On June 4, 2016, Garrett Brown recorded an interview with Richard B. Hays, which was initially released as an hour-long podcast on the New Books Network. The transcript below, which includes 20 additional minutes of conversation, has been edited and revised by the authors. An abridged version of it first appeared in the November/December issue of Books and Culture.
The authors would like to thank Carey Newman of Baylor University Press for his comments on an early draft of this transcript and John Wilson of Books and Culture for his support and enthusiasm for the project.
About Richard B. Hays
Richard B. Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, is internationally recognized for his work on the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and on New Testament ethics. His scholarly work has bridged the disciplines of biblical criticism and literary studies, exploring the innovative ways in which early Christian writers interpreted Israel’s Scripture. He has also consistently sought to demonstrate how close reading of the New Testament can inform the church’s theological reflection, proclamation, and ministry.
Hays’s book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (1996) was selected by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most important religious books of the twentieth century. His more recent books include The Art of Reading Scripture (2003, co-edited with Ellen Davis), The Conversion of the Imagination (2005), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (2008, co-edited with Beverly Roberts Gaventa), Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation (2012, co-edited with Stefan Alkier), Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (2014), and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016).
Professor Hays has lectured widely in North America, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Japan. An ordained United Methodist minister, he has preached in settings ranging from rural Oklahoma churches to London’s Westminster Abbey. Professor Hays has chaired the Pauline Epistles Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as the Seminar on New Testament Ethics in the Society for New Testament Studies, and has served on the editorial boards of several leading scholarly journals. Professor Hays received an honorary doctorate (Dr. theol. honoris causa) from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2009. He served as dean of Duke Divinity School from 2010 to 2015.
Garrett Brown: Would you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and your background?
Richard B. Hays: I grew up in Oklahoma, went to an Episcopal day school as a high school student, and had a rich education there that included daily chapel. That had the effect of getting the Book of Common Prayer into my bones, although I was a Methodist by family upbringing.
I went to Yale as an undergraduate and ended up being an English major. I was particularly immersed in poetry and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries. After that, I went to seminary, graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1977, and continued on to a PhD at Emory in New Testament Studies.
Garrett: How did you switch from English to New Testament Studies? What led to that decision?
Richard: Well, of course, I just gave a very brief account. When I graduated from Yale, I had no intention of pursuing an academic career.
I got a job teaching high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I did that for a couple of years, but I found myself frustrated because I kept discovering that the great literature I was teaching inevitably raised fundamental questions about the meaning of life and how people respond to suffering and the complexity of the human predicament.
As a public school English teacher, I felt constrained, not being able to speak very freely about religious matters. I ended up deciding that I needed to go back and learn more about Christian tradition, theology, and Scripture in order to be able to answer the questions I myself had.
Then, once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.
My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.
Garrett: It is certainly a pattern that distinguishes your work. You’re always attentive to the larger work and the way in which a coherent reading of the text has to inform each of its parts. Was there a part of your literary training or sensibility early on that helped to discipline that kind of reading?
Richard: That’s a nice observation. I think so. When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960s, the English department was still fundamentally shaped by what was called the New Criticism. That approach predated the emergence of deconstruction and the various kinds of postmodernist approaches to literature that have since become dominant.
The New Critics were not particularly concerned about the historical circumstances of the production of the text, or influences on the author, or those kinds of things. Rather, I was taught to look at the way in which the language of the text itself worked—its imagery, music, metaphor—and to think about how the text functioned as a complete work of art. I think that approach to interpretation has informed the pattern you’re describing in my scholarship.
The other thing I would say, though, is that some of what you’re describing simply comes from my experiences, now 35 years, of teaching seminary students in New Testament courses. They need to understand the wholeness of the text that they’re going to be preaching on if they want to interpret it well for their congregations.
I’ve always taken it as a goal in teaching to try to help them see how it all works together. The Bible is just not a collection of little verses or tidbits of wisdom. When they’re reading the Gospel of Luke, for example, they’re reading a text that has a narrative shape to it. To see what’s going on in the text, you have to read the thing whole and see how the parts relate to the whole.
And the same thing applies not only to individual gospels but also, analogously, to the Bible as a whole. It has a deep and subtle narrative unity—not because unity has been superimposed by ecclesial fiat or by some clever editorial design, but because the diverse biblical witnesses bear common witness to God’s grace-filled action in the story of Israel. The emergence of the biblical writings themselves, in their complexity and diversity, is itself part of God’s mysterious “authorial” action. That’s why I believe that the Old Testament and the New have an underlying narrative unity that can be discerned only in retrospect, when we read the whole thing together.
Garrett: That approach is uncommon these days. Our interpretative efforts can be so focused on a certain strand of narrative or a theme. There are many reasons why that happens. But it can also make one blind to the way in which these things function as a part of the larger narrative.
Richard: Yes, I think you’re right about that. It’s partly a function of the decline of humanities in general in liberal arts education. We are taught to read instrumentally to extract information. We’re not taught as well as perhaps we once were to read texts as literary works of art that have their own integrity and their own way of addressing us.
I may be a voice crying in the wilderness in that regard. I’m trying in what I write to help people see that wholeness.
Garrett: You’re also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. When were you ordained and how did that come about?
