Reading Backwards, Richard Hays

This is a short book with the aim of encouraging us to see how the four Gospels are filled with Old Testament references and allusions, and how in our reading we should read backwards from the Gospels into their Old Testament reference too. The book is divided into six chapters; an introduction, one chapter on each of the four Gospels, and a conclusion. They are based on a lecture series that the author had previously given.

The purpose is best expressed in Hays’ own words, as aiming to learn:
“How does each of the Evangelists read Israel’s scripture? How does each one draw upon figural interpretation of the Old Testament to depict the identity of Jesus and to interpret his significance? “, and in so doing, “The gospels teach us how to read the OT and at the same time the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels”

In the introduction he gives us further reason why this is important and a valid thing to do. In Luke 16:31 we read Jesus said “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead”, and then later on the road to Emmaus when Jesus meets two disciples they know that Jesus has risen from the dead yet they are downcast. It is only after Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27) and shared fellowship with them that their eyes were opened. So the Old Testament is vital to understanding who Jesus is.

Following this introduction we go into the four chapters covering each of the Gospels.

Hays describes Mark as being “indirect and allusive” in his way of using the Old Testament. Mark sees the mystery of Jesus being God as such a great truth and claim that he hints and points to it, rather than shouting it out. There are exceptions to this at critical points, such as Jesus’ declaration of being the Messiah in 14:61-62. Hays thinks Mark himself instructs us to read carefully and pick up on these hints, when in 4:22 Jesus says “for there is not anything hidden except in order to be revealed, nor is anything secret except in order to be disclosed”.

Some of the references are well known, for example Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, referring to Zechariah’s prophecy, while others were new to me. When Jesus walks on water, in Mark 6:45-52, Jesus “meant to pass by them”, where the idea of passing by seems strange to us on first reading. Hays refers us back to Job 9, where Job is praising God’s power and character. In 9:8 God “trampled the waves of the sea” and in 9:11 He “passes by me”. So by this allusion, Mark is telling us of Jesus’ nature with God.

While Matthew likely used Mark’s material, Hays highlights how, in contrast to Mark’s subtlety, Matthew makes the truths about Jesus very clear. For example, after Jesus had walked on water, in Matthew the disciples worship him as the Son of God (Matt 14:33) whereas in Mark 6:51 the disciples were “astounded”, and he relied on the allusion to Jesus being God as discussed above.

There are also a number of passages where Matthew makes clear an Old Testament reference that Mark had only alluded to. Matthew often uses a phrase such as “this took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying” to introduce the Old Testament quotations. But we should also look out for Matthew’s many figurative Old Testament references as well as his direct ones.

One theme in Matthew is his identification of Jesus as Emmanuel, meaning “God with us”. Hays identifies 3 references, 1:23, 18:20 and 28:20, at the start, middle and end of the material which so frame the book. This is built on in other references, such as in Matt 2:15 quoting “Out of Egypt I called my Son” from Hosea 11:1 where Hosea 11:9 goes on to refer to God as “the Holy One on your midst”. We also later see Jesus among the poor, in the judgement scene of Matt 25:31-46.

Among othere themes Hays highlights is worship of Jesus, from the Magi in Ch 2 to the disciples at the resurrection in 28:17, with a number of others in between.

Luke uses two kinds of Old Testament references. First, direct quotes, but almost always from the mouths of characters, rather than from the narrator; and secondly through narrative allusions and echoes.

Luke identifies Jesus as the Son of God, including at His baptism and transfiguration. For example, at His baptism, in 3:22 the voice from heaven says “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”,the first part echoing Genesis 22 and the second part Isaiah 42:1.

Luke also fuses Jesus’ and God’s activity. For instance in 8:39 after casting out the demons Jesus tells the man “Go back to your house and narrate how much God has done for you”. And similarly after healing the lepers in 17:17 He says “Were not the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were none of them found returning to give glory to God except this foreigner”. With these and others, Luke is showing that God is visiting His people, as Zechariah prayed in 1:68.

John has much fewer Old Testament references than the other Gospels. He does however include both visual echoes, such as 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” and verbal echoes, such as 1:1 echoing Genesis 1:1. Where John does use quotations, they are often from the Psalms.

John also asserts that Jesus is taking on the significance of the temple and its festivals. In 2:18 Jesus says “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. This also helps explain 1:51 where Jesus had told Nathanael “you will see the heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”, as Jesus has become the way between heaven and earth. In 4:21 He can tell the Samaritan woman that “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”, as worship will be focused on Him.

Regarding the festivals, Jesus embodies the Passover and also the festival of Booths – this involved outpourings of water and kindling of light, as Jesus would say in 7:37 “let anyone who is thirsty come to me” and in 8:12 “I am the light of the world”. In 10:22 Jesus is at the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), “walking in the portico of Solomon”. This feast celebrates the Maccabean revolt, but by Jesus’ time Israel is ruled by Rome. The crowd is hoping for a new Son of David, like Solomon and asks “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly”, but Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd, referring to Ezekiel 34, whose fulfilment will be to rescue and heal his people.

In conclusion, this is an insightful book and expands on my understanding of the Gospel’s uses of Scripture. It also disappointingly short, as Hays clearly has far more knowledge than he fits into this short book, and you are left wanting more. Hopefully a longer book will follow at some point.


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This entry was posted on May 7, 2016 by in Christianity and tagged , , , .
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