I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). Pp. 443. Paperback $30.00
I was at an Eastern Orthodox clergy conference and our guest speaker was speaking about how to improve our preaching. He suggested that one way to make improvements was to really get to know scripture. He mentioned that the famous fourth century saint, John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed - well known for his preaching - spent several years alone doing nothing but reading and studying scripture before he began to preach. This, it seems, was what set him apart. I decided that I should take this speakers words to heart and really delve into scripture, as St. John had.
One of the first books I read after this conference was N.T. Wright's new book, Surprised by Scripture (review to come later). One chapter in that book was about women in scripture, and, in this chapter, Wright relied heavily on this Presbyterian minister named Kenneth Bailey, who I had not heard of. However, Wright's argument was convincing enough for me to want to learn more. So I headed over to Amazon and purchased Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
Wow, am I glad I purchased this book! It was simply eye opening for this priest who has western eyes. Bailey has spent a considerable amount of his life teaching in the Middle East, and thus is well acquainted with Eastern customs. What also makes Bailey so refreshing is his level of expertise with this culture. He's able to give valuable insight into various cultural aspects of the biblical story, aspects that westerners often miss. He then is able to illustrate how that helps the reader's understanding of what's really going on and what's really being said by the author of that particular biblical book. In some instances, he shows that a Middle Eastern understanding of the text actually gives the text the opposite meaning westerners typically assign to it.
I was recommending this book to a friend and they asked, "Well, that's fine that Bailey understands contemporary modern Middle Eastern culture, but does that mean it translates to an understanding of first century Middle Eastern culture, the culture of Jesus and the New Testament?" In this case I think it does. After reading the book, it becomes clear that Bailey has also done his historical research and only brings in contemporary culture when it's appropriate to the story he's discussing.
He has divided his book up into several sections: 1) the birth of Jesus, 2) the beatitudes, 3) the Lord's prayer, 4) the dramatic actions of Jesus, 5) Jesus and women, and finally, 6) the parables of Jesus. My favorite sections were the ones on women, and the parables (though I noticed that many reviews on other sites really enjoyed the Christmas section). Each section has several chapters. Each chapter begins with a short introduction where Bailey poses the questions raised by the text. He then does a grammatical and systematic breakdown of the text, followed by commentary. It is in the commentary that Bailey's magic is worked.
I believe that any who really wants to understand the biblical text would do well to pick up this book. I highly recommend it. I also believe that it would be an ideal book for a Bible study. Each chapter is self sufficient, thus a study could go chapter by chapter, or pick out chapters that are of particular interest to the group.
I'll end this review by saying, if you think you know the biblical story, you may want to think again!