Parables Through Middle Eastern Eyes

In a previous post, I suggested the Parables “fit” into the culture of first century Galilee. One way to read parables properly is to study the material culture of the world of Jesus in order to highlight the rhetorical impact of the imagery he used. But how does one study a two thousand year old culture?

BedouinTentKenneth Bailey has written a number of books on parables. He argues Jesus’s parables are representations of the culture of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Bailey’s method is unique because he reads the parables through the eyes of modern Middle Eastern readers with whom he has lived for many years. Bailey thinks the culture of the Mediterranean world has not changed that much since the first century and many of the unusual elements of the parables can be explained by paying attention to the eastern culture from which the stories first arose. This “oriental exegesis” attempts to read the parables as Oriental churchman have throughout the centuries (Poet and Peasant, 29). In order to do this, one first must know the ancient literature and be able to assess it properly.

The most controversial point of Bailey’s method is his insistence that the culture of present Middle Eastern culture is archaic and accurately reflects the culture of the parables. Life changes slowly in the Middle East and it is intentionally traditional. Therefore some cultural phenomenon observed today may in fact go back to the first century.

This observation is not new, although the sorts of memoirs which were published in the late nineteenth century as travelers began to visit the Middle East are of varying value. What Bailey seeks to contribute is a method and control for the study of present culture as a window for understanding the first century. Books are of less value to Bailey than personal interviews with people who have spent at least twenty years in the Middle East collecting observations orally, in Arabic. Bailey has found 25 dialogue partners who satisfy this requirement and are also literate enough to understand the point of the questions he put to them concerning the parables.

MDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in EthiopiaA second methodological consideration is what Bailey calls “theological clusters.” Bailey believes that Jülicher’s belief about the relationship between allegory and parable has been proven false, although the idea that a parable makes a single point persists. Bailey argues that parables are intended to evoke a decision, but the response to a parable is informed by a “theological cluster,” each element of which may be examined separately (Poet and Peasant, 41). It is the point at which all of the theological themes come together that a single response is evoked. A single response is different than a single meaning, the meaning may vary from listener to listener, but there is still only one response.

Bailey illustrates this with the Parable of the Sower. The response is “hear the word of the kingdom and bear fruit.” But there are at least four theological points made by the parable which contribute to this response: The kingdom is like a seed growing slowly; God’s grace includes sowing the seed where the ground is unprepared; fruit bearing is an essential part of the kingdom; there is the hope and assurance of a harvest in spite of difficulties. All of these theological motifs (and perhaps others) converge to illicit the response to the parable intended by Jesus.

Bailey has been rightly critiqued because he draws very little from rabbinic parallels. Bailey brackets this evidence since it is extremely hard to date evidence from post-Mishnah Judaism, but relies on evidence from modern Mediterranean culture. If the general lines of the culture have survived since the first century in practice, then those cultural elements one finds in the literature like the Talmud may very well be an accurate reflection of first century culture.

Charles Hedrick offers a number of criticisms of Bailey’s methodology which ultimately question the value of the study (Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fiction, 45-46). Hedrick’s most important criticism is the chronological distance of Bailey’s sources. Is it reasonable to think that the Mediterranean culture Bailey experienced in the twentieth century is an accurate representation of the culture of the first century?

In addition, Hedrick points out that Bailey ignores the Islamization of Palestine. For the last 1400 years Islam has ruled Palestine in some way, but when Jesus lived in Israel it was ruled by the Romans through a Jewish bureaucracy. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that Islamic Bedouin of the modern era have the same sorts of practices that the Jewish peasants of Galilee did. Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Middle East knows that Bedouin culture is extremely conservative and has only recently has tradition been eroded by the modern world (cell phones and blue jeans, mostly!)

Despite these criticisms, I find Bailey’s books stimulating and insightful. He has a slightly different perspective that most writers on parables and in almost every case I find his comments helpful for teaching and preaching the parables.