Richard: I’ve done most things backwards, it seems, in my career. Actually, I grew up in the Methodist Church, but during the time that I was teaching high school, I got involved in a nondenominational house church community that was trying to live out a radical Christianity. We were very much influenced by reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
I moved away from any denominational affiliation during those years. I didn’t return to it until I was in the PhD program at Emory and made a decision that I needed to return to my roots and be accountable to a larger church community.
So it was during the years I was doing the doctorate that I also started the process to be ordained in the Methodist Church. I didn’t complete that until after I had finished the doctoral program in 1981. I was finally ordained as an elder in the Methodist Church during the first years of my teaching at Yale in the 1980s.
Garrett: So your decision to become ordained went hand in hand with your studies?
Richard: Yes, it did. I already had done the M.Div. degree, but I hadn’t been in the ordination process. I had just done the academic side of it first. That’s what I mean when I say I did it backwards.
Duke Divinity School
Garrett: How long have you been at Duke?
Richard: 25 years now.
Garrett: In that time, how would you say the community at Duke has influenced your development as a thinker and as a professor? There are so many influential writers and teachers there. I’m thinking of Stanley Hauerwas, Ellen Davis, Norman Wirzba, and Joel Marcus, to name a few. Marc Brettler joined the faculty last fall. [See my interview with him here.] And now there’s even one of your own students, Kavin Rowe.
Richard: It’s significant. Many of the people you just mentioned have been very close colleagues over the years. Stanley Hauerwas has been a long-time friend.
Ellen Davis and I co-edited a book called The Art of Reading Scripture, which was a collaborative project that involved a number of scholars from different theological disciplines. Kavin Rowe was my doctoral student, but he’s now a close friend and colleague. We talk a lot about our work and find a lot of illumination and reinforcement from one another. I should also note that two other members of our New Testament faculty were also my doctoral students here at Duke: Susan Eastman and Ross Wagner. All of us work supportively with each other. I could list many other fine colleagues here who have been conversation partners.
If I had to characterize what it is about Duke that has influenced the way I think and write, I would say this: the ethos of Duke Divinity School has focused more clearly my sense that I’m writing to and for the church, even in my technical scholarship. It is an official seminary of the United Methodist Church, and it has a tradition of being embedded in the larger conversation of the classical Christian tradition.
I’ve become more aware of the way in which the church’s classic creeds and confessional traditions actually prove illuminating for how we understand the Bible. That may seem like a fairly obvious thing to say, but in fact it isn’t the way that most scholars in the professional biblical guilds have tended to think about their work. It definitely has had an impact that I’ve been here over this 25-year period.
Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul
Garrett: Let’s talk about some of your work. The operative one here is the one that you wrote in 1989 called
Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. What prompted you to write that book? Were you trying to illuminate something that was under-appreciated or ignored at the time?
Richard: Yes, as it turned out, very much so. The genesis and development of that book were entirely unexpected. When I was at Yale, one of my teaching tasks was to teach the intermediate Greek reading course for divinity students.
One year, it occurred to me it would be fun to have them read New Testament texts alongside texts from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and to see how the New Testament authors were quoting and using these Old Testament texts and what differences were introduced in the quotations.
I had no idea when I started to do that how fascinating it would turn out to be; I had no idea how complex the differences are between the Septuagint texts and the way that they get taken up into the New Testament.
It started me down a trail of investigating for myself the problems the class had brought up. I didn’t know where I was going, but I had hold of a rope and I was following it hand-over-hand out of the cave to see where it led. When I started to write Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I thought of it as an inductive study that would work out of purely descriptive analysis of a series of examples to see what I could say about how Paul was using the Old Testament.
But I ended up in a lot of places I never would have predicted. At the time I wrote that book there was a consensus among most New Testament scholars that Paul’s quotations of the Old Testament were simply atomistic proof texting, ignoring the context from which they came.
But the more I looked into the evidence, I decided that was just wrong: actually, the Old Testament was extremely formative for the way Paul thought, and his citations frequently did evoke an awareness of the larger literary Old Testament context from which they were taken.
A large part of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is taken up with trying to demonstrate the phenomenon of metalepsis. It’s a term I learned from the literary scholar and poet John Hollander, who had written an elegant book called The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Hollander made the point that all great literature is densely allusive and that very often poetic texts are full of echoes of earlier texts. A sensitive reading requires us to recognize that and to see where the echoes come from.
Metalepsis is a literary device of quoting a piece of text that beckons the reader to discover more of the original context from which the fragmentary citation came. That was the discovery I made in writing Echoes of Scripture in Letters of Paul. It really opened up in the field of New Testament studies a very different way of thinking about how Paul was related to his own Jewish tradition.
At the time, there was a certain body of scholarship that argued that because Paul was a trained rabbi, you could understand his uses of the Old Testament as instances of midrashic biblical interpretation in the rabbinic mode. There were attempts to show how that worked out formally in Paul’s citation practices. I found those very unsatisfying as well. I don’t actually think that Paul, in his letters, works in the same stylistic vein or genre as Jewish biblical midrash. There are different things going on there.
I was blazing a different trail in analyzing Paul as a writer who taps into his deep knowledge of Jewish Scripture and evokes Jewish scriptural narratives in a way that is literarily rich and suggestive.
Garrett: We’ll get into this a little bit later with the gospels, but I’m curious about the letters of Paul. Are there other examples from that time and place where you can compare what he’s doing if isn’t midrash? In other words, as a point of comparison, are there texts that do what he’s doing, or is he inventing a new genre in his use of metalepsis?
