It is virtually impossible to be a truly wise reader of Scripture without understanding something of how “echoes” and “allusions” work, without grasping both the presence and the mechanics of intertextuality in human speech. All texts have meaning in relation to other texts that have preceded them (a fact which is itself bound up with the larger phenomenon of meaning and language in general in human experience, both of which are always dependent on something more/else outside of the isolated “moment” of direct communication taking place in the here and now). This holds true especially for the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which aim to communicate with us through–among other things–implicit allusions to other prior biblical texts that bring to mind connections and create interpretative frameworks that we would otherwise never be able to grasp, conspiring together to create a complex of meaning that would otherwise elude us. Here is how I would state the principle: allusions [veiled references to other known texts] activate [generate a new awareness in the reader's mind] associations [thematic or emotional links between ideas, events or persons that might otherwise not be recognized or intuitive to the reader]. And a deeper, richer meaning otherwise impossible to either comprehend or communicate is thereby evoked.
Here are two quick examples. First, Jesus regularly refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels. While some still argue that Jesus means nothing more and nothing less by this expression than “I” or “generic human being,” the phrase is clearly meant to lead the reader to make connections between Jesus’ identity and vocation and the broadly human mission in Psalm 8 (to rule the world on God’s behalf, which itself echoes Genesis 1) and the specifically Israel mission in Daniel 7 (to receive the kingdom of God over and against the pagan empires that oppress them). Words from each prior Old Testament text (“authority,” “on earth,” “coming on the clouds,” “glory,” “birds of the air,” “all the nations,” etc.) are regularly brought into association with Jesus’ self-ascription as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels. What are we meant to do in response to the recognition of these allusions? Simple: rethink who Jesus is and the significance of what he is doing through “framing” his story through the prior story of humanity (Genesis 1/Psalm 8) and Israel (Daniel 7). Soon the realization dawns that what God was trying to do through them (and in which tasks they failed) He is now seeking to accomplish through Jesus.
Second, consider the final (and, I would argue, summarizing and climactic) statement in the ‘body” of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Apart from a recognition of the echoes of Scripture in this statement, the profound and astonishing depiction of the true meaning of the church’s mission in the world will be missed. To the reader familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the distant memory of two key passages ought to be “activated” by Paul’s language in Romans 16:20. First, the promise of Genesis 3:15 that God would one day crush the head of the serpent (Satan) through the faithful seed of the woman. Second, the observation (now tragically unfulfilled because of the fall) in Psalm 8 that God intended to place all things “under the feet” of image-bearing human beings when He originally created them. The defeat of the ultimate source of evil in the world (Satan, who rules through the dark powers of sin and death) and the accomplishment of this coming of God’s kingdom through a faithful, image-bearing humanity (in keeping with God’s original intentions in the universe, ala Genesis 1): this is what is truly happening through the church’s Spirit-filled obedience to God and sacrificial service of her neighbor in the world as she imitates her crucified, risen Lord Jesus (Romans 16:19). What might otherwise seem ordinary and uninteresting (the faithfulness of small Christian communities in stark contrast to the idolatry and immorality of their pagan neighbors around them) is now cast in a new light which gives the presence and mission of the church in the world cosmic significance in the sovereign and mysterious purposes of God. Through us the kingdom of darkness will eventually fall and the reign of Christ forever established (cf. Luke 10:17-20). Yet none of this can be perceived empirically by viewing the story of the church in splendid historical isolation from older stories that have preceded it and which provide it with both meaning and motivation.
Dale Allison provides a helpful illustration of how “echoes and allusions” can still work powerfully in human communication today. He points to Martin Luther King Jr.’s penchant for evocative allusions in his rhetorically powerful speeches. In this, as in so many other aspects of his public career, King was simply imitating the strategy of the Scriptures he held so dear:
“Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech greatly enlarges its meaning through tacit references to famous predecessors. It opens with ‘Five score years ago,’ a manifest allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s first words in his Gettysburg Address (‘Four score and seven years ago’). There follow numerous examples of unacknowledged but obvious borrowing, among which are these:
- ‘This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality’ echoes ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York,’ the opening line from Shakespeare’s Richard III (I.1.i-ii);
- ‘No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ draws upon Amos 5:24;
- ‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ contains a quotation from the Declaration of Independence;
- ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’ borrows from Isa. 40:4-5;
- ‘So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania’ takes up the language of the old Protestant hymn composed by Samuel Francis Smith ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (‘America’).
King’s transformation of traditional texts was much more than ornamentation: it was rather a studied means of persuading hearts and minds. His echo of the Gettysburg Address was a way of claiming that his cause was the completion of what Lincoln began. When King alluded to Shakespeare, he was telling whites in his audience: You cannot ignore me, I know your European tradition as well as you do. When he quoted from the Bible, an authority for both the white and African American communities, he was in effect asserting: God is on my side. And King’s embedded quotations from the Declaration of Independence and from Smith’s nationalistic hymn announced that he was a patriot—some had slandered him for not being such—whose dream for his people in particular was the fulfillment of the American dream in general. All this he was saying indirectly, through allusion.” (Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q, pp. 1-2)