Reviews of

Richard Hays, “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the OT?”

In Edinburgh, Gunning Lectures, HB/OT, Kerry Lee, New Testament, Richard HAYS, Scripture, SEMINAR REPORTS on January 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

A report on a paper given by Richard Hays (Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University in Durham, NC), 16 January 2012. Professor Hays is delivering this year’s Gunning Lectures at New College, University of Edinburgh, on the topic “Israel’s Scripture Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers.”

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Professor Hays’ first presentation in his series was, in part, an introduction to the problem underlying the remainder of the lectures: it is frequently accused of the New Testament that its proclamation of Jesus rests on twisted and tendentious readings of the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament, it is asserted, is silent about Jesus, meaning, first, that the conceptual background for the New Testament resides elsewhere than Israel’s scriptures and, second, that one cannot objectively view Christianity as being in continuity with the faith of the Old Testament.

In contesting this accusation, Professor Hays focuses particularly on the four Gospels and lays out two theses to be explored more carefully in the following five lectures:

  1. The Evangelists’ readings of Israel’s scriptures summon the Christian reader into a new scripture-shaped reality.
  2. The Gospels teach the Christian reader how to read the Old Testament, and at the same time the Old Testament teaches the Christian reader how to read the Gospels.

Professor Hays did not explore the first thesis in depth in his first lecture, but one could gather from his presentation that he is essentially asserting that the supposedly objective methods of modern biblical criticism which would lead a scholar to the fundamental accusation mentioned above are themselves suspect and not objective at all. In other words, Professor Hays is calling for a change in the ground rules of the discussion, of what readers might consider legitimate or illegitimate uses of texts. This writer looks forward to the following lectures for a more thorough exploration of what looks to be the essential philosophical and methodological underpinning of the entire lecture series.

The bulk of the lecture addressed the two-part second thesis, with special emphasis on the latter half: the Old Testament teaches the Christian reader how to read the Gospels. This is also the least controversial of Professor Hays’ theses (or sub-theses, as the case may be). In exploring this theme, Hays two passages from the Gospel of Mark, the cleansing of the Temple in 11:15-19 and Jesus’ walking on water in 6:45-52. With regard to the cleansing of the Temple passage (and its surroundings), he explored (following and citing Telford and Hooker) how the author makes partially concealed references to Isaiah 56:7-8 (“my house shall be called a house of prayer”) and Jeremiah 7:3-11 and 8:13 (“den of robbers” and the withered fig tree). Through intertextual allusion (a topic for which Hays is well known for his contribution), the author brings to mind the contexts of the passages in the prophetic books and makes Jesus’ cleansing of the temple an enactment God’s judgement against the temple and the religious establishment as well as a gesture of the opening of the covenant door to the gentiles.

In the walking on water episode, Hays points out the likely background texts of Job 9:8-11 (“he trampled the waves [MT]”/”walks upon the sea [LXX]” and “he passes by me, and I do not see him”) and Exodus 33 and 34 (wherein God “passes by” Moses to reveal his glory to him) in order to explain the enigmatic detail that Jesus was about to pass the disciples by when they cried out in fear. By alluding to these texts, Hays argues, Mark transforms the story into a concealed theophany. In both instances, Jesus is mysteriously and subtly identified with the God of Israel.

Professor Hays concluded the central portion of his lecture by flipping the question and beginning to address how the Gospels teach the reader to read the Old Testament. For this purpose he uses Luke 24:13-35 and 44-45, two post-resurrection appearances by Jesus where Jesus expounds to his disciples how he is the fulfilment of the Torah, Prophets, and Psalms. The author, however, does not elaborate on specifically how he fulfils them. This, it seems, is something unnecessary because of the presumed knowledge of the implied reader, or implied “disciple,” as Hays would nuance the idea. Hays paid special attention to the use of the image of opening, both of the scriptures and of the disciples eyes, an image which implies that their meaning had been closed. In reflecting on this passage, Hays comes to three conclusions:

  1. The gospels teach the Christian reader to read the OT for figuration – the literal historical sense is not denied or negated, but it is primarily the vehicle for a figurative meaning.
  2. The emphasis is on the story of salvation history. The whole story of Israel builds to a narrative climax in Jesus. Because of this, the Christian reader need not scour the OT for isolated proof-texts, but we look at the whole story.
  3. The figurative-disclosive meaning occurs rightly in a context of discipleship and table-fellowship. This subjectifies the evaluation of “valid” versus “invalid” readings, noting the importance of the knowledge of the implied reader in the communication process.

In the end, it looks like Professor Hays is pointing toward a kind of understanding of the interrelationship of the two parts of the Christian Bible that is, in some ways, decidedly post-modern, with its focus on story rather than on history and propositions, and on community and subjectivity rather than objective meaning ascertainable by an individual in isolation. At the same time, this writer cannot help but wonder if Professor Hays is actually at the same time pointing backwards toward a pre-modern hermeneutical method when he talks about a figurative-disclosive meaning. Does the reconciliation of the Old Testament with its appropriation in the New Testament truly require, as Professor Hays seems to be intimating, the abandonment of both post-Enlightenment hermeneutics and the most likely original intention of Old Testament texts? As a budding Old Testament scholar, this writer finds this hard to swallow, if indeed this is where Professor Hays is going, but this writer is also optimistic that the following lectures in the series will clarify some of these questions and bring Professor Hays’ suggestions into a more satisfying and comprehensive whole.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh

  1. […] Kerry Lee digests and briefly comments on Richard Hays’ lecture yesterday: Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the OT? […]

  2. […] with Mark,” from Tuesday, January 17. Kerry’s previous lecture summary and comment are here. […]

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