Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: Reading Each Evangelist on Their Own Terms and Seeing How Each Reads the Old Testament

arc.jpegAny alert reader of Matthew’s Gospel will notice the tax collector-turned-evangelist is regularly quoting from the Old Testament. To him, the events of Jesus birth, life, death, and resurrection “fulfill” the prophecies of the Old Testament. What may be less evident is that the other Gospel writers who are less explicit in their citations are equally informed and shaped by the Old Testament.

In a previous post, I suggested interpreters of the Bible should keep in mind that the authors of Scripture demonstrated various approaches to reading the Old Testament. Today, I want to catalog a few of those approaches, drawing again from the exegetical insights of Richard Hays’ and his careful study of the four Gospels, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. (A larger study of approaches would include Paul and Peter’s use of the Old Testament. We must save that for another day).

Reading the Gospels on Their Own Termsgospels

In the introduction to Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Richard Hays rightly observes:

Jesus and his followers were Jews whose symbolic world was shaped by Israel’s Scripture: their ways of interpreting the world and their hopes for God’s saving action were fundamentally conditioned by the biblical stories of God’s dealings with the people Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that as the earliest Christian communities began to tell and retell stories about Jesus, they interpreted his life, death, and resurrection in relation to those biblical stories (i.e., the texts that Christians later came to call the Old Testament). (5)

Contesting the “unconscious Marcionite bias” of many modern readers, Hays writes his book to “offer an account of the narrative representation [read: re-presentation] of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scriptures—as well as the ways in which Israel’s Scriptures prefigures and illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories” (7).

I believe he hits his mark, helps students better see what each biblical author is doing with the Old Testament, and proves why it is necessary for us to understand intertextuality, in general, and how each author employs various methods of intertextuality to show how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament storyline of Israel and thus sheds light backwards on the Hebrew Scriptures and forward to Christians who worship to God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

What follows, then, is a brief—well, it’s not as long as Hays volume—summary of points concerning each Gospel writer.

Matthew: Proclaiming the Gospel as a Promise Now Fulfilled in Christ

Matthew not only begins the New Testament, he also begins to teach us how to read the Old Testament. With his quotations formulas, he gives guidance—training wheels, if you will—to see how Jesus and all his followers understand the Old Testament. As Peter and Paul say in their epistles, the prophets of old did not serve themselves but those on whom the end of the ages have come (1 Peter 1:10–12; 1 Corinthians 10:7, 11). In practice, Matthew begins to show us how to relate Old Testament texts with New Testament fulfillment.

To this method, Hays makes a few observations:

  1. Matthew does not ‘prooftext’ the Old Testament. He is not “fixated on a prediction/fulfillment method of interpretation.” Rather, “the fulfillment quotations, therefore, invite the reader to enter an ongoing exploration of the way in which the law and the prophets in their entirety find fulfillment (Matt 5:17) in Jesus and in the kingdom of heaven” (186).
  2. Matthew often “interweave[s] two or more Old Testament texts, imbedding wording from one text within another” (186). In this, he teaches us how these passages relate in the Old Testament, and/or how the apostles under Jesus’ tutelage expect us to put Scripture together.
  3. Matthew completes transfiguration of the Old Testament in the person and work of Christ. Matthew has a “special affinity for prophetic texts,” Hays says (187). And part of the reason why is the way the prophets transfigured the earliest promises in the Law. In the midst of Israel’s multi-century downfall, they are looking to the future with the words of the past (the Pentateuch) and prophesying what the Spirit of Christ is leading them to write. Accordingly, as Matthew sees this “transfiguration” of the prophets words completed in Jesus, he relies heavily on their words to explain what has happened in Christ for Israel and the nations.

All in all, Matthew’s Gospel is a call unto discipleship, where the nations are beckoned to come and worship and serve Jesus Christ. But of course to identify who this king is, Matthew must explain him as Immanuel, the Son of David, the greater temple, the true wisdom and rest, etc. To do that, he makes as Christological re-interpretation of the Old Testament and in the process teaches us how to read the Old in light of the New. As he says in Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mark: Proclaiming the Gospel as a Mystery Now Revealed in Christ

As the earliest writer, Mark is also the most subtle. Unlike Matthew, he does not seek to explain everything with a citation; unlike Luke, he does not seek to give an orderly account (cf. Luke 1:1–4); unlike John, he is less explicit in his propositions about Jesus’ divinity. But for those whose mind is filled with Old Testament, “let the reader understand” (Mark 13;14), there is more than meets the eye.