Are the criticism of Bailey’s method fair? If there is a problem, perhaps what seems very “preachable” is not accurate – but is the use of contemporary cultural observations valid?


Kenneth Bailey Bibliography:

Poet & Peasant; and, through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2008.

15 thoughts on “Parables Through Middle Eastern Eyes

  1. I believe the criticism of Bailey’s model is fair, but I don’t think Bailey’s idea of how to study parables is a bad idea altogether. Studying people today, especially in the middle east, would seem to be a good way of better understanding parables. The distance in time from the first century to modern times, however is too long to take the situations today to describe the parables fully. But think how understanding farming, even today, could help us understand how seeds grow amongst different soils/grounds and thus could lead us to understand the parable of the sower even more. Real world experiences can give us greater insight into the parables of Jesus. I find Bailey’s model to be better used as an added tool in our studying of the parables, the way a commentary or a word study would be used. They are good outside resources, but true understanding comes from reading the passage in context, revelation from the Holy Spirit, and a deep study of the passage as a whole. Thus, I find that contemporary cultural observations could be useful and valid, but should definitely not be the only tool used in understanding a parable, but rather a small part used in our understanding. I must say that I do like Bailey’s methods because of how different they are and how much he wants to make it hands-on, it just seems like a risky move to make in trusting our research of people now to explain something that was taught in the first century.

  2. I have greatly benefited from Kenneth Bailey’s books. He has also published “Paul Through Meditteranean Eyes. Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians.”, which I found valuable, (though at times he seemed to strech his points). He is a good writer, and I personally value his knowledge immensely. At the same time, some of the criticism seems fair, especially the Islamization of Palestine must have left its clear mark on the country.

  3. I would have to agree that Bailey’s perspectives on the parables would indeed be different and possibly beneficial to help us understand the parables as we live in this current time. “The parables have become so familiar to Christians that we often miss the powerful impact they would have had to a first-century Jewish hearer” (Strauss, 449). Is it reasonable to think that the exact culture Bailey lives in and compares the parables to be accurate? Honestly, the answer has to be no. It may be very similar but no matter what, culture changes. No culture or people group remains the same through the years. Not only technology and development, but also the people of the world, who interact with and within the culture, change that culture. Also, like you mentioned Professor Long, Bailey does not perceive the parables through a Jewish heritage. This will also greatly influence how parables would have been presented and received. Overall, I think that Bailey’s insight truly is helpful; however, I think we need to be careful to not examine all of his interpretations as ‘truth’.

  4. I think we can learn a great deal about the parables if we further our research in Middle Eastern culture. When we do that, it makes it easier to relate it to modern situations/norms that we face everyday. I do however, agree with Danae when she says that culture will always be changing no matter what. Although Mediterranean culture I’m sure is similar to today, it can be misleading to interpret parables based on the present generation. I like this quote from Strauss that Danae had also mentioned,“The parables have become so familiar to Christians that we often miss the powerful impact they would have had to a first-century Jewish hearer” (Strauss, 449). Ultimately, I think that Bailey’s model is fair and can definitely bring positive insight to the table, but I still think that it is more important and beneficial to relate the parables back to the first century when they were written.

  5. There are pros and cons for both sides of this argument in my opinion. Baileys way of learning about that culture by being with the modern Mediterranean people can prove to be accurate, but at the same time, it can prove to be inaccurate. When we are asking somebody from this culture and this time period about the culture and time period nearly two centuries ago, I believe it can prove to be misleading or not true. Reason being we do not know that person’s history. The stories that were passed down from generation to generation tend to shift and change through the years. A story is going to sound different coming from somebody first hand in comparison to somebody fourth or fifth hand.
    However, because the middle east culture has not changed as rapidly as most other cultures (Especially American culture), I would say that it is not a bad idea to ask them about it. Several traditions have been passed down generations, sometimes starting in that time period. If anything, it is a different perspective that we would not find anywhere else in the world.

