Interview by Garrett Brown
The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible
Would you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Oklahoma, went to an Episcopal day school as a high school student, and had a rich education there that included daily chapel. That had the effect of getting the Book of Common Prayer into my bones, although I was a Methodist by family upbringing.
I went to Yale as an undergraduate and ended up being an English major. I was particularly immersed in poetry and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries. After that, I went to seminary, graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1977, and continued on to a PhD at Emory in New Testament Studies.
How did you switch from English to New Testament Studies? What led to that decision?
When I graduated from Yale, I had no intention of pursuing an academic career. I got a job teaching high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I did that for a couple of years, but I found myself frustrated because I kept discovering that the great literature I was teaching inevitably raised fundamental questions about the meaning of life and how people respond to suffering and the complexity of the human predicament.
As a public school English teacher, I felt constrained, not being able to speak very freely about religious matters. I ended up deciding that I needed to go back and learn more about Christian tradition, theology, and Scripture in order to be able to answer the questions I myself had.
Then, once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.
My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.
It is certainly a pattern that distinguishes your work. You’re always attentive to the larger work and the way in which a coherent reading of the text has to inform each of its parts. Was there a part of your literary training or sensibility early on that helped to discipline that kind of reading?
That’s a nice observation. I think so. When I was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960s, the English department was still fundamentally shaped by what was called the New Criticism. That approach predated the emergence of deconstruction and the various kinds of postmodernist approaches to literature that have since become dominant.
The New Critics were not particularly concerned about the historical circumstances of the production of the text, or influences on the author, or those kinds of things. Rather, I was taught to look at the way in which the language of the text itself worked—its imagery, music, metaphor—and to think about how the text functioned as a complete work of art. I think that approach to interpretation has informed the pattern you’re describing in my scholarship.
The Bible is just not a collection of little verses or tidbits of wisdom. When we’re reading the Gospel of Luke, for example, we’re reading a text that has a narrative shape to it. To see what’s going on in the text, you have to read the thing whole and see how the parts relate to the whole.
And the same thing applies not only to individual gospels but also, analogously, to the Bible as a whole. It has a deep and subtle narrative unity—not because unity has been superimposed by ecclesial fiat or by some clever editorial design, but because the diverse biblical witnesses bear common witness to God’s grace-filled action in the story of Israel. The emergence of the biblical writings themselves, in their complexity and diversity, is itself part of God’s mysterious “authorial” action. That’s why I believe that the Old Testament and the New have an underlying narrative unity that can be discerned only in retrospect, when we read the whole thing together.
That approach is uncommon these days. Our interpretative efforts can be so focused on a certain strand of narrative or a theme. There are many reasons why that happens. But it can also make one blind to the way in which these things function as a part of the larger narrative.
Yes, I think you’re right about that. It’s partly a function of the decline of humanities in general in liberal arts education. We are taught to read instrumentally to extract information. We’re not taught as well as perhaps we once were to read texts as literary works of art that have their own integrity and their own way of addressing us.
I may be a voice crying in the wilderness in that regard. I’m trying in what I write to help people see that wholeness.
Let’s talk about some of your work. The operative one here is the one that you wrote in 1989 called Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. What prompted you to write that book? Were you trying to illuminate something that was under-appreciated or ignored at the time?
Yes, as it turned out, very much so. The genesis and development of that book were entirely unexpected. When I was at Yale, one of my teaching tasks was to teach the intermediate Greek reading course for divinity students.
One year, it occurred to me it would be fun to have them read New Testament texts alongside texts from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and to see how the New Testament authors were quoting and using these Old Testament texts and what differences were introduced in the quotations.
I had no idea when I started to do that how fascinating it would turn out to be; I had no idea how complex the differences are between the Septuagint texts and the way that they get taken up into the New Testament.
It started me down a trail of investigating for myself the problems the class had brought up. I didn’t know where I was going, but I had hold of a rope and I was following it hand-over-hand out of the cave to see where it led. When I started to write Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I thought of it as an inductive study that would work out of purely descriptive analysis of a series of examples to see what I could say about how Paul was using the Old Testament.
I ended up in a lot of places I never would have predicted. At the time I wrote that book there was a consensus among most New Testament scholars that Paul’s quotations of the Old Testament were simply atomistic proof texting, ignoring the context from which they came.
But the more I looked into the evidence, I decided that was just wrong: actually, the Old Testament was extremely formative for the way Paul thought, and his citations frequently did evoke an awareness of the larger literary Old Testament context from which they were taken.
