Review: Reading Backwards

Reading Backwards

“Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection, under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’ words” (p 86).

Growing up, I didn’t know much about the differences between the gospels, or, at least the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Like many, I didn’t understand the reason for the multiple gospels besides the fact that they gave more/less information on different circumstances in the life of Jesus. I thought they were pretty straightforward. Jesus was born, He performed a bunch of miracles, he was crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the Father.

As my last review may have implied, I also barely read my Bible. As a kid and teenager, reading my Bible was on top of list of things I should do, but not so much on the things I will do. Even still, I didn’t have much of an understanding on the author’s point of view (most likely because I didn’t read enough. Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t teach much besides speed reading).

I Could Have Used a Book Like…

I could have used a book like Hays’ Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. Granted, his book on Paul (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul) was written when I was three (leisure reading), but here Reading Backwards is about the Gospels. Hays looks at the stories of the Gospels that present us with a real, historical Jesus, the Son of Man, and the long-awaited Messiah.

But wasn’t the historical Jesus just a man? He never did miracles, he never made messianic claims about himself? In fact, didn’t the gospel writers (Evangelists, as they will be called here) mythicize Jesus’ life to bring about Christianity? Did they steal somebody else’s “sacred texts”?


Hays’ focus is to look at how the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scripture in a way to fully represent Jesus as the long-awaited central figure of the Gospels. Just as Jesus interpreted Moses and all the Prophets the things concerning himself to the two on the road to Emmaus, so the Evangelists do the same thing for their audience.

The Evangelists looked at the Old Testament and showed how Jesus was pre-figured in Scripture. Figural readings don’t destroy the original meaning of the earlier text. They clarify it and affirm it’s reality in a new significance “beyond that which anyone could previously have grasped” (xv).


Chapter one is the introductory chapter which gives a framework over the issues in our discussion. Hays asks, “How does each of the Evangelists read Israel’s Scripture?” and “How does each one draw upon figural interpretation of the Old Testament to depict the identity of Jesus and to interpret His significance?” The Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels. We read forwards from the OT and backwards from the NT.

Chapters two to four lead the reader through the distinctive of the Gospel.

Chapter two begins with Mark, the earliest gospel. Mark works with indirect hints and allusions; while he speaks of Jesus’ identity with God, he also speaks of His non-identity (p27). Parables are the mystery of the kingdom of God that is given to some but hidden to others. And like Jesus’ parables, Mark tells us about Jesus as we are able to hear.

Chapter three is on Matthew, who “is far more overt than Mark in his interpretive strategies…providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions” (p 36). Matthew has a strong interest in the theme of fulfilled prophecy and shows you how to look at Old Testament context and read it as the New Testament intends you to read it.

Chapter four is on Luke. Some scholars think that Luke provides us with a “low”/”primitive” Christology with “no clear assertion of Jesus’ identity with God” (p 57). Hays shows us that Luke presents his readers with a high Christology seen through narrative identity. This basically means that we see Jesus’ identity throughout the narrative, with Him being the object of worship among many, the Son of God, and the awaited Lord of the new exodus.

Chapter five ends with John. John handles the OT texts in a much different way than the Synoptics. “If Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination” (p 78). “John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of chains of words and phrases, instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture…. Rather than nullifying or replacing Israel’s Torah, Jesus “assumes and transforms them” (p 82).

Chapter six reflects on the similarities and differences in the Gospel’s hermeneutical approaches to the task of telling the Gospel story. Here Hays replays and summarizes the previous four chapters, while providing us with the strengths and weaknesses (or “cautions” for the readers) of each Gospel narrative. The Gospels are like a choir, sung with harmonies and, at times, dissonance. But the dissonance is not to be erased, for it brings tension resulting in the final resolution.

The Chocolate Milk

Hays performs a job well done in his book. I look forward to his future work on the Gospels, which will hopefully cover more ground with great(er?) insights. Hays is dense, yet clear and cogent. He masterfully shows how the life of Jesus fulfills the OT seen under each Evangelist’s perspective. Even when the divinity of Jesus is not explicitly seen falling from His mouth, it is seen in His life and actions. The better we know and understand the Old Testament, the better we’ll understand Jesus. And the better we understand Jesus, the better we will know the Old Testament.

Hays understands the challenge of diversity among four gospels. Yet he says, “The very variety within the fourfold Gospel canon creates a stimulus and encouragement for us to carry on the story in our own voices, working out our own fresh ways of engaging Israel’s Scripture” (p 102).

Hays wants us to become better readers. “To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. The Gospel writers are trying to teach us to become more interesting people–by teaching us to be more interesting readers” (p 105). Hays ends his book with a section called Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics, ten ways the four gospels teach us to read Scripture.

The Eggnog (due to my personal distaste of the drink)

In chapter six, Hays looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each Gospel. While I imagine him putting on the persona of a book reviewer, I don’t really know what he means by a Gospel’s “weakness,” as if to say it has a legitimate weakness. However he does show us the difficulty in dealing with harmonizing certain texts in the Gospels.

Hays compares the strengths of the Gospels to our current Postmodern era. He says that “particular voices within [our] canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its immediate cultural situation” (p 102). He declares his sympathies and says John is the “most problematical,” and Mark “the most theologically generative.” He is still trying to figure out what he thinks about Matthew, and chooses Luke as the church’s hermeneutical guide for the long haul.

With only 109 pages, I wish he would have spent more time on his thoughts about how the church should use Luke more than the other Gospels (given our Post-modern period), and how and in what way our culture would benefit from Luke’s gospel over the others.

But Hays returns to asking how the Gospels come together to complement each other. How can we find the common denominator between them to become more faithful readers of the Scriptures? And that is something, with the help of Hays’ book, other books, and the church’s own reading and studying that we need to be working to figure out. Whether Luke, Mark, John, or Matthew, how do we discern the voices of Scripture for the outside world?


Yes, Hays’ work is an excellent work, and it’s only a teaser! This book is his “progress report of sorts” for the work he’s been doing on the gospels. I would hope that one day he can finish his work and give us a full length treatment. That is one I would wish to have. Be aware of both the length of this book (chapters one to six cover a mere 109 pages) and the price ($30 on Amazon as of this writing). The information is good and clear, but I hope the price would come down due to the small size of the book.

I enjoy books that examine the focus of each individual gospel, and look forward to seeing Hay’s influence in works to come.


[Special thanks to David at Baylor University Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]


Author: Spencer

I put ice in my cereal. Make yourself at home and feel more than welcome to contact me.

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