Richard: The genre of the letter, of course—the epistle—is not a Pauline invention. There are plenty of letters in antiquity. And Paul certainly didn’t invent metalepsis, either; it is a pervasive trope in all literature. But his particular way of re-reading Israel’s Scripture through the lenses of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus does not have obvious precursors.
Garrett: Surely, the church fathers who came after Paul picked up on these tropes and did similar things with them. I’m wondering then if there’s a way to think of what he was doing; maybe it’s de novo. I don’t know.
Richard: It’s hard to come up with something that’s an exact parallel. There are analogies of different sorts. What he’s not doing, for example, is the genre of biblical commentary. You can compare the works of Philo, who is a Jewish author, who actually give extended allegorical expositions of particular biblical texts.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have examples of commentaries that go, more or less, line by line and perform what’s called pesher exegesis. This kind of commentary quotes a line of Scripture and then says, “Its interpretation is . . .” Then it goes to the next line and says, “Its interpretation is . . .”
Paul doesn’t do that kind of thing exactly. What Paul is doing is more like what a preacher does in evoking a text and then reflecting upon it in various ways, in a way that tries to be edifying for his readers. If we had access to synagogue sermons contemporary with Paul, which we don’t (they simply haven’t survived in literary form), they might offer closer parallels. Perhaps the closest parallels are to be found within the intertextuality of the Old Testament itself: for example, the way that Isaiah evokes the creation and exodus stories.
I do think that the letters of Paul, in the way they use Scripture, are, at least as far as I know, distinctive in their own historical setting.
Garrett: Since the time that book was published, do you find that others have followed your lead in investigating these literary connections? Are scholars doing a better job of seeing these echoes?
Richard: Yes. There’s been a flood of articles and monographs, many of which even pick up the term “echoes” in their titles. Many of these are informative and edifying, even brilliant. On the other hand, sometimes when reading some of that stuff, I feel a little bit like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, who let the brooms out of the closet. People’s imaginations occasionally run wild. I’m not responsible, I hope, for all of that.
So my work has been both widely influential and to some degree controversial. There are some critics who say that my work is not tightly enough controlled methodologically and that it’s wrong to import all this stuff from earlier contexts into Paul’s citations. Such critics would still hold to the more atomistic view of interpreting what Paul is doing. It’s an ongoing debate in the field.
The Moral Vision of the New Testament
Garrett: In 1996, you published a book called The Moral Vision of the New Testament. What led you to write that book?
Richard: That too grew out of my teaching. When I was on the faculty at Yale, I started teaching a course on New Testament ethics. I was very dissatisfied by the books and textbooks that existed in that field.
I started trying to think my way through that, as to how one could teach students who were training for ministry to engage the ethical significance of the New Testament writings. I taught that course over a number of years, and the lectures that I gave there grew over time into the book The Moral Vision of the New Testament.
Garrett: In that book, as I mentioned earlier, you modeled a very close reading of each of the gospels and the writings of Paul. When I read it many years ago, I was surprised by what I found. For instance, in the first 290 pages of the 470-page book, you spend a lot of time, not on preliminaries per se, but on these large, almost sweeping, interpretive questions, before you distill down your sense of the moral vision that each of the authors are after and where they overlap.
Why do we have to look at that arc of each of the gospel narratives and the perspective from Paul before we can extract or make inferences about the moral and ethical questions of the New Testament?
Richard: The reason for that approach would be something like this. There’s a very widespread assumption that when we start talking about ethics, what we really need is a few basic ethical principles.
Once you have the principles, you can apply the principles to individual case studies and make a judgment. I think that’s fundamentally misleading. The way we make moral judgments is by understanding who we are in the world, by placing ourselves within some kind of larger narrative.
To understand what that larger narrative is, you have to take a bigger view of how the story is told by the different New Testament witnesses. Those stories shape our character. They shape an intuitive sense of what’s possible, what it might mean to be a wise or virtuous person in the world—or, even more to the point, what it might mean to be a faithful community.
I don’t think that you find the New Testament writers setting forth a short list of principles of justice and love, or something like that, and then deducing from those principles how people should act. What they do much more is to tell a story that informs who we are as a people.
The way that we make moral judgments is by shaping metaphorical judgments about how our own personal stories, the stories of our communities, might be like or unlike the stories that are told in Scripture.
I think that’s the reason for taking the approach of setting forth the vision of each of the New Testament authors. It also is a way of taking more into account the actual diversity within the New Testament writings. The Bible doesn’t speak with one voice. It has testimony from a number of different authors.
Part of the problem of forming a New Testament ethic is to ask how you make some synthetic judgment about the unity of those different voices. Before you can do that, you have to understand each of the voices in its own integrity.
Garrett: Do you know of any books that try to do something similar with the books of the Hebrew Bible? Did you have a model for this?
Richard: No, I didn’t have a model. [laughter] Doing it with the Hebrew Bible is perhaps even more difficult because there’s a lot more material there. You have a wider diversity of genres, with Psalms, wisdom literature, historical books, and law codes.
The complexity is multiplied when you try to think synthetically about the Hebrew Bible. I’m aware of some people who have, in different ways, tried to apply something like what I did to Hebrew Scripture, but I don’t think there’s anything quite analogous, that I know at least, with what I did with the New Testament.
