Yesterday I wrote about the broad argument in Richard B. Hays book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. It’s a useful book, although oddly positioned. On the one hand, it can work to help biblically literate but non-specialized Christians better to understand how the New Testament writers understand and use the OT, and how the OT reveals Jesus. Critically, Hays argues that Jesus exists in the OT not simply in a handful of isolated prooftexts, but in its very warp and woof. On the other hand, Hays leverages the framework he sketches to address modern debates among scholars about who the Gospels say that Jesus is. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not complaining about this aspect of the book, but it is a curious mixture.
In this part, however, I am going to whine a little about what Hays writes, and whine a little about what Hays did not write.
One argument Hays develops throughout Reading Backwards is that all four Gospel writers present the reader with a high Christology from the get-go. That is, Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh. Hays here responds to a long line of scholarship that argues belief in Jesus’s divinity did not derive from the Scriptures (where, the argument goes, the teaching is largely absent) but instead evolved over centuries as the prophet Jesus became increasingly mythologized by the community devoted to and formed around his teachings.
While orthodox layfolk will not be surprised by Hays’ thesis—that all four Gospels present Jesus as divine—Hays develops numerous lines of argument drawing on the OT Scriptures that push past all-too-common reliance on a handful of prooftexts of Jesus’ divinity in the NT.
Hays hits the theme hard; understandably so given the scholarly environment in which he writes. That said, or perhaps because of it, I think Hays at a couple of points pushes the Biblical evidence too enthusiastically. That is, it seems to me that he argues for Jesus’ divinity in a couple of passages that don’t really support it.
For example, discussing Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 14 and Mark 6, Hays writes, “the storm-stilling and the water-walking – rest on a common OT substratum: there is only One who can command the wind and storm, only One who can stride across the waves.”
To be sure, there is One who ultimately commands, but it seems to me we see human agency related to controlling otherwise natural phenomena in the OT Scriptures that I’m unsure authority over water and storms is sufficient to demonstrate divinity. To wit, Moses raises his hands and brings hail and thunder to Egypt (Ex 9), and darkness (Ex 10). He also parts the Red Sea (Ex 14). So, too, Joshua parts the Jordan (Josh 3) and halts the course of the sun (Josh 10). Elijah commands the rain (or lack thereof, 1 Kings 17). While all exercised divine power in these events, none is divine.
Further, in the context of Matthew 14, I’m still inclined to take the disciples’ confession that Jesus is God’s son to be more of an Adamic/Kingly ascription by the disciples than one of divinity (cf., Luke 3.38, Ps 2). This is to take nothing from Jesus’ uniqueness or his actual divinity. But he is also the greater Moses, the greater Joshua, and the greater Elijah; he is the true, renewed Adam. I’m inclined to think that’s what Matthew and Mark are trying to teach us here.
Similarly, Hays takes Luke to argue that Gabriel telling Mary that Jesus is to be “called the Son of the Most High God” suggests divinity rather than kingship. Yet the conclusion of that sentence is all about kingship, “and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” Similarly, being conceived, or created, by the Spirit again to me suggests an Adamic echo rather than a divine one.
While I agree entirely on the overall point regarding Biblical evidence for Jesus’s divinity, in his enthusiasm to press the case, I think that Hays presses some of the evidence harder than it will stand.
Given the brevity of the book it is probably unfair of me to whine about what Hays does not discuss. I won’t let that stop me, however, in the hopes that the more-extended treatment of the subject which Hays promises will fill in the gaps. In particular, I hope that Moses and the Torah receive extended treatment in Hays future book.
To be sure, the figural relationship between OT animal sacrifice and Jesus’s sacrifice are explicitly taught in the NT. Yet there would seem to be so much more. For example, the purity laws relating to hemorrhaging women (Lev 15) and dead bodies (Nm 19) would seem to be to provide background to Jesus’ healing of the hemorrhaging woman and the raising of Jarius’s daughter, recorded in several of the Gospels. In both cases impurity would have been communicated to the person touched by the woman and by the person entering a house in which there was a dead body. This would have necessitated exclusion from the assembly for a period of time, and until a baptism. Yet, significantly, Jesus’ miracles invert the expected outcomes: not only is Jesus not defiled by the respective contacts, instead healing and life proceed from him to the woman and to the girl. Thinking both about the purpose of those laws in the OT, and the inversion of the OT expectation by the work of Jesus, suggestively points to the profound changes Jesus brings to a fallen world.
None of this is intended to be churlish about the book at hand. It is a slender volume, but, just like Jesus’ words to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it opens up the Scriptures, Old as well as New.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.