Baker Academic

Monday, July 25, 2016

Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 1

Biblical scholarship's most conspicuous medium is the printed word: monographs, journal articles, reference works, even electronic forums like blog posts and other social media. Our discipline's primary currency is ideas, and these are usually encountered through the things we publish.

But the printed word has its downsides. Our books and articles may convey our ideas to wider audiences, but they can also conceal us, the women and men behind the ideas. Every semester I try to get my students to see the authors behind the texts they read, whether the authors of modern secondary course texts or the writers of ancient primary sources. Commentaries don't tell you what a text means; they tell you about an author and what she or he thinks a text means (or, I'm discovering with my own work, what they once thought a text meant). Monographs are not comprised of disembodied ideas; they are the products of years of embodied labor, involving the fluids associated with the body—blood, sweat, tears—and affected by all that befalls the body—health and vitality; illness and decline.

Sometimes the flesh-and-blood author is difficult to detect behind the ink spread out upon the page. While this is usually by design, it is always unfortunate. That is not the case with Richard Hays's most recent volume, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). The title is, of course, evocative of Hays's now-classic work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989), which in many ways began the tidal shift in the discussion of Paul's use of Israel's scriptures. We no longer read the Apostle merely as a proof-texter who lifted words from the Hebrew Bible and twisted them to serve his own interests; today it is not difficult to find scholars who see in Paul's letters evidence of a creative and attentive reader who shaped and was shaped by biblical traditions and texts. A similar perspectival shift has already affected scholarship on Jesus and the Gospels, and not without reference to Hays's work on Paul's letters. (Think names like Juel, Watts, Marcus, and many, many, many others.) For this reason, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels will struggle to make as monumental an impact on the field of NT scholarship as did its older sibling, though that is perhaps an unreasonably high standard. But we'll turn to the book in a minute; for now, I want to keep our focus on the author.

Hays begins with a seven-page preface that does what all prefaces do: it introduces the reader to the book (pp. xiii–xix). Here Hays offers the standard fare; he offers some explanation of how the book came to be, describes his own interest in the book's subject, and mentions how this book relates to other material he has published (especially his Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness [Baylor University Press, 2014]).

But then the preface ceases to be standard and becomes . . . what? It becomes moving. Unlike other prefaces, the preface to Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels pulls back the curtain to reveal the author as a human being, to make visible the book that follows as an embodied work that participates in all the hopes and fears of life in this Now/Not-Yet. The move from "standard" to "moving" really begins here:
In July 2015 I was suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In light of this shattering diagnosis, I stepped down from the deanship immediately and went on medical leave. As I write these words in early October 2015, I have been through two months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and it is still unknown whether the treatments will have been sufficiently effective to make it possible for me to undergo surgery. If so, my prognosis will be uncertain. If not, my life expectancy will be short. (p. xiv)
My personal life has been touched by cancer (as I explain here); the words attributed to Amanda's Army in this graphic perfectly expresses my sentiment. My prayers, weak and ineffectual as they may be, are for Richard, his body, and his family.

The remainder of the preface describes "the remarkable events of the past two months" (p. xv), a span of time that, in addition to the myriad personal and existential affairs that require attention in the wake of a dire prognosis, saw the completion of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. While every published book (and article) is the product of a team effort, Hays explains the unusually robust contribution that friends have made to the present volume, from Carey Newman and his staff at Baylor University Press to Hays's research assistant to four NT scholars who undertook the task of taking one of Hays's four massive chapters (on Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and getting them ready for publication. (I will leave these individuals unnamed, for the most part; see pp. xvii–xix for their identification and a description of their extraordinary work.) When the reader finishes reading the preface, s/he comes away with a sense of relief that this 500+ page behemoth went live while its author was still around to see his work published and while readers might still have access to the embodied perspective behind the work.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Reading this book, and offering one of the very earliest of reviews, affords me a sense of honor. There will, I'm sure, be occasions to argue and critique. But those occasions will not detract from my gratitude for playing even this small part in the story of this book.

Okay. On to the book itself.

