My Interview w/ Richard B. Hays of Duke University

I am pleased to post up my interview with Dr. Richard Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University’s Divinity School.  Some of you may be aware that Dr. Hays is a former teacher of mine during my master’s work at Duke; I was glad also to run in to him briefly at this past year’s SBL.  Despite my area of specialization being Hebrew Bible, I am and remain especially grateful to Dr. Hays for exposing me to the importance of seeing the Old Testament in the New, as well as helping Paul become a bit less(though not entirely!!) opaque!

Dr. Hays was kind enough to devote a great deal of time, energy, and thought to this interview.  It is my hope that you will read it as I did, with joy and interest, and emerge from it with a great deal of insight and knowledge.

Thank you, Dr. Hays, for agreeing to take part in this interview.  Can you start off by telling us a little about yourself and your educational and career history?

Sure.  I grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where I attended Casady School, an excellent private school where I had the great benefit of studying Latin and German with very fine teachers.  I then went to Yale where as an undergraduate I majored in English literature.  In those days the Yale English department was still significantly shaped by “the New Criticism,” an approach to interpretation that emphasized close reading of primary texts as self-contained aesthetic objects and placed relatively little weight on historical and contextual influences on literature.  (This was during the late 1960s, well before Yale became a bastion of deconstructionism and critical theory.)  I had the privilege of sitting in classes taught by scholars such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Alvin Kernan, and Bart Giamatti (who later became president of Yale and then Commissioner of Baseball!).  I also took a class on Romantic Poetry with a young professor named Harold Bloom—a class that, I must confess, I found thoroughly bewildering at the time.  

But probably the most important influence on me during my undergraduate years was William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, who was an ardent and eloquent advocate for civil rights and an equally eloquent critic of the Vietnam war.  Coffin’s witness brought me from a position of youthful skepticism back into the church and gave me a vision for the gospel as a liberating, life-transforming message.  In retrospect, I would say that Bill Coffin was theologically too much of a Niebuhrian for my (present) tastes, but he was really a splendid and powerful preacher, and he commanded the attention of Yale undergraduates then in a way that is difficult to conceive in our present cultural setting.

At that point, I had no ambition of a continuing academic career, but I did experience a sense of call to ministry.  After graduation from Yale in 1970 I went to the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, reasoning that I should go back to my native Southwest and serve in the Methodist Church, the church of my upbringing.  But, having been shaped by my undergraduate years in the tumultuous years of the late Sixties, I found seminary tame and confining and dropped out after one year.  My wife Judy and I (married right out of college) decided to move back to New England, and I took a job teaching high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  During those years we formed a small Christian intentional community called The Ark, which morphed into a booming house church.  And the church in time formed itself into a community called Metanoia Fellowship, which sought to practice radical disciplines of prayer, sharing possessions, and living together in light of the New Testament vision of discipleship.  Important influences during this period for me were Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship) and John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus).  During these years, I started commuting to Yale Divinity School to continue work on my M.Div.  And there I was bitten by the bug (or the call) to pursue serious academic study of theology. 

The greatest intellectual influences on me during those YDS years (1974-77) were Hans Frei and George Lindbeck.  These were of course precisely the years that Frei was publishing The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and The Identity of Jesus Christ.  Lindbeck had not yet sprung to “postliberal” fame (The Nature of Doctrine was still some years in the future), but his course on Reformation Confessions had a powerful impact on me, as did David Kelsey’s course on Christian Doctrine.  However, despite the fact that my most compelling courses were taught by theologians, in deciding to go on to doctoral work I gravitated to New Testament studies—no doubt drawn by my English major’s love for close reading of texts, along with a certain puzzled dissatisfaction about the then-dominant approaches to NT interpretation.

I ended up deciding to attend Emory University for the Ph.D., drawn there particularly by Leander Keck, who was widely acknowledged to be one of the more theologically attuned NT scholars in the country, and whose book A Future for the Historical Jesus had seemed to me wise and compelling.  So Judy and I packed up once again, by now with two kids, and moved to Atlanta.  At Emory, I also appreciated William Beardslee’s work on literary criticism of the NT.  Just as I was finishing my coursework, Lee Keck left Emory to become the Dean of Yale Divinity School.  So Will Beardslee ended up directing my dissertation, which was also significantly influenced by ongoing vigorous argumentation with Hendrikus Boers, the other senior member of  the NT faculty.  Emory provided a context where I was able to pursue my own particular mix of literary and theological interests.  I also did a minor concentration in Christian political ethics; my reading in this area planted seeds that later blossomed in my work on NT ethics. 

