Review: Reading backwards?

25 August 2018

Yes, it’s another book about Bible interpretation—hermeneutics. This one examines how the writers of the four Gospels looked at the Old Testament in a completely new way in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is:

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2014).

rbThe four Evangelists each had a unique approach to this task, while sharing a common overall approach, which Richard Hays calls ‘figural’ interpretation. Looking at their Scriptures in the light of Jesus, the writers saw in them clear ‘figures’ or pictures of him and his work—aspects of which the original OT authors were completely unaware.

Hays gives penetrating examples from each of the Gospels and makes a solid case for his thesis. In this, he is in line with much current thinking among biblical scholars, who are moving away from what they see as a previous over-emphasis on the original meaning and what is sometimes called ‘authorial intent’. In other words, the Gospel writers would probably fail a typical seminary exam on Bible interpretation!

When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Too often we have taken that to mean a few isolated proof-texts. Hays shows clearly that, on the contrary, the whole OT canon is shot through with figural pointers to Jesus. The whole of it takes on a different hue in the light of him, and this is what excited the Evangelists.

The big question, of course, is whether we, today, should take the same approach to interpreting the Old Testament. Supported by the example of Paul, he concludes that we certainly should. His conclusions are another nail in the coffin of vocal right-wing evangelicals who use the OT to justify their views on, for example, today’s State of Israel and the application of prophecy to other current events. Instead, it’s all about Jesus.

This is a deep and thought-provoking book but, based as it is on an original series of lectures, it is lucid and easy to read. While it is unlikely to ever reach the best-seller list, it is, in my view, a key book in the current hermeneutical debate.

[In the quotations that follow, the numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

These lectures follow the lead of the early church fathers, Irenaeus above all, in affirming both the legitimacy of figural interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and the complementarity of the four Evangelists. (116)

The sort of figural interpretation practiced by the canonical Evangelists is not a rejection but a retrospective hermeneutical transformation of Israel’s sacred texts. (167)

Only if we embrace figural interpretation, can we make sense of the Gospel of John’s assertion that the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ. (321)

There is…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… 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. (337)

Luke’s formulation [ch 24] suggests that testimony to Jesus is to be found “in all the Scriptures”, not just in a few isolated prooftexts. The whole story of Israel builds to its narrative climax in Jesus. That is what Jesus tries to teach them on the road. (547)

Even Jesus’ definitive peripatetic Bible study on the road to Emmaus does not produce understanding and recognition in the Emmaus disciples… The moment of recognition comes only as they sit at the table and Jesus breaks bread with them (vv. 30-32). This point, too, is significant for understanding how the Gospels teach us to read the OT. We come to understand Scripture only as we participate in the shared life of the community, enacted in meals shared at table. (564)

Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive. Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection. (613)

Isaiah 40 prophesies the coming of the Kyrios (the Lord God) to reign, and Mark appropriates this prophecy to characterize John’s preparation of the way for the coming of Jesus. (671)

[Re Mark 6:45-52—Jesus walking on the water and making to pass by the disciples in the boat]  In Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power… Mark’s mysterious statement in Mark 6:48, read as an allusion to the Exodus theophany, suggests simultaneously that Jesus’ walking on the water is a manifestation of divine glory and that it remains indirect and beyond full comprehension— as the disciples’ uncomprehending response amply demonstrates (6:51-52).

The importance of Mark 4:21-25 as a hermeneutical directive for the Gospel as a whole can hardly be overstated. (902)

The “meaning” of Mark’s portrayal of the identity of Jesus cannot be rightly stated in flat propositional language; instead, it can be disclosed only gradually in the form of narrative, through hints and allusions that project the story of Jesus onto the background of Israel’s story. As Mark superimposes the two stories on one another, remarkable new patterns emerge, patterns that lead us into a truth too overwhelming to be approached in any other way. (934)

Matthew is far more overt than Mark in his interpretative strategies; indeed, in many passages we find him providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions. (970)

It is as though Matthew is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation. (986)

…a ringing quotation of Deuteronomy 6:13 LXX: “The Lord your God you shall worship and him alone you shall serve” (Matt 4:9-10). Once this commandment has been forcefully set forth in the narrative, readers have little choice but to interpret Jesus’ acceptance of worship from other characters as an implicit acknowledgment of his divine identity. (1166)

If Jesus is “God with us,” then his personal presence now takes the place of the Temple where the presence of God was formerly thought to dwell. (1166)

Genesis 28: “Behold I am with you… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Matthew 28: “Behold I am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
The parallel cries out for readers to draw an obvious christological conclusion: in the ending of Matthew, Jesus now stands in the same role occupied by the Lord God in Jacob’s dream. (1265)

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he 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 an intermediary. If we read the story within the hermeneutical matrix of Israel’s Scripture, we can draw no other conclusion. (1330)

We come to know Jesus in Luke only as his narrative identity is enacted in and through the story. An important element of Luke’s narrative art lies in the way in which he evokes echoes of Israel’s Scripture and thereby leads readers to a complex, intertextually formed perception of his central character. This is the decisive heremeneutical clue given in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus “opens the Scriptures” to his followers. (1396)

John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of chains of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture. For example, when he writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” (3:14), John is clearly alluding to the episode narrated in Numbers 21:8-9, but the only explicit verbal links between the two passages are the name “Moses” and the word “serpent”. His intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory. (1833)

It is impossible to understand John’s Jesus apart from the story of Israel and the liturgical festivals and symbols that recall and re-present that story. (1917)

Passover symbolism is particularly pervasive in John’s Gospel, coming to a climax in the passion narrative, where Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on the day of preparation for Passover (19:14), not on Passover itself as in the Synoptic Gospels. (2016)

Even more comprehensively than the other Gospels, John understands the Old Testament as a vast matrix of symbols pointing to Jesus. In contrast to Luke’s reading of Scripture as a plotted script showing the outworking of God’s promises in time, John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory. (2109)

From the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (2141)

[Luke] shows how the mission to the Gentiles is the outworking of God’s longstanding plan for Israel as a light to the nations. (2259)

One function of the church’s canon, a diverse collection of writings, is to model a repertoire of faithful ways to receive and proclaim God’s word. Particular voices within that canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its immediate cultural situation. (2304)

If we had to choose just one of the Gospels as a hermeneutical guide for the long haul, Luke offers the most adequate load-bearing narrative framework for the church’s reading and proclamation of Scripture. (2319)

For the Evangelists the “meaning” of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. (2349)

The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they disclosed the key to understanding all that had gone before. (2349)

To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. (2364)

A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations. (2364)

Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character: that is, they nudge the discerning reader to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn. (2394)

The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel. (2409)

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. (2440)

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