Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels
ARTICLE BY GUY WATERS JUNE 2017
One does not have to preach, teach, or even read the New Testament for long in order to discover how steeped its authors are in the Old Testament. The OT surfaces on virtually every page of the NT. It serves a range of purposes, whether for witness to unbelief or for the instruction and guidance of the church. And it speaks with divine authority – like the NT, it is the very word of God.
One salutary trend in the last generation of the academic study of the NT has been a growing estimation of the place and importance of the OT to the NT. Students of the NT increasingly appreciate the degree to which the OT is woven into the warp and woof of the NT message. To attempt to read the NT independently of the OT is to misread the NT.
A pioneer in this branch of recent scholarship is Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. His Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) invigorated the study of the apostle Paul’s use of the OT. His recent release, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016), promises to do the same for the Four Gospels.
The substance of ESG consists of four chapters detailing the method and practice of each of the Four Evangelists in handling the Old Testament. Introductory and concluding chapters frame these four chapters. Although brief, these two chapters set forth the principles and methods that inform the book as a whole. As such, they merit particular attention.
Two terms characterize Hays’ understanding of the Evangelists’ handling of the OT writings. The first is “figuration.” The Gospels evidence what Hays, following Erich Auerbach, terms “figural interpretation.” What is “figural interpretation”? It is a correspondence between “two events or persons” that “can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first” (3). Hays distances figuration from “prediction” – “figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the OT authors – or the characters that they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ” (2, cf. 359). Positively, the NT writers engage in the practice of what Hays terms “reading backwards.” In light of the redemptive and revelatory work of Christ in his death and resurrection, the NT writers “retrospectively” read or “reinterpret” the OT in “transformati[ve]” ways (358). The conviction that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and that he was crucified and raised from the dead comes to define, characterize and distinguish Christian readings of the OT from all other readings of the NT.
The second term that characterizes Hays’ understanding of the Gospel writers’ engagement of the OT is “metalepsis.” Metalepsis is “a literary technique of citing or echoing a small bit of a precursor text in such a way that the reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came and then reading the two texts in dialogical juxtaposition” (11). Metalepsis is hardly unique to the biblical writers. It surfaces in other literature, classical music, and even popular film and music.1 It is a technique that the NT writers use to great effect. They may employ it at multiple levels -when, for instance, they quote the OT, allude to the OT, or echo the OT (“quotations” are “introduced by a citation formula or … feature the verbatim reproduction of an extended chain of words…;” “allusions” either “imbed several words from the precursor text” or “explicitly mention notable characters or events;” an “echo” is “a word or phrase that evokes, for the alert reader, a reminiscence of an earlier text,” 10). As importantly, metalepsis serves the NT writers’ greater end of explicating the person and work of Jesus Christ with reference to the Scriptures of the OT. OT quotations, allusions, and echoes, whether they are expressly metaleptic or not, are the brushes and oils with which the NT authors paint the portrait of Christ in their writings.
How does Hays see each Evangelist turning to the OT in order to craft his particular portrait of Christ? Hays shows how each Gospel engages the OT in order to tell the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Mark handles Scripture in a way that, “like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive” (98). There are comparatively fewer citations in Mark than in other Gospels – “Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions” (ibid.). If this is Mark’s narrative technique, what, then, is the narrative or story that Mark tells? As the curtain rises on the Gospel, Mark understands “Israel still under exile,” requiring nothing less than “divine intervention” for her “deliverance” (16). John the Baptist’s sudden appearance at the beginning of Mark heralds both impending eschatological judgment (Mark 1:2-3 and Mal 3:1 [LXX]) and a new exodus (Mark 1:2-3 and Exod 23:20 [LXX]). The one who will bring this restoration is not John but Jesus, whose death, Mark underscores, “stands in direct continuity with God’s covenant with Israel” (Mark 14:24-25 and Exod 24:8, Zech 9:11) (35,36). Lamentably, the Jewish leaders’ blindness and resistance to Jesus not only signifies that they are under divine judgment, but also serves to bring Jesus to the cross (44). Jesus’ parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12), however, deftly engages multiple OT texts (Isa 5:1-7, Gen 22:2, Gen 37:20 LXX, Psa 118:22-23) to point to the vindication of Jesus and the restoration of the people of God (ibid.).
Mark’s portrait of Jesus is inexplicable apart from his handling of the OT. Precisely in referencing many passages from the OT, Mark presents Jesus as Davidic king, the Son of Man, the Crucified Messiah, and the God of Israel. Mark, for instance, affirms “Jesus’ identity with the one God of Israel” not “explicitly” but precisely “through riddle-like allusions to the Old Testament” (62), such as Isa 40:3, 9-10 in Mark 1:2-3; Psa 107:23-32, Job 38:8-11, Psa 89:9, Psa 106:8-12, Isa 51:9-11, and Psa 44:23 in Mark 4:35-41; and Jer 8:13 in Mark 11:12-14.
