Book Notes: Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays

Characteristics: (where 1 is bad, 3 is average, and 5 is superb)

  • Interestingness: 4
  • Subject Matter: 5
  • Organization: 3
  • Binding: 3

Wow. What an incredible book. I think I will have to name this the most significant book on Paul that I have ever read...and I have read quite a bit in that area of study.

The book is about how Paul uses the Old Testament. This particular topic was very uninteresting to me a few years back, but over time I have realized the huge window it gives you into the mind of the one who is doing the quoting and/or alluding. Being an orthodox Jew, Paul’s thinking prior to conversion was deeply informed by the Hebrew Scriptures. When he became a Christian the Scriptures retained their importance, but the Christ event radically changed how he viewed them and their message. In light of Christ, the original sense is subsumed by the eschatological. "The hermeneutical foundation for his reading is the conviction that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the gospel of God’s righteousness, now definitively disclosed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah" (161). His hermeneutical method is not easily defined as Midrash, or allegory. He was not thinking through a set of hermeneutical methods and picking one for passages that he liked. It is the event that defines how he views the text.

Hays builds his work primarily off of three of Paul’s letters, Romans formost, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

The word "echo" in the title is very significant for Hays’ book. Though texts are occassionally parsed in detail so Paul can make his point, that is not the norm. Much that Paul wants to say is not explicit; it comes from the echo of the text and its context. This means that it behooves the interpreter to spend more time thinking about the argument as a whole, and the text quoted and its context, if he really wants to understand Paul. This particular point, his main idea you could say, Hays convincingly nailed.

There are several other very interesting points in the book. The first came out of his exegesis of 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6. Very much echoing the ideas found in Jeremiah of the law written on the heart and in Ezekiel of the creation of a heart of flesh, Paul’s ministry is not like the ministry of Moses in the giving of the Law. His ministry is not about writing down the words of God, but seeing a textual embodiment in transformed lives. The contrast in the passage is not letter versus Spirit in the sense of literal versus allegorical, but written on stone versus written on the lives of those under the covenant. Very interesting exposition of the passage.

Second is the point Hays made about the difference between how he treated the time and his Jewish contemporaries. For them the primary time for God’s action was in the past, not in the present. Not so for Paul. The Christ event showed that during his time God was working just as much as he had before. During my education at Dallas Theological Seminary the teacher of my eschology class did something that no other teacher at DTS did to any significant degree (and in most cases, not at all); he focused on how the chief eschatological event happened at the death and resurrection of Christ. That was the end of the old age. Sure there is stuff to happen in the future, but it is small potatoes to that very climactic event that happened 2000 years ago. His message is not one I heard of much at all in the reading of modern eschatology I had done. Paul saw his time as a great eschaton, and unlike most, Hays can see that.

I also found his discussion of a focus on an ecclesiocentricity versus christocentricity interesting. Of course the idea of a christocentic worldview in Paul’s mind plays heavily in Hays discussion, but he makes the interesting point that his interpretations of biblical texts turn out to be more often than not about the church, not about Christ. Hays’ explanation for this is that christology was not a major issue in his Gentile churches, but understanding their part in God’s people and plan would be of huge interest. I thought this made a lot of sense.

If you are into the study of Paul’s thought, I could not more strongly recommend this book to you. Beware, though, before you read. It is an academic New Testament studies book. The discussion is dense (in a good way), and will probably frighten anyone away who is not in for a serious time of reading. His citations of secondary sources are comparitively skimpy, and the very careful reader should be able to follow his reasoning without a background in academic studies. But for most it will not be an easy read.