After graduation from Emory, I was very fortunate to be hired as an assistant professor back at Yale.  (This account is getting too long, so I’ll try to be briefer.)  My years of teaching at Yale Divinity School (1981-91) were wonderfully stimulating and formative.  I had the benefit there of superb students and a lively, diverse community.  These were the halcyon years of “the Yale School” of theology.  In addition to the faculty members I’ve already mentioned, Brevard Childs, with his emphasis on the canon, was a major force, and I also benefitted from sitting in on Wayne Meeks’s NT graduate seminar from time to time.  I loved the classroom teaching from the beginning, and the wider intellectual community of the university provided the context for the development of the ideas and interests that eventually led me to the writing of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  Anyone who has read that book will realize how significant the work of John Hollander (of the Yale English department) was for my thinking. 

After the publication of Echoes I was granted tenure at Yale.  But not long after that, Duke came recruiting and offered me an attractive situation—particularly in terms of supervising doctoral students and shaping a doctoral program hospitable to theological interpretation of Scripture.  (The Yale program, under the leadership of the senior NT scholars Meeks and Abraham Malherbe was very strong on Graeco-Roman context of the NT, but not so well-suited to my interests in “the OT in the New” and theological interpretation.)  So in 1991, we moved again to Duke, where I have happily spent the last 18 years. 

Probably the Duke part of the pilgrimage is better known to your readers.  Stanley Hauerwas has been a good friend and conversation partner.  Moody Smith, the senior NT scholar in the Divinity School when I arrived, has been a good and supportive colleague; I have now inherited his chair.  Ed Sanders, the senior NT colleague in the Religion Department, also contributed to the formation of a program with high standards and appropriately strong orientation towards the Jewish context of the NT, an orientation now reinforced by my colleague Joel Marcus.  Of course, at Duke, I’m back in a Wesleyan/Methodist environment, one that has a deep respect for the classical Christian confessional tradition and for the ecclesial setting of theological studies.  All of this has provided a very supportive context for my work.  And I’ve been blessed here with many outstanding doctoral students.

I’ve emphasized my own professional trajectory of education and employment.  But to tell the full story, I would also have to write at length about the importance of the SBL, the SNTS—with its European contacts and friendships—and my ongoing friendship over the last 25 years with Tom Wright.  I would also have to talk about the research groups at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton that generated the two books The Art of Reading Scripture and Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  But you asked me to tell you “a little,” and I’ve already done much more than that!

You have written prolifically on Paul, including your seminal dissertation The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.  What first drew your attention to Paul, and how do you see your work on Paul fitting in to the larger context of Pauline scholarship?

 My fascination with Paul took shape during my years in the doctoral program at Emory, as a result of seminars with Lee Keck and Hendrikus Boers.  I was taking those courses in the immediate wake of the publication of Ed Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism and J. Christiaan Beker’s Paul the Apostle.  These works were raising in different ways questions about Paul’s “pattern of religion” and about the problem of “contingency and coherence” in Paul’s thought.  It seemed to me that the way most Pauline scholars approached these issues was driven too much by the quest for an ideationally/systematically formulated “center” of Paul’s thought, with too little attention to the narrative underpinnings of Paul’s teaching.  So I began to mull over the ways in which Paul’s letters might be understood to contain allusive references to an underlying story.  At the same time, in the seminar with Keck, I wrote a paper on Romans 3, which later became my first published article, a piece in JBL called “Psalm 143 and the Logic of Romans 3.”  The germinal insight of the essay was that Ps 143:2, which Paul loosely cites in Rom 3:20, contains in its wider context references to the righteousness of God that help to elucidate the logic of Paul’s argument in Rom 3:21-26.  You can see how this led on to further developments as I followed this thread. 

