Navigating and Celebrating the Complexity of Scripture: A Conversation with Richard Hays

Editors’ note: For those interested in a review of Richard Hays’s latest book, see here.


Richard Hays is a renowned New Testament scholar. The professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School originally studied English literature, giving his reading of Scripture a pronounced literary sensibility. He’s perhaps best known for his 1989 work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. In that book Hays demonstrates how close attention to the text and to techniques of literary composition reveals an apostle who, far from opportunistically and irresponsibly co-opting the words of the Old Testament, was a sensitive and perceptive reader and interpreter of Scripture. Paul’s letters forged a rich and illuminating correspondence between what would later be recognized as the two parts of the Christian canon.

Hays has also written on the subject of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996). Once again, this book is distinguished by a deep attentiveness to Scripture. Where others have focused primarily on the fact that Scripture is a source for Christian ethics, Hays goes further in establishing how it functions in such a manner, bringing exegesis, ethics, and hermeneutics into fruitful discussion.

Interpreting Scripture has been a central theme in Hays’s writing. His work is frequently characterized by a patient expectancy and trust in the texts—a confidence that, as we tarry and wrestle with them, they’ll reward us with illumination and an encounter with a good and loving God. Hays’s readings of texts frequently surprise and delight, revealing how a trained ear can unravel Scripture’s riddles and disclose the beautiful lineaments of truths that might otherwise have passed unnoticed. Reading Hays has, in many ways, made me a more devoted and confident Bible reader.

The purpose of Hays’s work has always been to equip us for deeper engagement with the voice of Scripture, never to substitute for it. He calls for a movement away from narrow and suspicious criticism. At the end of The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (2005), Hays bemoans the way criticism has so often prevented a right reading of Scripture. We critique rather than interpret, but the point of interpretation is to enable us to hear the text.

Although Hays frequently pushes back against criticism and calls primarily for suspicion of ourselves and our prejudices, he still allows for rarer cases of irresolvable internal tension in Scripture, where one part of the biblical witness might need to be rejected, so that we can follow another.

Confessional readers of Hays will be disappointed at such points and must temporarily yet firmly part ways with him. Nevertheless, one would seriously misrepresent Hays’s work were one to regard this approach to Scripture as dominant or programmatic for him. Rather, it’s an occasionally passing shadow over his confident belief that the Scripture mediates the transfiguration of its readers as they discover the dazzling glory of Christ unveiled within it.

In his most recent work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Hays returns to the exploration of scriptural echoes that he introduced in his early book on Paul, and follows from and further develops the themes of Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (2014). The book contains chapters treating each of the four discrete voices of the evangelists, discussing the distinct yet complementary ways in which they operate as readers of Israel’s Scripture. Each of the four principal chapters contains a treatment of the way Scripture is invoked or evoked to narrate the story of Israel, the person of Jesus, or the church’s mission in the world.

As in Reading Backward, one of the most striking revelations of Hays’s treatment of the Gospels is the strength of the synoptic Gospels as witnesses to the person of Christ. Any student of Scripture and theology will be greatly rewarded and deepened in their understanding and faith by study of this book. Hays’s delight in Scripture is infectious and, as you spend time with him in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, I’m confident that you, like me, will be strengthened by learning from his example.

I corresponded with Hays and asked him about “echoes” in the Gospels, how to preach when there is less familiarity with the Old Testament, what public and personal reading of Scripture have to offer to us today, and more.


Your new book is titled Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. What is an “echo” and why does it matter for our reading of the Gospels?

In literature, an “echo” occurs when a later text (let’s call it Text B) draws upon significant words or images from an earlier text (Text A) without explicit use of a quotation formula (“As it is written” or the like), and often without any overt indication that the author intends an allusion to the precursor text. The reader who’s well versed in the earlier tradition will nonetheless “hear” the intertextual reference and recognize the way in which Text B evokes or reactivates some aspect of Text A. Recognizing the echo will often trigger the recovery of contextual elements of Text A beyond the words that are directly echoed.

An example may illustrate. In Mark 11:12–1420–21, Jesus looks for figs on a leafy fig tree; finding none, he curses the tree. The following day, the disciples see that the tree has withered. It’s a puzzling story, unless we hear the echo of Jeremiah 8:13, in which the LORD pronounces this judgment against unfaithful Israel: “When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”

In Mark’s narrative, the echo of Jeremiah causes us to recognize Jesus’s cursing of the tree as an act of prophetic symbolism, pointing to his judgment against the Temple officials—a story that Mark has sandwiched into the middle of the fig tree episode (Mark 11:15–19). But Mark neither quotes nor refers explicitly to Jeremiah; the intertextual connection between Jeremiah 8 and Mark 11 occurs entirely in the realm of echo. But the alert reader who hears the echo may also wonder what the relationship might be between the LORD who wanted to gather figs in Jeremiah 8 and Jesus himself, who now comes to Jerusalem and looks for figs. This is one of many cases where Mark subtly, almost subliminally, suggests Jesus is in fact the embodiment of the God of Israel.

So why does attention to echoes matter for our reading of the Gospels? The four Gospel writers were immersed in the world of Israel’s Scripture; therefore, in order to read their narratives well, we must grasp the numerous subtle ways in which their portraits of Jesus invoke and evoke earlier scriptural texts.

What​ is a “figural” reading​ and what makes it​ valid? Should Christians advance figural readings of Old Testament (OT) scriptures that do not have precedent in the New Testament (NT)? 

The classic definition of figural reading was articulated by Erich Auerbach, an eminent scholar of comparative literature:

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension . . . of their interdependence is a spiritual act. (Mimesis)

Figural reading therefore is always a matter of “reading backwards,” discovering previously unanticipated correspondences between a later event and an earlier text. For example, the story of Jesus’s raising the dead son of a widow at Nain (Luke 7:11–17) strikingly recalls the account of Elijah’s raising the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–24). But the narrative in 1 Kings is hardly a “prediction” of a future event. Only a retrospective reading discloses the correspondence between Jesus’s action and Elijah’s. The correspondence or “rhyming” of the two stories suggests something about the mysterious continuity of God’s action in history, and yet the interesting differences between the two accounts show that in Jesus we encounter something far greater than Elijah. (For discussion, see Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 237–39.)

What makes this kind of reading valid? Of course, validity can be assessed only with reference to some particular framework of norms and conventions. For Christians, the validity of figural reading is strongly established by the practice of the NT writers themselves; on page after page, they model this sort of retrospective interpretation of Israel’s Scripture. And, of course, this same kind of reading is massively attested in the church’s traditions of exegesis and artistic representation right up to the modern era. (Hans Frei’s important study The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative analyzes and critiques the way in which academic biblical interpretation in modernity lost its grasp on the practice of figural reading.)

Ultimately, though, the validity of the NT’s particular figural readings hinges on the claim that the God to whom the Gospels bear witness is real, and that he is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same God who has providentially scripted history. If that’s not true, the NT’s figural readings are merely clever imaginative fantasy. But if it is true, then these figural interpretations are deeply significant disclosures of God’s identity.

Should Christians advance figural readings of the OT beyond those explicitly set forth in the NT? I would say yes, for two reasons. First, in the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in conversation with the despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus himself “interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27). This extraordinary (and tantalizing!) narrative suggests that the OT contains far more latent Christological material than can be delineated within the bounds of Luke’s narrative, or in the relatively concise pages of the NT. (For a lovely illustration of a Christological reading of the story of Joseph, see Gary Anderson, “Joseph and the Passion of Our Lord,” in E. F. Davis and R. B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture.)

The second reason why fresh figural reading can be welcomed is found in the Gospel of John, where Jesus promises that the Spirit of truth will come to the community of Jesus’s followers after his bodily departure and continue to lead them into deeper understandings of the things about Jesus (John 16:12–15). The caveat, of course, is that fresh figural readings must demonstrate consistency and theological coherence with the readings already exemplified in the NT.

As you interpret them, the Gospels seem to be written principally for readers intimately acquainted with the whole of the OT Scriptures. However, most Christians who read the NT today have a very limited knowledge of the OT. How ought pastors and teachers regard the difference between their hearers and the first readers of the text? How can they best address it?