    As far as the criticisms are concerned to Bailey’s method, it is important to take in account, like I said, that what we here is not always going to be true, even from the Mediterranean culture. So we should not mindlessly swallow what Bailey is teaching. This topic is one that should be approached from both sides. Also, looking at parables from Bailey’s perspective can further our understanding of them, so I would say that it can be useful. But still should be used with caution.

  6. While Middle Eastern culture may be slow to change, that does not mean that it does not change at all. Denae said that no matter what, culture is always changing through the years. Some cultures change more rapidly than others, but they all go through change. While the criticisms of Bailey’s methods I find fair, I think his methods are not altogether wrong either. I believe they are definitely beneficial for those that really want to dig deeper in this subject and gain a new understanding of the parables that we may not get from simply reading them as they are presented. It is an interesting perspective to look at the parables for sure. However, as many have already pointed out, to view these ideas as the only real proof of how things were back then is not a firm leg to stand on. No matter how culturally similar it may be to the first century, that is simply too large of an amount of time to pass for things to not change in some way, shape, or form in that culture. I think Bailey’s model is enlightening and makes you think of things differently than you normally would and there is a lot to learn from it, however to accept that as sole proof might not be a wise thing for us to do.

  7. Though there are aspects of Bailey’s methodological way of percieving the Gospels I don’t agree with, there are severa thingsl I would venture to say that are well thought out. His idea of a “theological cluster” really stood out to me, because I believe that is the way Jesus taught. I think that Jesus, when teaching in parables, was always teaching multiple lessons through the stories. I think that he did that because he knew his time on earth was going to be short, therefor he needed to prepare them for what lies ahead. Embedding his parables with many themes ultimately creating a “theological cluster”. However, I do not think his method is entirely fair for he doesn’t full encapture the whole culture in which the parables were written. So like I said before I think Bailey had good ideas but nothing I would hold to as truth.

  8. I believe that there are both good and bad things about Bailey’s methods. His take on theological clusters make a lot of sense. Like codyfuller said, This is a way that Jesus probably taught seeing how he knew his life on earth would be short. So the quickest way to teach was to teach multiple lessons at once. The bad thing is however is that there isn’t any actual proof that that’s how things might have been during that time. All in all, we should look at both sides of the picture when it comes to these methods, but in the same time, try not to depend on these methods to be fully true.

  9. I agree that there are two sides to the issue of understanding the cultural perspective of the parables that Jesus taught. While i 100% agree with the basic concept of integrating yourself into the modern mediterranean culture, I don’t know if i would agree that the modern culture presents a fully valid picture of the historical culture. I also don’t really like the idea of “theological clusters” within the parables. I agree with his point that Jesus’ parables point the hearer towards a decision. However, i think it’s a much safer, and smarter way to look at the parables as “single-lesson” form of teaching. I also really appreciate Charles Hedrick’s criticism about the chronology of Bailey’s concept. It seems, in a way, ridiculous to approach modern mediterranean culture in the same way as you would ancient culture, regardless of the traditionality of the culture as it is today.

  10. Although I agree with Bailey, that the culture of the mediterranean world has been very slow to change everyone and everything changes to some degree. Some of the cultures may be close but we have to be aware of the cultural, historical, and literary illusions of the time and always interpret the parable in the context of Jesus’ ministry. ( Strauss 449 )
    I also agree with what Bailey calls ” theological clusters ” that a parable can have many points but only one response as he illustrates in the Parable of the Sower.
    Bailey feels that oral observations are of more value than books but I have to disagree. I feel that the people of today no matter where we happen to live are different than in Jesus day and I’m sure they would not interpret his parables as the hearers of Jesus’ day.
    I also agree with Hendrick that Bailey has definitely ignored the Islamization of Palestine. How could they have the same practices as the Jewish Peasants.

