Reading Richard Hays Backwards

Richard Hays is a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, a distinguished theologian, a prolific author, and a skilled stylist of theological prose — a rich combination of strengths.

There are a lot of reasons to read his books, and I have profited from four of them in particular: Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016), an incredible book I took on summer vacation last year for a season of focused immersion on the life and words of Christ, and Reading Backwards (2014), a smaller version of the 2016 book. Also of benefit are his older books The Conversion of the Imagination (2005), and Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1993).

To make the best use of Dr. Hays’s books, I think it’s helpful to keep a pair of qualifications in mind at all times. By airing them in the open, I think it will help timid readers read with greater aspiration and discretion. (A friend recently asked for my thoughts and encouraged me to share these thoughts online, so here it goes.)

Qualification 1

Hays is fervently committed to preserving ethnic Israel. Israel has yet to play a role in God’s redemptive plan, and this correct impulse leads him to make some horribly incendiary statements that subvert the authority of John’s Gospel when it depicts the unbelief of Israel.

Specifically, this becomes problematic when Hays addresses John 8:39–47. From this text, in his 1996 book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Hays comes right out and accuses the Gospel of John of anti-Semitism, saying:

Nowhere in John’s Gospel does the superheated animosity toward the Jews come to more vigorous expression than in chapter 8. . . . The dialogue [of John 8:39–47] is the most deeply disturbing outburst of anti-Jewish sentiment in the New Testament. . . . John makes a fateful theological step: from the empirical fact of the unbelief of the Jews . . . . The Jews who do not believe must be children of the devil. . . . The conclusion of verse 47 articulates the chilling logic of this position: the reason they do not hear the word of God is that they are not from God. . . . One shudders to contemplate the ethical outworking of such a theological perspective on the Jews. . . . The Gospel of John really does adopt a stance toward Judaism that can only engender polemics and hostility. (426–429)


Now, he does tone down this language a little in his later books (compare to his 2016 book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 350). But he has never, to my knowledge, rescinded these bold accusations made in 1996.

Like Hays, John Piper (as one example) is also fervently committed to preserving an ongoing place in redemptive history for ethnic Israel — but never, for Piper, at the expense of disparaging divine revelation. Says Piper, “This is a great sadness that ordained Christian teachers in the church [referring to Hays] should slander the word of God in this way.”

You can see more on this point, and Piper’s thoughts, in his sermon “The Truth Will Set You Free,” for a better approach in preserving ethnic Israel’s place in God’s future plan, without diminishing the catastrophe of Israel’s unbelief in the face of her Messiah.

Qualification 2

The second qualification is less offensive and far more pervasive, and it’s this: Hays seems to operate from a less-than-robust definition of typology.

So what is typology? Theologian Graham Cole defines typology as the phenomenon that OT persons (like Moses), and OT events (like the exodus), and OT institutions (like the temple) can — in the holistic plan of God — prefigure and set the stage for a later development in that plan, to provide key preliminary concepts necessary to understand God’s divine intent later in the story. With typology in place, the coming of Christ becomes the new Moses, to bring a new exodus, himself becoming the new temple. That’s typology, and the relationship from the OT to the New Testament is an organic one in the mind and plan of God.

In contrast, we already get a sense of how Richard Hays will approach typology in the title of his book: Reading Backwards. But here’s explicitly how he defines it elsewhere: “Typology is before all else a trope, an act of imagination correlation” (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 100).

For Hays, typology is first an innovative literary move by the interpreters (the Apostles).

By contrast, I’m persuaded, with Cole, that typology is — before all else — a divine glory made clearer in time as it emerges. The links are organic. The mystery in the Old, planted like a seed, is there to be seen (but very subtly), until it grows into an explosive divine glory for all to see in the New.

In other words, Hays thinks that typology is a literary trick of reading backwards, not forward. And he ends up reading his Bible backwards.

By contrast, it is the “mystery” language of the New Testament that helps unlock this forward-reading, as Don Carson helpfully explains. “You find again and again in the New Testament, [mystery] is bound up with something in some measure hidden in times past and now revealed, but the nature of the hiddenness is often bound up with typology. It’s hidden in the past in some form of typological structure, which is now unpacked forcefully in the New Testament” (lecture; June 17, 2005). “Things are genuinely truly there [in the OT] but regularly not understood and, thus, overlooked, precisely because of the degree of God-granted hiddenness to them, which we nevertheless should have seen” (lecture; March 26, 2004).

In the Law, Prophets, and Psalms, the stage is set for typology to celebrate the interconnections of the divine mystery that will come to full maturity in Christ. The interpretive key to typology is “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). Christ is the interpretive key, the centerpiece of the “mystery,” as he himself explains in Luke 24:44–47:

[Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Jesus is not using a mere literary trope, he’s present inside the OT.

So according to Jesus himself, the seeds of Christ are planted deeply throughout the OT. We aren’t left to read Christ’s works into the OT; rather, the reader must see how the old-covenant types of Christ grow and unfold in the glories of Christ revealed in the new. And it’s clear, in reading the Epistles, that the apostles took this commission with great seriousness.

Hays seems tempted to reduce typology down to the innovative tropes of the Christian imagination, imposed on the Jewish OT, a literary trick of the apostles to read Christ backwards into the previous Scripture. Rather, as Jesus himself leads me to believe, it’s far better to see typology as an organic relationship where new-covenant glories are present in the old covenant as seeds, waiting to mature and spread their branches.

Tolle Lege

Nevertheless, Richard Hays clearly believes loads of subtle types, or figurations, wait to be discovered in OT/NT links — a motivation for all his labors, and what makes those labors so rich and valuable. He sees the links, even if he downplays the organic nature of those links. And he is mostly careful with Scripture, which is essential if one wants to even attempt all this without stepping on all the many landmines of over-confident allegorical and typological presumptions which will ultimately derail and undermine a whole project like his.

