Richard Hays and the ‘Figural Reading’ of the Old Testament


One of the leading biblical scholars of our day is Richard Hays. Though not an evangelical in a classic sense (he does not believe in plenary inspiration of Scripture), he is theologically conservative. In recent years he had been turning his attention to how the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament.

In 1993 Hays published Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1993). In 2008 he began work on a follow-up work on the Gospels, but completion was delayed when he asked to be Dean of Duke Divinity School. He was asked to give the Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge in 2013-2014 and in 2015 he published these are Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press, 2015) – an anticipation of the fuller work. Then in 2015 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So, assisted by colleagues, he devoted his time to completing his work on the Gospels. This was published in 2016 as Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016) and this is the work upon which I want to focus (all page references below are to this work).

In the light of Jesus’ claim that the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) are about him and his exhortation to study them diligently, Hays advocates what he calls a ‘figural interpretation’ of Scripture. He cites a definition from Erich Auerbach (a German-Jewish literary scholar) to explain what this involves.

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 fulfils the first. The 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, the intellectus spiritualis [the spiritual understanding], of their interdependence is a spiritual act. (2)

In other words, the two events or persons are both real historical events. They are not mere metaphors or images. But they can function as metaphors or images. And discerning these connections is a spiritual act. (It is not clear whether Auerbach and Hays mean by this an act that transcends historical realities or an act accomplished by the Spirit.) Hays continues:

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscience of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective … 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 … For that reason, a hermeneutical strategy that relies on figural interpretation of the Bible creates deep theological coherence within the biblical narrative. (3)

Later Hays says, ‘It is …a process of reading backwards in the light of new revelatory events.’ (5)

Hays acknowledges that ‘this kind of reading has been distinctly out of fashion since the advent of modern historical criticism.’ (3) Implicit in this statement is that Hays is seeking a recovery of a more traditional reading of Scripture. and, though Hays himself does not make this link, I think what Hays describes is what previous generations of interpreters used to call types and antitypes. Types and antitype describe the two poles of a figural reading.

For the record, Hays’ examination of the figural reading of the Old Testament in the four Gospels leads him to this conclusion about their message:

The more deeply we probe the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel narrative, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel … It is precisely through drawing on Old Testament images that all four Gospels, in ways both subtle and overt, portray the identity of Jesus as mysteriously fused with the identity of God. (393)


As quoted above, Hays claims that we need not ‘presume that the Old Testament authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscience of predicting or anticipating Christ’ needs further comment.’ (2-3) Later he says:

A figural christological reading of the Old Testament is possible only retrospectively in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Thus, from the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be an unwarranted hermeneutical presumption to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (348)

So the Old Testament writers were not normally predicting the person and work of Jesus, but were instead foreshadowing him.

The Evangelists received Scripture as a complex body of texts given to the community by God, who had scripted the whole biblical drama in such a way that it had multiple senses. Some of these senses are hidden, so that they come into focus only retrospectively. (358)

Hays concludes: ‘The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they held the key to understanding all that had gone before.’ (358) In other words, one of the ways Jesus is revelatory is that he brings into focus as-yet-unseen meanings in the Old Testament revelation.

If it is unclear whether the Old Testament author intended any given connection, Hays is clear about the intent of the New Testament author, the one making the allusion backwards. Hays says, ‘It is difficult to separate the concept of allusion from notions of authorial intentionality; the meaning of a text in which an allusion occurs would be opaque or severely diminished if the reader failed to recognise the implied reference to the earlier text.’ (10) Strictly speaking the second half of this sentence is non sequitur – the reader’s success or failure in recognising an allusion is not necessarily an indicator of authorial intent. I think what Hays means is that an allusion occurs when the author intentionally embeds an allusion with a realistic expectation that some of his readers will detect it.

In a footnote Hays makes this distinction between the ambiguous authorial intent of the first author and the clear authorial intent of the second author more explicit: ‘Another way to put this point is to say that figural reading is a form of intertextual interpretation that focuses on an intertextuality of reception rather than of production.’ (367 fn. 3) I take this to mean that, while the New Testament must have intended the figural interpretation, the Old Testament author may or may not have intended the original figure to anticipate Christ.

I think this is correct, but it requires a number of caveats, some of which Hays supplies and some of which he doesn’t.

First, while we should not assume the Old Testament writers were always conscious of anticipating Christ, neither should we assume they were always unconscious of anticipating Christ. ‘Predicting’ Christ may have been rare, but it seems to me that ‘anticipating’ Christ was much more common. That is, Old Testament authors spoke of the events and people of their day. But they did so with an awareness that God’s purposes were larger. So they knew the current king or deliverance or judgment would not adequately fulfil God’s ultimate purposes. And so they expected more.

Isaiah, for example, speaks of Israel returning from Babylonian exile. But he must have realised that the historical return when it took place would not fully fulfil the expansive predictions he was making. He must have wondered whether the return from Babylonian exile actually pictured a greater deliverance and a greater return. After all, he was re-appropriating the event of the exodus to describe what would take place in the sixth century BC. Perhaps that sixth-century return would in turn be re-appropriated to describe a great exodus.

Second, two realities make figural connections possible. They also make it likely that Old Testament writers had some awareness of anticipating a bigger future. Those two realities are:

• the providence of God

• the promises of God

So figural readings are not simply the result are the second author’s creativity and  imagination. They reflect that the fact that God has written figural connections into the pages of history. Hays himself recognises the role of divine providence:

This hermeneutical sensibility locates the deep logic of the intertextual linkage between Israel’s Scripture and the Gospel not in human intentionality but in the mysterious providence of God, who is ultimately the author of the correspondences woven into these texts and events, correspondences that could be perceived only in retrospect. In short, figural interpretation discerns a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives. (359)

Elsewhere he speaks of God having ‘scripted’ figural readings into the story.

As for the promises of God, Hays does not emphasise the continuities created by the divine promises, but he does emphasise the continuities of the story which the divine promises create.

For the Evangelists’, Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world. Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or propositions; rather, it traced out a coherent story line that stretched from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world … One implication of learning to live in this story-shaped world is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay attention to the large narrative arcs and patterns in the Old Testament … The Evangelists, who are themselves storytellers, are much more interested in the Old Testament as story than as prediction or as law. (360)

Hays concludes: ‘All the hermeneutical recommendations I have enumerated here make sense only because God is the primary agent at work in and through the biblical story – and indeed, only because God is in some ultimate sense the author of Israel’s story. (394)

This recognition of the providence and promises of God – along with the Spirit’s role in creating Scripture – is crucial. Without this recognition it is possible to see how the later event might illuminate the former event, but hard to see how the first event might illuminate the second. The types recorded in the Old Testament are not simply illustrations of truth in the same way that we might draw on metaphors from outside the Scriptures. They are divine revelations of the person and work of Christ.

So they are not only discerned spiritually – that is with divine help from the Spirit. They are also created by divine activity. They are the product of a divine author and divine reader. Indeed they are inescapably trinitarian:

1. The Father is the divine author as he shapes history through his providence, writing figural readings into redemptive history.

2. The Son is the divine subject as the figural interpretations speak of his glory.

3. The Spirit is the divine hearer who enables us to hear the echoes of Christ in redemptive history.

Tim Chester, Crosslands Faculty

Tom Olyott