The early readers of the Gospels in Gentile communities in the Mediterranean world were, for the most part, at least as ignorant of the OT as are many Christian readers today. And yet the earliest Christian preaching thought it crucial to emphasize and teach, as a matter of “first importance,” that Jesus’s death and resurrection had happened “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–5). If this isn’t an empty formal claim, then it means pastors and teachers now, as in the first century, must undertake the task of instructing their congregations about the full story of Israel. That’s the story to which the Gospels provide the climactic consummation. If we fail to preach and teach that message, we’ll end up misreading the Gospels and accommodating Jesus to the very different symbols and stories of our age.

Many of the major Christian denominations have offered substantial programs of Bible study, such as the Disciple program in the United Methodist Church, that seek to lead participants into a fuller knowledge of the two-testament Christian Bible. I would think building a serious program of biblical teaching would be an essential component of the ministry of any healthy Christian church.

Pastors can also teach and exemplify the importance of the OT in their preaching. The lectionaries used in many churches provide at least a significant slice of OT texts. Those texts should always be read in worship and frequently engaged in the sermon. Since we cannot assume familiarity with the texts, we’re compelled to explore them in and with our congregations. The result will often be profoundly illuminating for pastor and congregation alike.

If we were to take the figural character of the Gospel witnesses more seriously, how might our liturgies, lectionaries, and preaching change? How can the figural character of scriptural revelation inform our understanding of the relationship between the Scriptures and the church in the 21st century?

Actually, the historic liturgies and lectionaries of the church are deeply grounded in figural interpretation, as is some of the best preaching. The African-American homiletical tradition, for example, demonstrates a rich practice of figural interpretation, focused particularly on the Exodus story as a prefiguration of the African-American experience of slavery and deliverance. Preaching of this kind has narrative and theological gravitas, and it compels our attention. Such preaching is at its strongest when it chiefly emphasizes the way in which the themes of the Exodus story inform the passion/resurrection narratives in the Gospels.

Attention to the figural character of scriptural revelation will constantly remind us that we have been grafted into the story of Israel, and that the church carries forward the story of God’s election and redemption of a particular people. This helps us see that the church is not simply a gathering of individuals seeking spiritual solace or illumination or salvation after death; instead, the church is a people called to carry forward the mission of God’s justice and mercy in the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote provocatively about the importance of having the church’s self-understanding rooted in the OT: “Whoever would too quickly and too directly be and feel in accordance with the New Testament is, in my opinion, no Christian.” He was, of course, reacting to Naziism’s “German Christianity” which sought (not unlike the ancient Marcionite heresy) to repudiate Christianity’s Jewish roots and heritage. But the temptation is perpetual: for Christians to cut off the root that sustains us as the branches.

One more thing should be added. The figural character of scriptural revelation can encourage and inspire us to think and preach and pray in a way that is boldly imaginative. The New Testament’s richly imaginative reception of Israel’s story should warn us against narrow literalism. The Bible is a complex symphony that invites us to a posture of grateful astonishment at its unexpected harmonic variations on the themes of God’s power and love. Our hermeneutical instructions are clear: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (Mark 4:24).

What are some particular ways your studies have enriched your faith over the years? What do the public and the personal reading of Scripture have to offer to us today, almost 2,000 years after the New Testament was written?

Where to begin? I’m repeatedly moved by the unexpected depths of texts I’ve studied intensely for nearly 50 years. The Word is living and active and speaks to our condition in ever-fresh ways. When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, many of the psalms spoke to me with immediate force. Consider Psalm 56:

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle;
Are they not in your record? . . .
You have delivered my soul from death
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God in the light of life. (Ps. 56:813)

The public and personal reading of Scripture offers us, first of all, our true identity as a people. Scripture teaches us to know ourselves not as autonomous, self-inventing “consumers” driven aimlessly by market forces, but as God’s people, the body of Christ. We are given purpose and hope by the biblical story in which we are caught up. And we’re given one another, a community of brothers and sisters that transcends national identity and breaks down the barriers we erect to protect ourselves.

Some people in modernity are fond of the illusion that the passage of 2,000 years has somehow made Scripture quaint or irrelevant. But in fact the Word is present with equal immediacy to all times and places. The reading of Scripture offers us hope in times of trouble, wisdom in times of confusion, peace in times of conflict, and vision for our labors. In short, Scripture is the Word of life.

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