Reading the Bible Backwards

Reading the Bible Backwards November 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 10.15.33 AMHistorians want to know what happened, if possible why it happened, and then they want to string what happened into a narrative that makes sense of what happened. Bible historians tend to devalue the interpretive layer of the Old Testament, like the one that says Israel’s condition was shaped by its choice to obey or disobey, and find out what “really happened” and then string that into a narrative of some sort. We call such books “histories of Israel.”

Jesus and Paul and Peter and John historians do the same thing. As an example, most (you can almost write “all”) “historical Jesus” scholars devalue his miracles, certainly the so-called nature miracles, and then construct a narrative that informs readers what Jesus was really like, but the “really like Jesus” for them is constructed without much (or any) attention to someone who did miracles or who was raised from the dead.

In simple terms, historians often diminish the narrative we are given in the Bible in order to construct a more accurate one.

Some Bible scholars find this an interesting exercise but they concentrate on the narrative that exists. One such scholar, an eminent one in fact, is Richard Hays, dean at Duke Divinity School, and a scholar’s scholar and a churchman as well. Hays is well known for his early work on the “echoes” of Scripture in Paul’s letters and in his suggestion that we all need a “conversion of the imagination” in order to know what the Bible is actually doing. In other words, Hays knows the NT authors have historical facts at work but they construe or render or create a narrative on the basis of the Bible’s own preceding narrative.

In his newest book, one all serious Bible students need to read carefully, Reading Backwards (Baylor, 2014), he offers a glimpse of where he is headed down the road when he completes a large study that follows up his echoes in Paul. This book could have been called “echoes of Scripture” in the Gospels.

We render meaning to an event in life on the basis of a story that gives sense to the event. The tragedy of cancer at a young age or a fatal accident or the seemingly inexplicable loss of a job or the struggle to find someone who loves us or whom we can love or the nightmare of a home that catches fire … I could go on. Some toss dust in the eyes who want to explain such events, but probably most humans do their best to render meaning for such events by placing them in some kind of narrative.

Hays probes the narrative at work in the Gospel writers. More particularly, he probes the “use” of the Old Testament in the meaning-making of the Gospel authors. (He’s not concerned here with the “historical” Jesus but with the “canonical” Jesus.) It’s a beautiful book, not one I always agree with, but one that challenges us to think all over again about what’s happening in the earliest Christian narratives about Jesus. Here are some highlights from chapter one:

From Martin Luther:

Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may ind that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies… (1).

He plays with Luther’s “swaddling cloths” in this way: It is our task then “to read backwards to unwind the swaddling cloths and to disclose the Christ who lies there” (2). Figural reading, his special burden in this book, is not about history or prophecy:

There is consequently 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 (2).

Jesus not a few times makes it quite clear that the OT was about him (John 5:46; Luke 24:13-35). A Christian reading of the Bible then is not fully Christian until it grasps this figuration at work, until it admits that the NT Gospels are interpretations of Jesus by way of reading the Bible through Jesus and Jesus through the Bible. Thus,

I want to suggest to you that we will learn to read Scripture rightly only if our minds and imaginations are opened by seeing the scriptural text—and therefore the world—through the Evangelists’ eyes (4).

Now the thesis of his book:

the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or, to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and—at the same time—we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT (4).

The problem, Hays observes, is that mainstream Christians are Marcionite in their use of the OT. What does he mean?

in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read it is rarely preached upon. Judaism is regarded as a legalistic foil from which Jesus has delivered us (5).

So what does this mean? Hays gives two examples of how the OT teaches us to read the Gospels and one example of how the Gospels teach us to read the OT. He focuses on the temple incident (Mark 11:15-19), observing how that text evokes and gains its meaning by knowing Isaiah 56:1, 7-8, and even more Jeremiah 7:1-8:3. Here is Hays’ summary:

The phrase “den of robbers’ and the image of the barren fig tree provide the imaginative links; for the reader who grasps the figural connection, the outward-rippling implications are clear. As judgment fell upon Israel in Jeremiah’s time, so it looms once again over the Temple (9).

He looks then at Mark 12:1-12 (pars) and the wicked tenants, noticing of course Isaiah 5:1-7 and the absence of this stuff in G Thomas 65, he draws attention to Joseph and his brothers, but does not discuss the important parallels in the Targum to Isaiah, and in the end once again illustrates how that text gains no potency apart from knowing the OT narratives.

Finally, he touches briefly on how Jesus told his Emmaus road companions about the OT: that it was all about him! He quotes Walter Moberly: “‘[A]s Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jewish scripture, Jewish scripture cannot be understood apart from Jesus; what is needed is an interpretation which relates the two—and it is this that Jesus provides (v.27).” Again:

Somehow Jesus’ exposition of Israel’s Scripture will have to undertake the task of reading backwards: it will have to show retrospectively the pervasive presence of this theme—which had never been perceived by anyone in Israel prior to the crucifixion and resurrection (14).

And his concluding reminder: “For much of the church today, Moses and the prophets belong to a closed and unknown book. The good news of Luke 24, however, is that the story does not end in incomprehension and hermeneutical failure ecause the one who rose from the dead teaches us anew how to read backwards—and therefore how to listen to Moses and the prophets (16).

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