One of the shortcomings, I would say, of The Moral Vision of the New Testament is precisely that it deals almost exclusively with the New Testament and doesn’t sufficiently take into account the Old Testament as part of Christian Scripture. I suppose the limitations of mortality prevented me from attempting to do that, but if we’re really going to carry out the project I started there in its fullness, you would have to engage the larger task of taking in the Old Testament as well as the New.
Reading Backward and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels
Garrett: Let’s talk about your two most recent books, which are closely linked. The first one that was published, Reading Backwards, actually came second, before Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Is that correct?
Richard: Sort of. Reading Backwards is the published version of a lecture series, The Hulsean Lectures, that I gave at Cambridge University. When I was asked to give those lectures, I was, at that time, serving as Dean of the Divinity School at Duke and was overwhelmed by administrative work.
I had previously written hundreds of manuscript pages of work I’d been doing for the book which eventually became Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. What I did in the Hulsean Lectures was to extract material out of that much larger unfinished manuscript and to condense it into the lectures that became Reading Backwards.
Those lectures focused very narrowly on the question of how the gospel writers draw upon Israel’s Scripture in order to narrate the divine identity of Jesus. It’s a Christologically-focused set of excerpts from the larger and older manuscript.
When I finally completed and published the bigger book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, it included most of the material that was in the Hulseans, but now in its larger, original context.
Garrett: For both books, your starting point is, in many ways, the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Can you talk about how that passage sets up your argument?
Richard: For readers who may not have that text immediately at hand or in mind, Luke tells the story of two travelers who had been followers of Jesus. despondently leaving the city of Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion.
The risen Jesus then appears along the road and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them, “What are you talking about?” and they say, “Oh, we’re very sad and hopeless because Jesus, who we thought was a great prophet, has been put to death by the Romans and the Jewish authorities. We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but in fact, obviously not because he was killed.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
Jesus then says, “Oh, foolish and slow of heart to believe the Scriptures,” and launches into a long exposition of how Moses and all the prophets bore witness to the fact that the Messiah must suffer and be raised. It’s only then when they finally arrived at their destination in the little town of Emmaus, sit down in a table together, and break bread together that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
So there’s a post-resurrectional exposition of Scripture as revelatory. In Luke’s gospel this suggests the fundamental insight that only in retrospect can you come to understand how Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus.
Garrett: How is reading backward in a figural sense different from reading prophecy forward? And why is the difference important for readers to appreciate?
Richard: That’s a very important question. In the following way . . . If we read the Old Testament as predictive prophecy, there are several problems with that. First of all, not very much of the Old Testament actually does take the form of making predictions about some future coming Messiah. Attempts to make it read that way are often rightly seen as forced and artificial.
To take a single example, the New Testament passion narratives repeatedly echo Psalm 22, culminating in Jesus’ dying cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Psalm 22, read on its own terms as a lament psalm, though it looks forward to future deliverance and vindication, does not purport to be making predictions about a future coming figure. Rather, when the Evangelists retell the story of the crucifixion, they retrospectively discern the striking correspondences to the psalm.
To be sure, in the Old Testament, there are a few passages that look forward in hope to a future king who will restore the kingdom, a lot of those particularly in the Psalms. There are also enigmatic passages, of course, in Isaiah that refer to a suffering figure, although that figure is never described there as a Messiah.
But the whole picture doesn’t really come together until you read the text, as I say, “backwards,” through the lens of cross and resurrection. Once you have the story of Jesus, you can go back to the older texts and have a kind of “Aha!” recognition that certain things are foreshadowed there, but there’s a big difference between foreshadowing and prophecy.
When you’re moving forward in a narrative, you can’t know what is foreshadowed until you see the full unfolding of the plot and see what actually happens in the end, and then you can do a second reading of the text in light of its ending. That second reading allows you to unravel clues that you never would’ve seen before.
That’s why the approach of reading backwards, which Erich Auerbach has described as figural exegesis, is a much more helpful description of what’s actually going on in the New Testament itself.
Garrett: That’s not just a question of citation where the gospel writers are lifting a quote out, but it’s actually looking for symbols and other figures that are not necessarily direct quotations.
Richard: That’s certainly right. The place where that is most clearly exemplified is in the Gospel of John, which actually has a relatively small number of Old Testament quotations, but it’s full of echoes of various images from the Old Testament that are then said to be fulfilled in some way in Jesus.
The biggest key to all of that occurs in John where Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” [2:19]. The Evangelist John then gives his readers the interpretative key: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body” [2:21]. John sees Jesus himself as the fulfillment of all that was figured by the Jerusalem temple as the place of meeting between God and humanity. John doesn’t do that by quoting lots of proof texts. He does it by discovering key images and reflections.
Garrett: Each of the gospel writers has his distinctive way of using these allusions or citations from the Hebrew Bible. You mentioned that, in John, much of what the author pulls is from the Psalms and not from elsewhere in the Scriptures. Is that right?
Richard: Yes, that’s true. In John’s limited stock of Scripture citations, about two-thirds of them are from the Psalms.
Garrett: Likewise, the other gospel writers have their own distinctive or characteristic patterns of citation or allusion, and tracing each of these patterns allows you to come up with a coherent idea of what each writer is trying to do in his gospel?
Richard: Yeah, that’s right. Each one has a distinctive way of engaging or evoking these texts. The way that most people tend to think about these questions has been heavily determined by the Gospel of Matthew, because Matthew has a whole series of explicit quotations.
