Tag Archives: gospel of luke

Book Review: Reading Backwards by Richard Hays

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Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, changed the landscape of understanding Paul’s use of the Old Testament with his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and now seeks to write a “Gospel-focused sequel” to this work (ix). Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press) is the product of the Hulsean Lectures in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and with minor changes made for this publication. Thus, this book feels like a primer for understanding the Gospel writers use of the Old Testament primarily focused on their figural Christology. I look forward to a full-fledged “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” type work that examines the fourfold witness in more detail. Nevertheless, this work is a helpful starting point in understanding the Gospel writers figural interpretation.

The thesis of the book argues that “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels (5).” Hays works this out by primarily focusing on how this effects the Christology of each of the Gospel writers. He does this through six short chapters (lectures):

  1. “The Manger in Which Christ Lies”: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture
  2. Figuring the Mystery: Reading Scripture with Mark
  3. Torah Transfigured: Reading Scripture with Matthew
  4. The One Who Redeems Israel: Reading Scripture with Luke
  5. The Temple Transfigured: Reading Scripture with John
  6. Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics

At the outset Hays lays out his methodology building on the work of Erich Auerbach and his definition of “figural interpretation.” According Auerbach,

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spritual act (2)[1].

Thus, figural interpretation can only occur after both events have happened, which changes the significance of each event. Hays argues that this form of interpretation is not necessarily dependent upon the authorial intent of the original writer but respects the historical reference of the text being used (15). When the Gospel writers employ this type of hermeneutic they are not twisting the Old Testament scriptures but are reading backwards in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension can we go back and reread the Torah, Writings, and the Prophets.

Hays then argues that each Gospel writer has a distinct voice and purpose for their figural reading of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Mark is shrouded in mystery and the figural exegesis is “evocative” shedding light into this mystery. For example, Hays argues that Mark 1:2–3 is subtely showing that the Lord of the Old Testament is Jesus, which is spoken about in Isaiah 40:3. This example alone is just one of the many places Mark quietly shows that Jesus is the Lord of the Old Testament (21). Mark’s Christology is a narrative that can only be understood by putting together the pieces of the whole story. Each figural reading builds upon one another to give us a robust but mysterious portrait of Jesus.

Unlike the mysterious Mark, the Gospel of Matthew is bold, clear, and didactically explains Jesus’ divine identity. Beginning and ending with the “Emmanuel” theme Matthew shows how Jesus is God incarnate explicitly through Old Testament fulfillments and figural rereadings of the Scriptures. One interesting figural rereading that Hays examines is a possible subtle allusion to Genesis 28:12–17 in Matthew 28:20. Hays argues that Jesus is playing the same role as God when he says in Genesis 28 “Behold I am with you…” and Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold I am with you…” in Matthew 28:20 (48). Along with the explicit high Christological statements through Matthew this subtle allusion shows a figural rereading of the Genesis story showing Jesus’ “embodiment of Israel’s God (52).”

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” This passage, Hays argues, “is to bring us up short and send us back to the beginning of the Gospel to reread it, in hopes of discerning more clearly how the identity and mission of Jesus might be prefigured in Israel’s Scripture (56).” This rereading will show how Luke shows Jesus’ divine identiy narratively. Hays explains that Luke presents this narrative divine identity in two ways (58): 1) mouths of characters in the story (see Luke 4:16–21) and 2) implicit correspondences (allusion and echo). These allusions and echoes manifest themselves in several ways:

  1. Jesus as the awaited Lord of the new exodus (62)
  2. Jesus as Kyrios (64)
  3. Receptin and rejection of the divine visitation (68)
  4. Jesus as object of worship (69)
  5. Jesus desires to gather Jerusalem under his wings (69)

Hays concludes by arguing that the modern assumption of Luke’s “low” Christology does not take account of his many allusions and echoes that show Jesus is divine and the one who will redeem Israel (72).