As early as p. xvi, Hays explains the primary objective of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels: "this book seeks to shed light on the whole range of scriptural interpretation and hermeneutics in each of the four Gospels." Later, in the Introduction, Hays restates this objective: "this book will seek to trace the ways in which the Gospel writers themselves articulated their message through deep engagement with Israel's Scripture" (p. 6). This last statement already reveals a vital component of Hays's thesis (viz., that the Gospels exhibit the marks of their authors' "deep engagement with Israel's Scripture"), though Hays is also careful to acknowledge that this feature common to the four canonical Gospels is not identical in all four texts. All four bear the marks of Israel's sacred traditions, but they bear those marks in various and variant ways.

Hays begins with a discussion of "figural interpretation," a retrospective reading of the past in light of the newly unfolded events of the present. Reading the Old Testament (this is Hays's preferred term, rather than "Hebrew Bible") figurally is not as mechanical or restrictive as reading them predictively. The hermeneutical activity of figuration belongs to the reader rather than the author. "For that reason, a hermeneutical strategy that relies on figural interpretation of the Bible creates deep theological coherence within the biblical narrative" (p. 3; my emphasis).

I find all of this helpful, both for enabling a robustly but respectfully Christian reading of texts from the Hebrew Bible and for a historically sensitive reading of the Gospels (and other texts from the New Testament). Even so, I would quibble with Hays's formulation of the primary question. He asks: "How does each one [of the Gospel writers] draw upon the Old Testament to depict the identity of Jesus and to interpret his significance?" (p. 4). One gets the sense that Hays sees "the Old Testament" as something distinct from the early Christians' perceptions and understandings of Jesus, as if they turned to scriptural texts in order to communicate something they already knew apart from those texts. The influence of biblical tropes, themes, and images, however, belongs not to the early Christians' depictions of Jesus' identity but to their very apprehensions of him, both their perceptions and their interpretations. As I acknowledged earlier, this may seem a quibble. But I think the difference matters, like the difference between contact lenses and eyeballs, or between clothes and skin.

The primary thrust of the remainder of the Introduction (after the restatement of the book's purpose, quoted above) is a discussion of the book's design: its scope, structure, and method (pp. 6–14). As to "scope" (pp. 6–8), Hays is clear that this book is not about the historical Jesus, nor about the earliest Christian social contexts, nor about the development of an early "high" Christology. "Instead, this is a book that offers an 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 an illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories" (p. 7, italics in the original have been removed).

As to "structure" (pp. 8–9), the book features one chapter for each of the four canonical Gospels, followed by a brief (twenty-page) conclusion. Each chapter is comprised of five sections: (i) an overview of a given evangelist as an interpreter of Israel's Scripture, (ii) the in/evocation of Scripture to re-narrative Israel's story, (iii) the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate Jesus' identity, (iv), the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate the role of the church vis-à-vis the world, and (v) a summary conclusion (p. 9; see also p. 14). Hays also briefly justifies the decision to address the three Synoptic Gospels alongside the distinctive Gospel of John together in a single volume (p. 9).

As to "method" (pp. 10–14), Hays offers at least three substantive points. First, Hays "presupposes that all four canonical Gospels are deeply embedded in a symbolic world shaped by the Old Testament . . . that their 'encyclopedia of production' is constituted in large measure by Israel's Scripture" (p. 10). The Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) context is also significant, but secondarily so. Second, Hays rehearses how he employs the standard terms "quotation," "allusion," and "echo," with some extended discussion of the last of these (pp. 10–13). "These terms are approximate markers on the spectrum of intertextual linkage, moving from the most to the least explicit forms of reference" (p. 10). This section includes Hays's one reference to John Miles Foley (in an endnote; see p. 370 n.21); in my view it is unfortunate that Hays has not been more profoundly influenced by the Foley's work on tradition and reception, both of which are central concerns in Hays's own works. Even so, Hays rightly grasps the academic task at hand: "not some arcane theory-driven methodology . . . [but rather] simple attention to the way that human language and storytelling ordinarily work" (p. 11). And again, "our discourse is inherently intertextual and allusive" (p. 12). Indeed. Third, Hays assumes Markan priority, but he also employs an ambivalent Q-skepticism: "It seems to me equally probable—indeed more probable—that Luke knew Matthew and that the verbal agreements between these two Gospel can be explained in this fashion rather than through positing a hypothetical Q source" (p. 13). It seems to me, speaking impressionistically, that Q-skepticism (in the specific guise of Markan priority without Q) is quickly becoming an equal rival—if not a dominant option—among non-source-critical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels; for another recent significant work that rejects Q, see Francis Watson's Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013). A fourth point, offered not so much as method but rather as clarification, concerns the legitimacy of the Evangelists' appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures. Here I think Hays preserves an unfortunate set of categories (viz., Christian and Jewish) and attempts to foster respectful and honest discussions between them. But these are our categories, not our texts'. Our authors—all four of them, in my view—wrote as Jews, of a Jewish messiah and other Jewish cultural and theological ideas, and did not approach the concerns and problems they faced with these categories at hand. Even Luke's use of the term Christian (Χριστιανός; Christianos) in Acts 26:28 understands this as a Jewish descriptor; a Christianos is something a Jew (like Paul, and like Agrippa) can be.