In Matthew’s case, drawing almost always from the prophets, he’ll say this happened in order to fulfill what was written by the prophet, saying . . . Then he quotes the text. Matthew inserts these voice-overs throughout the text to explain to the reader how some aspect of the story of Jesus fulfills prophecy.
That’s the way in which then many, many Christian readers have primarily approached the whole question of the Old Testament in the gospels. They assume a prediction-and-fulfillment prophetic model that is signaled by Matthew’s style of Scripture quotations, but in fact, there’s so much more going on even in Matthew than that. That style of fulfillment quotation is not equally characteristic of all four gospels, especially Mark and Luke, who very rarely do something like that.
The Challenges of Intertextual Interpretation
Garrett: One editor of the Greek New Testament tallied up the number of references and allusions to the Old Testament and came up with the following figures: Matthew has 124, Luke 107, Mark 70, and John 27 (of which, we mentioned earlier, two-thirds were from the Psalms). This gives some idea of this effort to tally the level of intertextual reference and whatnot.
A few years ago, I picked up a 1,200-page tome called The Commentary on The New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. I have to admit that I felt a certain kind of panic sweep over me, because I think that, like most readers, I couldn’t separate out for myself the difference between allusion and history; I couldn’t excavate the layers of allusion and history intermixed. The level of referentiality made it next to impossible for me to distinguish the cooked from the raw, so to speak.
One thing I found so refreshing about your book is that I came away with a greater understanding of each writer’s perspective and how they have slightly different use of the Scriptures. With effort, one can discern coherence in those various uses and meaningfully identify a pattern. And it’s profound and powerful once you see how these things are deeply connected.
But is the “cooked” aspect here a problem for most readers, or is that the wrong way of looking at it?
Richard: I understand what you mean about being “cooked” and how that can be a problem, and I also understand the problem that emerges when you take that encyclopedic approach that simply says, “Let’s catalogue all the biblical quotations.”
Here’s how I think of it. It seems to me that this is what the gospel writers were doing in writing their narratives: they were bearing witness to their own process of discovery in going back and rereading the Scriptures in light of the story of Jesus. In other words, I don’t think they were starting from some little anthology or selection of proof texts or predictions about a coming Messiah and then shaping the story that they told to fit those predictions.
I think, instead, what they were doing was reading backwards, starting from accounts of Jesus’ teaching and actions. In the case of John, at least, the text claims that “the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them” was an eyewitness to some of these events [John 21:24]. The others, more likely, are drawing on accounts that have been passed along to them in the tradition, stories about Jesus. Luke explicitly tells us that is what he was doing [see Luke 1:1-4].
They’re starting from there, and then they go back and reread Israel’s Scripture afresh through the lens of those stories. As they do that and try to understand what it means to say that these events were “according to the Scriptures” [see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5], they discover all sorts of unexpected foreshadowings and correspondences, and there’s a kind of “Aha!” experience that occurs there. They’re bearing witness to that “Aha!” experience as they write the gospels.
It’s the opposite of being cooked. It’s a matter of experiencing astonishment in seeing how differently those ancient Scriptures that they knew well are now to be read anew in light of the story of cross and resurrection. Is that speaking to your question?
Garrett: Yes, it does.
In approaching these dense references and interconnections—especially when I’m looking at an encyclopedic reference like the Beale volume—I start to be concerned that the historical element recedes from view or that the layering somehow impugns the veracity of the testimony, but that’s not actually how the original authors would have thought about what they were doing.
Richard: I’m sorry to say I found the Beale and Carson volume a little disappointing. It’s a useful compendium and reference source, but, as you say, it can be a little overwhelming for the non-specialist reader. And it also seems to me to carry an apologetic undercurrent that consistently tries to show how this or that citation does in fact reflect the original intention of the Old Testament authors or correspond to this or that ancient textual tradition. Those can be useful questions to explore, but I’m interested in wider theological issues. I found that the book didn’t always help the reader appreciate the remarkable literary and hermeneutical transformations at work in the New Testament writers’ engagement with the Old Testament sources. Of course, the volume is a compilation of work from different contributors, so any assessment has to take into account the individual units of material.
Garrett: I can’t help but think of related interpretive problems in literature in general, particularly works such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Four Quartets and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Modern-day readers may be more familiar and comfortable with intertextual references in these literary works than in the Bible. But here we also have these outstanding works of literature, where their referentiality far exceeds the reader’s ability to follow them.
The Johns Hopkins University Press just published a massive 1,300-page annotated edition of Eliot’s collected poems, edited by Christopher Ricks—a distinguished scholar. Every bit of correspondence is scoured and run dry, and every possible symbol or allusion is hunted down and flayed.
The edition represents a herculean effort without question. But, in the effort of interpreting or enjoying the poems, many of those details are simply lost or unhelpful in figuring out what Four Quartets or The Waste Land “mean.”
Looking through that tome, I thought about Wayne Booth’s notion of “knowing when to stop” in his book A Rhetoric of Irony. He says something like, “At some point you have to know the detection of irony has to come to an end, otherwise it’s an ongoing process of indeterminacy.” The endeavor can become a luminous encyclopedia full of things that are ultimately extraneous or digressive or don’t really influence the meaning of the overall work.
Richard: That’s a huge danger. I think you’re absolutely right. I’m delighted for the reminder of Booth’s idea of “knowing when to stop.” [laughs] I think that’s exactly on point.
