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Books | Author's knowledge of Middle Eastern culture helps him explain the wrath aimed at Jesus

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Exegesis is not always enthralling, but Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (IVP, 2008) kept me walking my treadmill for a long time.

Bailey, who spent 40 years living and teaching the New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, uses his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture to explain vividly the specific detail, references, and metaphors that those who heard Jesus 2,000 years ago would have understood. For example, he describes Middle Eastern homes then and now to show that very-pregnant Mary was not turned away from a Four Seasons and forced to give birth in a barn; people and animals shared housing space then, and in parts of today's Middle East they still do.

Bailey explains well the reason Jesus' analysis of Israel's history in chapter 4 of Luke aroused his audience to murderous wrath. Galilee had become "Galilee of the Gentiles, so in the second century b.c. some Jewish settlers from Judea moved to Galilee to reclaim it for Judaism. (Some Israelis moved to the West Bank in recent decades for similar reasons.) Nazareth in particular was a conservative, all-Jewish settler town prone to criticize those who welcomed Gentiles.

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Jesus purposefully waved a red cape in front of that bull. The passage from Isaiah that he read led into good news for Israelites: Enemies would become servants, and "you shall eat the wealth of the nations." But Jesus cut the reading short and stopped just before the point where Israel triumphs. Then he broadened the good news instead of making it something for Israelites only.

Bailey puts it well: "Jesus knew that the town's agenda was to reclaim land from the Gentiles. . . . He must have known that these stories would upset the congregation before him. But he told them anyway and the room exploded in anger." Jesus made the point in a way that would be remembered: Gentiles can receive grace. God's people should emphasize mission, not nation, and grace, not ancestry.

Broadening is also evident if we compare the central prayers of Judaism 2,000 years ago to the Lord's Prayer. Many of those prayers have continued in use over the centuries: Among them are, "Look on our affliction; fight our fight. . . . Blow the trumpet for our liberation; gather our exiles. . . . May no hope be left for the slanderers; may all thine enemies be cut off. . . . Grant peace, happiness, and blessing, grace, loving-kindness, and mercy upon us and upon all Israel Thy people."

These standard prayers, evidently in use at the time of Jesus, viewed God as the God of Israel. Some of the prayers strongly emphasized Jerusalem and the temple, but the Lord's Prayer contains no reference to Jerusalem or the temple. Bailey notes that "the disciples are taught to pray for the kingdom of God to come 'on earth,' which reflects a global concern for all people. Forgiveness is tied to forgiving others. No attack on outsiders is voiced, and there is no request for God to look on the suffering of his people or for God to fight for them."

Adaptable faith

Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea (HarperOne, 2007) is a well-written history of Protestantism from the 16th century to the present; the "dangerous idea" is that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible by themselves. For nearly five centuries Protestants have debated that right, and whether it resides in individuals, associations of individuals who create creeds and constitute separate churches, or denominations.

McGrath shows how the Turkish push further into Europe during the 1520s created space for Protestantism, and how Protestantism over the centuries has created space for entrepreneurial individuals not only in business but in religion. His biological metaphor for Protestantism makes sense: a micro-organism "capable of rapid mutation and adaptation in response to changing environments, while still maintaining continuity with its earlier forms."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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