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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.

What disturbs the professor is that so many read their New Testaments with nary a glance at the Scripture reference notes in the central column of many Bibles or printed in the footnotes in others. What disturbs the reader is what one finds when one pursues those cross-reference suggestions.

We need go no further than Matthew's first chapter. The original woman in mind in the famous "the virgin will conceive" was a "young woman" already married to Isaiah and pregnant and soon to bear a child. But the Greek translation, the Septuagint, turned the Hebrew almah into parthenos, which meant "virgin." Matthew, knowing Jesus was born of a virgin, chose the latter on which to hang this profound interpretation of the conception and birth of Jesus. In chapter 2, the holy couple, after having spent time in safety in Egypt, return—and Matthew finds a golden egg in a text that had nothing to do with the Messiah. Matthew brings rugged realities and scriptural patterns together: If Jesus is the Son of God, if he spent time in Egypt, if YHWH called Israel his Son and out of Egypt summoned them to the Land of Israel, then Jesus somehow needs to be seen fulfilling that text too. It's all in Matthew 2:1-15. Or take John 5:46, which tells us in the words of Jesus "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me." If there is so much Jesus in Moses, why did so few recognize him when he came? Over and over we see this interpretive approach to the "Old Testament" when we pay close attention to the cross references in our Bible, at once opening a world of glorious discovery and faith and re-imagining history and at the same time provoking us into pondering what kind of readings these early Christian hermeneuts were offering their readers.

Where did this kind of hermeneutics originate? On a single page in a short book that has more drama than one can find in a hundred or more other New Testament studies, C. H. Dodd posed our question and answered it with rhetorical deftness:

Among Christian thinkers of the first age known to us there are three of genuinely creative power: Paul, the author to the Hebrews, and the Fourth Evangelist. We are precluded from proposing any one of them for the honour of having originated the process, since even Paul, greatly as he contributed to its development, demonstrably did not originate it. What forgotten geniuses may lurk in the shadows of those first twenty years of Church history about which we are so scantily informed, it is impossible for us to say. But the New Testament itself avers that it was Jesus Christ Himself who first directed the minds of His followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of His mission and destiny.[1]

Dodd continues:

I can see no reasonable ground for rejecting the statements of the Gospels that (for example) He pointed to Psalm cx as a better guide to the truth about His mission and destiny than the popular beliefs about the Son of David, or that He made that connection of the "Lord" at God's right hand with the Son of Man in Daniel which proved so momentous for Christian thought; or that He associated with the Son of Man Ianguage which had been used of the Servant of the Lord, and employed it to hint at the meaning, and the issue, of His own approaching death. To account for the beginning of this most original and fruitful process of rethinking the Old Testament we found need to postulate a creative mind. The Gospels offer us one. Are we compelled to reject the offer?

One good reading of Luke 24:36-48 reminds us that Jesus was himself an intense Bible reader, a 1st-century Jewish hermeneut who not only knew what the Bible said but knew to whom it was pointing. He read the Bible, yes, with Christological lenses. Dodd was right: Jesus taught his followers to read the Bible as he did. And that makes all the difference.

The two generations since Dodd's incisive study have seen an avalanche of books and technical articles about the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, about how the Bible's own authors were interpreting previous books in the Old Testament into a veritable maze of canonical inter-interpretations, about how post-canonical Jews read the Tanakh, about how the Septuagint interpreted when translating the Hebrew text, about how Targums (paraphrases into the lingua franca of 1st-century Jews) interpreted the Bible, about how the Dead Sea Scrolls re-read the Bible, and about how the rabbis hermeneuted the Bible in their own way. Add to this early Christian exegesis and hermeneutics and one life could not afford the time to read it all. The cross references disturbed enough New Testament scholars that Richard Longenecker, after his lengthy and informed updating of the issues and conclusions, asked, "Can we reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament?" and "Are we able?" and "Ought we try?" He answered that set of questions with a guarded "No" and "Yes"![2]

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."

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."

Hays knows some are provoked by such readings and some want him to press deeper to prove that not only is this the way the Evangelists worked but that the text witnesses to a historical reality that underlies this the authorial intent. Not all agree, and Hays will not go where many want him to go. But what he does is remind us that theological commitments of a creedal nature determine how we read the Bible. I give him the last word, in which he takes us back to Dodd's compelling offer:

There is only one reason why Christological interpretation of the OT is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel's sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel's story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, OT and NT together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God's self-revelation. As readers, we are forced to choose which of these hermeneutical forks in the road we will take.

Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. His books include commentaries on Galatians, James, and 1 Peter.

1. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (Welwyn, Hertfordshire: James Nisbet, 1952), p. 110.

2. Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 219.

3. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale Univ. Press, 1993); Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture (Eerdmans, 2005).

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