Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels

Kenneth E. Bailey IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL February 4, 2008
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Bailey is emeritus research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. As he writes in the introduction, his childhood years were spent in Egypt, and for forty years he taught New Testament “in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cypress” (p. 11). His “academic efforts have focused on trying to understand more adequately the stories of the Gospels in the light of Middle Eastern culture” (ibid.).

The six parts of this book include chapters on the birth of Jesus, the beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, dramatic actions of Jesus (the call of Peter, the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, and the blind man and Zacchaeus), Jesus and women, and thirteen of Jesus’ parables.

In addition to noting many of the fascinating aspects of Middle Eastern culture in the Gospels, Bailey also focuses on rhetoric. “The peoples of the Middle East, ancient and modern, have for millennia constructed poetry and some prose using parallelisms” (p. 13). “Sometimes ideas are presented in pairs that form a straight-line sequence and appear on the page in an AA BB CC pattern. At other times, ideas are presented and then repeated backward in an AB CC BA outline. These can be called ‘inverted parallelism’ (they are also called ‘ring composition’ and ‘chiasm’). A third rhetorical style I refer to as ‘step parallelism’ because the parallelisms follow an ABC ABC pattern” (pp. 13–14).

Writing of Jesus’ birth, Bailey notes that many Westerns have supposed that Mary and Joseph were turned away from an “inn.” But the word in Luke 2:7 is katavluma, that is, a guest room in a house, not a commercial inn. For the latter the word would have been pandocei'on. “Jesus was placed in a manger (in the family room) because in that home the guest room was already full” (p. 32). Bailey adds that many have erroneously supposed Jesus was born in a cave or a stable, a tradition that started with Justin Martyr (p. 34). Like the shepherds, who came to see the baby Jesus, He was poor, lonely, and rejected. “Jesus was born in a simple, two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years” (p. 36).

Regarding Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, Bailey discusses why four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba—are included. These four are saints and sinners, women of intelligence and courage, all of whom were probably Gentiles (p. 42).

At the conclusion of each chapter Bailey includes a summary of the key points he has noted. For example in chapter 4, “Herod’s Atrocities, Sinners, and Anna,” he includes these four points: (1) Unspeakable brutality characterizes the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life. His ministry was within and to a violent world. (2) Matthew wanted his readers to see Jesus as the new Moses. (3) Women and men are prominent throughout the ministry of Jesus. (4) Mary is presented as a model for discipleship (p. 62).

The author includes three sections in each of most of chapters 11 through 32: rhetoric, commentary, and summary. Each rhetoric section includes his analysis of the structure of the passage under consideration. The parallelisms and his comments shed fascinating light on the biblical text.

Bailey’s seven chapters on Jesus and women reveal how the Lord and the Gospel writers elevated women to a place of equality with men. These chapters discuss the woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenicean woman, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Bailey’s discussion of the woman at the well is intriguing, for he discusses twelve “surprises” in the incident (pp. 202–13).

Reading the Gospels, one is struck with Jesus’ frequent use of parables (extended metaphors) as a means of communicating significant theological truths. Those who teach and preach on the parables will do well to consult these chapters for meaningful insights from the culture of the Middle East in Jesus’ day.

This book is a brilliant addition to Bailey’s other works in which he sheds light on the biblical text from Middle Eastern culture. Three of his other works are Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); and Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992).

—Roy B. Zuck

October 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2010 vol. 167 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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