Interview by Garrett Brown
The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible
How is reading backward in a figural sense different from reading prophecy forward? And why is the difference important for readers to appreciate?
If we read the Old Testament as predictive prophecy, there are several problems with that. First, not very much of the Old Testament actually does take the form of making predictions about some future coming Messiah. Attempts to make it read that way are often rightly seen as forced and artificial.
To take a single example, the New Testament passion narratives repeatedly echo Psalm 22, culminating in Jesus' dying cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But Psalm 22, read on its own terms as a lament psalm, though it looks forward to future deliverance and vindication, does not purport to be making predictions about a future coming figure. Rather, when the Evangelists retell the story of the crucifixion, they retrospectively discern the striking correspondences to the psalm.
To be sure, in the Old Testament, there are a few passages that look forward in hope to a future king who will restore the kingdom, a lot of those particularly in the Psalms. There are also enigmatic passages, of course, in Isaiah that refer to a suffering figure, although that figure is never described there as a Messiah.
But the whole picture doesn't really come together until you read the text, as I say, "backwards," through the lens of cross and resurrection. Once you have the story of Jesus, you can go back to the older texts and have a kind of "Aha!" recognition that certain things are foreshadowed there, but there's a big difference between foreshadowing and prophecy.
When you're moving forward in a narrative, you can't know what is foreshadowed until you see the full unfolding of the plot and see what actually happens in the end, and then you can do a second reading of the text in light of its ending. That second reading allows you to unravel clues that you never would've seen before.
That's why the approach of reading backwards, which Erich Auerbach has described as figural exegesis, is a much more helpful description of what's actually going on in the New Testament itself.
I realize that your book is not a critique of other critical approaches, but there are a few things that your two most recent books certainly do challenge. One of them is the notion of high and low Christologies. What is generally meant by that and how does your work frustrate these distinctions?
Good question. That distinction between high and low Christology has to do with the extent to which any particular text thinks of Jesus as God or not. Is Jesus a human figure, a prophet?—that's a "low" Christology. Is Jesus an incarnation of God?—that's a "high" Christology.
Many works of New Testament scholarship will say that the high Christology is a late development, and that the original, earliest traditions about Jesus represent a low Christology. He was simply a Palestinian prophet and teacher, who was executed. That's the historical fact, and then it took about a century for the church eventually to develop the mythological claim that He was divine—and to superimpose that idea as a dogmatic overlay on the earlier simple stories of Jesus.
I'm painting there with a very broad brush, but that's the way the terms are usually used. John is of course thought to have the highest Christology, and usually Mark and Luke, the lowest Christologies. I came to the conclusion as I studied this material that that was fundamentally wrong. Instead, all four gospels in their different ways, at their foundational layers, bear witness to Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.
The Gospel of Mark doesn't have the concept of incarnation in the way that John does, but we find Jesus consistently in that gospel doing things that God alone can do: forgive sins, still storms, etc., etc. It's evoking narrative patterns from the Old Testament to show that Jesus is doing acts that identify him with the Divine.
The terms high and low Christology are misleading to start with. As the church ultimately declared at the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. What we see in the four gospels is the astonished and astonishing narrative testimony to that reality. All four gospels tell distinct stories that portray the human figure, Jesus, as the mysterious embodiment of Israel's God. They do it in four different narrative ways, but they're all doing the same thing. It is as though the single event of Jesus' life/death/resurrection was a Big Bang—an explosion that spun out the hermeneutical universe of narrative and biblical reinter-pretation that we see in manifold forms in the gospels.
Garrett Brown is the publisher of Merrifield Press and an occasional blogger at www.noteandquery.com.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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