Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading Backwards

I'm half-way through Richard Hays' new book Reading Backwards, on the use of the OT in the Gospels. It's a good book, if you like that sort of thing (which I do). Hays argues that the Evangelists' figural reading of Israel's Scriptures arises from and demonstrates their belief in the divine identity of Jesus. Thus, Hays explicitly depends on Bauckham's formulation of Jesus' divine identity.

I'm not reading the book for this reason--I didn't even realize this issue of divine identity played such a crucial role in the argumentation. Really I just wanted to see what Hays did with the OT in the NT--I wanted something like Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, a title that Hays says (p. ix) he has joked about for some years as he has worked on a Gospels-focused sequel to his seminal 1989 study Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. This earlier book on Paul was probably, for me, the most mind-shattering book I had read. I guess it was foolish to hope for something similar from Hays on the Gospels, since once he has already shattered my mind, his job was more-or-less done. And so, this new book is not the life-changing read I experienced with Echoes. It's a good book, but I guess Hays (and others) have already taught me how to read scripture, and so much of what Hays is saying in this book makes me nod in agreement rather than stare blankly for an hour as I work through the implications of what I just read.

The book has six chapters: one on each Gospel, plus an introduction in which he explains what figural reading means, with some examples, and a conclusion in which he gathers the argument together and draws some implications (I guess, I haven't read it yet).

A summary of his chapter on Mark will give you a good flavor for what he's trying to do. He argues that Mark subtly presents the divine identity of Jesus, especially in his figural reading of the OT. Hays examines Mark’s intertextual allusions in Mark 1:2–3 (quotation of Isaiah 40); Mark 2:7 (who can forgive sins but God alone?); Mark 4:35–41 (stilling of the storm, echoing Psalm 107:32); Mark 6:34 (feeding the 5000, echoing Ezek 34); Mark 6:45–52 (walking on the sea, echoing Job 9:8–11; Exod 34).

Hays also recognizes that Mark distinguishes Jesus from God: Jesus will sit at the right hand of God (12:35–37; 14:62); only the Father, not the Son, knows the time of the end (13:32); Jesus is the Son (1:11; 9:7; 12:6), not the Father (8:38; 11:25; 14:36); in Gethsemane, Jesus obeys the Father’s will (14:36); the cry of dereliction (15:34).
In light of these elements of Mark’s story, how are we to understand the pervasive Markan indicators that Jesus is mysteriously the embodiment of God’s presence? Mark offers us no conceptual solution to the problem. Rather, his narrative holds these elements in taut suspension. His central character, Jesus, seems to be at the same time—if we may put it crudely—both the God of Israel and a human being not simply identical with the God of Israel. Thus, Mark’s story already poses the riddles that the church’s theologians later sought to solve in the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. (p. 27)
I think this is all very good, and it's nice to have it gathered together like this.

He points out a couple of cool things in Matthew: that the word προσκυνέω appears a lot more frequently in Matthew in reference to Jesus (2:2, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17). That is, Jesus receives "worship." The "clinching argument" (p. 45) in this reading of these passages comes from the temptation scene, when Jesus insists--in reliance on Deut 6:13--that only God should receive worship (Matt 4:9–10).
Once this commandment has been forcefully set forth in the narrative, readers have little choice but to interpret Jesus' acceptance of worship (προσκυνήσις) from other characters as an implicit acknowledgment of his divine identity. (p. 45). 
The other thing about his Matthew chapter that was new to me was his linking the theme of Jesus' presence as the Emmanuel (1:23; 18:20; 28:20) with the judgment scene in Matthew 25, when the king separates the righteous from the wicked and the criterion of judgment is treatment of the poor, because "as often as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (25:40). That is, Jesus is somehow present among the poor. Hays also cites Prov 19:17 in this regard, where kindness to the poor turns out to be equivalent to kindness to the Lord (p. 47).

I was a little surprised, given the title of the chapter on Matthew ("Torah Transfigured"), that the concept of Torah played so little a part in the discussion. I expected the Sermon on the Mount to feature more prominently, and other general interaction with "law". Hays sort of relegates it to a note (123n33).

Given Hays' analysis of Mark's subtle allusions to obscure Septuagint texts, there is possibly something to gain from thinking about what Mark thought about his audience's level of sophistication. Hays doesn't discuss this issue. I would think that an author who writes so allusively expects either that his audience will be highly learned in Israel's Scriptures or have great motivation to track down the intertexts. On the other hand, Matthew comes across as dumbing down making more explicit these intertexts--by actually citing the scriptures--which might imply (contrary to the way I've usually heard it) that Matthew didn't expect his readers to be quite so up to par on their knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.

The book is only about 100 pages (not including notes) and I'll enjoy finishing it.

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