For instance, in comparing Mark and Matthew’s presentation of Jesus entry into Jerusalem, the former leaves off any mention of Zechariah 9:9 (Mark 11:1–11), while the latter quotes it in full (Matthew 21:5). Should the faithful reader of Mark’s Gospel refuse to make connection between Mark 11 and Zechariah 9?  Or is Mark writing like Jesus’ told parables? To those with ears to hear (i.e., with those with the requisite “encyclopedia of reception,” as Hays calls it), the significance of Mark’s concise language is amplified.

Hays puts it like this: “His hermeneutical strategy for reading Israel’s sacred texts is exactly analogous to his understanding of the function of parables, as disclosed in Jesus’ answer to the disciples question about his enigmatic manner of teaching in parables” (101). In other words, there is a greater reward to reading Mark for those who know the Old Testament well. “Readers are called to listen closely to what might be hidden in the text in order to enter fully into the outpouring of signification that awaits the attentive interpreter” (ibid.)

To some this may sound like mysticism or sensus plenior, but as Hays demonstrates with examples, it is more a case of understanding his Gospel as an enlarged parable. For those with ears to hear, the biblical identification of Jesus is evident—and it grows over time. Though this view of Mark may not sit well with modern readers, schooled to reduce everything to propositions, this approach to Mark better reads him on his own terms, as an evangelist proclaiming the mysteries of God now revealed in Christ.

Luke: Proclaiming the Gospel as an Ancient Story Now Completed in Christ

Luke is an historian who begins his Gospel (1:1–4) with a stated intention to write a reliable history about Jesus, all he did and taught. As Hays observes, “Luke seeks to provide assurance . . . for his readers that Israel’s story has come to its true consummation in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in the outpouring of the Spirit on the community of Jesus’ followers” (191). Thus, what the reader finds in Luke’s gospel is “the continuation of biblical history,” as Nils Dahl put (ibid.).

Accordingly, Luke’s Gospel, as compared to Matthew for instance, is much less explicit in terms of Old Testament quotation. Rather, Luke weaves into his text “the kinds of things that happened in the tales of the patriarchs and prophets” (194). Put musically, “It is as though we are hearing, throughout Luke’s Gospel, subtle musical variations on a theme” (ibid.). Thus, typology, if you want to call it that, in Luke’s Gospel is a kind of Christ-centered re-enactment of previous historical narratives. Hays elaborates on this in his chapter, and provides this illuminating metaphor:

We might picture [Luke’s] narrative technique in the following way: it is a though the primary action of the Gospel is played out on center stage, in front of the footlights, while a scrim at the back of the stage displays a kaleidoscope series of flickering sepia-toned images from Israel’s Scripture. The images can flash by almost unnoticed; however, if the viewer pays careful attention, there are many moments in which the words or gestures of the characters onstage mirror something in the shifting backdrop—or, possibly, the other way around. At such moments of synchronicity, the viewer may experience a flash of hermeneutical insight, as the ‘live action’ recapitulates a scene from the older story, allowing the two narrative moments to interpret one another. (193)

Recapitulation. It is probably an esoteric word to most people today, but it is an essential concept for understanding how the biblical writers looked at redemptive history and God’s providence. Moses used this device repeatedly in the Pentateuch. For instance, when he told the story of Abraham leaving Canaan for Egypt because of famine in Genesis 12, he mapped out onto this scene the later events of exodus. This comparison was not accidental; it made connection with the people of Israel who knew their own experience of God’s redemption, and could see that God had previously done the same for their forefather. Writing in this way, Moses wrote Abraham’s history in a way that (1) faithfully recounted history and (2) prefigured the exodus narrative in Abraham’s life so as to give the children of Abraham in the God of Abraham. Later, the prophets would do much of the same.

Following in this tradition, Luke comes and picks up the narrative of Israel and uses the stories of old to explain the new thing God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. In this way, Hays acknowledges, “most of the intertextual references in the Gospel itself are implicit correspondences, suggested through the literary devices of allusion and echo” (193). Moreover, most of the “direct quotations of Scripture are . . . found in the mouths characters in the story, not in overt authorial commentary” (192). Hays suggests, “This narrative device imparts to Luke’s intertextual citations a dramatic character; readers are required to interpret the intertextual relations in light of the narrative unfolding plot” (ibid.).

In the end, one gets the sense in Luke’s Gospel, that he is doing what he describes Jesus doing on the road to Emmaus in his final chapter. As Jesus interpreted all the events of his life, death, and resurrection by means of the Law and the Prophets (24:27), so Luke is doing the same. The story of Jesus cannot be told without consideration from the Old Testament, but instead of copying and pasting Old Testament citations, he tells the history of Jesus in terms, types, and shadows from Israel’s past.

