisdom whose very being is the blueprint of all reality.”

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f the Gospel writers used figural interpretation to identify Jesus with the God of Israel, they also treated Jesus quite clearly as a man distinct from God, one who, in subjection to God’s will, experienced death and divine abandonment. Hays acknowledges this, but he has far less to say about the figural resonances of Jesus’s humanity and his identification, for example, with the people of Israel. Perhaps this will come into the promised fuller version of the book. For the moment, though, it seems as though Hays’s main concern is to convince readers (and fellow scholars) that the authors of the Gospels had high Christologies and, therefore, that belief in ­Jesus’s divinity is authentic to the first century.

In this way, Hays challenges the old critical view (which has also been challenged in recent years by Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others) that high Christologies are late developments, entering Christian history as secondary, Hellenistic theological innovations. Hays, for his part, sees the roots of these debates in the Gospels themselves. The christological debates of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries were an attempt, he says, to think through the “stunning paradoxes” of the four Gospels and to “formulate a theological grammar adequate to respect the narrative tensions inescapably posed by the Gospels.”

In the book’s concluding chapter, Hays totals the “strengths and weaknesses” of the evangelists as OT readers and outlines briefly a set of ten methodological prescriptions gleaned from the early chapters. The aim is to set forth a “Gospel-shaped hermeneutics,” an approach to Scripture modeled on the Gospel writers. Hays offers some valuable suggestions (for example, to pay attention to the Septuagint and to understand the larger context of OT allusions), while others seem confusing in their implications (what to do with the fact that the evangelists operated “with a de facto canon within the canon”?) or modish (“embrace a complex poetic sensibility” in order to “become more interesting people”). Hays also seems narrow when he encourages readers to read the OT principally as narrative and not as a “source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations,” apparently disqualifying many early Christian authors who cited Scripture in this way.

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verall, Hays’s exegetical work confirms “what the church’s dogmatic tradition has classically affirmed about the identity of Jesus.” And it does so in an unlikely way, by pointing the reader to the narrative reflexes of Israel’s monotheism. This result should edify Christian theological readers who stand within the broad Nicene tradition. Similarly, the virtuosic exegetical performances offered by Hays in this book will, I think, inform and illuminate their subsequent readings of the Gospels and provide fresh inspiration to read and reread the Old Testament.

Whether these performances warrant the creation of a new interpretive approach, though, remains unclear—a question, perhaps, to be taken up more fully in the final version of this book. The present volume shows that figural interpretation is indeed an essential Christian reading strategy. By reading backwards from the Gospels to the OT, Hays affirms a high Christology consistent with ­Nicea and Chalcedon. One wonders, then, whether the fullest definition of “reading backwards” ought also to include retrospective reinterpretation of the Scriptures informed by the theological tradition, the rule of faith, and church history. As the opponents of Marcion pointed out, right reading has as much, or more, to do with ecclesiology and confession as with method and virtuosity. 

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University.