A large part of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is taken up with trying to demonstrate the phenomenon of metalepsis. It’s a term I learned from the literary scholar and poet John Hollander, who had written an elegant book called The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Hollander made the point that all great literature is densely allusive and that very often poetic texts are full of echoes of earlier texts. A sensitive reading requires us to recognize that and to see where the echoes come from.
Metalepsis is a literary device of quoting a piece of text that beckons the reader to discover more of the original context from which the fragmentary citation came. That was the discovery I made in writing Echoes of Scripture in Letters of Paul. It really opened up in the field of New Testament studies a very different way of thinking about how Paul was related to his own Jewish tradition.
At the time, there was a certain body of scholarship that argued that because Paul was a trained rabbi, you could understand his uses of the Old Testament as instances of midrashic biblical interpretation in the rabbinic mode. There were attempts to show how that worked out formally in Paul’s citation practices. I found those very unsatisfying as well. I don’t actually think that Paul, in his letters, works in the same stylistic vein or genre as Jewish biblical midrash. There are different things going on there.
I was blazing a different trail in analyzing Paul as a writer who taps into his deep knowledge of Jewish Scripture and evokes Jewish scriptural narratives in a way that is literarily rich and suggestive.
We’ll get into this a little bit later with the gospels, but I’m curious about the letters of Paul. Are there other examples from that time and place where you can compare what he’s doing if isn’t midrash? In other words, as a point of comparison, are there texts that do what he’s doing, or is he inventing a new genre in his use of metalepsis?
The genre of the letter, of course—the epistle—is not a Pauline invention. There are plenty of letters in antiquity. And Paul certainly didn’t invent metalepsis, either; it is a pervasive trope in all literature. But his particular way of re-reading Israel’s Scripture through the lenses of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus does not have obvious precursors.
Surely, the church fathers who came after Paul picked up on these tropes and did similar things with them. I’m wondering then if there’s a way to think of what he was doing; maybe it’s de novo. I don’t know.
It’s hard to come up with something that’s an exact parallel. There are analogies of different sorts. What he’s not doing, for example, is the genre of biblical commentary. You can compare the works of Philo, who is a Jewish author, who actually give extended allegorical expositions of particular biblical texts.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, you have examples of commentaries that go, more or less, line by line and perform what’s called pesher exegesis. This kind of commentary quotes a line of Scripture and then says, “Its interpretation is …” Then it goes to the next line and says, “Its interpretation is …”
Paul doesn’t do that kind of thing exactly. What Paul is doing is more like what a preacher does in evoking a text and then reflecting upon it in various ways, in a way that tries to be edifying for his readers. If we had access to synagogue sermons contemporary with Paul, which we don’t (they simply haven’t survived in literary form), they might offer closer parallels. Perhaps the closest parallels are to be found within the intertextuality of the Old Testament itself: for example, the way that Isaiah evokes the creation and exodus stories.
I do think that the letters of Paul, in the way they use Scripture, are, at least as far as I know, distinctive in their own historical setting.
Since the time that book was published, do you find that others have followed your lead in investigating these literary connections? Are scholars doing a better job of seeing these echoes?
Yes. There’s been a flood of articles and monographs, many of which even pick up the term “echoes” in their titles. Many of these are informative and edifying, even brilliant. On the other hand, sometimes when reading some of that stuff, I feel a little bit like the “Sorcerer’s apprentice,” who let the brooms out of the closet. People’s imaginations occasionally run wild. I’m not responsible, I hope, for all of that.
Let’s talk about your two most recent books, Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, which are closely linked.
Reading Backwards is the published version of a lecture series, the Hulsean Lectures, which I gave at Cambridge University. When I was asked to give those lectures, I was, at that time, serving as Dean of the Divinity School at Duke and was overwhelmed by administrative work.
I had previously written hundreds of manuscript pages of work I’d been doing for the book which eventually became Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. What I did in the Hulsean Lectures was to extract material out of that much larger unfinished manuscript and condense it into the lectures that became Reading Backwards.
Those lectures focused very narrowly on the question of how the gospel writers draw upon Israel’s Scripture in order to narrate the divine identity of Jesus. It’s a Christologically focused set of excerpts from the larger and older manuscript.
When I finally completed and published the bigger book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, it included most of the material that was in the Hulseans, but now in its larger, original context.
