Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes: The life and legacy of Kenneth E. Bailey

Michael Parker recalls the life of missionary and New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who depicted Jesus as a “metaphorical theologian.”

Bailey with students at Assiut College, Egypt, 1963. Photo contributed.

Most scholars dream of making significant contributions to their fields of study and perhaps even of upending them with new discoveries. Kenneth E. Bailey (1930-2016), though not widely known outside of ecclesial circles, enjoyed this pleasure. He taught pastors and New Testament scholars to view the parables and actions of Jesus through the lens of traditional village culture in the Middle East, and he also showed them that Jesus’ parables were not simple prose stories but, rather, highly sophisticated and carefully crafted works of poetry. These were Bailey’s two essential messages.

Bailey came to the first conclusion through his experience of life as a Presbyterian missionary in traditional villages in Upper Egypt from 1955 to 1965. After graduating from Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), Bailey sailed with his wife, Ethel Jean “Mickey,” to Alexandria, Egypt. In those days, missionaries commonly made a life commitment to mission service. In this, the Baileys were no exception. Ken’s parents had been missionaries before him, and he was determined to follow in their footsteps. After studying Arabic for two years, the Baileys served as teachers and organizers in a literacy program in the villages around Minya and Assiut, cities along the Nile several hours south of Cairo.

Kenneth E. Bailey. Photo contributed.

Life in these villages was far from easy. There was no electricity or running water; insects of various sorts, from mosquitos to bedbugs, were rampant; transportation was often by donkey; the searing, unmitigated desert heat was debilitating; and village life could be infuriatingly disorganized. But the Baileys persisted. Then one day Ken had what he considered a revelation as he listened to a local pastor give a sermon in colloquial Arabic to a small congregation in the village of Deir Abu Hinnis.

The Reverend Adib Qaldis preached that day on the story of the woman at the well from John 4. Using a question-answer sermon style, he asked the women of the congregation what they thought of a woman going alone in the middle of the day to the village well. Clearly, they agreed, she was an immoral woman who had been ostracized by her community. Though this later becomes apparent in John’s telling of the story, the village women had come to this conclusion at the outset of the story because of the cultural clues that John had provided.

Bailey was amazed. These village women, he surmised, had insights into the story that were unknown outside of traditional Middle Eastern villages. He concluded that the villages of Upper Egypt had changed very little over the centuries, and he soon decided to dedicate his life to interpreting the Gospels in light of the culture of these traditional villages.

These village women, he surmised, had insights into the story that were unknown outside of traditional Middle Eastern villages.

In the following decades, the Baileys immersed themselves in Middle Eastern culture, from 1955 to 1995. They served in four countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and Cyprus. During their time in the region, they experienced several wars or times of intense conflict. They were present in Upper Egypt for the Suez Crisis of 1956. Having moved to Beirut in 1967, they were evacuated at the time of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They were forced to flee twice more from Beirut, first at the outset of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90, and then during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Living in Israel/Palestine in the late 1980s, they experienced the First Intifada. They thought he had finally found peace in the early 1990s when they moved to Cyprus, but then they were present in the region for all the disruptions caused by the First Gulf War in 1991.

Through it all, Bailey continued to study village culture first-hand as well as develop a cadre of people who had lived in traditional villages with whom he could discuss interpretations of the parables and try out new ideas. He also rummaged through ancient monasteries to locate and copy early and medieval church manuscripts that provided glimpses into the meaning of the Bible through sometimes unintended glosses on traditional Middle Eastern culture. Finally, to acquire his academic bona fides, he earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Concordia Seminary, graduating in 1972.

Photo courtesy of

Bailey wrote regularly but not prolifically. In 1973 he published The Cross and the Prodigal, a reinterpretation of the parable of the prodigal son that was based on his experience of traditional village culture in Egypt, which was generally ignored by scholars, but loved by pastors.

Two of his bestselling books are Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008) and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (2011). The former was a collection of essays on various subjects in the Gospels: the birth narratives of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the dramatic actions of Jesus, Jesus and women, and Jesus and the parables. The latter analyzed 1 Corinthians in terms of culture, coming to many fascinating, though controversial, conclusions.

In addition to Bailey’s culture-based interpretations of the scriptures, he also argued that Jesus was a skilled poet who studied and applied traditional Hebrew poetic forms – perhaps especially inspired by Isaiah, who was arguably the finest stylist among Israel’s many accomplished writers.

The parallel structures known as chiasms are the poetic forms Jesus commonly employed to craft his parables. In their simplest form, chiasms are a rhetorical device that generally consists of two lines in which the keywords of the first line are repeated in reverse order in the second line. Hence, they follow an ABBA pattern. For example, Mark 2:27 (RSV):

In addition to appearing in paired lines, chiasms can also form the underlying literary structures of entire poems in the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. For example, in some cases, the first three lines of a poem (ABC) are commonly repeated in the second three lines, but in reverse order (CBA). And the climax appears in the middle of the poem (D). Such poems, therefore, can be said to employ an elaborate ABCDCBA pattern.

Bailey argued that Jesus employed these forms in the presentation of his parables, which are often three or four poems written using chiasmic parallel structures. Though the use of such structures by biblical writers is well known by scholars, Jesus’ use of them in the formation of his parables remains a plausible if disputed point among New Testament scholars.

Whether or not Jesus’ parables had a poetic form, Bailey observed that the way Jesus used them differs from the way they are commonly used in the West. Western writers, he explained, generally employ parables, fables, metaphors, and similes to illustrate a point. In the Middle East in the time of Jesus, however, parables were a means of making an argument, not merely illustrating one.

In the Middle East in the time of Jesus, however, parables were a means of making an argument, not merely illustrating one.

Using parables, Jesus taught the crowds of common people who followed him about his mission, identity, and the kingdom of God. They heard him gladly, but the meaning of many of his stories would not have been immediately apparent to them as they required some reflection to grasp. He also often used parables to make pointed criticisms of his religious opponents, and based on their reactions, it would seem that they understood him all too well.

Reflecting on the sophistication of the parables in both presentation and meaning, Bailey concluded that Jesus was not merely a storyteller who taught moral commonplaces. Rather, he was a true theologian, but not one who spoke using the linear logic common among Western thinkers that is intended to appeal primarily to the rational mind. Rather, he spoke in the rhetorical style that characterized the finest Hebrew prophets, a style that employed vivid word pictures that were intended to appeal to the whole person. Bailey, therefore, dubbed Jesus a “metaphorical theologian.”

Bailey, therefore, dubbed Jesus a “metaphorical theologian.”

Jesus’ artistry and intellectual acuteness often escape Western readers because they are not used to Hebrew rhetorical forms, and because his poetry is formatted as prose in our modern Bibles. Consequently, many understandably perceive the apostle Paul to be the first mind of the New Testament, the theologian who made explicit what was at best implicit in Jesus’ life and message. Bailey emphatically rejected this view. For him, Jesus told us exactly who he was and the meaning of his life, if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

For more on Bailey’s life and his interpretation of Christ as a subtle theologian and superb literary craftsman, read Parker’s biography of this impressive scholar and missionary — Through Middle Eastern Eyes: A Life of Kenneth E. Bailey.