Scripture is not a collection of proof-texts, propositions and commandments, to be pulled out on demand to answer our questions and guide our behavior. Scripture is the story of God’s mission in the world. The Gospel writers understood this and conveyed the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in this context. Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, examines the various ways in which the Evangelists used to Old Testament to frame their message. This is an outstanding book – well worth the time and effort to read and ponder. The gospel is not some timeless and placeless abstraction. In the fullness of time God sent his son into the world. At a chosen time, in a chosen place, and for his purpose.
As Christians we can, and should, read the Old Testament through the filtering lens of Jesus the Christ. But this isn’t a simple monochromatic lens providing a selection of proof-texts for our faith. Each of the Evangelists provides a different perspective. Hays suggests that these differences are a God-given gift to the church.
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. The fourfold Gospel witness is a providential gift to the church; it protects the community against the dangers of rigid monologic discourse and offers a range of theological resources for diverse circumstances. Particular voices within the 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 own immediate cultural situation. (p. 356)
We are called to wrestle with Scripture in our context today, and the model for this interaction is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Hays concludes his book reflecting on what this approach to Scripture should look like for us today. While we can understand the essence of the gospel with a superficial understanding of the Old Testament, we will not get the depth and nuance of the Gospels or the gospel without a deep appreciation for Israel’s Scriptures.
What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the Old Testament texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones. It would mean learning the texts by heart in the fullest sense. The pervasive, complex, and multivalent uses if Scripture we find in the Gospels could arise only in and for a community immersed in scriptural language and imagery. Scripture provided the “encyclopedia of production” for the Evangelists narration of the story of Jesus. Their way of pursuing what we call “doing theology” was to produce richly intertextual narrative accounts of the significance of Jesus. 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 narration of the gospel story. (p. 357)
It is incumbent on us as Christians to dig into the Old Testament story. This is our story. Hays suggests five ways the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament.
(1) We should read the Scripture backwards (hence the title of his shorter book Reading Backwards). The meaning of the Old Testament is not confined to the intent of the original authors or the understanding of the original audience. While this is an important aspect of our understanding, it is not the sum total. “The Evangelists received Scripture as a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it had multiple senses. Some of the senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively.” (p. 358) The experience of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus led the Evangelists and the early church to a whole series of Aha! moments, where things formerly hidden became clear. “Their eyes were opened anew to see how Moses and the prophets prefigure Jesus.” (p. 358)
(2) The Evangelists “summon us also to a conversion of the imagination. … To read Scripture well we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility.” (p. 360) The Evangelists emphasize the storyline, they do not see Scripture as a compendium of “oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations,” or of raw historical events. References to specific passages or events are intended to conjure up the entire context, not merely the specific quote or allusion. We need to be immersed in the story as the early church, Paul, and the Evangelists were.
(3) The New Testament story us transfigures and continues Israel’s story, it does not negate or replace it. “The canonical Evangelists understand themselves to be standing within the still-unfolding narrative trajectory of Israel’s covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (p. 362)
(4) All four of the Evangelists portray Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. Each does it a little differently, but the same general theme runs through all four. They use Israel’s Scripture to make this point. In particular, Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray Jesus as doing the things that the God of Israel does or will do in Israel’s Scripture. “The Gospel narratives, precisely through their reading of the Old Testament to identify Jesus, force us to rethink what we mean when we say the word “God.”” (p. 364)
(5) We are called to action. “The Evangelists consistently approach Scripture with the presupposition that the God found in the stories of the Old Testament is living and active. … All of the hermeneutical recommendations I have enumerated here make sense only because God is the primary agent at work in and through the biblical story – and indeed, only because God is in some ultimate sense the author of Israel’s story.” (p. 364) This means that we read the Gospels not as flat history, but as a call to discipleship. “The imperative of accepting a commission is inescapable for the assenting reader of all four Gospels.”
According to the Evangelists, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God incarnate in Jesus, the Messiah. This cannot leave those who hear and understand unchanged.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading and leading a study based on Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels and Reading Backwards over the last five months (with help from a friend, another academic). It would be great if someone would develop a curriculum based on these books, making them more accessible to the church at large.
What do you think of Hays’s conclusions?
How is the Old Testament important for an understanding of the gospel?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.