Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels

Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016. pp. xix + 504. $49.95, hardback.


Richard B. Hays, a celebrated NT professor at Duke Divinity School, has written another soon-to-be influential book. The title Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels is obviously related to the title of Hays’ very well-known The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989). I had significant complaints about the Paul book. Although I found his categories of “allusion” and “echo” for OT/NT intertextuality to be useful, his examples of Pauline exegesis using these categories concerned me. Hence, to be honest, I was expecting to be annoyed by much of Hays’ exegesis in this Gospels book. I was mostly wrong!

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. Hays is not especially concentrating on “echoes” but includes any specific or broad use of the OT that the Gospel writers marshal to articulate their message. These uses include direct citations, allusions, echoes, OT “symbolic world,” “figural” hermeneutics, motifs, OT characters (e.g., Elijah, David), etc. Hays then evaluates not only each Evangelist’s use of the OT but also each Evangelist’s message about three specific issues: Israel, Jesus, and the church (Jesus’ followers). Parallel to these three issues, he is simultaneously interested in the “common narrative substructure” that each Gospel presents in the movement from Israel to Jesus to church (p. 14).[1] Hays states his purpose:

[To give] an account of the narrative representation of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scripture—as well as the ways in which Israel’s Scripture prefigures and illuminates the central character [Jesus] in the Gospel stories. (p. 7)

Hays emphatically states that this book is not about the historical Jesus nor the social-context of the first-reading communities of the Gospels (pp. 6-7). He simply wants to summarize what each Evangelist presents about Israel, Jesus, and the church. I would term Hays’ literary approach as “narrative criticism” (not to be confused with his use of “narrative” above).[2] That is, he brackets out the majority of traditional historical-critical issues in addition to bracketing out historical truth issues.[3] Hays, however, does have to make some historical decisions for hermeneutical purposes. He does not believe in “Q,” Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used Mark (p. 13). Who the actual authors were of the Gospels does not affect his analysis. He also assumes that the four Evangelists were very well acquainted with the OT, and this, rather than Greco-Roman influences, were their primary “symbolic world” (p. 10).

In addition to the historical decisions for hermeneutical purposes just discussed above, Hays in a previous book has made substantial conclusions about the Evangelists’ hermeneutical use of the OT. This previous book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (2014), is somewhat of a companion to Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. The conclusions argued for in Reading Backwards are mostly assumed in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. The primary conclusion is that the Evangelists re-read the OT after seeing the Christ event. This transformed their understanding of the OT in that they now saw the “figural” and “retrospective” way the OT should be read given the NT realities (p. 14).[4]

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels has six sections. After the introduction, there are four long sections evaluating each Gospel. Hays closes with a conclusion that not only summarizes his exegetical results but also makes a passionate plea—more on this plea below.

Jesus as the God of Israel

For purposes of this review, only Hays’ conclusions about Jesus will be included. Also, I hope to give the reader some sense of the types of exegetical moves that Hays makes. In sum, he argues that the Evangelists present “Jesus as the God of Israel” as well as human. “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” (p. 363).

In Mark, Hays notes the Evangelist “rarely points explicitly to correspondences between Israel’s Scripture and the story of Jesus” (p. 15). However, Mark 1:2-3 and its quote of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3 clearly connect Jesus to the God of Israel (p. 63). Once seeing this, the many subtle allusions and echoes to Jesus as God become clearer. For example, the incident in Mark 4:35-41 where Jesus calms the sea encourages the verbal connections to Ps 107:23-32, Job 38:8-11, and Ps 89:9 where God calms the sea.

As opposed to Mark, Matthew is not subtle. He often explicitly shows that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are a fulfillment of the OT. Hays sees the most distinctive motif about Jesus being that he is Emmanuel. This is explicit in Matt 1:23 and 28:20. Hays then emphasizes that Jesus’ comments about being “greater than the temple” (Matt 12:6), “where two or three are gathered” (Matt 18:20), and “my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:35) connect to God in the OT. This OT connection further expands the Emmanuel motif.

Interestingly, Luke’s use of direct OT citations (in Luke and Acts) are usually put into the mouths of his characters. This is the opposite of Matthew’s technique. Also, beside the citations, Luke often uses the OT not as a direct typological fulfillment, but many times to show that the “kinds of things that happened in the tales of the patriarchs and prophets” are similar to what happens to Jesus (p. 194, emphasis his). Concerning Jesus, Hays notes that only Luke regularly uses the title Kyrios (Lord) for him. Based off of various OT allusions, echoes, and the crowd’s quote of Ps 118:26 (“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Kyrios [Luke 19:38]) at the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, Hays concludes that Luke wants the reader to see Jesus as the Kyrios, the God of Israel.

