Reading Backwards

Consistently when I have taught the Gospel of Mark to college students over the last ten years, the “Aha” reaction comes when I ask them to look up Old Testament passages related to a puzzling verse.

Why does Mark describe what John the Baptist eats and wears but not anyone else? Not Peter. Not Pilate. Not even Jesus.

When Jesus is walking on the water, why does Mark say Jesus intends to pass by the disciples struggling to row against the wind? Doesn’t he see them? Doesn’t he care?


The answer

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to these and other odd passages in Mark are often found by going back to the Old Testament. Richard B. Hays explores the foundational importance of the Old Testament in his striking new book, Reading Backwards. For all four gospel writers, their “symbolic world was shaped by the Old Testament,” and unless we see that, we fail to see what they are talking about.

After a preface and introductory chapter which explain what he calls figural reading, Hays looks at how way each gospel writer makes use of the Old Testament. Rather than trying to survey the whole of each gospel, Hays focuses on one particular aspect–how each, in different ways, utilizes the Old Testament to express how they see Jesus being identified with the God of Israel.

Mark, says Hays, is not interested in prooftexting predictions of Jesus from the Old Testament. He emphasizes the veiled, half-hidden suggestions that Jesus is the Lord who forgives sins, who controls the seas and shepherds Israel.

In Matthew Jesus is the divine presence taking the place of Temple and Torah who is to be worshiped. Luke offers a thick, textual narrative world which welcomes the arrival of the Lord of the new exodus who redeems Israel.

Hays thus exposes the false dichotomy between the low Christology of three synoptic gospels and the high Christology of John who presents Jesus as the eternal Word (and Wisdom), the Good Shepherd and Bread from Heaven.

The Old Testament unfortunately remains a closed book for many Christians. Hays helps us see that without the Old Testament, the New also remains closed.