How does my work fit into the larger context of  Pauline scholarship?  I’ve certainly been significantly influenced by Stendahl, Sanders, and by the scholars rather imprecisely lumped together as advocates of “the New Perspective,” particularly Jimmy Dunn and Tom Wright.  But for various reasons, I’ve not been strongly identified as a “New Perspective” theorist, despite the ways in which my readings have challenged traditional “Lutheran” interpretations and emphasized Paul’s Jewishness.  I’m not quite sure why this is so.  I think perhaps it’s because my emphases on narrative and intertextuality, and on canonical interpretation, have put me into different conversations.  I should also certainly mention J. Louis Martyn as another important influence; certainly he has taught me to be much more attentive to the apocalyptic dimensions of Paul’s gospel—while at the same time I have placed much more weight than he does on the continuity of Paul’s message with Israel’s scriptural and prophetic traditions.  So I guess I don’t fit cleanly into any of the usual boxes.  “The Conversion of the Imagination,” (the title essay of my 2005 collection of pieces on Paul) demonstrates the way in which I’ve tried to bring apocalyptic and intertextual/canonical approaches together.  

 A question submitted by one of my readers: Richard Burridge in his Imitating Jesus criticizes your Moral Vision of the NT for a “too easy dismissal of love as a key element for NT ethics” (p359). How would you respond to Burridge specifically, and what role do you see “love” having in NT ethics?

Richard, like some other readers, has not quite grasped my point about “love.”  I was not saying that love is unimportant, or that I’m somehow opposed to it!  I was saying that “love” cannot function as a focal image or common denominator to bring the diverse NT witnesses into a relation of unity.  There are two reasons for this: (1) several of the major NT writings have very little to say about love (Mark, Acts, Hebrews, Revelation); (2) “love” by itself is a concept, not an image; it must be given narrative specification by the story of the cross.  (That is why I propose the cross as one of three focal images for NT ethics, along with community and new creation.)  Otherwise, “love” cannot be distinguished from whatever the Beatles vaguely meant when they sang, “All you need is love.”  [I hasten to add that I am a great Beatles fan and was delighted to receive as a Christmas present the new remastered complete anthology of their recordings.]    It seems to me that Richard Burridge’s book exemplifies precisely the problem I am worried about, because for him “love” turns out to be equivalent to the uncritical inclusion of everyone.  (I am of course painting with a broad brush.)  My fuller comments on his book are forthcoming soon in a review essay that will appear in the Scottish Journal of Theology. 

Love is of course of central importance in several NT writings, especially the Pauline Letters, the Gospel of John, and 1 John.   I certainly believe that Christians are called to love because God first loved us in Jesus Christ.  And this calling has enormous significance for NT ethics.  But if we are looking for a synthetic image that can account for how the diverse NT writings hang together, love won’t do the job.  Another way of putting the point is that Burridge conflates the synthetic task of NT ethics with the hermeneutical task, with the result that “love” becomes a trump card that overrides the prophetic and critical witness of NT texts less congenial to Burridge’s (generally laudable) concerns. 

Much of your work has focused upon the use of the Old Testament in the New.  Why do you think this is an important aspect of NT studies?  What remains to be done in your view in this area?  What questions or issues remain unexplored or have not been answered satisfactorily?

 It’s an important issue because nearly all of the NT writers are pervasively engaged with the reception and reinterpretation of Israel’s Scripture!  You can’t understand what these authors were talking about if you don’t understand that they lived and moved in the symbolic world of the texts that Christians later  came to call the OT.  I’m working on a book on the ways that the Evangelists read the OT (see question #10 below).  I am constantly amazed by all the interconnections that emerge when we read the NT texts with an eye to their scriptural antecedents and allusions.  So I’m not sure I know what needs to be done next.  Every time I teach a graduate seminar on this topic, my students come up with fresh insights that are very exciting.  It’s important to emphasize that I’m not simply talking about questions of sources and influences.  If there is a major unfinished agenda, it has to do with thinking more deeply about the semantic effects of a canonical intertextuality in which the OT is re-read in light of the New and vice-versa to produce fresh and unexpected configurations of meaning.  (See the theoretical essays on this topic in Reading the Bible Intertextually, co-edited by Stefan Alkier, Leroy Huizenga, and me [Baylor University Press, 2009].)  This also involves studying more deeply the way in which Christian tradition, especially early patristic interpreters, understood these intertextual relations.  My own training as a NT scholar was impoverished by a lack of emphasis on patristic readings, and I’m now constantly involved in educating myself about these matters. 

