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Gary M. Burge

The View from the Mastaba

Jesus from a Middle Eastern perspective.

About a year ago, Wheaton College hosted a Christian teacher known for his emergent faith, black T-shirts, and popular cultural explanations of the gospels. We heard all about how Jesus' disciples had to walk "in the dust of his sandals," and we even had prayer shawls explained. As this continued, a few of my senior students knew I was slumping deeper and deeper into my seat in Wheaton's Edman Chapel. In a moment I'll explain why.

Most scholars recognize that a cultural gap exists between what we read in the gospels and what actually happened in Galilee some 2,000 years ago. Modern exegesis labors to extract meaning from these gospels using well-established methods of interpretation. Every student has to master the Greek text along with the nuances of its syntax and grammar, word choices, and idioms. The problem with this method is that, just as a gap exists between that Greek text and our modern English translations, so too a gap existed long ago between the original stories of Jesus told by Aramaic-speaking Jews and their final write-up in Greek by the evangelists, who understood Middle Eastern culture (though they were writing in Greek).

The ministry of Jesus was practiced in an Aramaic-speaking culture and was preserved by witnesses for whom this language and culture were native. This is not to deny that Greek was known and used in the Roman province of Judea, but it is to recognize that the world of Jesus and his followers was different from, say, the world of Romans living in Ephesus. Then this Aramaic apostolic witness was translated into Greek, which was in turn taken up by the evangelists, who unsurprisingly penned their gospels in the lingua franca of the empire. Note carefully: an Aramaic story (the Jesus story) emerged onto the public stage of history in Greek dress (the gospels). And whenever a story moves from one culture frame to another, something inevitably gets lost for those who don't know both cultures.

For some time, scholars such as Bruce Malina at Creighton University, Omaha, complained that without a careful understanding of the cultural anthropology of antiquity, many nuances of our Greek gospel texts might elude us. His 1981 book The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (revised in 1993), in which Malina outlined the cultural values presupposed behind countless New Testament stories, was a watershed for me and many others. Today students who read his popular book Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea (1993) are lucky indeed, and immediately become converts to another way of reading the Scriptures. Occasionally they wander through the library and find older voices like that of the famed New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus, 1962; English trans., 1970), whose father was the pastor of the German Lutheran Church in the Old City of Jerusalem and who grew up on its streets.

Kenneth E. Bailey has raised the same alarm. I first came across Ken Bailey in the mid-1970s. I was a student at the American University of Beirut, where an ugly civil war was just emerging from the shadows. My fellow students traded studying for heaving classroom desks at Lebanese soldiers in the street. I managed to find a small Arab-Armenian seminary where I could take classes that would transfer back to my university at home. It was one of the smartest things I ever did. Because that is where Bailey was teaching.

Bailey grew up in Egypt, where both of his parents served as Presbyterian missionaries. From 1935 to 1995 the Middle East was his home. He spoke Arabic like a native and was welcomed to countries throughout the region as a New Testament professor. (Arabic is a notoriously difficult language. I've heard Arabs remark that Bailey speaks it in a way even they admire.) Instinctively Bailey knew what Malina and others were talking about. When the gospels traveled from the Jewish Middle East to the Gentile Greek-speaking world, they contained stories about foreigners. And the cultural clues needed to interpret them were sometimes lost.

Bailey advanced Malina's argument in two ways. First, he could speak from personal experience about cultural reflexes in places like rural Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, or Syria, and how these resonated with themes in the gospels. With a sensitivity to anthropology and culture, he discerningly weighed values he suspected might help interpret the New Testament. I was leading a pastor's retreat in Lebanon in 2007, and one of Bailey's former students, now a Syrian pastor, told me how Bailey would give them assignments to take a cultural theme home, often to rural villages, and test it with their grandparents. Then he could compare these cultural values today with what he had seen in his career and with what had been preserved from antiquity.

Second, Bailey was able to bring into the discussion Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic sources (both Jewish and Christian) that few commentators could read. We are used to thinking that the Middle East is made up of Jews and Muslims. But today there are over 10 million Arabic-speaking Christians who trace their history to the Day of Pentecost—where, as they remind us, Arabs were present (Acts 2:11). They anchor their legacy to an old culture that preceded Islam and Arabic by centuries. Until the arrival of Islam (7th century), Syriac—a sister language to Aramaic—was the mother tongue of the Middle Eastern church from Iraq to Palestine. In Egypt, it was Coptic. In fact, Syriac and Coptic continued to be spoken for centuries alongside Arabic as Islam slowly tried to replace them with its own language from Arabia. Soon Christians were speaking Arabic freely, and yet they retained their distinctive cultural traditions that were deeply rooted in Syriac ways.

These eastern Semitic-speaking Christians enjoyed a rich, flourishing world that is now invisible to us. (A quick read of William Dalrymple's magnificent travel drama, From the Holy Mountain, will take you there if you are inclined. Dalrymple follows the faint trail of a 6th century pilgrim monk named John Moschos who wandered eastern Christendom.) By the 5th century—think Chalcedon—the West simply lost any interest in these churches. Few today have heard of Ephrem the Syrian, a prolific Syrian theologian and hymn writer born in AD 306 and venerated as a saint among Orthodox Christians. Or Ibn al-Tayyib, the towering New Testament scholar of 10th century Baghdad.

