By Kevin Dodge

Review: Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2016).

For years, it has been axiomatic among New Testament scholars that Jesus never understood himself to be God. Instead, Jesus’ deity is simply a pious invention of the early Church that was deeply embarrassed by its leader’s death. Bart Ehrman is today’s best-known popularizer of this view. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted (2014), How Jesus Became God (2015), and Jesus Before the Gospels (2016) all support this claim in one way or another.

Richard Hays seeks to counter this consensus in his recent monograph. Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School and its former dean, is known particularly for his work on Paul’s epistles (especially 1 Cor.) and the ethics of the New Testament. His simple thesis is that the “OT teaches us how to read the Gospels and that — at the same time — the Gospels teach us how to read the OT” (p. 93). Thus Hays argues that only by a figural, intertextual reading do we come to understand the content of the four Gospels properly. We have to learn to “read backwards.” Thus a faulty hermeneutic can lead to misplaced conclusions about Jesus.

This book’s six chapters were originally given as the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in 2013-14. Its content promises to be the start of a coming larger work designed to defend the divine identity of Jesus. Given the quality of this offering, its publication should be anticipated eagerly.

Hays deals with the four Gospels and demonstrates how each uniquely reframes the testimony of the Old Testament, arguing that the Gospel writers read the Jewish Scriptures through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He first argues that Mark emphasizes the mystery of Jesus’ identity, using veiled typologies to make his point. Hays is masterful at showing how Jesus’ “passing by” the disciples while he is walking on water is typologically linked to Job 9, and ultimately to Moses on Mt. Sinai (pp. 23-25).

By contrast, Matthew makes overt what Mark kept hidden, employing his well-known “fulfillment formulas” to do so. Matthew also reads the Old Testament retrospectively in light of new events. Hays seems less comfortable with Matthew’s heightened christological claims, but still finds that Matthew understands Jesus as “the embodiment of God” (p. 53).

Hays shows a preference for Luke’s approach, which “rearranges the story of Israel” to “recognize Jesus and the church as the fulfillment of the divine plan for salvation” (p. 99). But in John, Hays’s argument is most natural, especially in his thoughtful treatment of Jesus as the new temple, the place where God dwells (p. 82).

One significant issue with Hays’s treatment is his treatment of prophecy. Hays sees intertextuality as primarily, perhaps exclusively, a literary phenomenon: “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” (p. 94). This is odd because the writers of the Bible seem to see it this way, as do their students, the Church Fathers. For example, one wonders how Hays understands Peter’s first great sermon in Acts 2 when, quoting from the LXX of Psalm 16, the apostle cites David as saying, “I saw the Lord always before me.” The verb here is proorao in Greek, which means “to foresee.” Was Peter mistaken that David was “foreseeing” Christ? We look forward to his fuller handling of this in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (for which N.T. Wright will soon offer a review in the pages of The Living Church.)

Overall, however, Reading Backwards is excellent. For preachers and teachers, it offers a veritable feast of thoughtful exegesis in a concise format, helping to establish many connections between the Old and New Testaments. Hays shows that a distinctively Christian reading of the Scriptures is readily defensible once one learns how to read well.

Kevin Dodge, a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, is author of Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions (2014).

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