Book review 9: “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”

I have just finished reading “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth E. Bailey. It took a while, because it is a lengthy read (400+ pages) and sometimes quite densely packed and argued.

I would recommend this learned and passionate book very strongly as an aid to intelligent Bible study. I’ve heard it recommended, but not often quoted in sermons. It should be.

The author is of British/American birth, but has spent 60 years living in the Middle East, much of this time teaching New Testament in various seminaries. His book is not a memoir, nor does it follow a single line of argument. It is a list of chapters looking at different aspects of the gospels, such as the Beatitudes or individual parables.

He starts off with a barnstorming chapter arguing that Jesus was not born in a stable, and that (more importantly) the expression “no room in the house/inn” does not justify a belief that Mary and Joseph were neglected or alone on Christmas Eve.

Not all the chapters challenge traditional views so strongly, but all are thought-provoking and worth reading.

One thing that needs to be emphasised is although Bailey does refer often to his actual experience of Middle Eastern life, he is also a student of Middle Eastern writings. This immeasurably adds to his knowledge and authority. He knows what Arabic and Eastern Christians of earlier ages have said about the gospels, and how they have translated them; he also quotes from contemporary and pre-New Testament Jewish tradition and writings.

This aspect reassures me somewhat in my slight uneasiness about the title of the book, and indeed some of its contents. “Middle Eastern Eyes”. I am sure that Kenneth E. Bailey knows a lot more about modern Israel, Lebanon and Egypt than I do. But Jesus lived and rose again two thousand years ago.

I don’t think I would want to argue that I understand the life and culture of Boudicca’s Iceni tribe just because I live in Britain and so did they. Surely it’s arguable that the Middle East has undergone even more political, cultural and religious changes than England has in the centuries since Jesus?

Sometimes Bailey’s personal experience does really hit home, as when he talks of seeing people standing around waiting for work just as the labourers did before they were hired for the vineyard (chapter 28). But sometimes when he says “Middle Eastern people behave this way”, one is tempted to say, “Maybe the ones you’ve seen do, but is that enough to prove your point?”

He has a tendency to use the cultural norms he’s seen to extrapolate at length on what is going on behind the scenes in parables. For example, he writes at length about the confusing parable of the Unjust Steward (chapter 26).

“The steward’s silent acceptance of dismissal is stunning. For decades I have both observed and questioned Middle Easterners in positions of authority and have never seen or heard of a case of an underling, when dismissed, walking out of the room without pleading to be reinstated. Such behaviour is unimaginable. Its theological significance must not be overlooked.” This seems rather a lot to read into the simple fact that nothing happens between Luke chapter 16 verses 2 and 3.

Again, he likes to say that we don’t know what happens at the end of parables, for example, whether the older son listens to his father’s plea at the end of the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is fair enough. But his fascinating analysis of the parable of the Pounds (Luke 19) does not entirely convince (me) when he says the master’s enemies may not in fact be slaughtered as ordered in verse 27 – this may only be a statement of what they deserve. He basically doesn’t want a Christ-figure to have people killed.

On the other hand, his is one of the few accounts I have seen that actually addresses the troubling and violent subplot of this parable.

In other words, I wasn’t totally convinced by everything he said. But his advice that we should be humble enough to look at non-Western interpretations of the Bible, especially very early ones, is overwhelmingly good.

And he taught me to look at the pattern. This is something that we need to be told over and over again in Bible study, because in the (modern) west we look at the end of a story, or even a poem, for its climax and meaning. It’s not hard to see the Biblical pattern of repeating sequences, as in the parable of the Two Builders (1 A hear and do; B build on rock; C storm; D house stands; 2 A hear and don’t do; B build on sand; C storm; D house falls).

But psalms, prophecies and even parables also often have their most significant verse in the centre, with other sentences neatly patterned around it. Bailey brings out these patterns again and again, and also points to the times when Jesus’ parables look very like a new take on an OT passage, especially in Isaiah. He also explains it much better than I do!

Bailey says “The more familiar a parable, the more it cries out to be rescued from the barnacles that have attached themselves to it over the centuries.” This seems too strong. Everyone surely has always understood the basic teaching of say the Good Samaritan (or “pray for your persecutors”); these don’t need to be rescued, they need to be obeyed. But it is still amazing how often Bailey’s interpretation does come with something startlingly new. I found his discussion of the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes very helpful. He presents Jesus freshly as daringly loving and challenging, all the time.

And I would have bought the book for one footnote alone. Chapter 13 (The Blind Man and Zacchaeus) points out that Jesus finds Zacchaeus, just as the shepherd finds the lost sheep. The footnote says: “For Jesus, repentance is not simply confession of sin. Rather, it is ‘acceptance of being found.’”

I can’t express fully enough how much I love this definition, and how grateful I am to this book.

Love from the PPI Blogger



  • Judith Renton

    9th February 2018 at 8:58 pm Reply

    I am glad you have enjoyed this. I seem to remember you asking me to review it ages ago…and I never got around to it. Thank goodness…your review is much better than any I would have written!
    I agree with your comments about pattern..those parts really struck me too.

  • Matthew Perry

    10th February 2018 at 9:56 am Reply

    Thanks Penny,
    I wholeheartedly concur with your review, this book is an excellent and thought – provoking read. I also recommend his Paul through Middle Eastern eyes, on the first letter to the Corinthians.

  • Judith Leader

    11th February 2018 at 5:25 pm Reply

    Sounds interesting, pity I have such a long awaiting to be read list.
    I believe being born in a stable was not unusual as the animals where integral in the main living quarters. I know when I went with my aunt and family to visit her father in Switzerland this was certainly true, however I can’t quote my source so I could be wrong.

    I always felt sorry for the older son. Not only does his brother say that he wished his father dead (which asking for your inheritance meant and for that the father could has killed him), but his father deserts the farm and broods over said brother. When the father said that all that he had was his he hadn’t really needed to say it because as the firstborn he was set to inherit. Does it imply that we are only concerned about the unconverted, the son was right in thinking his father didn’t care, he didn’t even suggest he had his friends round. I suppose the answer is that you cannot read too much into a parable however it is a reminder that you can be so busy doing God’s work and neglect the needs of your kids so they feel you don’t care and they are bottom of the pile as the older brother clearly was.
    Having said that (one of my hobby-horse things) the book sounds worth reading along with many other books.

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