I finished reading Richard B. Hays’ “Reading Backwards” last week, and on an ordinary day, this blog post should be a review of the book. But these are not ordinary days, and Richard Hays is no ordinary New Testament scholar. And so with him as a conversation partner (more like mentor), I’ll like to address a problem that I’ve encountered within the church when we talk of Jesus “fulfilling” prophecy, and for which I’ve written about indirectly on this blog before.
It is standard teaching within every church I have ever attended in my short lifetime that Jesus’s life fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, and if the people of Israel had been paying attention, they would have accepted Jesus as Messiah. This is one of the “defenses” that is employed by many people eager to defend Jesus and the Bible from criticism. But many have pointed out – and any serious unbiased study shows – that the ways that the writers of the Gospels make use of the Old Testament to paint a picture of Jesus’s can sometimes seem as if these Evangelists (i.e. writers of the Gospels) are misquoting scripture to support their point. Unfortunately, many people – especially those unfamiliar with history and context of 1st century Judaism – are unwilling to consider this criticism because of its implications to their Christian faith. Some friends I have spoken to have indeed expressed this disquiet to me, but others simply ignore this dissonance in favor of a dogmatic defense of the Evangelists’ usage of the Old Testament. After all Paul says that the events of Jesus’s life happened “according to Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), and the matter is ended by simplistically pointing out proof-texts that the Evangelists quote from the Old Testament.
But what if there actually is a way to acknowledge these difficulties, whiles still making sense of this usage pattern of the Evangelists? Along comes Richard Hays and his adoption of the method of figural reading of the Old Testament. In this book, he applies it to focus on Christology (Jesus’s divinity), and the results are stunning!! He traces far more passages than many standard proof-texts used to defend Jesus’s divinity, and so we’ll look at a few of them to see whether we can understand how and why the Evangelists (and Jesus) used the Old Testament the way they did.
Reading Backwards vs “Prophetic Predictions”
Hays sets the tone with the following statement, explaining how figural reading (aka reading backwards) is different from prediction.
“There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and pre-figuration. Figural readings need not assume that the OT authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (pp 2, my emphasis).
By this statement, Hays is pointing out an important fact – that the Gospels were written as a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus AFTER the actual events (in fact many decades after the actual events). The Gospel writers, especially Mark, do not hide the fact that Jesus’s life and ministry actually confused his own disciples, much more ordinary people who heard him. This is primarily because Jesus didn’t stay in character as just a messiah. He claimed to be these as well:
The embodiment of Israel itself. Jesus’s usage of language regarding being “the vine” and his disciples being the “branches” in John 5 is language that the Old Testament uses to speak of the nation Israel e.g Isaiah 5:1-7.
The embodiment of Yahweh. In Mt 12:6, whiles defending his “abuse” of the Sabbath, Jesus states that “something greater than the temple is here”. To make life easier, I quote Hays.
“We are not told precisely what the “something greater” might be, but the inference lies readily at hand that it must be Jesus himself. What could be greater than the temple other than the one to whom it is dedicated, the one who is worshiped in it?” (pp 45)
The replacement of the Temple. In 1st century Judea, the only legitimate place that one could go to receive forgiveness of one’s sins was the temple with it’s high priests and its sacrifices, and yet Jesus goes about telling people “your sins are forgiven”. Not only does Jesus become a “mobile temple”, he further calls down judgement upon the existing one in his act of scattering the tables of the money changers and driving away the merchants there, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah (who prophesied the destruction of the 1st temple) to boot.
These and other angles were way beyond the simple category and prophetic expectations of a Messiah and only made sense after Jesus’s resurrection (a resurrection after which he still needed to spend much time explaining to his disciples like those he met on the Emmaus road in Lk 24). Speaking of these Emmaus road disciples, Hays says
“The disciples on their way to Emmaus had already heard it reported that Jesus was live, but because they did not know how to locate this report within Israel’s story, it seemed a curious and meaningless claim” (pp 16).
Therefore the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were no longer reading the Old Testament with a simple one-to-one correspondence between what the OT said and what Jesus did – they were wearing a multifaceted lens to discover patterns of a multifaceted person that an ordinary Jew of Jesus’s day largely WILL NOT have understood. The Evangelists were “reading backwards” from the event of Jesus i.e. they were doing a figural reading. In fact, the Gospel of John makes this very explicit.
“John tells us, [that] the disciples’ understanding came only later, only as they read backwards to interpret Jesus’s actions and words in light of the paradigm shattering events of his resurrection. That is the point emphatically made in Jn 2:22: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. They they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). Even more explicitly than the other Gospel writers, then, John champions reading backwards as an essential strategy for illuminating Jesus’s identity … Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’s words” (pp 85)
So let’s look at some examples of how figural readings explain some ways in which Jesus didn’t “fulfill prophecy”, but actually DID fulfill prophecy. Are you confused yet?
Test Case 1
Matthew is the most “problematic” when it comes to statements about Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are about 15 statements in which this Evangelist explicitly points out that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy by a certain action. Hays points out that this has somehow blinded many readers to the more than 100 allusions to OT prophetic fulfillment simply because he didn’t put the words that say those actions of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Our first test case will be Jesus’s childhood escape to Egypt in Mt 2:13-18. In this test case, Herod has heard about the baby Jesus, and intends to send out his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all children under two years of age. An angel appears to Joseph, and instructs them to escape to Egypt. And out of the blue, Matthew the Evangelist says
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Mt 2:15)
Here my NIV bible has a footnote pointing me to Hosea 11:1, which reads
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that Hosea is not talking about a singular person, but about the nation Israel being rescued through the exodus by Yahweh. If you dispute it, just read the rest of Hosea 11. So on the plain surface of the reading, good old Uncle Matthew has certainly “proof-texted” scripture to “prove” his case, just as many Christians do today, sadly. And the frightening thing is that this is no mere Christian. This is in sacred scripture we call the Gospel of Matthew.
