Detecting the Old Testament in The Gospels With Richard B. Hays

Reading Backwards - Richard B. Hays
Reading Backwards – Richard B. Hays

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.

The Problem

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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)

  1. 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.

Observations

The above test cases point out some important things that modern readers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels need to pay attention to.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

Conclusion

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”.

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Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.