Friday, May 08, 2015

figural Christology: reading backwards within the flowing stream of time

 Scot McKnight:

Believing to Understand

Richard Hays on figural Christology.

by Scot McKnight

What disturbs the professor is that so many read their New Testaments with nary a glance at the Scripture reference notes in the central column of many Bibles or printed in the footnotes in others. What disturbs the reader is what one finds when one pursues those cross-reference suggestions.

We need go no further than Matthew's first chapter. The original woman in mind in the famous "the virgin will conceive" was a "young woman" already married to Isaiah and pregnant and soon to bear a child. But the Greek translation, the Septuagint, turned the Hebrew almah into parthenos, which meant "virgin." Matthew, knowing Jesus was born of a virgin, chose the latter on which to hang this profound interpretation of the conception and birth of Jesus. In chapter 2, the holy couple, after having spent time in safety in Egypt, return—and Matthew finds a golden egg in a text that had nothing to do with the Messiah. Matthew brings rugged realities and scriptural patterns together: If Jesus is the Son of God, if he spent time in Egypt, if YHWH called Israel his Son and out of Egypt summoned them to the Land of Israel, then Jesus somehow needs to be seen fulfilling that text too. It's all in Matthew 2:1-15. Or take John 5:46, which tells us in the words of Jesus "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me." If there is so much Jesus in Moses, why did so few recognize him when he came? Over and over we see this interpretive approach to the "Old Testament" when we pay close attention to the cross references in our Bible, at once opening a world of glorious discovery and faith and re-imagining history and at the same time provoking us into pondering what kind of readings these early Christian hermeneuts were offering their readers.

....The grip of historical method has historians by the neck, but not so the new "theological interpretation of the Bible" crowd, now on full and detailed display in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. For the historians, what the original author meant—only what he (or she) meant—is all that matters; for the theological interpreters, while authorial intent certainly matters, it is not all that matters. What matters perhaps more is what mattered to Jesus and the apostles, and what mattered to them is now mattering more and more to Christian readers of the Bible. The tight grip of the historians has been loosened. More and more we are learning to see the Bible as an inter- and intra-textual reality; only by embracing its central vision—Jesus as Messiah—can one read that Bible well.

Richard B. Hays, in the published version of his Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, proposes that Jesus read the events of his life "backwards" and in so doing taught Christians how to read the Old Testament "forwards." As he puts it, "the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or, to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and—at the same time—we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT."

Hays opens by appealing to the term "figural" to describe this backwards reading, and so we hear Erich Auerbach boiled down into New Testament hermeneutics:

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction andprefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective. (Another way to put this point is that figural reading is a form of intertextual interpretation that focuses on an intertextuality ofreception rather than of production.)

That is, time and later perspective generate new readings:
Because the two poles of a figure are events within "the flowing stream" of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. But once the pattern of correspondence has been grasped, the semantic force of the figure flows both ways, as the second event receives deeper significance from the first.
Hays, well known for his brilliant studies of how Paul read the Bible,[3] is concerned in this book with the Gospels, so we are treated to four separate, succinct introductory essays into how the Evangelists read the Bible backwards. The result is a masterpiece. Hays shows that the Evangelists had a "high" Christology, one that was shaped by the divine identity of Jesus... Matthew, Hays concludes, is not so indirect {as Mark}.  Indeed, he says Matthew "is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation." One quick reading of texts like Matthew 24:15, which updates Mark's more allusive reference in Mark 13:14, is enough to see Matthew's annotations in context. But there's far more to Matthew than this, as we indicated in the opening paragraph above. For Matthew, Jesus is Immanuel, God's presence among us—seen in worshiping Jesus (14:33) and in Jesus as present (18:20) as well as in his promise of continued presence (28:20). Matthew "believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God and that to worship him is to worship YHWH—not merely an agent or a facsimile or in intermediary"—and this takes a unique form: "the one who was crucified and raised from the dead is himself the embodiment of the God who rules over all creation and abides with his people forever."

...The historian and the apologist may cry out for a place at the table, but the hermeneutical loop eventually closes in and begs the reader to believe. For such a reader, believing that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible suddenly makes (new) sense. Can any Bible reader not recognize what John does in 1:1 when he says all over again "In the beginning"? But now something has changed. Jesus has been inserted into the narrative, and the beginning has been christologically reframed: the Logos, Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the incarnate one, is the Creator and the Life who gives eternal life. Whether it is the Temple (John 2:13-22) or the feasts of Israel (John 10:22-3019:14), under John's guidance they are all about Jesus—and the reader who sees they are about Jesus can rightly understand what the Temple and the feasts were designed to do. What then is John's approach? "John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory."  LINK

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