What difference would it make to our understanding of Jesus’ message if we could view it through the eyes of a first century Middle Easterner? How would it affect the way we read the Bible? These are questions Kenneth E. Bailey addresses in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.
Kenneth Bailey was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is presently Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. From childhood to present he has lived sixty year of his life in the Middle East. He taught for twenty years at Near East School of Theology in Beirut and spent the last ten years of his teaching career (1985-1995) at Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem. He has degrees in Arabic language and literature, systematic theology, and a doctorate in New Testament. He presently lives in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.
Scholars agree that the scriptures relate to historical cultural contexts. It is important for us to understand the meaning of scriptures in their context if we are to appropriately relate them to our present circumstances. Jesus’ world was that of first century Palestine but much of the New Testament is concerned with relating Jesus’ message to people in the Greco-Roman world. Much of our knowledge of Jesus and his teaching has been processed through the lens of the Greco-Roman world, which was considerably different from the life in rural Palestine. So how might we get a sense of what life was like in Jesus context?
Bailey’s thesis is that Arabic culture, at least in rural villages, has not changed radically over the past 2,000 years. Furthermore, Arabic is a sister language to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries. Therefore, by examining how Arabic Christians have interpreted scripture over the millennia, both in terms of language and in terms of assumptions about cultural norms, we might find a lens through which to view the scriptures that more closely approximates the culture of Jesus day than our Western lenses. Bailey maintains that the witness of Arabic Christianity (separating from the Western church in the fifth century) has been all but ignored in Western Christianity.
Literary analysis is central to Bailey’s work. Bailey writes:
Very early in the life of the Church outsiders saw Christians drawing their faith from parables. One of these witnesses was Galen, the most famous medical doctor of the second century. He was the first pagan to say positive things about Christians. Around A.D. 140 he wrote:
Most people are unable to follow a demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables, and benefit from them … just as now we see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables [and miracles] and yet sometimes acting in the same way [as those who philosophize] … and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.
In later centuries parables became a source for Christian life (ethics) but not Christian faith (theology). It is instructive to note that in the second century Galen saw Christians building their faith on parables. How did parables lose their status as a source of Christian faith?
Today, Jesus is naturally seen by Christians as the Son of God and Savior of the world. The New Testament also presents him as perfect example of love and an effective storyteller for simple folk. But have we thought of him as a serious theologian?
Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. That is, his primary method of creating meaning was trough metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatis and a poet rather than like a philosopher. (279)
Jesus was interacting with an illiterate oral culture. Teaching in these cultures was through storytelling that used a variety of linguistic tools to make the stories easier to memorize and to preserve. The use of chiasms was a common tool employed in Jesus’ parables and other teachings. (It is also used in Old Testament literature.) A chiasm is the arrangement of teaching into stanzas that might flow something like this:
A’ is thematically related to A, B’ to B, and so on. Furthermore, the Arabic churches have translations that translated the New Testament Greek into Arabic and Syriac, sister languages to Aramaic. Using these tools, along with other linguistic tools, Bailey sometimes translates Greek versions of Jesus’ teaching back into Aramaic, where the linguistic structure becomes more apparent.
Another Middle Eastern pre-literate tradition Bailey learned of is that local communities tend to preserve and pass on a set of “stock stories.” These stories preserve the gathered wisdom of the community over the centuries. As new teachers come along they may create new stories but they frequently borrow from the stock stories and formulate new tales that teach the truths they wish to convey. Bailey believes Jesus was deeply embedded in this tradition and thus Bailey is frequently reflecting on how Jesus’ metaphorical teachings may connect with the stock stories of the Jews.
This book is a fascinating compendium of his work over the years. It draws on some previously published materials, as well as information from his extensive lecture library. It has 32 chapters broken into six parts:
Part 1: The Birth of Jesus
Part 2: The Beatitudes
Part 3: The Lord’s Prayer
Part 4: Dramatic Actions of Jesus
Part 5: Jesus and Women
Part 6: Parables of Jesus
Bailey is not without his critics. Some are critical that he uses Arabic and Syriac translations of scripture in his analysis that are centuries older than the earlier more reliable texts known to us. Furthermore, he brings Arabic Christian scholars into his analysis that lived in the tenth century or later. I think some of this critique fails to fully appreciate what his purpose is in consulting these sources. He is trying to enter the Arabic speaking mind and culture and see what assumptions and knowledge it has brought to the text that might be different from our Western traditions. These learnings aren’t determinative but we should not be dismissive of these voices that are closer in language and culture (and time) to biblical Palestine than we are.
More than one critic of Bailey’s work has been dismissive of his literary analysis and attempts to link Jesus’ teachings with earlier thematic stories. Some question his frequent identification of chiasms throughout scripture. Actually, he finds these chiasms throughout Jesus’ teachings in the synoptic gospels and he suspects that 1 Corinthians may be one elaborate chiasm. But to my knowledge he does not find this device used in much else of the New Testament. What I find interesting is that my friends who live in the Middle East find Bailey to be very insightful but he seems to get only a small hearing in the West.
Personally, I find Bailey’s work fascinating and very helpful. He is trying to explore interpretive approaches that are somewhat novel. I would expect there may be some overly speculative analysis that may not stand the test of time. But the meat of what he has to say is very compelling. If you’re looking for a challenging and fresh perspective on some very familiar stories, then I would highly recommend this book. It is lengthy but written in engaging and accessible prose.