Reading Israel’s Scripture with Fresh Eyes: A Review of Richard B. Hays’ “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”

echoes of scriptureIn the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a pretty astonishing claim: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:46, NRSV). Similarly, Luke remarks in his account of Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that “he [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27, NRSV).

In one way or another, this claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the scriptures” sits at the heart of the Christian confession. But what does it mean to say that Moses wrote about Jesus? In the modern era, these sorts of claims have fallen on rather hard times. In the introduction of Echoes of Scripture in the GospelsRichard B. Hays brings up the German scholar Udo Schnelle, who brushes aside the possibility of doing “biblical theology” because “the Old Testament is silent about Jesus Christ” (p.3). Hays suggests that the writers of the New Testament would be surprised to learn this. For them, Christ’s resurrection provided the integrative “hermeneutical clue” that allowed them to reread Israel’s Scriptures with fresh eyes and find Jesus prefigured in them (p.3). Hays explains that one of the goals of his book is to offer:

[A]n account of the narrative representation of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scripture—as well as the ways in which Israel’s Scripture prefigures and illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories. It is, in short, an exercise in intertextual close reading. (p.7)

Throughout the book, he seeks to demonstrate that the Evangelists interpreted the Old Testament figurally as they engaged with it in their respective accounts (p.4). What does “figural interpretation” mean? Hays (following Auerbach) explains that it demonstrates a connection between two events or characters such that “the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first” (p.2). For him, the nature of figural reading is necessarily retrospective (pp.2-3). Once the figural pattern has been discerned, though, “the semantic force of the figure flows both ways,” imparting deeper significance to both the Old Testament event/character and the Gospel passage (p.3). Finally, Hays asserts that interpreting Old Testament passages figurally needn’t imply a rejection of the Old Testament in its own context:

Figural readings do not annihilate the earlier pole of the figural correspondence; to the contrary, they affirm its reality and find in it a significance beyond that which anyone could previously have grasped… [in light of the resurrection] all four Evangelists are deeply engaged in the task of reading backwards, discovering figural fusions between the story of Jesus and older and longer story of Israel’s journey with God. (p.14)

Most of the book is taken up with a close, meditative reading of each canonical Gospel account. In these chapters, Hays explores the ways in which each Evangelist uses the texts and images of the Old Testament to retell Israel’s story, narrate the identity of Jesus, and ponder the life of the church in relation to the world (p.9). Some intertextual citations in the Gospels are indirect and subtle, so reading with an attuned ear for echoes and allusions is an important aspect of Hays’ reading strategy. He divides the intertextual Old Testament references found throughout the Gospels into three broad categories: “quotation,” “allusion,” and “echo” (p.10). It’s most helpful to think of these categories as being points on a gradual spectrum, “moving from the most to the least explicit forms of reference” (p.10).

Echoes of Scripture in Each Gospel

Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest canonical Gospel. For Hays, “The Gospel of Mark tells a mysterious story enveloped in apocalyptic urgency” (p.15). Mark tends to avoid pointing explicitly to the connections between the Old Testament and the story of Jesus, preferring to be more indirect and allusive (p.98).

For those who miss the intertextual allusions, the story is still intelligible and moving. Nevertheless, Hays suggests that cultivating a more sensitive awareness of Mark’s engagement with the Old Testament opens up “new levels of complexity and significance” (p.99). A good example of this is the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt in chapter 11. Mark mentions this without comment, but for readers who hear the allusion to Zechariah 9:9 (Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, NRSV), the significance of this detail will be more meaningfully understood.

Hays uses this episode as an example because it highlights the distinctive narrative styles of Matthew and Mark. In Matthew’s Gospel (unlike Mark’s), he “eagerly supplies the quotation of Zechariah” (p.99). Hays understands this episode to be just one of many indirect, yet meaningful, intertextual references in Mark’s Gospel. Because of the allusive nature of Mark’s narrative, Hays suggests that readers should be attentive lest they “miss the message of Jesus’ divine identity” (p.350).

Matthew shows little of Mark’s reticence for explicitly making claims about Jesus’ identity and linking them to Old Testament passages. Indeed, Matthew makes significant use of a prediction-fulfillment motif and “in many passages we find him supplying overt explanations to Mark’s hints and allusions” (pp.105, 107). It’s important to realize, though, that Matthew’s usage of Scripture extends beyond his explicit quotations:

[W]e also must reckon with Matthew’s use of figuration, his deft narration of “shadow stories from the Old Testament.” Through this narrative device, with or without explicit citation, Matthew encourages the reader to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament precursors, particularly Moses, David, and Isaiah’s Servant figure. (p.109)

Indeed, one of Matthew’s central claims regarding Jesus is that he is “Emmanuel, the embodiment of the personal presence of Israel’s God” (p.351). Stepping back and looking at Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, Hays notes that one of Matthew’s strengths consists in his hard-to-miss way of engaging with the Old Testament. “He draws clear lines of continuity with the story of Israel and overtly portrays Jesus as ‘God with us'” (p.352). He points out, though, that Matthew’s assertive manner of writing can at times become quite polemical towards other Jewish groups, and that Matthew’s willingness to make overt confessions regarding Jesus’ divine identity “stands in some tension with Mark’s reverent reticence before the divine mystery” (p.352). To me, these differences between Gospel accounts demonstrate why it is helpful for Christian readers to interpret them in light of each other—reading them canonically, as Scripture.