So what all this leads to is the point that Hays is often profoundly good in pointing out the textual types themselves, and good at making OT/NT connections with great skill. But Hays seems to be constantly working backwards, which means he needs to be read backwards, which then again sets us reading the Bible forward.

Bible readers must always celebrate the organic dimension of those links in showing the brilliant unity of God’s sovereign plan of redemption as it marches forward, “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9).

So, for whatever it’s worth to you and your reading, those are two qualifications I keep in mind as I read and benefit from the works of Richard Hays.

Tony Reinke

For the sake of clarity and charity, I sent these critiques to Dr. Hays for his response, which he kindly returned to me, and which I post here.


Dear Mr. Reinke,

With apologies for the delay, I’m now writing in response to your kind invitation to reply to your critique. Thank you for engaging my work thoughtfully and saying some kind things about it. I take seriously your instruction that this should be “a very brief response.”

To your first qualification: Your citations concerning the Gospel of John are drawn from my book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, published in 1996. The bits you quote come from a chapter that focuses on the issue of how the NT speaks to “Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict.” In the quotations you have extracted, I was highlighting the very real problems that John’s Gospel poses for Jewish-Christian dialogue and for Christian attitudes towards Jews. These problems cannot be wished away by appeal to a high-level doctrine of revelation. Instead, we have to engage the problems in detail, at both the exegetical and the hermeneutical levels.

My 1996 book was a first attempt to grapple with the issues. The force of my argument in context, even in that earlier book, was to show the tensions between John and other canonical witnesses, and to argue for: (1) a gracious and hopeful posture towards Jews; and (2) a trust, based especially on Romans 9–11, in God’s ultimate redemptive purpose for Israel. Most importantly, for readers who want to understand how my thinking about the Gospel of John has developed, and how my hermeneutical perspective has changed, over the past 20 years, I especially urge a careful reading of my most recent study, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, especially pages 302–308 and 354–356.

To your second qualification: I would insist that your reading of my treatment of typology (a term I rarely use — I much prefer “figural interpretation”) is a misreading. I have been at some pains to clarify this point. I do not think that figural interpretation is “a literary trick of reading backwards.” Quite the contrary: the Evangelists’ act of “reading backwards” is an “Aha!” experience in which they return to read Israel’s Scripture in light of Jesus’s life death and resurrection. When they do that, they discover a mysterious, previously unrecognized, divine unity in the story as a whole. I strongly urge readers to read carefully pages 358–366 at the conclusion of my book. I quote here just a couple of short excerpts:

. . . [T]he 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. . . . This hermeneutical sensibility locates the deep logic of the intertextual linkage between Israel’s Scripture and the Gospels 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. (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 358–359, italics in the original)

So, when you quote Luke 24:44–47 and say “Jesus is present inside the OT,” you are not at all disagreeing with what I have written; you are exactly restating the point I labor to demonstrate throughout my book.

I hope that your readers will follow your encouragement to take up my work and read it.

Blessings to you in your work.

Grace and peace,

Richard Hays


Grateful for the kind response here from Dr. Hays, I do continue to harbor both of my original concerns, but with better focus on my part.

I continue to maintain that John Piper’s sermon offers a superior approach to John 8, a response thoroughly driven by exegesis, not merely a defensive rebuke to preserve the integrity of the text, but following the flow of it and reckoning seriously with Jesus’s words to his Jewish listeners.

For a more detailed critique of Hays, I have been made aware of Andrew Lincoln’s groundbreaking book, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel, that explicitly answers Hays’s charges about anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John. See these two sections: “The Trial Motif and Anti-Judaism” (397–404) and “Faithful Witness and the Dialogue with Judaism” (485–497).

In any case, I do hope Hays will one day retract his statements on John 8:39–47.

On concern two, the clarification is helpful. In principle, I think we are closer to agreement, though in practice the distance remains. I still fear that readers, especially of a book like Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, will be left with the impression that Hays sees the types (or figurations) of the Gospel writers as owing more to the interpretive imagination of the Apostles than to the OT’s brightness with a peculiar glory of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying that he says this explicitly throughout, but in practice the reader is left assuming this until the end.

I’m grateful to say that I think we may agree in final principle over what he says on the final pages of ESG. So begin there. First read pages 358–359, then start at the beginning. (Again, read Hays backwards.) And then, whenever it seems that Hays is giving undue credit to an apostolic literary trope, if you sense this, I give you permission to write in the margin: “Jesus is present inside the OT,” by way of reminder. Again, I’ll reiterate that I think this principle gets obscured in the abundant details of Hays’s writings.

In the end, my message remains the same: Now go and read Richard Hays with delight!

Tony Reinke

PS: My apologies for the style of this piece, which one kind friend has called, quote, “an interesting strategy in presentation: drafted article, rejoinder, surrejoinder.” I think what my friend meant to say was, “What on earth are you doing here?!” To be fair, the written-quarrel genre is messy business. As Chesterton once said of debate, “Writing to a man is like firing at him with a revolver; talking to him is like spraying at him with a garden hose.” In the first case, it’s a hit-or-miss endeavor; in the second, a man can correct his line of water. So the reader will see that I have taken the liberty of adding a couple re-focused points here at the end. Perhaps my “interesting strategy” will catch on. Or not. At the very least, I think the content of this email duel is instructive enough to be online.

One thought on “Reading Richard Hays Backwards

  1. Tony,

    In addition to your qualifications, those interested in the Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels can also give a listen to a September interview of Dr. Hays on the Onscript podcast. As I recall, his comments in the interview were consistent with those in the rejoinder of this post, specifically about the “Aha” connections of the NT writers made to the OT. The episode can be found at the following:

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