Mark also crafts the church’s identity with reference to the OT. Mark 13, with multiple echoes of Daniel, Isaiah, and Joel, sets the church’s persecution in the context of the “time of crisis that precedes God’s final saving action and restoration of justice” (91). The opening lines of Mark (1:1-3), in their echoes of Psa 2:7, and Isa 64:1, 40:15, 17, serve, with other texts in Mark, to characterize the church as “a community that owes ultimate allegiance to God,” not Caesar (94). The church, furthermore, has a call to bear witness to Jesus Christ before the nations – a matter less stated than presupposed in Mark, not least in his engagement with the OT (Mark 11:17 with Isa 56:17; Mark 13:10 with Isa 2:2-4; Mark 15:39 with Mark 1:11 and Psa 2:7).
We may offer briefer synopses of the ways in which Hays sees Matt, Luke, and John presenting Israel, Christ, and the church by way of engagement with the OT. Like Mark, Matthew depicts Israel’s history, at the opening of his Gospel, in terms of an exile poised to conclude through Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus brings Israel’s story to a conclusion as he “embodies the radical covenant obedience that God has already desired of his people” and “gathers around himself a new community within Israel” (139). Matthew shares Mark’s conviction that Jesus is one with the God of Israel, expressing it explicitly (1:23, 28:20). Matthew, furthermore, gives Jesus’ identity “Israeological specification,” even as Jesus brings fulfillment to “Israel’s story” (139). That is to say, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering and triumph echoes the history and experiences not only of the nation, but also of such leading figures of the nation as Moses, David, and Solomon. Since Matthew understands the OT to be a “narrative of God’s mercy [that] embrace[s] the Gentiles,” the people of God will not only contain Gentiles but be commissioned to go into the world to make disciples of the nations (175).
If Matthew characteristically understands the OT in terms of predictions that find their fulfillment in Christ, then Luke understands the OT in terms of promises that find their fulfillment in Christ, a point especially emphasized in the opening chapters and in the concluding chapter of his Gospel (192, 193). Luke, furthermore, prefers “implicit correspondences, suggested through the literary devices of allusion and echo,” the cumulative effect of which is to “create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory” (193). Luke understands Israel in need of “liberation” from “captivity to oppressive powers” (195). She is in need of a new Exodus, and it is Jesus, the Divine Redeemer, who has come to accomplish that work. Luke draws from the OT in order to show that the redeemed people of God must assume a posture of “confrontation” against the “power of empire” and of “revelation to the Gentile world” (265).
John shares the Synoptics’ conviction that one must “read backwards” and so “reinterpret Scripture in light of a new revelation imparted by Jesus and focused on the person of Jesus himself” (283, emphasis original). But John differs from the Synoptics in an important respect. While John does cite, allude to, and echo the OT, his “intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory” (284). John prefers selected “images and figures from Israel’s Scripture” to shine light on the identity of Jesus (ibid., emphasis removed). Consequently, Israel, her festivals, law, and history constitute the “symbolic matrix for [John’s] portrayal of Jesus” (289). For this reason, Hays notes, “it is hard to distinguish the Evangelist’s interpretation of Israel from his interpretation of Jesus” (ibid.). In like fashion, John represents the people of God in two leading images with deep roots in the OT – a vine and a flock of sheep. Significantly, both images further illumine the Vine and the Good Shepherd to whom the church belongs (343).
No survey can do justice either to the encyclopedic scope of ESG or the complexities of its exegetical engagement with hundreds of passages from the Gospels (and the OT). What about ESG commends it to the reader as meriting careful study and reflection? We may point to three strengths of the work. First, ESG provides readers with a helpful conceptual and terminological apparatus to reflect with care and precision on the use of the OT in the Gospels. While “figuration” and “metalepsis” may not be household terms, these terms endeavor to capture precisely how the Evangelists read the OT. Acknowledging the distinction among quotation, allusion, and echo proves helpful to readers of the Gospels in ascertaining the “volume” of an OT engagement in any given passage of the Gospels. Hays will occasionally alert readers to a particularly “low volume” engagement. After arguing for an echo of 2 Kings in Luke 24:31, he appends a disclaimer. “This proposed reading of a hypothetical faint echo goes far beyond anything that can be ascribed with any degree of confidence to Luke’s authorial intention,” not withstanding the “unexpected satisfactions” that “the linkage yields” (242). Hays, then, commendably exercises a measure of restraint in advancing this reading. Whether or not readers agree with his assessment of this (or any other) text, ESG provides them the tools with which to make informed exegetical judgments.
A second strength of ESG is its individual attention to the ways in which each Evangelist interprets the OT. While the Gospel authors share a body of core convictions about the person and work of Christ and the OT’s relation to Christ, these convictions come to expression in distinct ways in the Four Gospels. Hays helpfully highlights the ways in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John characteristically relate the OT to Christ – Mark’s indirect and elusive engagement of the OT; Matthew’s preference for prediction and fulfillment; Luke’s emphasis upon promise and fulfillment in the context of a grand and global narrative; John’s visually oriented selection of images from Scripture that highlight the unique identity of Jesus Christ. Awareness of these patterns will not only assist one to be a more careful reader and expositor of this portion of the canon, but also help one to appreciate the breadth and reach of the ways in which Christ brings the OT to fulfillment.
A third strength of ESG is its strong emphasis upon the deity of Christ as a central message of each of the Four Gospels. Higher critical scholarship has long been dismissive of historic Christianity’s insistence that the NT teaches that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Among the Gospels, Hays observes, Mark and Luke are “usually thought to have the ‘lowest’ or most ‘primitive’ Christologies” (363). It is refreshing, then, to see Hays, writing from within and to historical critical scholarship, argue that that the Four Gospels bear united and unambiguous testimony to the full deity of Christ. Hays does not merely argue this point from such express statements as those of John 1:1, 18. Rather, he primarily argues this point from the ways in which the Evangelists handle the OT in relation to Jesus. When one properly grasps the web of OT interactions evident in Mark 6:45-52, for instance, it is difficult to deny that Mark is calling his readers to understand Jesus’ identity with the God of Israel (70-73). Hays patiently demonstrates that the quantity and volume of such evidence vindicates the historic church’s longstanding understanding of the NT’s testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ.
Reformed and evangelical readers will, at points, find themselves in disagreement with ESG. Even here, however, ESG provokes its readers to reflect carefully upon important dimensions of the study of the Gospels’ engagement with the OT. We may take up one such matter that sits near to the center of ESG.
Hays insists that the Gospel writers engage in the practice of “reading backwards.” That is to say, the NT writers read the OT retrospectively. Convinced that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God, crucified and raised for the sinners, the NT writers scour the OT to discern instances in which the OT writers prefigure Christ. Hays terms this practice “revelatory retrospective reading” (259). Hays alternately characterizes the resultant interpretations of the OT in terms of transformation, transfiguration, and continuation (in distinction from the “negation or rejection” of the OT, 363). Hays insists that the patterns that emerge on the pages of the Gospels evidence “a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives” (359, emphasis removed). Thus, not “human intentionality” but “the mysterious providence of God” accounts for the correspondences, whether on the micro- or macro- level.
In advancing these claims, Hays is concerned not to insist that the process works in reverse. “Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament authors – or the characters that they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ” (2). More polemically, Hays distances himself from the claim that “the authors of the Old Testament’s narratives and poems actually did intentionally forecast the details of Jesus’ life” (359).
Hays accurately claims and demonstrates that the NT writers testify to their own insensibility prior to the resurrection to the ways in which the OT comes to fulfillment in Christ (see John 2:22, Luke 24:22-27). He is correct to say that the cross and resurrection of Christ were redemptive and revelatory events, and that, in light of this new revelation in Christ, the disciples in community read earlier revelation with new eyes, as it were.
But the NT writers suggest that there is a connection deeper still between earlier and later revelation. To take an example from the companion volume to Luke’s Gospel, Peter in his Pentecost sermon, after citing David’s words in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28), says of David, “Brothers I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Act 2:29-32). Peter is saying that David, in his capacity as a prophet, spoke in advance of the resurrection of Christ. Peter would later say something similar of all OT prophets – “concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:10-11).
It is for this reason that, when Paul entered the synagogues of Judea and the broader Mediterranean world, he made a point of proving or demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22, 17:2-3, cf. 18:28). That is to say, Christians could and did publicly advance the claim to unbelievers from the OT that Jesus was the Messiah, and that by way of rational demonstration. Surely this project was only feasible if these Christian believers were convinced that their convictions resided in the OT text itself and were capable of demonstration or proof independently of one’s commitment to Jesus of Nazareth.
The NT writers, to be sure, are largely silent concerning the degree to which the OT authors were aware and conscious of the One to whom they were pointing. They are generally content to affirm that the OT authors pointed to Christ. The NT writers are more concerned to insist that the project of “reading backwards” is a possible undertaking only because of the organic and progressive character of biblical revelation. This character of revelation offers a ready explanation why the NT writers are not doing violence to the text of the OT, much less the intention of the human authors of the OT. None of this is to say that Hays affirms that the Gospels’ readings of the OT are violent or contingent. It is to say that “reading backwards” at best only partly accounts for the manner in which the Evangelists read and explained the OT.
ESG is sure to set a new standard for the study of the Old Testament in the Gospels, and deservedly so. For those who are seeking both clarity in how to read the OT along with the authors of the Gospels, and insight into the particular ways in which the Evangelists handled dozens of text of OT Scripture, ESG will not disappoint. On those occasions when readers dissent from ESG, they will nevertheless find ESG a stimulating and worthwhile conversation partner. Thoughtful readers cannot but emerge from ESG with a conceptually clearer grasp of the ways in which the Gospels handle the OT. And since the authors of the Gospels take us to the OT precisely in order to take us to Jesus Christ, the effort expended in reading and reflecting upon ESG will be well spent.
Guy Prentiss Waters
James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, MS
1. To offer but two recent examples of the latter – the Coen brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) consciously and repeatedly echoes Homer’s Odyssey; Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” (2016) similarly samples the Andy Williams’ 1963 hit, “Can’t Get Used To Losing You.” One may understand each modern work while ignorant of its earlier quoted material. But knowing and appreciating the quoted material enriches and lends depth to one’s understanding of the newer work.