To Read Better, Read Backwards

Richard B. Hays' book on the gospels is well worth reading.

Richard B. Hays has written a most excellent comparison of the four gospels, showing the uniqueness of each and demonstrating their dependence on the Old Testament, in particular, the Septuagint. His book is Reading Backwards, and I recommend it highly.

He shows, by many examples, that the gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament, which, in turn, teaches us how to read the New. He refers to his approach as “figural readings” of the Old Testament, following the guidance of the New Testament in understanding the OT figures that point to Christ. He writes that Jesus “is the treasure who lies figurally wrapped in the folds of the OT. But if he is wrapped, that suggests he is not only contained but also partly concealed within the manger. It is the task of a figural reading first to enter the humble surroundings of the stable, as did the shepherds in Bethlehem, but then also to ‘search the Scriptures’—to read backwards to unwind the swaddling cloths and to disclose the Christ who lies there.” He explains that “the Gospel writers summon us to a conversion of the imagination. I want to suggest to you that we will learn to read Scripture rightly only if our minds and imaginations are opened by seeing the scriptural text—and therefore the world—through the Evangelists’ eyes.”

Dr. Hays conducts us on a thorough tour of each of the four gospels, demonstrating how each is firmly grounded in the Old Testament, and thus helps us to see the Christocentric nature of all Scripture. His examples are most instructive, and some are, frankly, thrilling. Reading this book will encourage you to look more closely at all of Scripture, to make sure you’re not missing anything God wants you to know. He further emphasizes the centrality and mystery of the Kingdom of God for the gospels and all of Scripture, thus setting the Gospel in its broad and proper context.

Dr. Hays calls for a “Gospel-shaped hermeneutic” to enhance our reading of Scripture, and he offers ten aspects of such a hermeneutic to guide our reading and study of the Word. First among these is the discipline of “reading backwards,” as he has demonstrated throughout this very excellent book. He insists, “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.”