The intertextual approach put forward and practiced by Richard B. Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul adds volume to some muffled themes of Paul’s letters and provides the impetus for a hermeneutic that is both exhilarating and frightening. Although at first glance it appears that this book is merely offering one more critical method to the exegetical tool box, it ends up challenging current boundaries of biblical interpretation and pushing the Church to not simply read and interpret but to take part in and embody the living Word of God. Though written in 1989 this book takes the reader into relatively uncharted territory, lacking many of the hermeneutical comforts of home yet provoking good dialogue in the community of faith.
Hays’ intertextual approach is influenced by literary critical methods that recognize the echoes of past literature in later poetic writings. By alluding to a former expression a poet can play off of already established imagery and either turn the tables on the expression to say something new or revamp it to plumb even further depths of meaning. The recognition of this phenomena in Paul’s letters, so richly interwoven with Old Testament quotes and allusions, is essential to Hays’ approach. He presents the rationale of the approach this way:
The phenomenon of intertextuality–the imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one–has always played a major role in the cultural traditions that are heir to Israel’s Scriptures: the voice of Scripture, regarded as authoritative in one way or another, continues to speak in and through later texts that both depend on and transform the earlier (Hays 1989, 14, emphasis mine).
It is one thing to recognize that later portions of Scripture depended on previous ones for significance, but to allow for transformation of meaning is to open a door few evangelical exegetes would be eager to walk through. Indeed it would be tempting to dismiss Hays approach from the outset, except for the fact that this is exactly the type of hermeneutic that Paul himself seems to employ.
Introducing them as apparent misreadings of Old Testament Scripture, Hays points out several instances when Paul transforms the original meaning of the ancient text and applies it in a new way to contemporary issues. Hays then highlights the intertextual dynamic in a way that illuminates Paul’s meaning. Although it is not his declared motivation, the result is a compelling defense and further advocation of Paul’s unique hermeneutical style. Some of Hays’ readings are more convincing than others.
One of the best examples of this may come in Hays’ description of Romans 10:5-10, where Paul takes the meaning of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 and flips it completely upside down. Whereas Moses was using a rhetorical argument to emphasize the availability and attainability of the commandments (“the word is very near you”), Paul alludes to it in order to assert exactly the opposite. What the people were searching high and low for was Christ, who had now come (“the word is very near you”). Since Christ had of course not come at the time of Moses’ writing this could be easily be written off as bad exegesis.
At the very least it seems highly unfair to the Hebrews, until we give Paul permission to reinterpret Deuteronomy 30 and in light of recent events. Christ fulfilled the Law and offered righteousness to all by faith. Looking back, Paul understands that when the Hebrews were pursuing the Law they were actually participating in the covenant to come, inasmuch as they were doing it as an expression of their faith in Yahweh. Moses was inadvertently calling them to faith in the same gospel as Paul. Through intertextual echo Paul is able to assert a meaning that Moses and his original readers would not have asserted, while staying faithful to the principle and the truth of what Moses was saying.
It is difficult to summarize Hays readings in such a short space, but two other examples merit mention. One of the weaker “echoes” is his treatment of 2 Corinthians 3:7, which is an allusion to Exodus 34:30, the passage about Moses veiling his face because the people could not bear the sight. Hays posits that what Moses was hiding was the “transitory” nature of the glory on his face because what the Hebrews really wanted was the “script” rather than the “spirit.” As a result they were unable to see that which pointed so clearly to Christ. While the argument as a whole is somewhat convincing it is so convoluted that one begins to wonder how anyone could have ever got it or ever could–and how “near” the Word of God actually is. It would be interesting to try to better Hays description of the echo to see if it is actually preachable.
One of the more amazing insights gained from Hays’ intertextual reading is the puzzling case of Galations 4:21-31 where Paul equates Hagar, rather than Sarah, with Sinai. Since the Sinai covenant came to the descendants of Sarah this seems like Scripture-twisting to the extreme. However, by allowing Paul freedom of metaphor Hays recognizes that Paul is playing the Mosaic covenant against the Abrahamic covenant rather than the New. The promise to both Jew and Gentile goes back to the Abrahamic covenant, and while the Mosaic covenant came after, the promise was still to be claimed by faith. Once the leeway for intertextuality is granted, Paul’s point is able to shine through. The Law was righteous, but on its own it could only produce slaves. The playing of ancient covenants against each other points the Hebrews to the fulfillment, the power, and the freedom that had finally come in Christ.
Hays is modest yet confident in the validity of the intertextual approach. He is honest about its inherent dangers, but he also provides a compelling argument for utilizing the method and accepting the ramifications that unravel from it. These ramifications place greater demands upon the people of God, pushing them toward a more vital dialogue with one another and with the text, but isn’t that what we ought to expect when we approach a book that claims to be the “living and active” Word of God; “sharper than a two-edged sword?”
Although I would like to put further thought into the ramifications of Hays’ hermeneutical approach (or should I say Paul’s?) and sense a need for greater definition of the criteria and constraints to be employed in this hermeneutic I cannot deny that I find within it an enticing and compelling way to approach the Bible. Certainly this creative and “free” approach to biblical interpretation opens up new dangers for the church which need to be addressed carefully. However, the risk involved may reap substantial (and much-needed) rewards for the Church today. Rather than compromising our faith in God, wielded properly this way of reading the Bible intensifies our need to trust Him and interact with Him, even as Scripture unfolds and speaks afresh write before our eyes. Rather than leading us down a path toward individual and relativistic theological sidetracks, pursued carefully this approach leads us to a humbler and more interdependent relationship with our community of faith.
BT620 Pauline Epistles, Martin Culy, PhD, Briercrest Seminary, September 11, 2006