John does not have an overabundance of direct citations; however, he primarily “relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture” (p. 284, emphasis his). The key verse for John’s view of the OT is “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Hays has several fascinating discussions of the many OT connections in John. For example, he connects the festival of Booths (Sukkoth) and John 7:37-38’s “living water” to Zech 14:7-8 and Ezek 47:1-2. Both of these OT texts have water coming from the temple. This in turn matches to Jesus as the temple and as the mediatorial function of the temple (John 1:14, 1:51, 2:13-22, Exod 25:8-9, Ezek 37:26-27).

Hays’ Plea


Hays asks in the conclusion, “Can or should we read the [OT] texts in the same ways they [Evangelists] did?” Further, “Should we model . . . our picture of the church’s mission in the world on the Evangelists’ scripturally shaped vision?” He believes that this is of “urgent interest for all who are concerned about the integrity and the future of Christian biblical interpretation” (pp. 248-49).

Before answering his question, he acknowledges that the Gospels present “four different hermeneutical strategies” that entail a significant “diversity” and an “encouragement for us to carry on the story in our own voices.” However, Hays still wants to affirm “some sort of complex unity” that he terms a “fourfold-Gospel-shaped hermeneutic” (p. 356).

Hays pleas for the reader to accept this hermeneutic and that Jesus is presented as Israel’s God because it is “truthful.”

What has to change for the [mainline] church to undertake this hermeneutic? The church needs (1) to be immersed in the OT (pp. 357-58), (2) to use a “figural” hermeneutic of reading backwards from the NT to the OT that demands in the end the assumption of a divine “mysterious providence” controlling the OT texts and OT/NT events (p 358-60), and (3) to read with “imagination” that “must bid farewell to plodding literalism [i.e., conservatives] and rationalism [i.e., liberal critics] in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility” (p. 360, emphasis his).

Brief Evaluation

This book is aimed squarely at the historical-critical guild. Excepting the final chapter, Hays argues within a historical-critical framework, at least one that would accept narrative criticism as legitimate. He is certainly bucking large trends in critical scholarship in that he affirms (1) the divinity of Jesus is present in all of the Gospels and (2) the assumption that the Evangelists were using the OT in a sophisticated and defendable way.

From my perspective, as far as historical-critical hermeneutical methodologies go, narrative criticism has much more overlap with a traditional, Reformed hermeneutic than other historical-critical methodologies. As to his exegetical conclusions, I certainly affirm and revel in his strong affirmations of Christ’s divinity, even if I did not agree with every suggested allusion and echo. Although not discussed above, I agreed less with his exegetical conclusions concerning Israel and the church and was disappointed in his minimal attention to the atonement. I must say that whether I agreed or not with this or that allusion or echo or exegetical conclusion, I truly enjoyed reading Hays’ take on each Gospel’s use of the OT related to Israel, Jesus, and the church. His suggested OT connections often made me stop and think.[5]

As to Hays’ plea for his readers to embrace a “fourfold-Gospel-shaped hermeneutic.” I have nothing but admiration for him given the critical scholars and mainline audience to which this is aimed. As to the specifics of his program, much of it is already standard fare for a Reformed evangelical. I agree that Christians should be immersed in the OT and that God did control the OT texts (every word from my perspective!) and OT/NT events. Further, I agree that the hermeneutics of the NT should be our hermeneutic. Although this is not the place to enumerate, I do have some qualifications to his “figural” hermeneutic.

Should the readers of this journal buy this book? I certainly would recommend it if one is going to teach or preach through one of the Gospels. Reading through Hays’ section for that Gospel will be informative and open up many possible OT connections that one probably would not have thought of nor do commentaries point out.


  1. Noting the redemptive-historical narrative aspects is a special interest of Hays. Arguing within the historical-critical guild, in a qualified way, Hays sees the “complex dramatic narrative” of Scripture as an aid to seeing the unity of Scripture. See Richard B. Hays, “Can Narrative Criticism Recover the Theological Unity of Scripture?,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 2 (2008): 193-211, esp. 193.
  2. There are two uses of “narrative” in hermeneutics. The first, “narrative criticism,” is at the individual book level. One would evaluate Matthew’s use of plot, character, motifs, etc. to make his points. As is typically done, this mostly operates as a fictional model and is not concerned with historical or truth questions per se. The second use of “narrative” relates to the grand narrative of Scripture from the Garden to the final Eschaton, or as I prefer to term it, “redemptive history.” Hays is interested in “narrative” in both senses.
  3. E.g., after noting a negative comment by John about the Pharisees, Hays states “this sentence is a narrative-critical observation about the situation narrated by the Fourth Gospel, and not an assertion about the actual opinions or practices of first-century Pharisees” (p. 429 n. 40).
  4. For an excellent, nuanced analysis of Reading Backwards, see Benjamin L. Gladd’s review in Reformed Faith and Practice 1:1 (2016): 72-78.
  5. Hays did not simply look up the citations and allusions listed in UBS / NA Greek texts.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte