Review of Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes

Review of Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). ISBN 978-0-8308-2568-4. 443 pp.
In his latest book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey provides further discussion of various parts of the New Testament Gospels, from the perspective that has been his own unique contribution over the past three decades or so. To my knowledge, there is no comparable New Testament scholar who is a native speaker of English and yet who has grown up, lived and taught in the Middle East and been fluent in Arabic, and as a result has been able to mediate the cultural perspective of that region on the New Testament to English-speaking readers. As such, Bailey provides a genuinely unique perspective, and I expect anyone interested in understanding the New Testament will want to read his latest book, as well as earlier ones.
The book is divided into six main sections, each containing several chapters each of which is focused on a particular passage from the Gospels. The introduction should not be skipped, since it emphasizes the importance of the unique perspective Bailey offers and the neglected sources he draws upon. Bailey draws heavily not only on his own experience of life in the Middle East, but also the neglected witness of Christian authors writing in Syriac and Arabic over the centuries. The insights that can be gleaned both from contemporary life in this part of the world, and from the Christians who lived there prior to the modern era (and in particular those who spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke) are extremely important. So too is being aware of the poetic structures in which storytellers and writing authors expressed themselves. The book’s introduction focuses on such materials, not uniformly neglected by scholars, but certainly not the focus of sufficient sustained and detailed attention. At the very least, as far as the awareness of such matters among Christians and other readers of the New Testament more generally is concerned, these sources of knowledge about the cultural context of the New Testament are little known, and Bailey’s book, while certain to be of interest to New Testament scholars, presents matters in a manner accessible to a wider readership.

Bailey professes to keep his focus primarily a literary and cultural one, which is wise, since a discussion of historical issues would have distracted from his primary interest, which is the meaning of the stories we have in the New Testament when understood against the background of Middle Eastern culture (p.20). Nevertheless, there are moments when Bailey seems to raise issues of history, such as in assuming that the murder of the children of Bethlehem took place (p.56). That there was such an event is not at all a historical impossibility – on the one hand, there is no corroborating evidence that it occurred, while on the other hand such an action on Herod’s part is certainly in keeping with his paranoia as known from other sources. The point is simply this: whenever a scholarly work seems to take for granted that a story is essentially factual, it can feed into the tendency of many lay readers to assume that a historical critical approach to the Bible can be bypassed. On the whole, however, Bailey’s approach minimizes the number of places where such issues come up, and Bailey himself appropriately points out where structural considerations suggest that either Jesus, or the later church or the Gospel authors, supplemented and commented on earlier material, even though this is never his primary interest.

Part 1 is “The Birth of Jesus”, and the first chapter incorporates material that had previously been accessible only in a journal article, expanding and supplementing it not only with additional text but also with more sketches of what typical rural homes in Palestine are like. Among scholars, Bailey’s argument about the cultural background of these stories, and in particular the likelihood that Jesus was born in a rural peasant home rather than an “inn”, has been found persuasive not only because of the points Bailey makes about the cultural setting (including the nature of hospitality and travel in this part of the world in the first century and even today, and the fact that feeding troughs (or mangers) were and are typically found in homes rather than separate barns or stables), but also because the term for a commercial “inn” is not found in the story. The presentation of the evidence and the likely meaning of the relevant details in Luke’s story are here made available to a wider audience. This material alone would be worth the price of the book.

Of the additional points made that go beyond Bailey’s earlier article, perhaps the most provocative is his discussion about the shepherds in the context of Middle Eastern hospitality. If the shepherds had found Joseph, Mary and Jesus huddling in a stable, they would have insisted they come and stay in their own homes. Also worth mentioning is that Bailey, in addition to scholarly and popular works on the Biblical narrative itself, has composed a Christmas musical based on his understanding of the story, entitled Open Hearts in Bethlehem.

In addition to the elements that are so distinctive of Bailey’s work on these stories, Bailey also offers a fresh look at some features that are noticed by scholars more generally, such as the women/gentiles in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. There are some details about Matthew’s infancy narrative that are overlooked (e.g. p.55, where Bailey assumes the traditional crèche scene with shepherds and Magi side by side, rather than considering the possibility that the scene in Matthew’s story is set when Jesus is around 2 years old). But the new material Bailey offers, such as a survey of Arab Christian traditions suggesting the Magi were from Arabia (pp.52-55), more than make up for any and all such oversights and weaker points.

Part 2 is “The Beatitudes”, and Part 3 is “The Lord’s Prayer”. The latter unfortunately does not explicitly address the popular notion that abba means “daddy”, but nonetheless does communicate what clearly was the distinctive characteristic of Jesus’ use of abba as a way of addressing God: Aramaic-speaking Jews in the first century still used Hebrew for the purpose of prayer, and so Jesus was praying, and teaching his disciples to pray, in their own vernacular (p.95). In this section, we also see Bailey’s familiarity with Islam as a living religious tradition in the Middle East, and while remaining conscious of important differences, he regards Islam’s traditions and perspectives as ones from which Christians can learn things of value (pp.98-99). Bailey discusses prayer in Judaism as well (pp.104-107), and notes that one can only talk about what was distinctive and emphasized in Jesus’ prayers if we know what he assumed, so that we can see not only what he included but also what he altered and what he omitted. Ezekiel 20:41-42 is highlighted for the light it sheds on the petition “Hallowed by thy name” (p.108). In discussing the petition “Thy will be done on earth…” Bailey notes both the implicit possibility of God’s will not being done, and also that the viewpoint of the prayer suggests that Christianity’s concerns are not merely other-worldly (pp.117-118). The mystery of what the Greek word that lies behind the all-too-familiar English rendering of “daily” bread may mean is elucidated by appeal to the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, which uses the adjective ameno which means “lasting, never ceasing” (p.121). In addition to making impressive contributions to scholarship and our understanding of the New Testament, Bailey also wrestles with difficult aspects of the application of the text, such as the relationship between the call to Christians to forgive and the need to identify and stand against injustice (pp.126-127).

Part 4 covers “Dramatic Actions of Jesus”. At one point (p.144), Bailey suggests a much earlier date (in the 50s) for the composition of Luke’s Gospel than even most conservative scholars would accept. One wonders why such a controversial suggestion is made when it is not central to the author’s argument. If the issue could not be addressed in this context, some acknowledgment that this is an unusual viewpoint, or a footnote to further discussion by scholars, would have been appropriate. Otherwise, the point could have been omitted with no harm to Bailey’s overall treatment.

In chapter 12, it is suggested that Jesus may have been nurtured with a “theological education” in the lay movement of the haberim that sprung up around this time (p.147). The Dead Sea Scrolls are appealed to as shedding light on the Messianic understanding of Isaiah 61 (pp.149-150), and the Targum also helps us contextualize the passage as it was understood in early Judaism (pp.155-156). The complaint that follows Jesus’ reading of that text in Luke’s Gospel is, according to Bailey, to be understood as expressing the community’s feeling that Jesus has departed from their own understanding of the passage. Nazareth was a “settler town” (p.152), and the community took offense at Jesus’ omission of those very lines from Isaiah that gave voice to their expectation that the Messianic age would be glorious for them, while a time when God’s vengeance would deal with their enemies (p.162).

Crucial cultural background is given to other stories in chapter 13: the healing of blind Bartimaeus and Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Too often readers of these stories do not have an adequate understanding of the cultural realities of the time. What was the situation of a blind beggar, and what would the situation of such a person be if they recovered their sight? Would a powerful member of the community climb a tree? To what extent was Zacchaeus exaggerating when he said he’d give away half his assets, and to what extent was such exaggeration culturally appropriate? Bailey addresses all these subjects, and more, in a fascinating way.

Part 5 is about Jesus and women, and here too Bailey draws on his knowledge of cultural norms, including appropriate and inappropriate turns of phrase in various contexts. Such evidence (pp.192-193) points clearly not only to Jesus having had female disciples, but also to their involvement in his public activity. Although Bailey’s point (in connection with the story in John 4) about women in the Middle East always going to the well in a group (p.202) needs to be taken seriously, so too must the possibility that this woman was not alone, and that her arrival at midday reflects the story of Jacob and Rachel which is in the background (Genesis 29:6-12). Might not the relevant cultural background lead us to suppose that ancient readers would have assumed that the woman to whom Jesus addressed himself would never have come to the well on her own? This illustrates one of the difficulties that arises when applying cultural background information to the interpretation of Biblical texts. When would an individual’s behavior in a story have been shocking, and when would hearers have filled in background assumptions that might have mitigated the shocking meaning?

In chapter 17, which deals with the story of the woman caught in adultery found in some manuscripts of the Gospel of John, the cultural and historical background is appealed to in order to make sense of the manuscript evidence. Bailey imagines some individual requesting a copy without the story, concerned that his daughters might be influenced by it (p.230). While the scenario of an individual requesting a copy with a specific content is plausible in and of itself, in this case Bailey does insufficient justice to the fact that most daughters would at any rate need a male to read the text to them. Nor are the relevant considerations about the language and style of the passage brought into the discussion. Nevertheless, at this point and elsewhere (e.g. pp.270-273), Bailey rightly notes that cultural considerations are relevant to textual critical and redaction-critical concerns, as well as to the interpretation of the text in any given form. While Bailey appropriately brings the Roman context of Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem into the picture when interpreting this story (pp.233-235), he neglects to mention the Rabbinic concern (perhaps to be found also among the Pharisees of Jesus’ time) for avoiding capital punishment whenever possible. Thus it may be that they were testing Jesus not to see whether he would condemn her as they felt he should, but to see whether he could find a way of avoiding the death penalty. While scholars will often appropriately defer to Bailey’s knowledge both of the contemporary culture of this part of the world and ancient commentaries on the New Testament from there, nevertheless those with detailed knowledge of the history of these times will need to critically evaluate the fit of models drawn from contemporary life experience to these ancient texts. Nonetheless, in very many respects Bailey’s depiction of mob mentalities and other aspects of the scenario still ring true, and provide a challengingly different cultural viewpoint on this story, as on all those he discusses in the book. Bailey interprets a number of Jesus’ actions as turning the community’s wrath from other marginalized figures onto himself, and thus emphasis is placed on Jesus’ “costly love” even prior to the crucifixion.

Part 6 is entitled “Parables of Jesus” (a somewhat awkward title, given that parables have been discussed at previous points in the book). Bailey often emphasizes the open-ended character of parables, and at one point notes that even ones that seem final may be open-ended, since “In the Middle East the word no is never an answer, rather it is a pause in the negotiations” (p.273). Jesus the storyteller is presented as a “metaphorical theologian” (pp.279-280). In this section there is the most significant overlap with Bailey’s earlier books on the parables in Luke, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, but as someone who cherishes Bailey’s insight in those earlier publications, I can say that I did not find his most recent treatments in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes in any sense redundant. New angles and insights are offered, and much new food for thought is provided.

There is a fascinating discussion, for instance, of the possibility that the story of the Good Samaritan may have been based on a historical event (pp.289-290), although it is emphasized that in the end such considerations have no bearing on the meaning of the story. Perhaps most significant is the way in which Bailey offers a different reading of several parables that have been the focus of scholarly attention in recent years, with other scholars attempting to utilize insights from the social sciences and situate them in the context of the economic realities of life for ancient Mediterranean peasants. Bailey’s own approach does this too, but in a way that nonetheless takes seriously the landowners (often viewed negatively by peasants) as ultimately positive symbols of God, as has historically been the interpretation offered by Christian readers. Bailey’s readings will need to be studied seriously and engaged thoughtfully by those working on the parables. One key example is in the “parable of the workers in the vineyard”, which Bailey entitles instead “the parable of the compassionate employer”. One detail Bailey notes because of his wealth of experience in the Middle East, which other interpreters overlook, is the significance of the vineyard owner’s unusual behavior: he himself goes to find individuals who are looking for work, even late in the day when it would be unlikely to find anyone still waiting and hoping for employment. Without in any way denigrating the importance of many other social-scientific studies of the New Testament, it remains the case that those who have lived in cultures which share key values and customs with the New Testament world will be more likely to notice tiny but significant details of this sort, as well as picking up on things that are left unsaid but are assumed. This can be seen again in the “parable of the serving master”, where Bailey realizes that the master in question slips out from the banquet he is hosting to bring food to his servants (p.374). Likewise in the parable of the pounds, where it is well known that trade for profit was frowned upon in “limited good” societies, Bailey suggests a plausible background of cultural-historical assumptions, suggesting that the issue when the nobleman returns is not profit but activity, which showed loyalty in his absence (pp.402, 405-7).

In addition to the detailed offering of interpretation and analysis of New Testament texts, Bailey’s book is full of delightful anecdotes from his own experience and from the Middle Eastern world that he knows so well. I highly recommend this book to absolutely any English-speaking reader who is interested in understanding the New Testament for whatever reason, whether they are Christians or merely curious about the Bible, whether they are scholars, clergy or laypeople. Almost everyone in this category who is a native speaker of English will lack Bailey’s familiarity with this part of the world, its culture, its history, and the interpretations of the New Testament offered by its inhabitants down the centuries. Regardless whether you find any given argument or interpretation persuasive, what is crucial is that American, British, and other Western readers of the Bible need to be confronted with other cultural readings, to at least make us more aware of our own assumptions and the way they lead us to interpret these texts. All readers of the New Testament will benefit from making Bailey one of their guides and dialogue partners.

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  • Thanks for posting. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes were extremely formative for me. Bailey is a regular at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference at my alma mater Westminster College. So I had the fortune of interaction with his work on a regular basis there.I hope that more will be exposed to his scholarship since it is such a powerful cultural hermeneutic that goes beyond just historical criticism. Fantastic stuff for preaching too!

  • Wow. I may have to pick up Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. That looks wicked cool.

  • Terrific review, thank you. I’ve been musing this book for a little while now and may have to add to this list (well, one of a couple of lists, at least).

  • Thank you for your review of this book. Interestingly Dr. Bailey’s favorite parable of The Prodigal Son is not included in this book. If you are interested in further information, you can see Bailey’s book Finding the Lost Cultural Keys of Luke 15. Also, you can see the website: for video and commentary on this book.