Handel's Messiah, Jesus, and the Old Testament

It's that time of year when choose among local performances of Handel's Messiah. Brigham Young University's BYUtv aired a documentary about the oratorio this past Thanksgiving evening. Listen to the entire performance, and you'll hear lyrics taken from Israel's prophets, especially Isaiah but also Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah, along with Psalm 22.

In the Messiah the Jesus story begins with Israel's prophets. They anticipate the savior's arrival, which finds its fulfillment in the gospel stories. Israel's anticipation and Jesus as its fulfillment: that makes the story.

When the earliest Christians tried to understand and explain Jesus, they naturally turned to their own sacred scriptures, the Jewish Bible in its popular Greek translations. (We call those ancient Greek versions the Septuagint.) This is what Jews and Christians do. Faced with new realities, we turn to our scriptures for illumination. The people who wrote our gospels did the same thing. In the King James Version Isaiah 7:14 announces the birth of an infant named Emmanuel, or God with us. Matthew's infancy narrative quotes this very passage (1:23). (Isaiah 7 is talking about the growth of a small child, not predicting a virgin birth.) Isaiah 53 describes a suffering servant whose wounds bring healing. By some counts about forty New Testament passages allude to or quote from that chapter in interpreting Jesus' death. Psalm 22 expresses untold suffering in very physical terms: the passion narratives of Mark and Matthew draw upon its imagery on multiple occasions, while John quotes the lines, "They divided my garments among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots" (Psalm 22:19; John 19:24).

In a short and eminently readable book, Reading Backwards, Richard B. Hays explains how the gospel stories rely upon the Jewish Scriptures. Currently the dean of Duke University's Divinity School, Hays earned high respect for his research into early Christian biblical interpretation. Hays' early work focused on Paul's use of scripture, but for over a decade his attention has also turned to the New Testament gospels. Reading Backwards has emerged from countless public lectures, including Cambridge University's prestigious Hulsean Lectures.

At one level Hays simply states what most every biblical scholar knows, but he does so in a most helpful way. It's not that the "Old Testament" prophets "predicted" Jesus; instead, early Christians naturally read "backwards" to understand their Bible in the light of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The gospel authors found what Hays calls "figural correspondences" between those scriptures and Jesus. Indeed, that's how other ancient Jewish authors interpreted their own very different concerns and experiences. According to Hays,

It would be a hermeneutical [i.e., interpretive] blunder 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. (94)

The meat of this little book involves detailed studies of how each of the four gospels reads the Jesus story in the light of Jewish scripture. Hays teaches us two basic lessons.

First, each gospel interacts with the Old Testament in its own distinctive way. Moreover, an appreciation for the gospels' use of the Old Testament is necessary for proper interpretation. One surprise: the gospels don't simply draw random proof texts from the Bible; they invite us to consider Old Testament passages in their larger context.

Second, careful attention to the gospels' use of the Old Testament reveals what may surprise many readers. The gospel authors understood Jesus as divine, as the embodiment of God's presence in the world.

There's only one way to make these points, and that's gospel by gospel and example by example. According to Hays the gospels interact with scripture in diverse ways. Mark is subtle, telling stories that identify Jesus with the God of Israel through their allusion to scripture. Mark rarely quotes directly from the Bible. For example, when Jesus feeds the great crowd, he has compassion on them because they are "like sheep without a shepherd." Then he has them sit down on the green grass. Like God in Psalm 23, Jesus feeds the crowd: "The LORD is my shepherd" who "makes me lie down in green pastures."

Matthew handles things differently, often explicitly quoting from scripture. Hays counts thirteen occasions in which Matthew says something like, "This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying...." Matthew does not simply equate Jesus with God, but Matthew does present Jesus as "God with us" (1:23; see 18:20; 28:20).

Luke places many of its scriptural citations in the mouths of the characters who populate the story, repeatedly calling attention to the prophets' hope for Israel's restoration. According to Luke, one who rightly knows the Bible - and this requires a little divine help (24:27, 44-47) - will see Jesus as the embodiment of those hopes.

Finally, John's Jesus insists that the scriptures testify to Jesus (5:39). If worship and the Jerusalem temple link Israel to God, John maintains that those symbols find a new resolution in Jesus. The trick is: even Jesus' disciples understand this only in retrospect, after Jesus' death and resurrection. When Jesus says, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," the disciples understand his meaning only after the resurrection (2:18-22).

I have one problem with this book. Hays argues that the gospels teach us Christians how we should read the Old Testament. I would say that the gospels instruct contemporary readers as to how we may understand the Old Testament, but this is just one necessary option among others. Moreover, reading the Old Testament as the gospel authors do can be both dangerous and unjust. Mark doesn't say it exactly, but Matthew, Luke, and John clearly do: they claim that a proper understanding of Israel's Scriptures leads to belief in Christ. For centuries Christians have taken this to mean that Jews do not understand their own Bible and thus stand under divine judgment. We should exercise great caution in following the gospels' examples.

To be clear, Hays condemns such deadly slander against Jews and affirms the need for care in interpreting the gospels. Yet there's a sense in which his argument implies that Christians should believe that Jesus brings the story of Israel to its fulfilment. When Hays refers to "God's redemption of the world" as the telos or goal of Israel's story (105), he comes dangerously close to saying that Israel's primary purpose was to prepare a path for Jesus. Historically, that line of thinking has not gone well, and for all the care Hays puts into recognizing the dangers I remain unconvinced that he avoids them. Nevertheless, I am immensely grateful for this book. It has deepened my understanding of the gospels and provided helpful language for understanding how the New Testament relates to the Old.