The Gospel of John is the most “figural” of the Gospels but also contains the least amount of explicit Old Testament citations and allusions. Hays argues that John 1:45 gives us the clue to understanding and seeking out the figural rereading of John. Hays argues, “If Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination (78).” When Jesus references Numbers 21:8–9 in John 3:14 Hays argues that this allusion is more “visual” rather than “auditory” (78). The allusion to the serpent is only given by a couple words: Moses and serpent. Hays then suggests that John may also be alluding to the “lifting up” of the suffering servant in Isa 52:13 (LXX).

The conclusion is worth the price of the book alone. Not arguing against modern critical readings but arguing that we need to broaden our hemerneutical lense lest we miss what the Gospel writers are saying. Hays asks, “what if we learned to read Israel’s Scripture not only through the lenses of modern critical methods but also through the eyes of John and the other authors of the canonical Gospels (93)?” This book aptly gives us a taste of the imagery and figural readings the Gospels present us.

The final chapter gives a helpful overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each Gospel writers figural rereading. For example, the strength of John’s gospel is the “poetic reading of the texts (101).” This allows us to Jesus as the divine Word that “underlies and sustains all of creation (101).” John’s weakness is that it can lend its hand to “anti-Jewish and/or high-handedly supersessionist thoelogies (102).” This opens the door for some readers of the Gospel for “ahistorical quasi-gnostic spirituality (102).” But as stated at the beginning a figural rereading of the Old Testament does not “deny the literal sense but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the literal historical sense (102).” Hays then examines 10 ways the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament.

So, what can be said about this provocative argument that we should be engaged in a figural rereading of the Old Testament scriptures? I think that Hays’ overal argument is valid and that the Gospel writers do present us with a model of how to read the Old Testament in light of Christ. Many ways which the Gospel writers reference the Old Testament are only valid because of the resurrected Jesus. To say that Moses lifting up to the serpent speaks of Christ being lifted up on the cross can only happen after the subsequent event. This involves a “rereading” of the story in Numbers.

One area of critique that I would have of Hays’ own rereading of the Gospels and his rerereading(?) of their interpretation of the Old Testament is that he sometimes seems to stretch the ways in which the Gospel writers allude to Old Testament passages. Is John really symbollically alluding to both the serpent being lifted up and the suffering servant being lifted up? Personally, it seems better to possibly argue for our own rereading of both the Gospels and the Old Testament. Is it possible for us to say that this John’s allusion to the lifting up of the serpent can also be reread figuratively (to use Hays’ language) to that of the suffering servant in Isaiah? That is, do we need to discern some type of authorial intent of John alluding to Numbers and Isaiah or can this be our own rereading of the text?

With this critique aside, the overall argument of this book is one which New Testament interpreters need to wrestle with. Indeed, the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and likewise the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament.

You can purchase the book here.


  1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 73.  ↩

How the Gospels Teach Us to Read the Old Testament (Hays)

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I’ve begun reading Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Witness and with all of Hays’ content it is provacative, engaging, and thought provoking. As you can probably gather from the title of the book, his thesis is, “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”[1] This retrospective hermeneutic argues that we cannot fully understand the writings of the Old Testament without the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

In the first chapter, after explaining how the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels, Hays examines how Luke 24 teaches us how to read the Old Testament. He concludes with three observations.[2]

  1. The Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration. The literal historical sense of the OT is not denied or negated; rather, it becomes the vehicle for latent figural meanings unsuspected by the original author and readers. It points forward typologically to the gospel story. And, precisely because figural readings affirms the original historical reference of the text, it leaves open the possibility of respectful dialogue with other interpretations, other patterns of intertextual reception. This is a point of potentially greater significance for conversation between Jews and Christians about the interpretation of Israel’s Scripture.”

  2. “The story of Israel builds to a narrative climax in the story of Jesus.”

  3. “The figural disclosive reading that the Gospels teach occurs rightly in a community of discipleship and table fellowship.”


  1. Reading Backwards, p. 5  ↩

  2. Reading Backwards, p. 15–16  ↩

The Viability of Augustine’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37), which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[1]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Roland Teske[2] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[3]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.


