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Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

Richard B. Hays
Published by Baylor University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Gregory S. MaGee, Biblical Studies, Taylor University

Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, has a long track record of thinking creatively about the Apostle Paul’s appropriation of the Old Testament in his writings. In his latest book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Hays explores similar tendencies among the four Gospel writers. He demonstrates both the common and varied ways that the Evangelists interpret Jesus’s ministry according to the Old Testament, and how in turn the Old Testament yields even richer meanings in light of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Hays puts forward a primary and secondary thesis in the book. First, he claims that the directions of influence between the Old Testament and the Gospels run both ways. In other words, the Old Testament thoroughly shapes the presentation of Jesus in all four Gospels. But the epochal arrival of Jesus into the world requires believers in Christ to re-envision texts from the Old Testament in fuller and deeper ways. What may seem to be a circular process has an entry point, though. Hays traces how Jesus’s ministry, and especially his resurrection, launched a re-examination of the Old Testament story and its texts (reading backwards). Upon embarking on this new quest, discerning disciples, guided by Jesus’s example, began to discover (reading forwards) the many ways that the Old Testament prefigures Christ and his work. The secondary offshoot of Hays’s thesis is that when modern readers similarly delve into the Gospels with an eye on the long shadow of the Old Testament, they will discover a consistently high view of Jesus’s divine identity in all four Gospels (rather than a “high Christology” that is limited to the supposedly theologically innovative Gospel of John).

Hays’s method is both straightforward and controversial. He supports his twofold thesis by walking the reader through each of the four Gospels, showing how numerous passages in each Gospel are indebted to texts and themes from the Old Testament. While readers may not be convinced that every example displays this reliance on the specific Old Testament passages that Hays identifies, the cumulative effect of seeing one example after another is impressive and helps demonstrate the potential of Hays’s thesis.1

Hays’s ideas spark controversy, however, because his method assumes that God’s saving activity in the world, which spans from the Old Testament to the Gospels, has a basic continuity, with the arrival of Jesus completing the story begun in the Old Testament. In the field of biblical studies, such a presupposition invalidates the work as serious scholarship in the eyes of some beholders. Just recently one established biblical scholar publicly discredited the academic legitimacy of another, in part on the grounds that the second scholar is firmly committed to the belief that God communicates authoritatively through biblical discourse.2 This dust-up reflects a significant divide in biblical studies between those who embrace studying the Bible while guided by historically orthodox Christian convictions (in the spirit of “faith seeking understanding”) and those who think that such beliefs have no place in the field. Hays openly advocates reading the Bible with a distinctively Christian perspective (rightly so, in my view), and his thesis depends upon the divinely orchestrated unity of the story that moves from the Old Testament to the Gospels.

Hays’s short book begins with a preface and introduction to his work. In the preface Hays discloses that the book is an edited version of a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge University in 2013 and 2014 and that he hopes to pursue a more exhaustive treatment of the topic in the future. He aims to give an “intertextual close reading” of the Gospels, marked by literary sensitivity rather than questions about the historical origin and development of doctrines and texts (x). He also surveys notable voices in the history of “figural” readings of the Gospels (figural readings highlight intimate correspondences between people or events that are removed from each other in history). In the introductory chapter Hays expresses his desire to counteract the “Marcionite” tendency of churches to ignore or even denigrate the Old Testament.3 His primary thesis is stated as follows: “[T]he Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and – at the same time – the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels” (4). In this chapter Hays gives previews of how various passages in the Gospels are illuminated by figural readings of the Old Testament and how especially Luke 24:13-35 (Jesus’s post-resurrection explanation of the Scriptures to clueless disciples on the road to Emmaus) and John 5:39-46 (Jesus’s insistence that the Scriptures bear witness to him) prescribe such readings.

In the next four chapters Hays works his way through each Gospel, showing the Evangelists’ sensitivity to Old Testament backdrops for numerous scenes in the Gospels. Hays begins with the Gospel of Mark, which exhibits tantalizing hints of Jesus’s divine identity without sacrificing his humanity or erasing the mystery and subtlety of Jesus’s full glory.