Eliot’s work is fascinating. I’ve been immersed in Eliot myself over the years. There are huge obscurities, obviously, in The Waste Land, which is a massive work of bricolage. As Eliot says in the poem, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” It’s full of fragments. I don’t know where they all come from. Likewise, in the Quartets, there are all sorts of fleeting allusions to other texts. Sometimes you can recover the allusions, and the recovery does illuminate something. Sometimes I agree with you that it’s not all that helpful.
I was at a conference a couple of years ago in Cambridge, England, with a group that went to visit Little Gidding. It was fascinating to reread the poem and then discover certain phrases in the poem that refer to some detail in the physical setting of the chapel at Little Gidding.
Having done that, I read the poem with some new level of understanding. But modern authors such as Joyce or Eliot are deliberately obscure in many cases. It’s a little different thing, I think, from what is going on in the biblical texts, which do seek to be understood as testimony.
They are subtly evocative, but I don’t think they’re deliberately obscure. I’m basically just agreeing with what you said. [laughs]
Christology High and Low
Garrett: I realize that your book is not a critique of other critical approaches, but there are a few things that both of your books certainly do challenge. One of them is the notion of high and low Christologies. What is generally meant by that and how does your work frustrate these distinctions?
Richard: Good question. That distinction between high and low Christology has to do with the extent to which any particular text thinks of Jesus as God or not. Is Jesus a human figure, a prophet?—that’s a “low” Christology. Is Jesus an incarnation of God?—that’s a “high” Christology.
Many works of New Testament scholarship will say that the high Christology is a late development, and that the original, earliest traditions about Jesus represent a low Christology. He was simply a Palestinian prophet and teacher, who was executed. That’s the historical fact, and then it took about a century for the church eventually to develop the mythological claim that He was divine—and to superimpose that idea as a dogmatic overlay on the earlier simple stories of Jesus.
I’m painting there with a very broad brush, but that’s the way the terms are usually used. John is of course thought to have the highest Christology, and usually Mark and Luke, the lowest Christologies. I came to the conclusion as I studied this material that that was fundamentally wrong. Instead, all four gospels in their different ways, at their foundational layers, bear witness to Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t have the concept of incarnation in the way that John does, but we find Jesus consistently in that gospel doing things that God alone can do: forgive sins, still storms, etc., etc. It’s evoking narrative patterns from the Old Testament to show that Jesus is doing acts that identify him with the Divine.
The terms high and low Christology are misleading to start with. As the church ultimately declared at the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. What we see in the four gospels is the astonished and astonishing narrative testimony to that reality. All four gospels tell distinct stories that portray the human figure, Jesus, as the mysterious embodiment of Israel’s God. They do it in four different narrative ways, but they’re all doing the same thing. It is as though the single event of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection was a Big Bang—an explosion that spun out the hermeneutical universe of narrative and biblical reinterpretation that we see in manifold forms in the gospels.
Marcion in Modern Dress
Garrett: Another challenge that you more directly confront is what you refer to as the Marcionite bias of much Christian preaching or teaching. What do you mean by that?
Richard: Marcion was a second-century figure, who actually contended that the Christian God, the Father of Jesus Christ, was not the same God as the God of the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, vengeful, arbitrary figure, who simply needed to be rejected. According to Marcion, Jesus came to reveal a totally new conception of God.
In fact, one hears echoes of that Marcionite theology still today in the church. Many people have that same caricature of the Old Testament God. The Marcionite bias in the churches is found in the way that you rarely, in many churches at least, would hear a sermon on the Old Testament. The Old Testament isn’t read or preached upon.
I’ll tell a story. I think it may have repeated it in both books. I once had a student who said in class that the God of the Old Testament was a scary, wrathful God, but thank goodness Jesus came along to teach us that we could love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. I said to the student, “Do you realize you’re quoting the Shema, the confession taught to Israel in Deuteronomy 6?” It’s a fundamental confession that’s part of daily Jewish prayer.
Many Christians have a very odd and distorted view of what the God of the Old Testament is like, and don’t understand the extent to which the New Testament is absolutely insistent on the continuity between Israel’s confession and the Christian message. In fact, if I could just build on that and say one more thing.
I think one implication of the kind of work I’ve done in these books, including the earlier Paul book, it is to complicate the whole question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and to insist on a much more nuanced appreciation of the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel.
Any simplistic opposition between Judaism and Christianity is simply mistaken. We’ve got to have deeper conversations about both the commonalities of those traditions and their points of scandal and conflict. Some of your readers may be familiar with the work of Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, who has argued that the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity as separate religions didn’t really happen until the fourth century.
That’s a provocatively articulated way of thinking about it, but I think Daniel has an extremely good point; certainly in the period that I’m studying, the New Testament writers did not think of themselves as having abandoned Judaism. They were bearing witness to a new revelatory disclosure of the God of Israel in Jesus, and they thought of themselves as authentically carrying forward the Jewish tradition.
Garrett: Are there places in the gospels where the intertextual references go silent? Do those silences tell us anything important? For instance, I noticed in a footnote where you
noted that John 20 and 21, the Resurrection, has no references. Does the silence signal anything to you?
Richard: It’s a fascinating question, and I wish I had a better answer to it. Even Matthew, who has obsessively tried to document the prediction-fulfillment pattern, when he gets actually into the passion/resurrection story, doesn’t produce a bunch of formula quotations.
