- Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays
This book is based on the Hulsean Lectures presented by the author in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University (2013/14). It examines the figural Christology of the four canonical gospels by analysing their intertextual engagement with Israel’s Scripture. It begins with an introductory chapter addressing the main hermeneutical questions, after which the distinct manner in which each of the four canonical gospels draw on the OT in their narrative depiction of Jesus’ identity are analysed in a chapter on each. The final chapter evaluates the hermeneutical approach of each gospel, as well as the similarities and differences between them, before making ten remarks on how contemporary interpreters might undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the evangelists.
Chapter 1 explains what a figural reading of Israel’s Scriptures entails. Hays’ figural reading of the gospels is based on an article on Figura by Erich Auerbach in which he explains that “[f]igural [End Page 197] interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfils the first.”1 Since the two poles of a figure (e.g., Pharaoh’s and Herod’s commands to kill infants) are separated in time, the correspondence between them can only be discerned after the first has occurred and the second imparts a new pattern of significance to the first. Once the pattern of the correspondence between two poles of a figure has been grasped, the semantic force thereof flows both ways with the second receiving a deeper significance from the first (3). This connection does, however, not imply that the second event has been predicted by the first since a figural reading is a form of intertextual interpretation based on the reception, and not the production, of texts (2).
Hays argues that a figural interpretation of the biblical text creates a deep theological coherence within the canon’s narrative which allows it to function as a single cumulative and complex pattern of meaning (3). According to Hays this understanding of the biblical narrative as relating a coherent story is in line with the claim of all four canonical gospels that the events of Jesus life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the Scriptures.” For John, for example, the Torah, Prophets and Psalms mysteriously prefigure Jesus as he explicitly states in John 5:46 (“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me”).
The figural reading of the canonical gospels is undertaken by Hays to explain how the evangelists engaged with the OT and to understand how contemporary readers should read the biblical texts. For him the gospels can teach us how to read the OT and the latter in turn how to read the gospels (4). The first claim is less contentious than the second, since it is clear that the gospels arose out of the symbolic world of the first followers of Jesus that was shaped by the Jewish Scriptures (5). For them Jesus’ teaching and actions, as well as his death and vindication, were the climax of the biblical story (5). The OT can therefore help the interpreter understand gospel text (e.g., Mark 11:15–19 and Mark 12:1–12) by providing a broader context for them. The second claim of Hays is that the gospels also teach us how to read the OT by specifically looking for examples of figuration in the latter. Where it is identified the literal historical sense of the OT is not negated by a figurative reading but rather [End Page 198] enhanced, since it gains the additional meaning of typologically pointing forward to the gospel story (15). The return of Israel from exile, for example, becomes a prefiguration of the salvation brought by Jesus for all. A figurative reading also emphasises that, since the whole story of Israel reaches a narrative climax...