Matthew, according to Hays, is much more direct in the way he anchors Jesus’s ministry in the Old Testament, as part of his goal to present Jesus as Emmanuel, or God with us. Hays understands Matthew’s interaction with Scripture as a further development of the interpretation of Jesus’s life and ministry: “Matthew successfully organized the Jesus tradition in a form that made it clear, harmonious, and accessible” (37). But far from extracting proof-texts from the Old Testament to accomplish this, Matthew uses Scriptural quotations as a window into the broader literary context of crucial Old Testament passages (reflecting a poetic feature known as “metalepsis”), so that entire passages rather than individual verses are fulfilled in Jesus’s experience.

The evangelist Luke presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament history in an even more sweeping way. Hays points out a number of passages in Luke that suggest a blurring of lines between YHWH as “Lord” and Jesus as “Lord” in references to Old Testament texts. In these occurrences Hays detects subtle pointers to Jesus’s divine status. Hays states his secondary thesis about Christology quite clearly in this chapter: “the ‘low’ Christology that modern NT criticism has perceived in Luke’s Gospel is an artificial construction that can be achieved only by ignoring – or suppressing – the hermeneutical relevance of the powerful Old Testament allusions in Luke’s story” (72).

The Gospel of John reveals an “intertextual sensibility” that “is more visual than auditory” (78), since there are relatively few explicit quotations of the Old Testament but plenty of striking images recalling great themes and people from the Old Testament. In John 1:45-46, where Philip summons Nathanael to “come and see” the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Hays detects an invitation to read the rest of the Gospel figurally.

The final chapter summarizes how the four Gospel writers adopt different hermeneutical strategies in their common vision of Jesus’s organic connection to the Old Testament. Hays not only highlights the Evangelists’ different strategies but even assesses their strengths and weaknesses. This has the unfortunate effect of accentuating the distance between Jesus and the Evangelists’ portrayal of him, a gap already opened in Hays’s introduction, where he states his intention to avoid questions about how much of the Evangelists’ portrayal is historically accurate. The evaluation of the Evangelists’ approaches even culminates in Hays’s selection of his favorite and least favorite Gospels (Luke and John, respectively), at least in terms of their incorporation of the Old Testament story and texts.

The second half of the chapter discusses how the common hermeneutical sensibilities found in the Gospels could teach modern readers to be better readers of Scripture. Readers should learn to listen for layers of meaning beyond the immediately detected literal sense of the narratives, in ways that point to the climactic arrival and ministry of Jesus in this world. In doing so readers will more readily recognize the divine identity of Jesus and be able to lay aside reservations that later Christian confessions of the deity of Christ are somehow foreign to the earliest biblical portrayals of Jesus.

This brief summary of Hays’s work does not do justice to what is so rewarding from reading this book. Hays’s proposed interpretations of specific passages, in which he explores the interplay between specific Old Testament passages and scenes from the Gospels, provide many gems of insights about the richer theological backdrop of the Gospel narratives. The examples not only unlock new perspectives on individual passages, but they also inspire readers to train their ears to listen for other allusions to the Old Testament that are waiting to be discovered. Hays opens up possibilities of reading and re-reading the Gospels, each time capturing additional layers of truth and beauty in already-familiar stories. Hays also paints a more appealing vision of Bible study, in which we need not be limited to mechanistic or simplistic methods of analysis but can bring in poetic sensibilities to our readings of the Gospels. Following Hays’s lead, readers can then savor the outcome of this way of reading the Gospels: a renewed wonder regarding God’s variegated, overarching plans for this world, centered on the humility and glory of Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God.

Cite this article
Gregory S. MaGee, “Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:1 , 86-89


  1. Though Hays does not go into detail about his criteria for discerning the presence of the Evangelists’ intended echoes and allusions from the Old Testament, additional insight can be gleaned from his similar studies of Paul’s letters. See particularly Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1989) and The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  2. In an editorial in his school’s newspaper, Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament in the School of Theology at the University of the South, objected that N. T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, had recently received an honorary doctorate from Holloway’s university (“Honorary degrees to bring a little less honor,” [cited 6 February 2015]. Accessed at
  3. Marcion was an early Christian heretic who discerned a lesser deity in the Old Testament and adjusted his evaluation of what counted as “Scripture” accordingly.

Gregory S. MaGee

Taylor University
Gregory MaGee is Chair of the Biblical Studies, Christian Ministries and Philosophy Department and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Taylor University.