Another question submitted by one of my readers: What do you think the future of intertextuality looks like research-wise?  And furtherfore, do you think intertextuality is best used as an analytic tool along with others (e.g., imperial-critical, postcolonial, etc.) in an eclectic hermeneutical methodology, or is it best executed in its own right?

 One of the problems with biblical scholarship is that the guild becomes preoccupied with methodology, at the expense of actual sensitive reading of texts.  I’m not particularly interested in “intertextuality” as such.  Rather, I’m interested in reading the biblical texts as carefully and deeply as I can.  Because all texts are imbedded in history and culture, attention to intertextuality is an inescapable aspect of exegesis of any text.  (For example, you can’t read many of Barack Obama’s speeches well if you don’t read them against the backdrop of Martin Luther King, Jr.)   So, yes, attention to intertextuality operates in a complex field of interpretative practices alongside other “methods.”  But sometimes I think we hamstring ourselves by talking about these methods as discrete things.  For example, what is “imperial-critical” methodology?  It simply means asking questions about the consequences of reading NT documents in the historical context of the Roman Empire.  Stefan Alkier’s work on intertextuality very helpfully borrows categories from Umberto Eco to talk about the “encyclopedia of production” and the “encyclopedia of reception” of a work.  That is simply to talk about the frame of cultural knowledge in which a work was produced by its author and perceived by its readers, both originally and subsequently.  When you put the question that way, “intertextuality” is nothing different from what NT critics have always sought to do—except that the concept of “encyclopedia of reception” broadens the field of concern beyond original authorial intention to embrace the diverse Wirkungsgeschichte of the texts.  Again, I recommend that readers interested in these questions consult the essays in Reading the Bible Intertextually.

What are some of the best places in your view to study the New Testament today?

 First of all, the NT is best studied in a community of prayer, worship, and service, where it is taken not merely as a museum piece but as a living word that calls us to account. 

But I assume the question intends to ask about specific university programs.  Of course, the answer to this question depends on the student’s particular interests and the questions he or she wants to explore.  For example, if you want to study the NT in relation to ancient rhetorical theory and practice, you couldn’t do better than to go to the University of Chicago to work with Margaret Mitchell. 

But if you mean to ask which NT doctoral programs most closely correspond to my own particular set of passions and curiosities, I would immediately name three top programs in the U.S. and one in the U.K.  First, of course, is Duke.  We have an interesting and diverse group of NT scholars here: Joel Marcus, Douglas Campbell, Kavin Rowe, Susan Eastman, and Mark Goodacre, along with wonderful supportive colleagues in cognate fields of Old Testament, theology, and ethics.   But I would also mention Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary as programs that encourage and support theological approaches to the study of the NT.  These three programs often compete for the same top applicants.  In the U.K., the University of Durham has become the most interesting NT program, with John Barclay and Francis Watson as the leading figures, and with Bishop Wright popping in from time to time.   Finally, without intending unseemly flattery to the interviewer’s institution, I should mention that Baylor is an up-and-coming program where I have happily sent several students in recent years.  The recent addition of Bruce Longenecker there strengthens an already good program.

I know this is a huge question, but can you say a few words about the pistis Christou debate and your view?

 It is indeed a huge question.  The syntactical arguments are inconclusive, and therefore the question has to be resolved in terms of a wider construal of the shape and logic of Paul’s thought.  I believe that the narrative structure of Paul’s christology (see my essay “The Story of God’s Son” in Seeking the Identity of Jesus) and the participatory logic of his soteriology strongly favor the Christological (subjective genitive) interpretation.  But that can never be proven so conclusively as to convince everyone.  In the second edition of The Faith of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2002), I wrote a lengthy new introduction reflecting on the issues, and I don’t have anything either to recant or to add to what I wrote there.

What do you see as the most important issues in NT that merit or will see greater emphasis and study going forward?