Despite these perhaps gnatty criticisms, the preface and Introduction set up Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels as an interesting, insightful, and engaging work of embodied literary scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the four substantive chapters on each of the canonical Gospels, though their length is also somewhat intimidating (Chapter 1, on the Gospel of Mark, comprises eighty-nine pages, along with twenty pages of endnotes!). It may be a while before you see pt. 2 of this review, though I can envision interacting with this or that point as I work through the chapter. So I encourage you to watch this space, but do so patiently. In the meantime, buy this book and read it along with me. And if you do, drop me a line to let me know what you think as you read it.

Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 1
Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 2


  1. Thanks for this review, Rafael. I am looking forward to the rest of it. Like you, I also found Hays' preface moving. I take Hays' words therein to be exemplary of a very fine tradition of Christian scholarship: critical, thoughtful, and committed to the confession without being polemical or insular. I respect and appreciate that.

    One question I have for you: If Hays had interacted more with Foley, where do you think it would have led him? Maybe that's a question for later in the review, but I'm curious.

  2. Hays concludes that "The Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) context is also significant, but secondarily so."

    Or maybe the Hellenistic context is not merely secondary but of primary importance because it was that context that invented the bios, of which the Gospels are examples. And it was the Roman sense of empire/kingdom that the Gospel authors were reacting to by positing an alternative. It was also the rule by foreign powers, Greek and Roman, that led to the development of apocalyptic which catalyzed the development of the Messianic movement that became known as Christianity. And the NT authors also relied primarily on Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible.

  3. For all of the talk about how Paul's letters show "evidence of a creative and attentive reader who shaped and was shaped by biblical traditions and texts," or how "All four Gospels bear the marks of Israel's sacred traditions but they bear those marks in various and variant ways," "evoking the OT," I feel like this is mere literary criticism, good literary criticism, but is there a further point? Any writings can have their influences traced and shown in what ways authors were influenced by prior writings and/or altered such writings creatively.

    But at what point do study studies influence people to become Christians or to leave the fold, or perhaps adopt a tentative Christian belief system lying somewhere in between? Has much been written about that? Perhaps a conference with some of the world's most prominent NT scholars on "The NT and Christian belief, unbelief and tentative belief?"

    My own curiosity led me to read ever widening ranges of scholarly studies of the NT, but the more I began to appreciate such in-depth studies of discrete questions, the less robust my Christian faith became. It seems to me now that Christianity began as a cult rather than authentic historical truth. Paul displays the same characteristics as an extremist religious fanatic and cult leader:

    So many questions

  4. Hays's exegesis is always insightful and often convincing, but he operates with a strange understanding of what *meaning* is. He's basically a New Critic, no doubt owing to his studies as an English major at Yale. He appears to think of meaning as a *thing* that morphs and develops when texts are put into new contexts, both literary and readerly. Thus, for him, the possibility of the Evangelists misappropriating a verse from the Old Testament is defined out of existence: whatever they do to a verse can always be construed simply as giving it a new context, so there really is (on the terms of his semiotic scheme) no possibility of misappropriation.

    1. Let's assume that the evangelist and the earliest Christians in general often did use the Jewish scriptures as a 'language of significance' though which to remember and preach the impact of Jesus of Nazareth. How would that afffect your view of Hays hermeneutical perspective?