  1. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in the same way as modern day exegetes by explaining the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  2. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  3. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

Photo Credit: Renata Sedmakova MADRID – MARCH 10: Modern mosiac of Good Samaritan by pater Rupnik from Capilla del Santisimo in Almudena cathedral on March 10, 2013 in Spain.

Origen and His Rejection of Allegory

Origen, a proponent of spiritual interpretation and allegory, rejects an interpretation that is outside of the unifying message of scripture. The context of this writing is his homily on Luke 2:33–34[1], which says that Jesus has been “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Origen takes time to show how Marcion twists the scriptures and doesn’t see the unity in them.

They say, “Behold the god of the law and the prophets! See what sort of god he is! He says, ‘I shall kill and I shall make alive. I shall strike and I shall heal. There is no one who can escape my hands.’” They hear, “I shall kill,” and do not hear, “I shall make alive.” They hear, “I shall strike,” and refuse to hear, “I shall heal.” With instances like this they misrepresent the Creator(67).

Origen then goes on to explain that Jesus also came for judgment. He cites this passage and John 9:39 and shows that there is a unity in the scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He hypothetically asks how will they respond to these passages? He concludes that they will try to twist the scriptures by allegorization and figures of speech. He says:

Will they cease worshipping him, or will they seek another interpretation and take refuge in figures of speech, so that what comes “for the falling” implies benevolence rather than severity? How can it be just, when something like this is found in the Gospel, to take refuge in allegories and new interpretations, but, in the case of the Old Testament, immediately to make accusations and not to accept any explanation, no matter how probable (67)?

Often times as modern readers when we read allegory we automatically assume some flippant use of Scripture to twist the meaning. But here it seems clear from Origen’s own writing that there is some methodology and limits to figural reading and allegory. One of these hermeneutical keys is the rule of faith and the unity of the scriptures. Clearly, Origen saw Marcion and his followers using an interpretation that was outside the rule of faith.

I find it interesting that a man known for allegory and figural readings of scripture rejects a certain kind of allegory that goes against the unified message of the scriptures.


  1. Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩

Imitation, Origen, and Holy Scripture

The idea of imitation of biblical characters has been a lost art in many areas of Christianity. I recently read and reviewed a book by Jason Hood, Imitating God in Christ, which argues that the church should return back to its roots and see the profitability of imitating biblical characters. In one section he argues that throughout Christianity imitation has played a major role in teaching and preaching.

I am currently reading through Origen’s homilies on Luke and came across a short section where Origen states that one of the functions of scripture is imitation[1].

In Homily 11 (Luke 1:80–2:2), Origen begins explaining Luke 1:80, which says, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit.” Throughout he explains a couple of different ways that the word “grow” functions in scripture. Once sense is the “corporeal, that is, when the human will contributes nothing (44).” But the other sense is “spiritual, that is, when human effort is the cause of the growth (44).” Taking these small quotations out of context it may seem that Origen is saying that only human effort is involved in spiritual growth. But later in this homily he states, “human nature is weak. It needs divine help to become stronger…What forces can strengthen it? The Spirit, of course (45).” For Origen, “the athlete of God” needs to train with the power of the Spirit for the Christian life.

Origen then argues that Scripture is not just an historical record of events related to John the Baptist. He states:

We should not think that, when Scripture says, ‘He grew and was strengthened in spirit,’ what was written about John was just a narrative that does not pertain to us in any way. It is written for our imitation. We should take ’growth in the sense we have explained, and be multiplied spiritually (45)."

Holy Scripture is not just a historical record. It is also not solely a historical record that theologically points us to Christ. Is it both of these? Yes. Is one of the primary functions of Scripture to point believers and unbelievers to the Messiah who has come to bring heaven on earth and make all things new (Lk. 24:13–35)? Yes. But we also must not lose sight that Holy Scripture also points us to imitate the lives of godly men and women. Let us follow Origen and the early church in our reading of Scripture and see the profitability of imitating the lives of the characters in Scripture.

See other posts related to Origen’s homilies on Luke:


  1. Origen quotations from Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