Interview by Garrett Brown
The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible
Surely, the church fathers who came after Paul picked up on these tropes and did similar things with them. I'm wondering then if there's a way to think of what he was doing; maybe it's de novo. I don't know.
It's hard to come up with something that's an exact parallel. There are analogies of different sorts. What he's not doing, for example, is the genre of biblical commentary. You can compare the works of Philo, who is a Jewish author, who actually give extended allegorical expositions of particular biblical texts.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have examples of commentaries that go, more or less, line by line and perform what's called pesher exegesis. This kind of commentary quotes a line of Scripture and then says, "Its interpretation is …" Then it goes to the next line and says, "Its interpretation is …"
Paul doesn't do that kind of thing exactly. What Paul is doing is more like what a preacher does in evoking a text and then reflecting upon it in various ways, in a way that tries to be edifying for his readers. If we had access to synagogue sermons contemporary with Paul, which we don't (they simply haven't survived in literary form), they might offer closer parallels. Perhaps the closest parallels are to be found within the intertextuality of the Old Testament itself: for example, the way that Isaiah evokes the creation and exodus stories.
I do think that the letters of Paul, in the way they use Scripture, are, at least as far as I know, distinctive in their own historical setting.
Since the time that book was published, do you find that others have followed your lead in investigating these literary connections? Are scholars doing a better job of seeing these echoes?
Yes. There's been a flood of articles and monographs, many of which even pick up the term "echoes" in their titles. Many of these are informative and edifying, even brilliant. On the other hand, sometimes when reading some of that stuff, I feel a little bit like the "Sorcerer's apprentice," who let the brooms out of the closet. People's imaginations occasionally run wild. I'm not responsible, I hope, for all of that.
Let's talk about your two most recent books, Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, which are closely linked.
Reading Backwards is the published version of a lecture series, the Hulsean Lectures, which I gave at Cambridge University. When I was asked to give those lectures, I was, at that time, serving as Dean of the Divinity School at Duke and was overwhelmed by administrative work.
I had previously written hundreds of manuscript pages of work I'd been doing for the book which eventually became Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. What I did in the Hulsean Lectures was to extract material out of that much larger unfinished manuscript and condense it into the lectures that became Reading Backwards.
Those lectures focused very narrowly on the question of how the gospel writers draw upon Israel's Scripture in order to narrate the divine identity of Jesus. It's a Christologically focused set of excerpts from the larger and older manuscript.
When I finally completed and published the bigger book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, it included most of the material that was in the Hulseans, but now in its larger, original context.
For both books, your starting point is, in many ways, the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Can you talk about how that passage sets up your argument?
For readers who may not have that text immediately at hand or in mind, Luke tells the story of two travelers who had been followers of Jesus. despondently leaving the city of Jerusalem after Jesus' crucifixion.
The risen Jesus then appears along the road and walks with them, but they don't recognize him. He asks them, "What are you talking about?" and they say, "Oh, we're very sad and hopeless because Jesus, who we thought was a great prophet, has been put to death by the Romans and the Jewish authorities. We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but in fact, obviously not because he was killed." I'm paraphrasing, of course.
Jesus then says, "Oh, foolish and slow of heart to believe the Scriptures," and launches into a long exposition of how Moses and all the prophets bore witness to the fact that the Messiah must suffer and be raised. It's only then when they finally arrive at their destination in the little town of Emmaus, sit down in a table together, and break bread together that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
So there's a post-resurrectional exposition of Scripture as revelatory. In Luke's gospel this suggests the fundamental insight that only in retrospect can you come to understand how Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus.