Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes

by Kenneth Bailey (2008), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Raised in Egypt and teaching for forty years in institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus, Bailey has tried to understand the gospels more adequately in the light of Middle Eastern culture.

The written sources he considers are ancient, medieval and modern.  The ancient sources linguistically are Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic.  The early Christian tradition was not only Greek and Latin; Syriac was the third international language of the early church (p 11).  The Arabic Christian tradition became important in the eighth century, and Bailey draws on key Arabic theologians of the middle ages; he focuses on Arabic new testaments; ‘translations are always interpretation and they preserve an understanding of the text that was current in the church that produced them’ (p 13).

Bailey’s essays ‘not only focus on culture but also on rhetoric’ (p 13).  He attempts ‘to identify new perspectives from the Eastern traditions’ (p 21), drawing from the Arabic speaking world.

Bailey does not present an Arabic commentary on the New Testament, but takes key areas of Jesus life and teaching, and illustrates these from Arabic writers from the past, and from Arabic village life today.  So he has sections on ‘the birth of Jesus’, on ‘the Beatitudes’, on ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, on dramatic actions of Jesus (eg the call of Peter, Jesus call to ministry in Luke 4’), on ‘Jesus and women’, on parables (the longest section of the book).

Bailey’s work represents the theological reflection that has influenced the ten million Arabic speaking Christians, and is an attempt to learn more from their heritage about the Galilean carpenter (eg how village life today helps us to understand village life in Jesus’ time).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.