Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies In The Gospels, by Kenneth E. Bailey
Although I feel it necessary to say at the outset that I do not agree with all of the author’s comments and I have a different perspective than he does, I was greatly pleased overall with the author’s discussion of the insights that we can gain about the Bible through a better understanding of its cultural context. I was also pleased to note that many of the author’s insights about issues such as justice and fairness and the structure of biblical writing in chiasms were matters that I already had an interest in. It was not as if the author was telling me a great deal that was new to me, although it likely will be new to many readers, but that the author proved himself to be a fairly congenial person who also sought to understand Jesus Christ as He was, and not see him in the image and likeness of a contemporary Westerner, and to focus on the continuities between His own life and preaching and the biblical religion that is so distant from the practice of most who consider themselves His followers, even if he does not appear to fully understand those continuities himself.
This volume of roughly 400 pages contains thirty-two chapters divided into six parts, along with a preface and introduction and bibliography and indices at the end. The author begins with four chapters about the birth of Jesus (I), examining the story of Jesus’ birth (1) and the reality of the two-room Middle Eastern home, the genealogy of Joseph the Just (2), the wise men and the vision of Isaiah (3), and Herod’s atrocities and the portrayal of Simeon and Anna (4). After this the author provides two chapters (5,6) on the Beatitudes, contrasting Matthew and Luke’s presentation of them (II). Then there are four chapters that deal with the Lord’s Prayer (III), looking at God as our father (7), His holiness (8), our bread (9), and our sins (10). The next part of the book looks at dramatic actions of Jesus (IV), including the call of Peter (11), Jesus’ fateful sermon in Nazareth (12), and the Blind man and Zacchaeus (13). The author spends considerable space discussing the interactions between Jesus and women (V), including an introduction to the subject (14), the woman at the well (15), the Syro-Phoenician woman (16), the woman caught in adultery (17), the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (18), the parable of the persistent widow (19), and the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (20). The last part of the book discusses many of the parables of Jesus (VI), including an introduction (21), the Good Samaritan (22), the rich fool (23), the great banquet (24), the two builders (25), the unjust steward (26), the Pharisee and the tax collector (27), the compassionate landowner (28), the serving master (29), Lazarus and the rich man (30), the pounds (31), and the noble vineyard owner and his son (32).
Why does it matter that we see Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes? For one, Jesus Himself was Middle Eastern. The structure of his parables and the written accounts of His actions from eyewitnesses were phrased in such a way that is deeply resonant with the structure of thought of the ancient Hebrews, with the chiasm where the most important part of the message is in the middle and where the ending returns to the concerns of the beginning, but changed and transformed by its path. Likewise, in ways that it is difficult to understand, the behavior of Jesus Christ and the ideals He spoke of in His parables profoundly challenged as well as reflected the cultural preoccupations of His time. If we do not have knowledge of this context in mind, we miss deeply important matters that can speak to us as well as it did to ancient listeners and readers. For example, Jesus’ description of the generous landowner returning five times to the labor market to make sure that everyone gets a living wage is something that most people would be unfamiliar with, unless perhaps they have witnessed the sort of scene that takes place in agricultural societies with a high degree of informal labor, or in the way that people stand around in Wal-Mart parking lots waiting for daily construction jobs in contemporary America, or similarly wait around in Thai refugee camps. Perhaps, if we are sensitive to what is around us, the conditions Jesus spoke of are not so alien to us after all, but few bother to look and understand.