But wait? What did I say about a multi-faceted Jesus who refused to stay in one mold? Jesus’s ministry involved him claiming to be the embodiment of Israel. Therefore if one takes Jesus’s claims about himself to be true (and that’s what after the resurrection, the disciples did), then it is a legitimate usage of scripture to quote a text about Israel and apply it to the person of Jesus, not so?
Test Case 2
We take a look at a second test case, this time on how Jesus appropriated scripture in a way not consistent with expectations of the Messiah, but fully consistent with the portraits of himself he sought to reveal to his disciples as the embodiment of Yahweh, or the new temple etc etc. Here we look at a story recorded by John in John 1:35-50.
John the Baptist had already been preaching to everyone about the coming kingdom, the need for repentance and the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Therefore when he meets Jesus, he points him out as “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) to everyone, including his disciples. As a result, some of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and Andrew, Peter’s brother, goes to tell him that “We have found the Messiah”. This is simply in repetition of what John had already told them.
Jesus proceeds to call Philip and Nathanael, and in conversation with Jesus, Nathanael again declares Jesus to be “the son of God; you are the king of Israel” (again, in line with John the Baptist’s broadcast message and expectation of the Jews). Jesus’s response is totally unorthodox, and not the kind of response that a simple Messiah will give.
“Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50)
Here, Jesus is quoting Gen 28:12, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and angels climbing up and down that ladder. What did Jacob do when he woke up? He surmised that “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:17), and so builds an alter and sacrifices to Yahweh on it, calling the place Bethel aka. house of God.
What has such a weird response got to do with being a Messiah? Not much, unless Jesus is trying to say that he is more than just a Messiah – the he is the actual temple of God walking about on this earth. It is not surprising then that in the chapter immediately following this conversation (Jn 2), Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and calls down judgement upon the temple of Jerusalem – because he Jesus was now the temple. It is not surprising also that it had to take his resurrection before the disciples made sense of this link (Jn 2:22, quoted above). At worst a Messiah may call for cleansing and re-dedication of the temple like Solomon did in 1 Ki 7 or like Judas Maccabeus did a few centuries before Jesus. But no right thinking Messiah would call for the destruction of the temple and claim they were the replacement of it. That is political suicide, as it turned out to be.
The above test cases point out some important things that modern readers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels need to pay attention to.
The centuries old accusation that the 1st century Jews should have all believed Jesus’s message if they were actually minded to just because Jesus “fulfilled Old Testament prophecy” is a very simplistic accusation that we need to lay to rest sooner than later. Jesus fulfilled prophecy in his own way because he had a mission that stretched beyond simply being a political Messiah and saviour of the world. If we are quick to judge the Jews, maybe its because we ourselves are busy wearing the same unifocal spectacles that 1st century Jews wore when reading scripture – perhaps ours being the spectacles of dogmatism.
Modern Christians need to shed their pious posture of thinking that they would have fared much better than 1st century Jews in terms of believing in Jesus. If Jesus’ own disciples needed the resurrection AND the Holy Spirit before it clicked what Jesus was about, maybe we need to be a bit more humble and acknowledge that many in our day will not recognize Jesus when he shows up as he did in the 1st century Judea. Incidentally, Jackson Wu just blogged last week on developing empathy so we can understand the failures of others and not repeat them, and he expresses my feeling on this issue much better than I could have put it here.
Peter’s accusation that the Jews killed Jesus (Ac 2:23) is a legitimate accusation, but should not be used to prevent us from digging into the history and understanding the complexity of events surrounding Jesus’s ministry and the “fulfillment of prophecy”. Such language is normal throughout the New Testament and is a form “corporate solidarity” (thank you to Bruxy Cavey for this one). A simple example is a President or King deciding to go to war. It doesn’t matter if we participated in it ourselves, but we as citizens of that nation headed by the king/President are deemed guilty of whatever excesses happened during the war. I’ve been around enough Germans to know how this guilt works in regards to Hitler’s atrocities in World War 2, especially amongst the generation during and immediately after that war.
If we are going to be a people who understand Jesus’s behaviour in the Gospels properly, as well as the Evangelist’s usage of Old Testament, or Paul’s statements of “according to Scriptures”, we need to do better than simply quoting proof-texts from the Old Testament. Here are two warnings from Richard Hays on this matter.
“What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the OT texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones” (pp 103).
“Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or images; rather it traced out a coherent line that stretched out from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world … One implication of this is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to the large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, proof texts, or halakhic regulations” (pp 105).
In conclusion, there’s a reason why I can’t wait for the release of Hays latest work “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”, (coming out in a few days from now) where he applies “figural reading” beyond just the divinity of Jesus, but widens it to other major themes that the Evangelists were trying to communicate about him. The amount of lessons to be learnt in this small, 108 page “Reading Backwards” is belied by its size. Thank God for the likes of Richard B. Hays, and may his tribe increase. I pray that knowledge like his spread into the church and teaches modern Christians a little bit more humility, empathy and “appropriate” love for the Old Testament as we read the bible and see the Jesus who is prefigured in all of it, not just in places quoted by the Evangelists and other NT writers as “fulfilling prophecy”.