You would expect that when the stone is rolled away Matthew would trumpet some great proof texts, he doesn’t do it. I’ve thought about different ways of understanding that. In one sense, the Evangelists have already trained their readers to start looking for the clues, and maybe they don’t want to spill all the beans.
Matthew really front loads a lot of fulfillment quotations in the birth and infancy section of his gospel. By the time you get just four chapters into Matthew, you have already encountered about half of the fulfillment quotations. I’ve always thought that maybe in those early chapters he has been teaching his readers how to think about things. Then once he’s done it, he doesn’t feel like he has to keep doing it as much; the readers are meant to trace the connections on their own. I think that is equally true for John, perhaps.
But at the end of the day, it’s kind of mysterious. It’s very difficult to recover why an ancient author wrote or didn’t write something; you see what I mean? We have what they did write so we can only speculate about, as you say, the places where they fall silent on particular things.
Second Temple Judaism and the New Perspective
Garrett: I’m curious about the ways in which your project builds on what other recent scholars have done to engage with the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the context of Second Temple Judaism.
In Reading Backwards, you acknowledge a number of authors such as Hans Frei, N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, and Richard Bauckham. How are you continuing what they’ve begun, or how are you taking it in new directions?
Obviously, your project is in many ways much more literary, but how else do you think of your relationship to those authors and what you’re doing differently?
Richard: Well, of course, the larger awareness of Second Temple Judaism has been a watershed development in New Testament criticism over the past 50 years or so. I’m inevitably heavily indebted to what we’ve learned about the complex nature of Judaism in that period. All the people you mentioned have been, in different ways, conversation partners for my work.
When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I took Hans Frei’s course on gospels. That must have been 1967 or something like that. So that one goes way back, and then after I joined the Yale faculty, Hans was a senior colleague. In the mid-1980s, I talked with him about what I was doing on Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, and he was a helpful adviser at that point.
Bauckham’s book God Crucified really had an impact on me when I read it because of the way that it identifies the complexity of Jewish monotheism and demonstrates how the New Testament writers often place Jesus on the creator rather than the creature side of that fundamental ontological divide. I found Bauckham’s work extremely stimulating at an early stage in my thinking toward this book. Late in 2008, he and I gave a pair of lectures at Tyndale House, Cambridge, on divine identity Christology in the gospels; his lecture was on Mark and mine on Luke.
Larry Hurtado has focused particularly on the historical problem of how the early Christians came to worship Jesus, and he has posed significant hypotheses about divine intermediary figures in Judaism as precursors to the New Testament’s Christological confessions. My book, however, doesn’t attempt to explain exactly how the Evangelists reached their conclusions about Jesus’ divine identity; instead, it focuses on the way in their written texts draw on Jewish scriptural sources to narrate their confessional claims.
Of course, Tom Wright is a very good friend of mine. He and I have had many conversations over the past 30 years about these matters. We have our differences, but I see our work as fundamentally convergent in many ways.
He hasn’t paid as much attention to the particular complexities of Old Testament echoes as I have. On the other hand, has put forward a much larger comprehensive construction about the Jesus of history.
One of the differences between my work and his is that he has sought to produce a picture of the historical Jesus behind the text, whereas I really have avoided that question and focused much more on the narrative witness of the individual gospel writers, rather than the historical reconstruction. But we are in fundamental agreement about the way in which the gospels bear witness to Jesus as the mysterious embodiment of the God of Israel. Tom characteristically refers to this as “Yahweh returning to Zion.”
So, my work is densely connected to all the people you named.
Garrett: Indeed. I was glad to have the references. I’ve got quite a long reading list right now.
Preaching the Gospel
Garrett: What kind of influence would you like this latest pair of books to have? Are they mainly for other academics, or do you think they have implications for the way we teach the Bible and perhaps even the way we annotate study Bibles? Your books have certainly highlighted for me the many shortcomings of study Bibles and how they cross-reference texts. But what would you consider the most plausible result of people reading and being influenced by your books?
Richard: First of all, within the church, they would have significant implications for the way that the Bible is taught and preached upon. You could open the gospels at random and put your finger down anywhere and in almost every instance, you can’t really interpret what’s happening without going back and discovering the Old Testament precursors and roots of that text.
I would hope that preachers who read this book would be led to interpret the New Testament in ways that are more deeply informed by the Old Testament; I would hope they could help the congregation see the connections between the Old and New Testament. Sometimes it can be tricky to do that because not all preaching is exegetically didactic, but the thing that’s interesting about the gospels is that they, for the most part, are also not didactic.
They’re simply evoking these stories narratively. Here’s what I would hope: that preachers would not only help people see how that’s done in the gospels but also do it themselves. I would hope they could go on creating fresh narrative links between Old and New Testament in their preaching. It’s a goal that I would hope would be fostered by this book.
Your question about study Bibles is an interesting one. Very often, you’ll have study Bibles that will have cross references to the Old Testament, particularly identifying the source of a quotation. Very often, however, people don’t bother to go back and actually look up the quotation and see what the context of that quotation is. If people would just learn to do that, it would lead to much more interesting reading and preaching.
The Problem of the Septuagint
Garrett: One thing I became aware of as I read your books is that there’s a whole other layer of reference that I am missing. Many study Bibles don’t reference the noteworthy variants in the Septuagint, for instance.
With that in mind, for somebody who doesn’t know Koine Greek or own a copy of the Septuagint, what’s the best way for Christians to learn more about these echoes that would not be discoverable in their edition of the OT?
