Richard Hays and the Limits of Text

As part of my preparation for comprehensive exams, I had the opportunity to work through Richard B. Hays’ recent Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). It is a fine book and will no doubt prove its usefulness for conversations related to OT-NT intertextuality and christology in the gospels for years to come. I have very few criticisms to level at Hays, but there is one area that I think his dominant theory of intertextuality limits him:  Hays’ argument is too text-focused, while his stated theoretical aims should have pushed him further.

As Hays sees it, the gospel composers echo and embed portions of OT texts in their narratives of Jesus primarily through the intertextual method of metalepsis, in which a small portion of a text is cited or echoed “in such a way that a reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came” (11). Put differently, the textual echo evokes the larger text. This is all well and good (and something modern critics have argued at least since Dodd), and Hays finds no shortage of examples in the NT gospels in which textual metalepsis clearly applies. But it is when Hays appeals to a modern example that one begins to wonder if textual metalepsis might be a bit limiting:

In his eloquent victory speech on the night of his initial election to the presidency of the United States in 2008, Barack Obama declared that his hearers could put their hands “on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” The phrase echoed a maxim from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Certainly Obama’s declaration was not a direct quotation of King; the verbal link between the two utterances depends on just two words, arc and bend. But just as certainly, Obama’s sentence was an audible echo that summoned his audience to take up once again the moral legacy of the American civil rights struggle and to renew their efforts to work for a just society (11, emphasis added).

Hays’ definition of metalepsis and his contemporary example of it diverge: in Hays’ own words, Obama’s echo of King was not meant to summon the surrounding textual context of King’s speech but, rather, his “legacy.” Put slightly differently, by echoing King’s speech, Obama attempted to summon and instance King’s tradition: who he was, what he stood for, what he said, what he did, how he died, and how his legacy lives on. Obama wasn’t just summoning the next line in King’s speech. Hays’ version of metalepsis, as applied to Obama and MLK, Jr., could’ve been better explained by a more robust use of John Miles Foley (whom Hays cites, but unfortunately only in passing). Foley’s theory of “traditional referentiality” in oral performance—a theory he self-consciously attempted to render portable to other disciplines—would’ve helped Hays understand that echo can create more than just textual links, but can echo entire bodies of tradition. Traditional referentiality, as Foley describes it,

entails the invoking of a context that is enormously larger and more echoic than the text or work itself, that brings the lifeblood of generations of poems and performances to the individual performance or text. Each element in the phraseology or narrative thematics stands not simply for that singular instance but for the plurality and multiformity that are beyond the reach of textualization (Foley, Immanent Art [Indiana University Press, 1997], 7. Emphasis added.).

My issue with Hays isn’t that textual metalepsis isn’t an operative technique in the gospels (it is), but that what the gospel composers were doing was at times a bit more expansive than that. I am critiquing Hays only because I don’t think he took his own theoretical instincts to their logical conclusion. In addition to echoing discrete texts, the gospel composers, like Obama’s echo of King, also instance tradition (in fact, I’d gloss textual quotation as a form of instancing tradition). Had Hays made stronger use of Foley alongside John Hollander (The Figure of Echo [University of California Press, 1981]), he could’ve given a stronger account for the multiple modes by which the gospels engage the body of tradition we Christians call the Old Testament. His chapter on John—a gospel that rarely quotes or echoes specific OT texts—would’ve been strengthened by a stronger theoretical appeal to Foley and traditional referentiality.

Similarly, Hays could have more strongly treated the kerygma of the Kingdom of God as an echo of tradition throughout the Synoptic gospels. As it stands, the traditional referentiality of the phrase βασιλεια του θεου gets relatively little play in Echoes…Gospels, because Hays focuses on the metaleptic force of discrete OT texts in the gospels. What OT text does “Kingdom of God” evoke? You’d be hard-pressed to nail down a solitary text; you’d have to appeal instead to wide swaths of the OT canon and its interpretation in Second Temple Judaism. What is evoked by this phrase is “enormously larger and more echoic” than a single text; the phrase evokes the much larger and more diffuse tradition of the God of Israel’s rule. While the implicit high christology of the gospels’ metaleptic technique gets plenty of coverage in Hays’ book (and this is welcome…Hays even changed my mind on the christologies of the Synoptics!), it is unfortunate that the actual gospel within the gospels is so muted by Hays’ text-centered approach.

Over at The Jesus Blog, Rafael Rodríguez has used Foley to make a similar critique of the limits of Hays’ intertextual theory.