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Reading Backwards
Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

By Richard B. Hays

Reading Backwards
Paperback, 177 pages $29.95
Published: 15th August 2016
ISBN: 9781481302333
Format: 8.5in x 5.5in

Subjects: All Theology, New Testament

In Reading Backwards Richard B. Hays maps the shocking ways the four Gospel writers interpreted Israel’s Scripture to craft their literary witnesses to the Church’s one Christ. The Gospels’ scriptural imagination discovered inside the long tradition of a resilient Jewish monotheism a novel and revolutionary Christology.

Modernity’s incredulity toward the Christian faith partly rests upon the characterization of early Christian preaching as a tendentious misreading of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christianity, modernity claims, twisted the Bible they inherited to fit its message about a mythological divine Savior. The Gospels, for many modern critics, are thus more about Christian doctrine in the second and third century than they are about Jesus in the first.

Such Christian “misreadings” are not late or politically motivated developments within Christian thought. As Hays demonstrates, the claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the Scriptures” stands at the very heart of the New Testament’s earliest message. All four canonical Gospels declare that the Torah and the Prophets and the Psalms mysteriously prefigure Jesus. The author of the Fourth Gospel puts the claim succinctly: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46).

Hays thus traces the reading strategies the Gospel writers employ to “read backwards” and to discover how the Old Testament figuratively discloses the astonishing paradoxical truth about Jesus’ identity. Attention to Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel narratives reveals that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identify Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel. Hays also explores the hermeneutical challenges posed by attempting to follow the Evangelists as readers of Israel’s Scripture—can the Evangelists teach us to read backwards along with them and to discern the same mystery they discovered in Israel’s story?

In Reading Backwards Hays demonstrates that it was Israel’s Scripture itself that taught the Gospel writers how to understand Jesus as the embodied presence of God, that this conversion of imagination occurred early in the development of Christian theology, and that the Gospel writers’ revisionary figural readings of their Bible stand at the very center of Christianity.


1. “The Manger in Which Christ Lies”: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture

The Fourfold Witness

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

"The strengths of Reading Backwards are obvious, and it will prove fruitful for anyone interested in Gospel studies, but also for studies in biblical theology and Christology more generally, as well as modern debates over what stratum of the Christian tradition first recognized Jesus’ divinity."

—Nicholas G. Piotrowski, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

“Twenty-five years ago Richard Hays launched a quiet but highly effective revolution on how Paul read Israel’s scripture. Now he turns his attention to the four gospels, and we may confidently predict similar results. With his characteristic blend of biblical and literary scholarship, Hays opens new and striking vistas on texts we thought we knew—and, particularly, on the early church’s remarkable belief in Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God.”

—N. T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews

"This is an exceptionally rich study, illustrating how early Christianity and, in particular, the four evangelists “read backwards” in their portrayal of Jesus’ divine identity."

—Donald Senior, CP, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, The Bible Today

"A remarkblly insightful piece of work."

— Steve Jeffery, Minister, Emmanuel Evangelical Church, London

“Hays has made an excellent study of this subject. His insights are rich and interpretations are clear. His style of writing is appealing and the illustrations he gives are truly convincing. Yes, the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and likewise the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament.”

—Dominic Mendonca, Revue Biblique

"This is a rich, rewarding, and challenging work. The main substance of Hays’ argument is not only convincing but nourishing to Christian faith: many of Hays’ readings undermine those of more skeptical scholars and align precisely with the instincts of faithful though not learned Christians."

—Bobby Jamieson, University of Cambridge, Credo Magazine

"Overall, Hays’s exegetical work confirms 'what the church’s dogmatic tradition has classically affirmed about the identity of Jesus.' And it does so in an unlikely way, by pointing the reader to the narrative reflexes of Israel's monotheism."

—Michael Legaspi, First Things

"Hays’s argument for the necessity of reading the Gospels in light of their Old Testament roots provides a helpful corrective to historical critical approaches that would insist on understanding Old Testament texts solely within their own cultural milieu. Instead, Hays argues clearly and coherently for understanding a connection between the Testaments by which the figure of Jesus is understood most fully only when set alongside of the Old Testament texts that the Gospel writers use to present him."

—Melanie A. Howard, Biblical Interpretation

"This book is such a gem that it may prove more widely influential than anything Hays has done yet."

—Jason Byassee, Senior Pastor at Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina, Christian Century

"A masterpiece."

—Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary, Books & Culture

"This is an encouraging, intriguing, and stimulating book. Readers who are interested in interpretation and in learning lessons from the Bible itself about the nature of interpretation will find this a valuable companion for their reflections."

Church Times

"Reading Backwards is a wonderful book, offering the reader a succinct but potent experience with a contemporary and refined hermeneutical approach to Scripture that holds in tension critical and pre-critical sensibilities."

—Edward W. Klink III, Pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church in Roscoe, Illinois, Books at a Glance

"Compact, provocative, and beautifully composed"

—John T. Carroll, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology

“Few people are better qualified than Hays to take us right inside the ways the Gospels interpret the Old Testament. And, as though that were not enough for one short book, his hermeneutical quest also delivers a christological result. He shows how, precisely in their reading of the Old Testament, each of the Gospels in its own distinctive way presents Jesus as the very embodiment of the God of Israel. Intertextuality and high christology turn out to be two sides of a coin.”

—Richard Bauckham, Emeritus Professor, University of St Andrews

“Hays opens up possibilities of reading and re-reading the Gospels, each time capturing additional layers of truth and beauty in already-familiar stories. Hays also paints a more appealing vision of Bible study, in which we need not be limited to mechanistic or simplistic methods of analysis but can bring in poetic sensibilities to our readings of the Gospels. Following Hays's lead, readers can then savor the outcome of this way of reading the Gospels: a renewed wonder regarding God's variegated, overarching plans for this world, centered on the humility and glory of Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God.”

—Gregory S. MaGee, Christian Scholar’s Review

“Hays’ thesis is as simple as it is ground-shifting: that the Gospel writers’ portraits of Jesus depend on their hermeneutical appropriation of Israel’s Scripture. And his approach is disarmingly straightforward: a sympathetic reading of the Gospels calibrated to hear both explicit and implicit scriptural resonances. With transparent exegesis and lucid prose, Hays persuasively challenges some of the basic assumptions and arguments in modern biblical studies.”

—Joel B. Green, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Fuller Theological Seminary

“…Hays is to be commended for a lucid and rich study which does a great service to both the Church and the academy.”

—Joshua Coutts, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology

"A beautiful book."

—Stephen Finlan, Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"[Hays] is engaging, and he is nontechnical in handling this complex topic."

—P. K. Moser, Layola University Chicago, Choice

"Reading Backwards successfully demonstrates that Jesus is indeed Israel’s Lord incarnate. The genius of this short volume lies in Hays’ deft appropriation of Old Testament texts in the Gospels. He pays attention to often overlooked details in specific Old Testament texts, teasing out some of the nooks and crannies, and then weaves these insights into the Gospels. The book not only demonstrates how the Evangelists read the Old Testament, it also serves as a model for us to do the same.”

—Benjamin L. Gladd, Reformed Faith & Practice

"Reading Backwards is an enormously enriching examination of the Christology of the four gospels."

—Sam Emadi, Books at a Glance

“…Hays offers a way in which the contemporary Christian community may participate in a genuinely Christian reading of the OT.”

—Cory Barnes, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry

"Richard B. Hays has always maintained a distinctive theological voice, even within his most specialized New Testament work. A remarkably lucid expositor of scripture and a salient (if somewhat controversial) voice on New Testament theology and ethics, Hays has always been important for theologians to read."

—Joshua Davis, Anglican Theological Review

"The readings of each of the four Gospels that are presented in Reading Backwards provide a rich and concise survey in which each gospel distinctively uses scripture to paint its picture of Jesus."

—Neil White, Rejoice Lutheran Church, Word & World

"Professor Hays is to be congratulated upon offering in this brief book a great deal more substantive scholarship than is provided in most books many times the length."

—Simon Gathercole, Reformation21

"The insightful manner in which Hays analyses and summarizes the distinct ways in which the four gospel writers read the OT figuratively is a major strength of this highly recommended book."

—Marius J. Nel, Stellenbosch University, Neotestamentica

Richard B. Hays (Ph.D., Emory University) is George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School. His publications include Reading the Bible Intertextually (edited with Stefan Alkier and Leroy A. Huizenga, 2009) and Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation (edited with Stefan Alkier, 2012).

Publication Details:

 Paperback , 177 pages
 8.5in x 5.5in

  REL006000, REL006710, REL067000, REL067040
 Baylor University Press

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