Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the fourfold Gospel witness
Richard B. Hays
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
SOMETIMES a book is written that articulates something that you have always wondered about but never found anyone else saying. This is one of those books. In discussions about how we interpret the Bible today, one question that always emerges sooner or later is how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament, and whether we should learn anything from this in our own interpretation of the text. This question is the main focus of this small but important book.
Its contents were given as the Hulsean Lectures in the University of Cambridge, 2013-14, and they had at their heart the twofold idea that the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels, just as the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament. Hays uses a method, “figural reading” (a term defined by Erich Auerbach), in which a connection is established between two events or people — a connection that traces patterns of correspondence between the earlier and later events or people and, in doing so, suggests an otherwise unrecognised meaning.
In particular, Hays argues that, although it would be a “hermeneutical blunder” to read the Law and the Prophets as if they only prefigured Christ, there is much to be learned from reading backwards in a way that reveals an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. In other words, if we read backwards through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we not only see the Old Testament texts in a new light: we are also freed to read the Gospel afresh as well. Figural reading enriches our reading of the Old and New Testaments.
What is particularly helpful about this book is that Hays does not imagine for a moment that the Gospel-writers all read backwards in the same way and “in unison”. Each of them did so in a different way and with different emphases, and we should hear “their testimonies as four distinctive voices singing in polyphony”.
In the opening chapter, Hays lays out figural interpretation and its value. The next four chapters in turn trace how each of the Gospels reads the story of Jesus backwards on to the Old Testament narrative. The final chapter draws the threads together and identifies ten key lessons that we can learn for our own interpretation of the Bible and for our own “renarrating” of the story of Jesus in an age when “we must articulate the gospel in a fragmented world urgently seeking signs of hope”.
This is an encouraging, intriguing, and stimulating book. Readers who are interested in interpretation and in learning lessons from the Bible itself about the nature of interpretation will find this a valuable companion for their reflections. If there is any drawback at all to the volume, it is that it still reads as a set of lectures rather than as a whole book with a continuous argument. This, however, is a very small criticism, given the otherwise enormous value of its subject-matter, and the potential of the ideas that it contains for making a significant contribution to our discussions about interpretation.
Dr Paula Gooder is a writer and lecturer in Biblical Studies, and is Canon Theologian of Birmingham Cathedral.