      Christian Michael

    2. We might want to look at what other significant discourses Paul was using. To fail to do that, would privilege just one discourse disproportionately.

    3. Christian,

      I have no problem with Hays's case for saying that the earliest Christians did such-and-such with the Old Testament. The problem arises with his insistence that, since they did it, such readings must be considered normative. I can forgive the first naivete (that of the earliest Christian readers of the Old Testament), but not the second (that of today's readers who say we can read the same way).

    4. John, thank you for the clarification.

      If I understand you correctly, you reject the legitimacy of modern exegetes using OT in new creative ways (contrary to the original contextual meaning of a passage) to interpret Jesus, while you do at the same time recognize that Jesus and his the followers did just that?
      I haven't read Hays book (I do have 'Reading Backwards' on the shelf and Iook forward to follow this review series by Rafael) and I don't know if Hays is engaging in creative historical exegesis beyond the confinements of the testimony of the NT, but it does make a lot of sense to me to try to approximate the hermeneutical perspective of the first generation of Christians, because I am interested in knowing the impression Jesus left - to get to the meaning of Jesus in his context. I think that Jesus himself reread Daniel and combined the 'Son of man' figure with the annointed that was to be 'cut off' - a 'hidden but now revealed' meaning, and that Matt11,3-6 and Luke 7,21-23 also testifies that Jesus himself set the perception/interpretative trajectories in motion before the Passover-events. To me, this means that there is truth to be learned about Jesus in the creative uses of OT on display in the fourfold gospel (and in Paul), that I would miss if I, unlike them, thought of it as misappropriations.

      Christian Michael

    5. Christian,

      Jesus' and Paul's exegesis of the OT provide valuable insights to what they believed. And we can, in a certain way, affirm the truth of what their applications of Scripture say about their belief "systems" without affirming their applications of Scripture. (Narrative theologians [like Hays] often have an allergic reaction to the word "system", which is why I put it in quotes.) But a problem arises when someone treats the meaning of a text (like the OT) as something that can be bent--that it once had a certain meaning, but later took on a different meaning. If we use "meaning" as a shorthand for *readerly* meaning, then, of course, such a change happens all the time. But if we use "meaning" to denote meaning *per se*, then there's a big problem.

  5. I guess a "Language of significance" and negotiation,could be taken three or four ways. As 1) taking the OT as true 2) and easy, transparent to read. And 3) normative. "Significant." And then using it loyally.

    But also use of it might be seen as merely 4) later figures expropriating it. Citing it as authority, even as they Twist it. Or even? 5) suggesting that religion, being the religion of men, then an authority like Paul can do what he wants with old texts, and that's fine.

    So the language here is very inexact.

  6. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Perhaps it would help to be alert to how Mark, for example, "appropriated" the Jewish scriptures: at least six different ways in just his first chapter.

    I suggest that Mark’s use of the Jewish scriptures is complex across a continuum from mimetic usage to supportive usage. Mimesis would be the practice of using a given source to create a new memory. Supportive citing would be the practice of using a given source to reinforce a known memory. How would the reader apply them to the following:

    (1) Providing a competing visual: Mark 1:2-3, citing Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 puts worthy "preparer" in competition with "unworthy" forerunner in Mark 1:7.
    (2) Comparing a present visual to a past visual to stimulate additional comparisons; for example, the description of the Baptist’s clothing in Mark 1:6 recalls the clothing of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8. (3) Deriving meaning from a symbol: for example, in Mark 1:10 the dove which lands on Jesus shoulder following his baptism recalls Genesis 8:6-12 where the dove Noah sent out is associated with finding renewed life for humanity. (4) Identifying divine truth: for example, Mark 1:11 recalls Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, and presents YHWH’s expression of pleasure in Jesus as the king of His servant Israel. (5) Identifying cultural and life truths: for example, Mark 1:12-14 recalls Exodus 32 and Numbers 14, where we are reminded by Israel’s experience in the wilderness that, as all humans, Jesus was tempted. (6) Providing a basis for community cohesion: for example, in Mark 1:44 Jesus recalls Leviticus 14, ordering the priestly clearance and Mosaic cleansing rules to be observed following the claimed healing of a skin disorder.