In this way, Luke is not only a faithful historian, he is also a first-rate storyteller, as all good historians are. And writing about Jesus he makes his story “thick with scriptural memory” (276). For the reader unfamiliar with the Hebrew scriptures, his message is plain enough. But for those with ears to hear (or who are willing to read the Old Testament), “the effect of this accumulation of scriptural imagery is to encourage a certain kind of reading community” (276). Luke is not just trying to recount facts; he’s trying to make disciples who are shaped by the Word of God as they follow Christ—a theme repeated in his Gospel. To understand Luke rightly today, we also must enter into the story he is telling, one that follows the ancient lines of Israel to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

John: Proclaiming the Gospel as a Kaleidoscope of Images Now Seen Fully in Christ

John is the most visual of all the Evangelists. Which is to say, while the Synoptics tell the story of Jesus with words borrowed from the Old Testament, John uses pictures. As Hays posits, “If Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination” (284).

John writes a Gospel with a lower concentration of citations and allusions, but a higher percentage of “images and figures from Israel’s Scripture” (ibid.). In this way, John not only differs from the other Gospels by his (seemingly) more explicit statements about Christ’s deity; he also employs a different narratival approach. To be sure, he does cite the Old Testament, especially in the second half of his book, (“in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled,” 12:37–40; 13:18; 15:24–25; 17:12; 19:23–24, 28–29, 36–37), but the overall effect of his Gospel is more visual than Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

For John, therefore, he ‘sees’ more of Jesus in the Old Testament. While Luke records Jesus saying that he interpreted in the Law and the Prophets all the things about himself (24:27), Jesus in John’s Gospel goes further: the whole of the Old Testament speaks of Jesus (John 5:39). As Hays puts it, “John understands Scripture as a huge web of christological signifiers [i.e., symbols] generated by the pretemporal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory” (343).

In John’s narrative, the temple becomes a figural sign for Jesus’ body. . . . Jesus body is now the place where God dwells, the place where atonement for sin occurs, . . . the great feasts of Israel’s worship are newly seen, in retrospect, to be replete with signs and symbols of Jesus, . . . even Israel itself becomes a figural anticipation of Jesus, who is now revealed as the true Vine. (344)

Summarizing his observations, Hays says, “All creation,” in John’s Gospel, “breathes with his Life” (344). Indeed, John describes Jesus in visual terms where the symbols of the Old Testament become a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that find their full substance in Christ. Such a reading of John recognizes the ways he is “reading backwards,” to use Hays language, but it also emphasizes the way in which the sovereign Lord painted word-pictures in Israel that had their telos in Christ. Yes, much of the Old Testament is only now visible in the light of Christ, but as it was written the Spirit of Christ was framing the tabernacle and shaping the individuals, such that their lives foreshadowed Christ.

Therefore together, the Old and the New, paint a picture of who Jesus Christ is. The Old forms the mold into which he was poured, figuratively speaking. The New provides ample proof that he is the One to whom all the Scriptures foretold, and in John’s case, prefigured.

Final Thoughts: Watching for Hermeneutical Tendencies

Growing up an athlete who only read basketball biographies—a few things have changed since my conversion—I close with a sports metaphor to capture the way we might read the Gospels.

In football (and other sports) players watch game film to identify ‘tendencies’ in the other team. With equal attention, we should come to the Evangelists to see what sort of intertextual ‘tendencies’ they employ. As we have seen, each Gospel cites copiously the Old Testament, but each in different ways. Matthew is a legal expert, citing chapter and verse; Mark is more subtle and allusive; Luke is a storyteller; and John paints with words and symbols.

Learning these tendencies helps us compare and contrast each Gospel and rightly understand their individual messages. More broadly too, there are benefits to rightly discerning different literary techniques with regards to typology and intertextuality. Accordingly, faithful interpreters must avoid reducing legitimate typology to one author. Rather, we should endeavor to synthesize and allow for differences in approach. Likewise, a genuine, biblical Christology emerges only when the collective message of all four Gospels (plus the rest of the canon) are read in context, together. Again, we must read each author on their own terms. Only then can we properly weigh and synthesize our dogmatic conclusions.

All in all, Richard Hays does an invaluable service for the church when he takes pains to show the ways each Gospel writer employs the Old Testament. It heightens our love for Christ and widens our understanding of the biblical corpus. For that reason, I encourage you to read his book. And more to read the Gospels, listening (and watching) for the way they use Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds