Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels

By Kenneth E. Bailey
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2008). 443 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
19.2 (Fall 2008) : 255-257

Those who study the Bible with informed sources have profited from Bailey’s past books, Poet and Peasant and a companion work Through Peasant Eyes, devoted to Jesus’ parables. In this latest product the same author has four chapters on the birth of Jesus, two on the beatitudes, four on the prayer Jesus taught His disciples, three on dramatic acts of Jesus, seven dealing with Jesus and women. Three of the latter are also on parables, and join twelve other chapters devoted to gospel parables. This effort repeats six parables dealt with in Bailey’s two previous books, with just a bit of new material and some fresh organization. These six comment on the Two Debtors, the Widow and the Judge, the Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Great Banquet.

The chapters on the Savior’s birth delve into detail on Luke 2:1-20, the genealogy in Matthew 1, the visit of wise men and Herod’s atrocities, and Simeon and Anna. On dramatic acts, Bailey studies the Call of Peter (Luke 5:1-11), the Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry (Luke 4:16-31), the Blind Man and Zacchaeus (18:35–19:11). On Jesus and the Women, the writer has an introductory chapter, then the Woman at the Well (John 4:1-47), the Syro-Phoenician Woman (Matt 15:21-28), the Lady in the Stoning Threat (John 7:53–8:11), the Woman and Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18:1-8), and the Wise and Foolish Women (Matt 25:1-13). Three of these are on parables, and later Bailey has an entire section on further stories of Jesus.

On Jesus’ birth, the author sees Joseph and Mary as accepted into a private peasant home of Davidic people or relatives, not forced to resort to a lonely cave or cold stable. The birth was in the family living room because the guest chamber was already filled. Bailey stresses the honor that Middle Eastern village people showed guests. In Matthew 1, he seeks to answer why, despite a custom of Jewish genealogies tracing males, Matthew mentions four women. As to the wise men, they were from Arabia since gold was mined there, and frankincense and myrrh are from trees that grow only in that area. He cites Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) who says five times in his Dialogue with Trypho that these travelers hailed from Arabia, and adds that Tertullian and Clement of Rome made the same claim (53).

The book offers insights on the nine beatitudes and each detail of the prayer in Matt 6:9-12. It argues that prayers such as this one should be brief, simple, and direct can be potent, as were prayers of Jesus in the Gospels, though at times He prayed for great spans of time. Much is devoted to the meaning of “Abba,” a word that an Aramaic person used for his or her human father, a respected person of rank, or a teacher. Bailey disagrees with Joachim Jeremias’ claim that “father” was unique on the lips of Jesus, and points out that the OT uses “father” a dozen times in reference to God. He feels that the phrase “Our Father” is defined by Jesus in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The chapters on Jesus and women provide many cultural aspects. Bailey refers to the woman at the well as “the first Christian female preacher” (cf. John 4:29-30). She left the well and became a spring for others as she shared the message. On the woman in Simon’s house, several customs enrich the discussion, and lessons stand out—e.g., forgiveness, love, faith, obedience, the elevation of women. Culture is vital in the account of the ten virgins. For example, the foolish women did not prepare by having a clay flask of oil to replenish their lamps, and could not borrow preparations for the coming of the bridegroom. In the spiritual analogy, people cannot get commitment and discipleship on loan, but must personally be ready for Christ’s coming.

Scholars on parables bring much difference of opinion to the study of the Unjust Steward. Bailey is certain that this manager is not only a rascal when first his boss accuses him, but a deceitful embezzler in his brief, private, individual deals with clients before he leaves office. He causes a large portion of the debts to be lost to the boss to reap his selfish gain in the clients’ gratitude to him for saving them money. The boss later would take the loss quietly rather than incur the debtors’ angry accusation that he had gone back on arrangements they felt were by his authority. The steward is explained this way by some. Bailey does not grapple with the view of others that the steward, accused of guilt at first, later helps his boss and the clients by cutting away his own interest, thus ingratiating himself with the debtors. The boss gets his full amount and seems to be a hero for generosity. Parabolic studies see the matter quite differently, and it does not appear as simple as Bailey makes it. In either view, however, the boss praises the steward not for being clean but for working an ingenious plan to play to his advantage after he has turned in the books.

Bailey’s treatment of the Pounds takes the entrusted amounts to represent spiritual gifts, whereas scholars vary with several different views here. Jesus gives the entrustments by grace, then reward in the roles of greater responsibility in service. He also is generous, Bailey feels, in not punishing or rejecting an unfaithful slave. He does not deal with the similarities that exist between this parable and the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), as an example of what happens to an unfaithful slave there.

The book is often stimulating, quite readable, steeped in cultural benefits drawn from decades of research, and liable to stir one to agree or disagree. In view of the substantial comments just on parables (nearly 200 pages, 239-426), serious students of Scripture will find this a provocative work to add to their shelves of parabolic studies. In this reviewer’s appraisal, the book has much to offer but rates after specialist parabolic commentaries by Arland Hultgren, Klyne Snodgrass, Stanley Ellisen, and Simon Kistemaker, in that order.