by Kenneth E. Bailey. IVP, 2008. Pb., 448 pp. $23.
reviewed by M. Thomas Norwood Jr.
A recent National Public Radio program featured an interview with the head of the American Dialect Society’s 2008 “word of the year” award. While the word “bailout” won the day, the interviewee admitted that he was more fascinated by the many word plays on our new president’s name. In particular, he mentioned the pairing: “Obama-nation” and “Obamanation,” one word celebrating the election results, the other despairing about the outcome. That pairing is a great illustration of the old adage: how we see the world depends on where we stand.
North American Christians naturally read the Bible through North American eyes. Over time we hear a familiar passage of Scripture (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son) read and interpreted and come to believe we know most of what there is to know about it. The problem is that 21st century America is far removed from 1st century Palestine. How then, do we bridge the cultural and hermeneutical chasm between the biblical world and our own? How do we avoid the “cultural captivity” of the Good News?
Professor Kenneth Bailey has lived and taught New Testament in several Middle Eastern countries for most of his life and has used his extensive knowledge of that world to deepen our understanding of Jesus in his own cultural context. Dr. Bailey’s latest offering, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, gives refreshing and stimulating new perspectives on the words and message of Jesus. Bailey focuses particular attention on the birth narratives, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and the parables as well as on Jesus’ relationship with women. Not only is Bailey an astute exegete of the Gospels, but also he adds the voices of Arabic-speaking Christian theologians and biblical scholars (most unknown to Western Christians) to the interpretive conversation. The result is a rich vein of insights waiting to be mined. Bailey’s treatment of Luke’s birth narrative is a case in point.
Re-enactments of the first Christmas are part and parcel of the Advent programming in most churches, and a central part of those pageants is the innkeeper holding up his hand and saying, “There is no room in the inn.” Poor Mary and Joseph had to make do with a stable for the birth of their son and the innkeeper’s reputation was forever relegated to the tank. Bailey asks us to take another look at the passage and consider it in light of a fundamental reality of Middle Eastern life: such an inhospitable person could not exist in a society that placed a premium on hospitality. Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David.” Could his extended family really have turned away a pregnant woman in such obvious need? The answer, according to Bailey, is an emphatic “NO!”
He rightly notes that the “inn” was not the first century equivalent of a Holiday Inn with a “no vacancy” sign out front. More likely the Greek word translated “inn” refers to the guest room of a peasant house. The “stable” was the place in that same house where the household animals were kept overnight. Between the stable and the one-room family living space were mangers, feeding troughs for the animals. Thus, Luke’s narrative tells us that the holy family came to Bethlehem and was graciously received into a private home. Because the guest room was full, Mary and Joseph were invited to stay in the family space with the host family. After Jesus was born he was wrapped and placed in a manger in that same room. Thus, far from being a story of inhospitality, this birth narrative is one of hospitality of the highest order. There was no harsh innkeeper, just a peasant family who opened their arms. When the Messiah was born, he was sheltered by the common people. Even the “unclean” shepherds are welcomed as honored guests. As Bailey notes, “the song of angels was sung to the simplest of all.” (p. 37)
Such insights fill the pages of this volume. Time after time Bailey takes a familiar text and opens new ways of seeing that passage. Sometimes just by renaming a parable (the parable of the laborers in the vineyard becomes the parable of the compassionate employer) he refocuses our attention on the heart of the passage, on a generous God whose gifts are given without being earned.
For years, Gary Larsen’s Far Side cartoons tickled millions of funny bones. Much of Larsen’s appeal was his unique ability to view life from a different perspective than most other people. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes provides equally unique perspectives on the Gospels.
M. Thomas Norwood Jr., of Davidson, N.C., is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a former Davidson College development office leader, and founder of a consulting group in Davidson. He is the author of numerous articles in theological journals.