I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience is for Richard B. Hays recent book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. I don’t intend that as a criticism; I’ve already recommended the winsome little volume—and it is short, with the text ending at a little over 100 pages—to several friends. Hays calls this volume a précis for a longer, more-academic work on the same topic. I’ll call it a teaser for the same.
Hays’ volume works on a couple of levels. The first is that is works as an introduction to the Old Testament in the New, and, as it were, the New in the Old.
Hays starts with Luke’s notable account of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion and resurrection. After a short exchange, and one of Jesus’ cringe-worthy chastisements, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken,” Jesus continued according to Luke, and “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, he explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures.” In later recognizing it was Jesus who spoke to them, they remarked, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking to us on the road, as he opened the Scriptures to us?”
As Hays points out, Jesus does not rebuke the men because they failed to believe him, he rebukes them for not believing Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus says he is central to those Scriptures. Here Hays challenges the way Christians today often think of the Scriptures and the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. This challenge occurs on several levels.
First, and most obviously, the Old Testament needs to be open to Christians rather than closed. To be sure, there is an implicit Marcionism in the way many Christians approach the Old Testament. While few would go as far as Marcion’s reputed teacher, Cedro, explicitly to affirm (as Irenaeus reported), that “the one who was proclaimed as God by the Law and the Prophets is not the father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” nonetheless, there is a pull in that direction in the way many Christians view and characterize the Old Testament.
There is the common juxtaposition of the “wrathful, vengeful God” of the Old Testament with the “gentle, merciful God” of the New, as well the common view that the point of all of the “rigmarole” of the Old Testament was only to teach how nice it will be when it’s finally gotten rid of. (This view reminds of the old saw about the guy who tied a large rock to his head on account of how good it felt when he removed it.)
But Christians who truck not even with an implicit sort of Marcionism often as a practical matter think of the revelation of Jesus in the Old Testament as a handful of isolated prooftexts, a proverbial messianic needle in an Old Testament haystack.
Hays book perhaps best serves as a tonic for readers—at least for lay readers—who hold this view.
First, and most broadly, the Gospel writers understood Jesus’ work to be that to which the entire Old Testament crescendos. Here, using language that some readers might initially resist, Hays writes that the “Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration. . . . It points forward typologically to the gospel story.”
I suspect readers uncomfortable with the idea of reading the Scriptures “figurally”—thinking Hays invites allegorical flights of fancy—would be less suspicious with the language of listening for “echoes” of the OT Scriptures in the Gospels. (Hays in fact titled his earlier book on Paul in this fashion.)
For example, in the well-known passage in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
The most explicit echo here is Jesus’s reference to the event of the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21) as one frame for his own death and its implications. So, too, the only slightly less explicit echo of the offering of Isaac in God giving Jesus, “his only begotten son.” (Albeit, with the twist that, with Jesus as Isaac, and God standing as Abraham, then it is Nicodemus and the reader who then have God’s character revealed to them, saying to God “you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”)
Finally, then, although not unique to this passage, there is Jesus’s reference to himself as the “Son of Man.” This echoes not only the Son of Man of Daniel 7, but also the 90-plus times God calls Ezekiel the “Son of Man.” Both presumably frame Jesus’s work and ministry.
Each of these echoes, when heard, provide the reader with a richer understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry than when those echoes are unheard.
More than this, however, in this brief volume Hays devotes a chapter to each of the Gospels, discussing how each author uniquely reads the Old Testament regarding the person and significance of Jesus. Unlike academic theologians, layfolk often read the Gospels only synoptically, moving from book to book as though written by a single author. Hays brief treatment of each Gospel writer on his own usefully sensitizes lay readers—certainly not to reject synoptic readings—but to become attuned to what can be learned from the distinctive voices and modes of argument of the different Gospel writers.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss a couple of quibbles with Hays’ discussion, and with my own aspirations for the longer volume on the topic he promises in the future.
This is the first part of a two part review for Richard Hays's book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.