Kenneth Bailey, an American Presbyterian minister/professor who spend 60 years (1935-1995) in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus, tries to remedy this issue with his book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies In The Gospels.”
“Middle Eastern Christians have been called the forgotten faithful. The world knows that across the centuries there have been Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. For the most part, however Middle Eastern Christians evaporated from Western consciousness after the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Few are aware of the existence today of more than ten million Arabic-speaking Christians who possess a rich heritage of ancient and modern literature. Speaking a Semitic language, these Christians are a people who live, breathe, think, act and participate in Middle Eastern culture; they are rooted in the traditional ways of the Middle East. Their voices, past and present, need to be heard in biblical studies.” (Preface, pg 11-12)
Accordingly Bailey draws from a collection of Syriac, Hebrew/Aramaic and Arabic commentaries, Bible translations and other writings to bring a fresh look at the message of Jesus. It is this connection to our Eastern family that makes Bailey’s book so refreshing and welcoming.
In other words, this isn’t a novelty book full of ‘new’ theological ideas. Nay, a lot of what he says is similar to what I’ve heard before or has worked out myself with the Lord. The genius of the book is Bailey’s reliance on the Church Fathers of the East who illuminate the culture around the life of Jesus.
Take for example the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16. For those of in the West this parable tends to be ignored as it seems that Jesus is praising someone who cheats their boss and lies about it. Yet, as Bailey points out, the ‘missing’ piece in the story is the community in which the steward and his boss lives in. Once you ‘add’ that piece back into the story, you begin to realize that there is more subtlety to the steward’s actions that glorified his master and placed him in a position of shaming the community as a whole or hiring the steward back.
“The parable is built on the psychology of an oppressed peasantry, such as is known to have existed in Galilee at the time of Jesus. The steward is a Robin Hood figure, a countercultural hero. But at the end of the story, Jesus calls him ‘a son of this age/world.’ He is smart enough to know that his only hope to put his entire trust in the unqualified mercy of his generous master. His morals are deplorable. Nonetheless, Jesus wants ‘the sons of light’ to use their intelligence, like the dishonest steward, and to trust completely in the mercy of God for their salvation.” (pg 341)
As you can see, this isn’t so much a ‘new’ concept as it is a deeper one with more meaning and depth. It’s like watching a movie in 3-D as opposed to 2-D. You get the general jest of the film in both formats, but the 3-D version just brings things to life as the images bring you into the world of the movie. Bailey’s culture studies does this with the life of Jesus, bring you into the world in which Jesus lived so that the depth and genius of his words and actions come alive.
“Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” is definitely a good book to have on hand when studying the life of Jesus.
PS => Bailey recently published a companion book called “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians.” While I personally have not read this one yet, I’ve heard that it is just as good as “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.” So if you are studying Paul or 1 Corinthians this may be a book worth picking up.