For both books, your starting point is, in many ways, the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Can you talk about how that passage sets up your argument?
For readers who may not have that text immediately at hand or in mind, Luke tells the story of two travelers who had been followers of Jesus. despondently leaving the city of Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion.
The risen Jesus then appears along the road and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them, “What are you talking about?” and they say, “Oh, we’re very sad and hopeless because Jesus, who we thought was a great prophet, has been put to death by the Romans and the Jewish authorities. We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but in fact, obviously not because he was killed.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
Jesus then says, “Oh, foolish and slow of heart to believe the Scriptures,” and launches into a long exposition of how Moses and all the prophets bore witness to the fact that the Messiah must suffer and be raised. It’s only then when they finally arrive at their destination in the little town of Emmaus, sit down in a table together, and break bread together that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
So there’s a post-resurrectional exposition of Scripture as revelatory. In Luke’s gospel this suggests the fundamental insight that only in retrospect can you come to understand how Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus.
How is reading backward in a figural sense different from reading prophecy forward? And why is the difference important for readers to appreciate?
If we read the Old Testament as predictive prophecy, there are several problems with that. First, not very much of the Old Testament actually does take the form of making predictions about some future coming Messiah. Attempts to make it read that way are often rightly seen as forced and artificial.
To take a single example, the New Testament passion narratives repeatedly echo Psalm 22, culminating in Jesus’ dying cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Psalm 22, read on its own terms as a lament psalm, though it looks forward to future deliverance and vindication, does not purport to be making predictions about a future coming figure. Rather, when the Evangelists retell the story of the crucifixion, they retrospectively discern the striking correspondences to the psalm.
To be sure, in the Old Testament, there are a few passages that look forward in hope to a future king who will restore the kingdom, a lot of those particularly in the Psalms. There are also enigmatic passages, of course, in Isaiah that refer to a suffering figure, although that figure is never described there as a Messiah.
But the whole picture doesn’t really come together until you read the text, as I say, “backwards,” through the lens of cross and resurrection. Once you have the story of Jesus, you can go back to the older texts and have a kind of “Aha!” recognition that certain things are foreshadowed there, but there’s a big difference between foreshadowing and prophecy.
When you’re moving forward in a narrative, you can’t know what is foreshadowed until you see the full unfolding of the plot and see what actually happens in the end, and then you can do a second reading of the text in light of its ending. That second reading allows you to unravel clues that you never would’ve seen before.
That’s why the approach of reading backwards, which Erich Auerbach has described as figural exegesis, is a much more helpful description of what’s actually going on in the New Testament itself.
I realize that your book is not a critique of other critical approaches, but there are a few things that your two most recent books certainly do challenge. One of them is the notion of high and low Christologies. What is generally meant by that and how does your work frustrate these distinctions?
Good question. That distinction between high and low Christology has to do with the extent to which any particular text thinks of Jesus as God or not. Is Jesus a human figure, a prophet?—that’s a “low” Christology. Is Jesus an incarnation of God?—that’s a “high” Christology.
Many works of New Testament scholarship will say that the high Christology is a late development, and that the original, earliest traditions about Jesus represent a low Christology. He was simply a Palestinian prophet and teacher, who was executed. That’s the historical fact, and then it took about a century for the church eventually to develop the mythological claim that He was divine—and to superimpose that idea as a dogmatic overlay on the earlier simple stories of Jesus.
I’m painting there with a very broad brush, but that’s the way the terms are usually used. John is of course thought to have the highest Christology, and usually Mark and Luke, the lowest Christologies. I came to the conclusion as I studied this material that that was fundamentally wrong. Instead, all four gospels in their different ways, at their foundational layers, bear witness to Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.
The Gospel of Mark doesn’t have the concept of incarnation in the way that John does, but we find Jesus consistently in that gospel doing things that God alone can do: forgive sins, still storms, etc., etc. It’s evoking narrative patterns from the Old Testament to show that Jesus is doing acts that identify him with the Divine.
The terms high and low Christology are misleading to start with. As the church ultimately declared at the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. What we see in the four gospels is the astonished and astonishing narrative testimony to that reality. All four gospels tell distinct stories that portray the human figure, Jesus, as the mysterious embodiment of Israel’s God. They do it in four different narrative ways, but they’re all doing the same thing. It is as though the single event of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection was a Big Bang—an explosion that spun out the hermeneutical universe of narrative and biblical reinter-pretation that we see in manifold forms in the gospels.