Reading Backwards with Richard Hays – Brief Reflections (Gupta)

HaysAt the end of 2014 I had high hopes of blogging chapter by chapter through Richard Hays’ new work, Reading Backwards (Baylor, 2014). Truth be told, I got sidetracked and by the time I finally got back into the book there were a number of good online reviews and I really don’t have much to add to that discussion. So, please permit me now to simply provide some reflections on the book.

Main arguments

Richard Hays has two interests in this short book, both of which are identified in the subtitle: Figural Reading BackwardsChristology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. First, he urges that the Evangelists did not proof-text the OT, but neither did they read it in a straightforward contextualized sense. Rather, there is a kind of dialectical relationship between old and new. The term he uses for this is “figural reading” – he defines this as “the discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondence between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream” (p93).

The second major concern Hays has is to demonstrate that if we pay close attention to the way that the Evangelists read the Old Testament and explain Christ, they portray Jesus Christ as the embodiment of Israel’s God (see 107) – the “highest” form of Christology can already be found in the Synoptic Gospels (see a key summary statement on pg. 72)

What about supersessionism? Hays is rightly sensitive to this. He affirms that a figural reading does not reject the first sense, but continues it and adds to it: “The canonical Evangelists understand themselves to be standing within the still-unfolding narrative trajectory of Israel’s covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (106).

What was their Old Testament? Hays notes that the Evangelists tended to prefer the Septuagint. This forces us, once again, to re-think the nature of the Old Testament. Hays leaves open the possibility that we should extend special authority to the Septuagint (e.g., maybe Augustine was right!) (p. 107).


This is not a monograph, as Hays makes clear in the preface (ix). It is a “progress report” on a much larger and more comprehensive study of the Old Testament and the Evangelists that he is still writing. This is critically important to note because it is not a complete work all by itself. It is vintage Hays in that it is interdisciplinary, thoughtful, stimulating, creative, and exegetically responsible. However, there is much that is left unsaid or undersaid. Here are a few of my questions I hope will be treated more thoroughly in “the big book.”

1. How aware were the evangelists of their hermeneutic (this is briefly touched upon in the preface)? And how aware were they of the differences between them (e.g., Matthew versus Mark, or John versus Mark)? 

2. What is the difference between “figural reading” and typology (see pg 15)? What is the relationship between “figural reading” and sensus plenior? (I do see clearly that Hays does not endorse a kind of sensus plenior that cancels out the original sense)

3. What are the controls and limits of “reading backwards”? Who does this reading and how do you know it is right? Sometimes when Hays refers to “reading backwards” (as a Gospel-shaped hermeneutics, .e.g, p. 104), it is unclear who is doing this reading. Are the Evangelists concretizing canonically these readings, or is there a kind of openness for Christians yesterday, today, and tomorrow to freshly discover through reading backwards in ways the Evangelists had not considered? I know Hays is well aware of the debate about this, and I don’t blame him for not addressing it in his short book, but inquiring minds hope this makes it into the big book.

4. How would Jews have made sense of an “embodiment” of Israel’s God? Was he another god, or perhaps another version of God? Was he YHWH “in the flesh,” so to speak? What were the Evangelists thinking as they made these associations? Did they think the ideas they were alluding to were dangerous, blasphemous (even if true)? How could they even conceive of making such a radical statement, and if they knew it was radical, why do it without giving a more complete explanation or defense? 

That’s all I want to say at this point, other than to encourage you to pick up the book if you are interested in the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.



4 thoughts on “Reading Backwards with Richard Hays – Brief Reflections (Gupta)

    • Nijay,
      Thank you very much for this very helpful summary. I really appreciate it. I only wish you didn’t tease us with the answer to question two. From the way you have described it, “figural reading” sounds very much like typological interpretation by the Evangelist. The only difference is they didn’t have two “Testaments” in front of them as we are privileged to have. Is that right?

  1. I think your question 4 is the critical one. How for instance do the prophets think of the incarnation of the word in their own selves? I think embodiment is present everywhere in the canonical text. Perhaps this is the partial compared to the full that is implied in Hebrews 1:1. Also the vine image, Israel as example, the failure of the monarchy as considered in the Psalms, the one speaking for the many, etc. So many ways to follow this lead, a lead that few in the Gentile world consider when searching the Scriptures, a lead that few understand when reading through the lens of the NT telescope backwards so that rather than magnifying, it diminishes .

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