In Luke, maybe even more than in the other Gospel accounts, we need to grapple with the fact that his portrait of Jesus is constructed in narrative form:

[W]e cannot adequately estimate Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ identity simply by studying christological titles or by isolating direct propositional statements; rather, we come to know Jesus in Luke only as his narrative identity is enacted in and through the story. (p.244)

This brings us once again to Jesus’ conversation on the Emmaus road. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples exactly how “all the scriptures” point to him. Instead, we are just assured that they do. Luke implicitly tells his audience that they will have to read retrospectively, going “back to the beginning of the Gospel to reread it, in hopes of discerning more clearly how… Jesus might be prefigured in Israel’s Scripture” (p.223). That, in essence, is the reading strategy that Hays is advocating throughout the book.

Luke “boldly narrates the historical continuity between Israel’s past, present, and future” (p.353). Nevertheless, Hays rightly suggests that readers of Luke should avoid understanding him to be advocating an overly-triumphant “salvation-history.” After all, Luke does spend time dwelling upon the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering and weaves the same theme into his subsequent account of the early church (p.354). Regardless, this potential pitfall of overconfidence again points to the value of reading the Gospels canonically, “we need Mark alongside Luke in the canon, as a counterweight to any possible triumphalism” (p.354).

Lastly, we come to Hays’ treatment of the John’s Gospel. John’s allusions and scriptural citations often focus less on the repetition of “chains of words and phrases” from the Old Testament and more on “images and figures” (p.284). For example, in John 3, when Jesus tells Nicodemus And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:14, NRSV). Hays writes that despite John’s clear allusion to Numbers 21:8-9, “the only explicit verbal links between the two passages are… ‘Moses’ and the word ‘serpent’… [John’s] intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory” (p.284).

Like Luke, John also highlights the need to read the Old Testament afresh in light of Christ’s resurrection (p.283). This is especially apparent in John 2, where we find Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem temple. In the middle of this episode, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19, NRSV). At the time, the disciples (and the other Jews) were clearly confused by this claim. However, John goes on to say that after Jesus had risen, the disciples remembered Jesus’ words and “believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22, NRSV). In both this passage and in others, Hays argues that:

He [John] is teaching us to read figurally, teaching us to read Scripture retrospectively, in light of the resurrection. Only on such a reading does it make sense to see the Jerusalem temple as prefiguring the truth now definitely embodied in the crucified and risen Jesus. (p.312)

John is frequently described in severely dualistic terms, but Hays argues that the logic of the Fourth Evangelist “drives towards a mystical affirmation of incarnation and of God’s mysterious presence in and through creation,” thereby affirming creation as good, even if fallen (p.355). What are some potential pitfalls of John’s Gospel? There is the danger that some will find John to be anti-Jewish and/or suppersessionistic. Hays disagrees with this reading because such dualistic interpretations mistakenly deny the literal meaning of Israel’s Scriptures. Attributing a figural reading strategy to John, on the other hand, “does not deny the literal sense but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the fleshly, literal historical sense” (p.356).

Conclusion

 Near the end of the book, Hays steps back to survey the results of his efforts. One of the most hard fought battlefields in biblical studies has been the debate related to the New Testament authors’ readings of the Old Testament. Especially when they interpret passages christologically in ways that would not be immediately apparent to those in the original settings of those texts. Hays thinks that both sides of this debate err by giving in to the temptations of modernistic rationalistic historicism. He suggests a potentially better option:

[T]he canonical Evangelists, through their artful narration, offer us a different way to understand the New Testament’s transformational reception of the Old… This hermeneutical sensibility locates the deep logic of the intertextual linkage between Israel’s Scripture and the Gospels not in human intentionality but in the mysterious providence of God, who is ultimately the author of the correspondences woven into these texts and events. (p.359)

It seems clear to me that this book will come to be known as a masterpiece of close theological reading, an excellent example of why it’s worth spending years thinking deeply about the writings of both the Old and New Testaments. I’m thankful for the work Hays has put into being a scholar who cares both for the Academy and the Church. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels is a real gem, and I can’t recommend it enough. 

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baylor University Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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