Thus Latin and Greek were not the only primary languages of emerging Christianity. Syriac was the third and soon became the chief form of communication among the churches of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. These believers bequeathed to us three ancient translations: the Old Syriac, the Peshitta, and the Harclean. Each represents the work of Christians who shared instinctively the culture of Jesus. Translation is always interpretation. And when an ancient Middle Eastern Christian brings a Greek gospel into his native Syriac, he will often lend insight by mere nuance and word choice. From the 9th century on, many versions appeared, and they remain goldmines of Middle Eastern Christian exegesis.

Bailey's work first appeared in a once obscure (now very popular) little book called The Cross and the Prodigal (1973). Here he took his knowledge of culture and ancient background and applied it to the three parables of Luke 15. Today the book has been revised in a 2nd edition and reissued by InterVarsity Academic, and is perhaps the go-to book for understanding the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Then in 1980 came Poet and Peasant: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Here for the first time, Bailey outlined and defended his methodology. This was followed by a parallel volume, Through Peasant Eyes, yet another examination of parables as stories requiring the key of Middle Eastern culture from antiquity. Soon the trajectory was set: Bailey was emerging as the spokesperson for how we might find the meaning that is beneath the Greek text of the New Testament. In 1992 he returned to Luke 15 with a more thoroughgoing academic treatment of these touchstone parables in Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15. In 2003 he offered Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story, explaining how the Old Testament Jacob story was influential in shaping Jesus' outlook on his mission.

In the midst of all this output, Bailey navigated a career around the civil war in Lebanon (1975–2000), published 150 articles in Arabic and English, recorded 100 video lectures, and evolved into one of the most sought-after speakers in Europe and the United States. He has been a celebrated visitor among ecclesiastical leaders in Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, Rome, and Canterbury. Evangelicals are just now discovering him.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels is Bailey's most recent call to Western Christians who need to time-travel to the Middle East. On page after page, he identifies themes and reflexes assumed in the gospels that slip right past us. For example, how do we imagine the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? What were the magi in their own world? And how do we take stories like the call of Peter, Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4), and the blind man Zacchaeus and press them through a cultural-contextual sieve in order to bring to light gems that have gone missing? Some of his most creative work is in his seven chapters on Jesus and women. Here stories like the Parable of the Woman and the Judge (Luke 18) are given interpretations that should contribute to every commentary writer. And fourteen more parables are made alive again, each in its original context.

To be sure, Bailey has his critics. Once you claim that there is meaning beneath the text hidden away in cultural assumptions, you have challenged the guild of New Testament scholars, for whom the lexicon and the grammar are the priestly keys of exegesis. Simply follow Bailey's longstanding debate on the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, who gets what he wants thanks to his persistence (Luke 11:1-13). Bailey turns the parable about prayer on its head, returns the reader to a sensible understanding of the difficult story, recovers the gospel within the parable—but has yet to win most technical exegetes. (Consider Klyne Snodgrass' massive new study, Stories of Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables, where Bailey's view is dismissed casually.)

Second, when teachers try to reconstruct the cultural context of the gospels, they often use sources that are unreliable and fail to discern the differences between the modern Middle East and the world of antiquity. Or the difference between ancient Judaism and its modern forms. In a word, they fail to master the skills Malina and Bailey call for. I remember a few years back debating Bruce Chilton, professor of New Testament at Bard College. We were on one of Chicago's very old, established Sunday talk shows for religion. Bruce had just published his controversial Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. He had made a few outlandish cultural claims about Jesus, and during a commercial break I asked him how he knew these things. He admitted: a tour guide had told him some of them. Bruce is a serious Rabbinics scholar, and this isn't the norm for him. Nevertheless, the voice of the tour guide found a place in his book.

Which brings me back to Edman Chapel and my slumping posture. I knew the things we were hearing about Jesus were simply off target, that they were the stuff of tourism, in some cases taken from Jewish traditions located in the Talmud (put in writing some 500 years after the gospels). Without discernment, reconstructing the cultural context of Jesus can put the interpreter in trouble quickly. In one of his earlier works, Bailey talks about various ways interpreters of the gospels attempt to do this work. Some think that leading a few trips to Israel is enough. Some think that a sabbatical or a one-month missionary involvement in Jerusalem or Cairo is sufficient. Others read books by Arab Christians who themselves do not discern how their culture has changed.

Bailey talks about the mastaba (Arabic: bench), the stone or mud-brick bench so often found outside a peasant's home. Here the village men sit for hours, talking about the business of the day, and relaying to the next generation values, stories, and traditions that few outsiders will hear. This is the anthropologist's office. This is where a discerning and well-read listener can note reflexes and attitudes, compare them with the many neglected evidences from antiquity, and discover something new. This is the view from the mastaba. And Bailey is among the very few who can enter there and invite us to look over his shoulder.

Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College & Graduate School. His book Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller is forthcoming from Zondervan in August 2009.

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