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Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness
Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness
Richard B. Hays
Baylor University Press, 2014
177 pp., $34.95

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Scot McKnight


Believing to Understand

Richard Hays on figural Christology.

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The Third Evangelist's style is narratival, and Hays ably frames it this way:

[M]any of the OT echoes in Luke do not function as direct typological prefigurations of events in the life of Jesus. Still less do they function as prooftexts. Rather, they create a broader and subtler effect: they create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory. The Gospel scenes are played out on a stage with scenery familiar to the reader who remembers the biblical drama. The things that happen in Luke are the kinds of things that happened in the tales of the patriarchs and prophets, and the plotted action, while never simply identical to the OT stories, is often suggestively reminiscent of Israel's sacred past. It is as though we are hearing, throughout Luke's Gospel, subtle musical variations on a theme. Most significantly, the memories evoked by retrospective reading disclose that the character of God portrayed in this Gospel is consistent with his character as displayed throughout Israel's history: this God who elects Israel, judges their faithlessness, and still acts in unexpected ways to redeem them is recognizably the same God the reader knows from previous episodes of the story—but now made manifest in new and surprising ways. The question before us, then, is how Israel's God is manifest in and through the figure of Jesus.

Read Luke 3:1-6, thumb back to Isaiah 40, and then read Luke 3 all over again: Luke led you backwards to Isaiah so you could read forwards to Luke 3 and see Jesus as he is created in his fresh narratival reading of Jesus. Which leads us back to the Emmaus story in Luke 24, and ahead to Hays' conclusion to his chapter on Luke:

The brilliant dramatic irony of Luke's Emmaus road scene nudges readers inexorably toward a subtle but overwhelming conclusion: the two disciples are wrong to be discouraged but right to have hoped for Jesus to be the one who would redeem Israel. In their puzzled disappointment, they truly name Jesus' identity without realizing what they are saying, for the Redeemer of Israel is none other than Israel's God. And Jesus, in truth, is the embodied, unrecognized, but scripturally attested presence of the One for whom they unwittingly hoped.

The narrative that generates this conclusion is one that is shared by readers with an ear to hear the echoes of the Old Testament in passage after passage in Luke's Gospel.

Perhaps the deciding point for affirming this backwards-and-forwards reading of the Bible comes in Hays' chapter about the Gospel of John, where once again he picks up that famous text about Moses and Jesus from John 5:46. The deciding point, after all, is what one decides about Jesus:

Jesus does not challenge or denigrate Moses; rather, Moses actually testifies to Jesus. Yet Jesus' adversaries, despite their earnest scrutiny of Moses' writings, lapse into interpretative failure because they reject Jesus' astonishing claim to be the true and ultimate referent to whom Moses' words point. There is a fateful circularity here: reading the writings of Moses should lead to believing in Jesus; but in order to understand Moses' words, one must first come to Jesus to receive life… . And so those who do not trust Jesus' word remain in incomprehension and death. Only those who enter this hermeneutical loop at the point of believing Jesus can rightly understand what Moses wrote.

The historian and the apologist may cry out for a place at the table, but the hermeneutical loop eventually closes in and begs the reader to believe. For such a reader, believing that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible suddenly makes (new) sense. Can any Bible reader not recognize what John does in 1:1 when he says all over again "In the beginning"? But now something has changed. Jesus has been inserted into the narrative, and the beginning has been christologically reframed: the Logos, Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the incarnate one, is the Creator and the Life who gives eternal life. Whether it is the Temple (John 2:13-22) or the feasts of Israel (John 10:22-30; 19:14), under John's guidance they are all about Jesus—and the reader who sees they are about Jesus can rightly understand what the Temple and the feasts were designed to do. What then is John's approach? "John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory."

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