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.