Jesus was not an American. Nor a capitalist. Nor a product of the Enlightenment or Romanticism. He wasn't a postmodernist or a CEO or a copilot.
Believe it or not, Jesus was a Middle Easterner. And a Jew. He could speak Hebrew and some Greek, but mostly he spoke Aramaic.
What does all this have to do with us? Well, if you're reading this, chances are that you are none of the above-mentioned things that Jesus was, and you are many of the things Jesus was not. Therefore, when you and I read the Bible, we tend to read it through lenses quite different from those worn by the first hearers of the message. We may reach accurate doctrinal conclusions about the essentials of the faith, but we may also miss much of the richness that comes from understanding the culture in which the Bible was written. When it comes to Jesus, we miss the sheer audacity of his words and his person, even as we bow before Him for our salvation.
That's where Kenneth E. Bailey comes in, with his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Bailey grew up in the Middle East (mostly Egypt) and taught there for 40 years. His 60 years of life experience, linguistic ability, and curiosity come together in this amazing look at the Jesus of the gospels. It is impossible to read this book without growing in an appreciation of the cleverness, theological and philosophical depth, social brazenness, and deep compassion that go into describing the incarnate Christ. Bailey's insights are not "novel" in the sense of being unorthodox theologically. Rather, they are like a key that opens a door and allows a much fuller view than what one was heretofore gaining through a keyhole. The previous view was accurate, but limited. The new view is broader and richer and gives deeper meaning to what was seen before.
In 35+ years of reading Christian books, I don't know if I've ever read one that caused me to say "Wow" or "Oh my gosh" as many times as this one did. And only rarely have I read a book of theology that actually led me to worship; this is one of them.
It's hard to summarize this book, because there's so much in it. The six main sections deal with: The Birth of Jesus; The Beatitudes; The Lord's Prayer; Dramatic Actions of Jesus; Jesus and Women; and the Parables of Jesus. It all adds up to 400 pages, but it's not a difficult read. Nevertheless, don't expect to get through it quickly: you may find yourself wanting to stop often and savor what you just read.
Why did Jesus ask handicapped people whether they wanted to get well? Why was Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree? What's the point of the parable of the talents (hint: it's not about using your God-given abilities)? Who is the only person in Jesus' parables given a name, and why? How did Jesus view women? Which "inn" had no room at Jesus' birth? How does the Lord's Prayer blast away the concept of salvation being only for the Jews? And why should we trust that what we read in the gospels is what really happened? All this and much, much, much more is brilliantly answered in this book. You'll never read the gospels the same way, again.
I gave a friend a copy of the chapter about the Syro-Phoenecian woman (Matthew 15.21-28). In this encounter, we see Jesus refusing to answer the woman pleading for her daughter's healing, then telling her that He only came to help Jews, then calling her a dog. After my friend read Bailey's exposition of this passage, he said, "I used to read this story and think, 'Jesus is a jerk.' But now I read it and say, 'Jesus is amazing.'"
Jesus is amazing. Read this book and you'll have a much richer understanding as to why.
This is why I read your blog--you recommend the some of the best reads.ReplyDelete
Wow. This book sounds intriguing to say the least. I have a good friend who is living over in the Middle East now and it's been pretty cool to hear how the culture and the people have impacted his view of Jesus, as well as how he relates to others when it comes to sharing Jesus/dialoguing with others about Jesus. I think he'd dig this book...and that it would do me good to read/be confronted with such as well!ReplyDelete
hope you get a kickback bc I just bought it....! thanks Arnold!ReplyDelete
I don't. I've never made a penny off my blog...though you're welcome to slide a fiver into my hand next time we meet.ReplyDelete
Well I have been looking for something bs Harry potter to read... :) Borders could use my help..ReplyDelete
Thank you for the recommendation. Do you know if he is drawing on the work of N.T. Wright?ReplyDelete
He quotes Wright once or twice, but his work isn't noticeably derivative of anyone else. (If anything, Wright should probably draw on Bailey.)ReplyDelete
Bailey does quote often from a 10th Century Arabic-language commentator who apparently hasn't been translated into English beyond Bailey's excerpts.
It certainly sounds very interesting. I thought of Wright because both Wright and Bailey seem to understand how important it is to contextualize the message of the people they are studying. What Wright does for St. Paul, Bailey seems to be doing for Jesus. (And yet the new perspective revealed by such contextualization will be resisted by those who have built their positions on historically misinformed positions. Has Bailey met with any criticism for this work?)ReplyDelete
I don't think he's well enough known to be criticized. He doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry.ReplyDelete
Plus, I'd be hard pressed to say what would be particularly controversial about his book. All 21 reviews on Amazon.com are 5-star, so if there are detractors, they're not numerous.
Hey, it was great to see you tonight. I'm looking forward to reading this. It looks phenominal.ReplyDelete
Thanks again brother, you are more of a blessing than you'll ever know. It is a joy to co-labor w/ you.
I agree hardily with your recommendation of this book. My husband has a website based largely on Bailey's work, particularly his book entitled The Cross and the Prodigal. The website is eprodigals.com. Jesus IS amazing!ReplyDelete