Hays, Richard. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. Redshelf.
In 1989 Richard Hays published Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, influencing biblical studies up to this day. In his book, Hays argued that Paul constantly references the Old Testament. Often these references are echoes or subtle allusions to Scripture. And by paying attention to these allusions, readers can better understand Paul and his engagement with Scripture.
Hays maintains the same is true when it comes to the four Gospels. According to Hays, the Gospel writers narrate the story of Jesus in ways that correspond to the Old Testament. They do so by reading the Old Testament figurally and retrospectively (pp. 2–3).
What Is a Figural and Retrospective Reading?
A figural reading recognizes two events and persons that relate to one another (p. 2). Hays further explains, “Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament 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” (pp. 2–3).
In other words, Old Testament authors may or may not have known that their words corresponded to Christ according to Hays. And in the providence of God, Hays argues that their words do find fulfillment of Christ. And so one reads the Bible retrospectively, one reads it backwards. You start with the Gospels and work back to the Old Testament to understand what it means in light of Christ.
But if human authors did not (always) consciously intend to make these connections to Christ, how can we possibly read the Bible as a coherent book? Are we not simply imposing our Christian view on to the Old Testament? Hays explains, “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, correspondences that could be perceived only in retrospect” (p. 359). He continues, “In short, figural interpretation discerns a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives“ (p. 359; italics original). (I will critique this position below because I believe that Hays incorrectly understands how human and divine intent coincide).
So there it is. A figural reading locates correspondences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Retrospective readings start with the New Testament and work their backwards to understand the deeper meaning of the Old Testament. According to Hays, this enterprise is justified because God’s divine intent in his mysterious providence authored these correspondences between the Old and the New.
What Does This Mean in Practice?
In practice, Hays carefully reads the New Testament and its use of the Old Testament. The vast majority of the book is exegesis of the Gospels. Here is but one example.
During Sukkoth, Jesus cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38). He also says that “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Hays detects allusions to Zechariah 14:7–8, “And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem . . . .” Hays explains that Jesus,
is taking onto himself the symbolism of the occasion, implicitly claiming both to fulfill and supplant it. The festival’s burning torches that symbolize the ‘continuous day’ of God’s glorious presence point in fact to Jesus, who is ‘the true light . . . coming into the word’ (1:9). And the abundant water poured out in the festival points to the living water that only Jesus can offer, as he has earlier promised to the Samaritan woman (John 4:7–15; cf. Zech 14:8). (p. 314).
By seeing Jesus’ allusions to the Old Testament, readers can better appreciate the rich story that John tells in his Gospel. And it also opens our eyes up to the bigger picture, the way in which Jesus claims that Israel’s scripture speaks of him and that he, in fact, is Israel’s God made manifest in the flesh.
In practice, Hays’ work is exceedingly helpful to understand the New Testament, and even the whole Bible. Additionally, the Evangelists, according to Hays, teach us how to read the Old Testament.
What Do the Evangelists Teach Us?
The Evangelists (Gospel Writers) continually turn to the Old Testament. The Old Testament, or Scripture, “provided the ‘encyclopedia of production’ for the Evangelists’ narration of the story of Jesus” (p. 357). He continues, “Their way of pursuing what we call ‘doing theology’ was to produce richly intertextual narrative accounts of the significance of Jesus” (p. 357). In other words, they read the Old Testament in light of Jesus.
And their reading strategy is instructive for Christians. Hays writes,
Because the language of Scripture was the Evangelists’ native medium of expression, their reflection about God was articulated through subtle appropriations and adaptations of that linguistic medium. But alas, many Christian communities have lost touch with the sort of deep primary knowledge of Scripture—especially Israel’s Scripture—that would enable them even to perceive the messages conveyed by the Evangelists’ biblical allusions and echoes, let alone to employ Scripture with comparable facility in their own preaching and renarration of the gospel story (p. 357).
In short, the Evangelists knew their Bible well. And they argue from it with expert knowledge. Readers must gain a greater understanding of the Bible to detect the nuances of the Evangelists’ argument. In short, they teach us that we need to be people of the Book.
What Does Each Gospel Contribute?
Hays argues that each Gospel writer contributes something different to our understanding of Christ and the Gospel.
Mark. According to Hays, Mark sees the Scripture as mystery that is fulfilled in Jesus (p. 349). Hays explains, “Mark’s Hermeneutical strategy, therefore, is to provide cryptic scriptural pointers that draw the discerning reader into the heart of the eschatological mystery” (p. 350).
Matthew. In contrast Matthew clearly shows Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament. Hays writes,”Matthew, on the other hand, is concerned to demonstrate as explicitly as possible how Jesus’ life constituted the fulfilled of the Old Testament” (p. 351).
Luke. Luke emphases the promise-fulfillment pattern of Scripture (p. 352). He also views Jesus’ works as the work of God (p. 353). The story then continues in the life of the church (p. 353). In other words, Luke emphasizes the biblical story, the story of God’s great redeeming acts throughout history that continues in the church.
John. John’s Gospel underscores Jesus’ role as the temple and features the many references to the Psalms (p. 354). Part of what characterizes John’s Gospel, according to Hays, is John’s explicit retrospective reading of the Old Testament. He writes, “Strikingly, John tells his readers explicitly that Scripture can be understood only retrospectively after the resurrection; readers are instructed to ‘read backwards’ in light of the illumination provided by the Spirit who will come after Jesus’ departure. And that retrospective reading will be explicitly figural in character” (p. 354).
Every student of the New Testament, and especially those interested in how the New Testament uses the Old Testament, should read Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Hays provides page after page of careful, exegetical interpretation of the Gospels with an eye to their use of the Old Testament.
And yet: I am unsatisfied with how he perceives his task. In short, Hays argues that human authors may not have known that their work would be fulfilled in Christ. Old Testament prophecies only make sense only after Jesus came. Before Jesus, it would much less clear. Consequently, readers must start with the Gospels and read backwards to understand the fuller meaning of the Old Testament.
Theologically, Hays appeals to the divine author who unites the New and Old Testament together because, it seems, the words of the human authors (at least in the Old Testament) are insufficient on their own to show a unity between the Old and New Testaments.
I sympathize with Hays but sharply disagree. The human intent of the Old Testament authors is the divine intent. They are inspired by God. And their words are sufficient to show a unity between the two testaments. While this is not the place to carefully argue my case, I suggest the concepts of pregnant meaning and willed types provide better options for understand how later authors cited earlier authors and for discovering the unity of Scripture.
To summarize, buy Hays’ book. But critically think about what he is doing. If you interpret the Scripture with depth but have no human intent, then you may find yourself without a historical leg to stand on. You may find yourself unable to ground the authority of Scripture in the words of the Old Testament authors despite Hays’ affirmation of a united divine plan.
Disclosure: Baylor University Press provided me the book for free to review, although I was under no obligation to give it a positive review.