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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 grip of historical method has historians by the neck, but not so the new "theological interpretation of the Bible" crowd, now on full and detailed display in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. For the historians, what the original author meant—only what he (or she) meant—is all that matters; for the theological interpreters, while authorial intent certainly matters, it is not all that matters. What matters perhaps more is what mattered to Jesus and the apostles, and what mattered to them is now mattering more and more to Christian readers of the Bible. The tight grip of the historians has been loosened. More and more we are learning to see the Bible as an inter- and intra-textual reality; only by embracing its central vision—Jesus as Messiah—can one read that Bible well.

Richard B. Hays, in the published version of his Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, proposes that Jesus read the events of his life "backwards" and in so doing taught Christians how to read the Old Testament "forwards." As he puts it, "the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or, to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and—at the same time—we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT."

Hays opens by appealing to the term "figural" to describe this backwards reading, and so we hear Erich Auerbach boiled down into New Testament hermeneutics:

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective. (Another way to put this point is that figural reading is a form of intertextual interpretation that focuses on an intertextuality of reception rather than of production.)

That is, time and later perspective generate new readings:

Because the two poles of a figure are events within "the flowing stream" of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. But once the pattern of correspondence has been grasped, the semantic force of the figure flows both ways, as the second event receives deeper significance from the first.

Hays, well known for his brilliant studies of how Paul read the Bible,[3] is concerned in this book with the Gospels, so we are treated to four separate, succinct introductory essays into how the Evangelists read the Bible backwards. The result is a masterpiece. Hays shows that the Evangelists had a "high" Christology, one that was shaped by the divine identity of Jesus. Mark, for instance, calls Jesus "Lord" and so Hays turns to "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (2:7), a claim about Jesus that leads Hays to Exodus 34:6-7 and Isaiah 43:25 and Daniel 7. To conclude what? Mark is a master of indirection, and Hays imitates Mark's own style in these words: "the reader of Mark's Gospel may ponder at least the possibility that his sovereign authority to forgive sins is not just delegated." The only way to grasp what Mark is doing is to embrace his "poetics of allusion." Hayes concludes with as breathtaking a conclusion as we find in Dodd: "Our study of Mark suggests that Mark's proclamatory mystagogy is meant to lead readers, through a mysteriously allusive reading of Israel's Scripture, into recognizing Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel."

By contrast, Matthew, Hays concludes, is not so indirect. Indeed, he says Matthew "is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation." One quick reading of texts like Matthew 24:15, which updates Mark's more allusive reference in Mark 13:14, is enough to see Matthew's annotations in context. But there's far more to Matthew than this, as we indicated in the opening paragraph above. For Matthew, Jesus is Immanuel, God's presence among us—seen in worshiping Jesus (14:33) and in Jesus as present (18:20) as well as in his promise of continued presence (28:20). Matthew "believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God and that to worship him is to worship YHWH—not merely an agent or a facsimile or in intermediary"—and this takes a unique form: "the one who was crucified and raised from the dead is himself the embodiment of the God who rules over all creation and abides with his people forever."

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