Hard to say.  As Yogi Berra observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  At the time I finished my undergraduate work 40 years ago, no one could possibly have predicted what issues would be hotly debated by NT scholars in 2010.  Somewhere today there is a handful of budding NT scholars who will have fresh insights, raise new questions, and move the discipline in unforeseeable directions.  This is partly because of the unquenchable human thirst for novelty.  But it’s also partly because of the unpredictable work of the Spirit of God in the church and in history. 

Still, having issued those disclaimers, I’ll point to a few issues that are obviously on the agenda in the short-term future.  (a) As noted above, the study of patristic interpretation of Scripture is a huge growing edge for the field, and this is only one aspect of a growing sympathetic appreciation of the history of interpretation as hermeneutical aid rather than hindrance.  (b) Many questions about the significance of the Roman imperial context for the early Christian communities remain unresolved.  In my judgment, the most insightful contribution to this debate is the recent book of my colleague Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford University Press, 2009).  (c) I suppose it goes without saying that we must continue to sort out more clearly the historical problems of how Christianity and Judaism developed alongside one another and interacted in the first centuries C. E.  Here Daniel Boyarin’s provocative work deserves a careful hearing and evaluation in our field.  

What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?

Oh, dear, how can I pick just one?  See my lengthy answer to question #1 above.  I suppose if I were forced to choose just one, I’d be tempted to say Karl Barth, whose remarkable recasting of Christian theology stands behind many of the other thinkers who have influenced me.  Honorable mention goes to T. S. Eliot—not as scholar and critic, but as poet.

I know you are working on a ‘companion’ volume to your Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul dealing with echoes in the Gospels.  Can you say a bit about that project, who is publishing it, and when it is set to be available?  What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you?

Yes, that’s right.  I haven’t committed it to a publisher, but I’m deep into the manuscript.  If all goes well, I’ll finish it during 2010, and hope to see it in print by the end of 2011.  (But I’ve been saying for some time “I hope to finish it next year….”  I am, alas, a very slow writer.)  Broadly, the project will seek to argue that the more we attend to the OT echoes and allusions in the Gospels, the more clearly we are led to recognize what Richard Bauckham has called “a christology of  divine identity” in these narratives.  The Gospel stories link Jesus with actions and attributes that the OT ascribes exclusively to Israel’s God.  For a preview, see my essay “Can the Gospels Teach Us to Read the Old Testament?” in Pro Ecclesia 11 (2002): 402-18.  Beyond finishing that book, I haven’t tried to plan too far into the future.  Each day has trouble enough of its own. 

Many thanks, Dr. Hays, for a delightful, thorough, and stimulating interview!


Reviews and Interviews Forthcoming . . .

In addition to those volumes I have yet to review in the “Book Reviews” tab (see above), there are a few volumes I have been made aware are on their way to me.  I look forward to reviewing these.  They are:

Walter de Gruyter
Joel Willitts, Matthew’s Messianic Shepherd-King

Keith Gruneberg, Abraham, Blessing, and the Nations

Hagedorn and Pfeiffer, Die Erzvater in der biblischen Tradition

Bruce Waltke, Genesis

Bruce Waltke, Old Testament Theology

Any suggestions on which you would like to see first (and why?).

There are also a number of interviews forthcoming.  Dr. James Crenshaw (ret.) of Duke will be featured soon, as will Genesis scholar Laurence Turner.  And, coming up very soon, will be a special NT edition of my interview series with Dr. Richard Hays of Duke.  That should be a captivating and worthwhile read!

Big Announcement: Interview with Richard Hays (forthcoming)


I am pleased to announce that one of my former teachers at Duke, Richard Hays–one of the most well-respected NT scholars of the present day–has agreed to do an interview with me.  I am thankful to Dr. Hays for his willingness to do such an interview; I know he is quite well-respected by many bloggers.

If there is a particular question you would like me to ask him, do post it here in the comments section.  I can’t guarantee your question will be asked, but I am curious as to what others may be thinking and may draw from this pool if there are some goodies. 

Look for this interview in the coming weeks!

[N.B. – I will be emailing the questions off to Dr. Hays on Friday, October 23 . . . so that is your deadline for submitting questions you want me to consider].

Richard Hays

Richard Hays and I