Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

Review by Jonathan J. Routley


Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

By Richard B. Hays
Baylor University Press, 2014
$29.95 | 177 pp.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and the NT authors’ insistence that the OT ultimately was pointing toward and speaking about Jesus. Because God is the one who establishes human history, and because the Scriptures are a divine production as well as human, the events and writings of the OT do not simply culminate in the coming of Jesus, but instead prefigure the life and ministry of the Savior. The OT then cannot be rightly understood apart from the death and resurrection of Christ.

This is the argument of Richard Hays in his book Reading Backwards. Hays asserts that the gospel writers demonstrate a figural, retrospective reading of the OT throughout their works. Just as the gospels cannot be understood correctly without understanding the background of the OT, so the OT itself cannot be correctly understood apart from the coming of Christ as revealed in the gospels. This valuable book examines the evangelists’ retrospective interpretation of the OT through the citations, allusions, and echoes they use to compose their masterpieces.

The six chapters of this book are compiled largely from a series of lectures that Hays gave at Cambridge University in 2013 and 2014. The first chapter gives an introduction to figural reading and presents the idea that the OT helps us interpret the gospels accurately, and at the same time understanding the gospels helps rightly understand the OT. Hays presents figural reading as essentially retrospective rather than prospective. He says,

Because the two poles of a figure are events within “the flowing stream” of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. But once the pattern of correspondence has been grasped, the semantic force of the figure flows both ways, as the second event receives deeper significance from the first (3).

The next four chapters each examine one of the gospels and explore the ways in which the gospel writer reexamines and reinterprets the OT in light of Jesus, who becomes the hermeneutical key for interpreting Scripture rightly. Hays attempts to analyze the way each author interacts with the OT text in their narrative. Mark, for example, “for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection,” (17). He contends that Matthew and John rely more heavily on citations while Mark and Luke prefer allusions and echoes to enhance their telling of the Jesus story.

These chapters are fascinating to read and give the reader a great appreciation for the literary mastery that the evangelists display in the gospels. Hays argues, contrary to contemporary scholarly opinion, that each of the gospel writers had a “high” Christology. This means that through their use of the OT each author sought to show a close identification between Yahweh and Jesus.

The final chapter of the book summarizes the previous content and then offers ten propositions for how the gospel writers teach us to interpret (or reinterpret) Scripture. These ten considerations are meant to help create a gospel-shaped hermeneutic which would allow us to interpret Scripture as the gospel writers did.

This book has a number of strengths and unique characteristics. First, it is of great value to consider the ways in which the OT speaks about Jesus, and how that speaking occurs. Hays consistently claims that apart from the death and resurrection of Christ, Jesus could not be known in the OT accounts. His suffering and glory are what provide the key for interpretation that then allow the NT authors to unlock OT passages about Christ that were previously hidden.

Hays’ exploration of allusions and echoes in the gospels is enlightening in that it provides insight into the connections that the NT gospel authors were making between their writings and the OT that would otherwise go unnoticed. He is at his best while examining these connections.

Hays probes the perspectives and purposes of the gospel writers, and I found his evaluation of each illuminating as a fresh backdrop against which to read the four gospels. Overall it was highly encouraging to find in these many allusions the common theme of identification of the OT Lord of Israel with Jesus of Nazareth in each of the gospel narratives (not just John)!

Several questions came to mind while reading the book. I found myself wondering how Hays would address the issue of meaning in the text, and wish he had made his thoughts explicit here. If there is a layer of meaning that is previously hidden and unable to be seen apart from the coming of Christ, does the text have multiple meanings, or at least different levels of meaning? Or is the meaning there in the original context, but somehow elusive?

I also found myself wondering about his use of allusions and echoes. It seems that he does want to make a distinction between these two categories, with the distinction being that allusions have a verbal connection between NT and OT (LXX), while echoes have no verbal connection but only a logical or theological connection. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, and so I wonder if there are parameters that might be given to assist scholars in distinguishing between these categories.

Reading Backwards will be a refreshing read and valuable resource for any interested in typology, figural reading, or the NT use of the OT. The book encourages deeper thinking about the gospel writers’ use of and interaction with the OT in the composition of their narratives and presentations of Jesus’ life. It will challenge and give the reader reason to reassess and rethink many of their own hermeneutical presuppositions. May we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, pray for our eyes, hearts, and minds to be opened, that we might learn to see rightly in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus (Luke 24:27)!


Jonathan J. Routley received a B.A. in Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies from Wheaton College, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently a Th.M. student at Western Seminary. He is a faculty member at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, IA.