  11. One of the main points in Strauss book is that “we should be aware of cultural, historical, and literary allusions” (Strauss 450). I do agree that we should study the historical background and the culture back when Jesus told these parables to understand more of what the parables mean. Taking the parable of the Good Samaritan for us those people that Jesus used in that story wouldn’t make a big difference to us if we didn’t know the background of those people, but if we study and understand about the different backgrounds for those people that story is stronger and better understood for us. To study more of the background can only help us understand the parables more.
    On the culture issue; I could see where Bailey is coming from, but I don’t think visiting the Middle East now will give me a much better understanding of the parables. I can see that seeing the roads that Jesus could have walked on, or what furniture that Jesus used back then could make a clearer picture, but culture is changing all the time now. I understand some cultures don’t change quite as rapidly as some others due, but I know that the culture they have over in the Middle East now is different than the culture of Jesus’ time.

  12. I understand where some of the criticism of Bailey may come from. Even with researching the past culture it would still be difficult to make the case that the Mediterranean lifestyle today is exactly or very similar to that of the first century. We may be able to guess that the lifestyles were similar because their culture has seemed to not change significantly in the years that are documented. Yet, even with the criticism I too can see how Bailey’s insight might help us to understand the parables. He is living a similar culture to that of the time and may have a good perspective as to someone who would have heard these words at the time.
    The culture of the day had great effect on how the parables were perceived, and Bailey may be able to give us modern people just a glimpse of what Jesus’ followers of the day may have heard and understood. Strauss even talks about the importance to thinking about a parable from a historical context. “A third key to interpreting the parables is to be aware of cultural, historical, and literary allusions” (Strauss 450).
    It may be helpful to not taking everything that Bailey’s says to be set fact, especially without doing any background research, but being open to what he has to say based on his experiences may also help us to better understand the parables. Even those living in the day, experiencing the culture, did not always understand the parables. Many times the Pharisees did not understand, even the disciples often did not understand. Yet, many did understand and the parables helped them to live a life pleasing to God. “When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is that man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 14:15).

  13. I disagree with Baileys conclusion that Zacchaeus was exaggerating his true intentions to demonstrate sincerity for the following reasons;
    1. Bailey does not conclusively show this was the custom in the city of Jericho during this time period. His evidence is anecdotal at best.
    2. There are biblical text based arguments that I suggest are equally valid to consider. In short they are:
    3. Christ was no respecter of the traditions of men that violate the word of God. He criticized the Pharisees for nullifying the word of God with the traditions of men,Mk 7:13 and it was Christ who commanded that “ not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Mt 5:37 It seems odd that Christ would endorse a person exaggerating their true intentions instead of correcting them before then accepting their sincerity. Jesus was not backward in correcting people. Even when people were technically correct, if their focus was wrong, he would correct them. Look at how harshly he spoke to his mother at the wedding at Cana when she told them a problem had developed. “woman, why do you involve me now… my time has not yet come.” Ouch. “…a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”28 He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” He corrected the would be followers of Jesus, He corrected the crowd when they rightly pointed out that his biological family (sorry Catholics) was outside. Mt 12:46. It would seem in line with Christ’s character to correct a person who is exaggerating their true intentions.
    4. There is biblical precedent for the statement that Zacchaeus made about giving half his possessions to the poor. John the baptist, telling people who were repenting what they should do said: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” . Correct my math but isnt that half? A cynic would argue “well, John only mentioned shirts and bread”. I would argue, especially when we read of the first generation of believers selling houses and lands to give to the poor, that John was establishing a principle using practical examples, built on an old command – love your neighbor as you love yourself. Now if you are literally going to love your needy neighbor as you love yourself, then you have to share half of what you have with people in genuine need.
    5.The very next verse after this teaching of John, he mentions tax collectors and what does he tell them to do? “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” What was the second issue Zachaeus dealt with? His collecting of money that he should not have collected – stealing.
    6. Why did Zacchaeus, a jew, decide to repay 4 times that which he stole? Exaggeration? Or was it an application of an old testament law? “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” Ex 22:1

    • Thanks for the detailed response, although I am curious why you replied concerning Bailey’s view on Zacchaeus. I did not mention that in the origional post.

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