The four Gospels present Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel and its God. In several places, the Gospels tell us just this—that Jesus stands in continuity with the Law, the writings, and the Prophets, not opposed to them (Matthew 5:17; Mark 1:1-3; Luke 24:13-35; John 5:46). However, rather than reading the Old Testament as a mere predictive text, in a recent book, Richard B. Hays suggests that the evangelists supply us with an interpretive method based on a figural reading much more akin to the way poetry works.
In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press, 2014), Hays offers a profound corrective to the wooden way in which the church often understands the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament (see this video from Ben Witherington III). But what does this mean for contemporary Christian readers of the Old Testament? In his closing chapter, Hays offers 10 ways the Gospels teach us how to read Scripture (ff. 104).
1. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic necessarily entails reading backwards, reinterpreting Israel’s Scripture in light of the story of Jesus.
2. More specifically, Scripture is to be reinterpreted in light of the cross and resurrection.
3. The Evangelists’ diverse imaginative uses and transformations of the Old Testament texts summon us also to a conversion of the imagination.
4. For the Evangelists, Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world, including creation, fall, and redemption.
5. It is important to emphasize that the Evangelists’ retrospective reinterpretation of Israel’s story is in no sense a negation or rejection of that story.
6. The Gospel writers approach Scripture as a unified whole, but their reading of it is not undifferentiated.
7. The Scripture employed by the Evangelists is, on the whole, the Greek Bible (Septuagint, or LXX).
8. Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character: that is, they nudge the discerning reading to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn.
9. Each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.
10. The Evangelists consistently approach Scripture with the presupposition that the God found in the stories of the Old Testament is living and active.
Most profoundly, in terms of how the church in the early centuries AD appropriated the christology in the Gospels, I found Hays’ work summarizing how each evangelist presents Jesus’ divinity with subtlety and care. For Matthew, Jesus is Torah transfigured, and God-with-us. For Mark, Jesus is the embodiment of Yahweh, bringing with him the mysterious and paradoxical kingdom. For Luke, Jesus is the redemption of Israel’s story and the Lord (kyrios) of all. For John, Jesus refigures Israel’s temple and worship as the divine logos and wisdom of God.
How might the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as the figural fulfillment of the Old Testament story affect your own reading of Scripture? How might it affect your worship, and your following in Jesus’ footsteps? Do you believe you would come to accept your place in God’s story of redemption without first coming to terms with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?