As a lay person, how do I hear the echoes that otherwise remain inaccessible, embedded in deep scholarship, where the original languages come into play?
Richard: That’s a complicated question. There is a widely-used 1851 English translation of the Septuagint by a scholar named Lancelot Brenton. More up to date, about ten years ago, Oxford University Press published A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title, edited by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, under the auspices of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS). This translation is based on more detailed research on the extant ancient Greek manuscripts.
For many readers, it may be easier to use some of the digitalized resources that are now available. I don’t know if you have something like BibleWorks.
Garrett: I don’t.
Richard: I use BibleWorks, but a lot of Mac users use a program called Accordance. You can call up a particular passage on the screen and select a range of different English translations, and you can also bring up the Hebrew and the Greek texts as well as published English translation of the Septuagint. You can pull these up and set them in parallel to the passage you’re looking at.
Garrett: Do you recommend the Martin Hengel book about the Septuagint? Or a newer book, such as Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek? Do they provide good ways to wrap our heads around the related issues of interpretation?
Richard: The best starting place would be Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva’s Invitation to the Septuagint. The Hengel book, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon, is excellent serious scholarship, but perhaps a little challenging for the general reader. He’s a massively learned German scholar.
I really don’t know anything about When God spoke Greek.
One of my colleagues here at Duke is J. Ross Wagner, who has recently published a book called Reading the Sealed Book: Old Greek Isaiah and the Problem of Septuagint Hermeneutics. That’s an outstanding book. It’s very technical and detailed. But that’s also the problem. The people who write about this are usually writing for other specialists. This whole area of Septuagint scholarship is one of those arcane fields where specialists are constantly arguing over issues of text and translation.
Garrett: That’s what I’ve found, too.
The Decay of Language
Garrett: In preparing for this interview, I came across a quotation by the poet Christian Wiman in his book My Bright Abyss. I’m interested to know what you think of it. He asks, “Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?”
Then he continues, “We need a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive not only to serve as an individual expression but as a communal need” (p. 124).
How would you respond to that question and his assessment?
Richard: I haven’t read much of Wiman. I’ve read about him, but I have read only a little of his poetry.
I think his question is a fascinating one. It’s true that the decay of belief in the West has gone hand in hand with the decay of appreciation for language. That’s an argument explored compellingly by George Steiner in Real Presences. It also strikes me that interestingly both of the figures you just mentioned, Joyce and Eliot, were quite self-consciously, in a sense, attempting to create a new language.
There’s that quotation in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man about forging the uncreated conscience of his race in the smithy of his soul. And Eliot in the Quartets wrestles with the problem of coming to terms with language in the famous passage where he talks about “a raid on the inarticulate.”
I pulled it out as we were talking. He describes each poetic attempt to use words as “a different kind of failure”:
. . . And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. [“East Coker,” lines 8-11]
As a poet, Eliot is attempting to overcome that “general mess” and to discover language that can speak with power and precision in a new way. It occurs to me, in fact, that Wiman’s question may be a distant echo, conscious or unconscious, of exactly this passage in Eliot.
I find that a very compelling way of thinking. I look at what we see going on in popular discourse now, and I’m just horrified by the awful, sloppy ways that people use language, and the lack of ability to think in a nuanced or critical way about problems. It’s become epidemic.
Wiman’s question is kind of a chicken and egg question, isn’t it? [laughs]
Garrett: Yes, it is. I think I see it now just on reflection of the way in which the scriptural richness can imbue the hymns in our traditions. You mentioned in a footnote that Morna Hooker recently gave a talk about Charles Wesley’s use of Scripture in his hymns, and nobody even knew the hymns she was talking about, let alone the Scripture behind them.
Maybe in some ways we can reengage by reintroducing some of these hymns that are these poetic expressions, these deep rich and scripturally inspired poetry, that is very much a part of our worship.
Richard: I agree entirely. The way that we use language in worship, in song and prayer and preaching, can be deeply formative, That’s one of the things I would hope can be modeled by preachers and teachers who have been shaped by the kind of deep biblical study my work tries to foster.
Garrett: Being in the Anglican tradition, I often read through the Book of Common Prayer, and that is also a rich well of language and poetic beauty, but absolutely in its essence about worship and coming together in community to recite it together in a performative way. That’s another aspect here.
Richard: Certainly so. That’s also a good example of language that has gone dead for some people because of repetition—just saying words that somehow don’t mean much to them anymore. But in fact the Book of Common Prayer models beautiful language and theologically profound language. One task of preaching and ministry within the Anglican tradition would be to open that language up again and explicate it in an imaginatively rich, life-giving way.
Garrett: I wish we had more time to talk more about the topics that you raise in your books.
Before we conclude, I should ask: what are you working on now?
Richard: That’s a very difficult question. As explained in the prefatory material of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, about a year ago, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That led to the remarkable rapid completion of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. I’m doing OK now, cautiously hopeful about going forward. But I’m still on medical leave as we have this conversation.
I’ve been cautious about committing to any big new projects. I’m nearly at the end of my teaching career. I don’t know whether it will be granted to me to write another big book or whether this was the final statement for my work. I hope that’s not the case, but I don’t know. If I tried to tell you what my next project is, I would be making it up. I really don’t have a plan for a next project.
Garrett: I understand. We’ll just have to wait and see. You’ll let us know if another one does appear in the coming months. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you very much for your time.
Richard: Thank you. It’s been very good to talk with you. •