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Kenneth E. Bailey on Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes

Middle East scholar Kenneth Bailey's books, lectures, and more invite Christians to strip away cultural mythologies and worship the real Jesus of the Middle East. A feature story exploring the life of Jesus through his own Middle-Eastern culture.

You’ve seen, heard, and sung the Christmas story so often you can recite it by heart, right?

Mary’s going into labor as she and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem. A mean innkeeper says there’s no room in the inn but lets them camp out in a stable. Meanwhile, angels visit shepherds who are shivering in the fields.

Now imagine yourself at a Christmas play, where, in the opening scene, the narrator says that Bethlehem is too small to support an inn. You watch a family lead farm animals inside their house. Mary and Joseph arrive, move in with this family and their beasts—and, three weeks later, still no Jesus.

That’s how things go in Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Musical Drama, written by Kenneth E. Bailey, who, also, by the way, says Jesus was born in summer or fall, not on December 25.

By now you may wonder whether Bailey believes the Bible is true. He does, and so passionately that he’s devoted his life to helping Christians “strip away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around” biblical texts.

In his most recent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Bailey compares Western interpretations of key texts, such as the Christmas story, to a diamond that needs cleaning to restore its original brilliance.

No inn or stable

Bailey is fluent in Arabic and an expert on New Testament cultural and literary forms. He researches ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries and translations in Semitic languages—Syriac, Hebrew/Aramaic, and Hebrew. These languages are closer to Jesus’ world than the Greek and Latin cultures that shaped Western thought.

You’ve likely pictured Jesus as born in a stable because English translations of Luke 2:7 say Mary placed baby Jesus “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

As Ken Bailey explains Luke 2, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as inn in Luke 2:7 does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It’s a guest space, typically the upper room of a common village home.

The same word is translated as “upper room” in Luke 22:10-12. Arabic biblical translations have for more than a thousand years interpreted that word as house. When Luke meant a commercial inn, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he used the Greek pandocheion.

“A simple village home in the time of King David, up until the Second World War, in the Holy Land, had two rooms—one for guests, one for the family. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep. They are brought in last thing at night and taken out and tied up in the courtyard first thing in the morning.

“Out of the stone floor of the living room, close to family animals, you dig mangers or make a small one out of wood for sheep. Jesus is clearly welcomed into a family home,” Bailey explained at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship.

He recalls checking this theory with a Palestinian Greek Catholic friend, who said, “Of course. I grew up in a home like that.”

Cozy with cousins

Western Christmas art has for years portrayed Mary as giving birth alone with only the animals and, perhaps, Joseph for company.

“But the New Testament says no, Joseph showed up, and, the text says, in the literal Greek, which is preserved in the King James Version, while they were there her days, plural, were fulfilled…which means that the last stages of her pregnancy took place after they got to Bethlehem,” Bailey explained.

Mary wasn’t in labor when they got to Bethlehem. If no one had had space for them, Joseph would have taken Mary to her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “From Bethlehem, you can get to any village in the hill country of Judea by one hour on donkey back,” Bailey said.

Middle Eastern cultures have valued family and hospitality for millennia. When Caesar Augustus decreed that people had to register for the census in their hometown, Joseph went to Bethlehem “because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:4).

“To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

In other words, Joseph’s relatives welcome him and his betrothed for the final weeks of her pregnancy. The village midwife and women help Mary birth Jesus. “They don’t have a cradle, so they lay Jesus in the manger, which is clean, and put a blanket over him nice, warm, and tidy,” Bailey said.

Surprise! Shepherds welcomed

Rabbis saw shepherds as unclean and low status. So the shepherds were afraid of more than angel choirs. “From their point of view, if the child was truly the Messiah, the parents would reject the shepherds if they tried to visit him!” Bailey writes. Hearing that the babe was lying in a manger reassured them that he was in a humble home.

“This was their sign, a sign for lowly shepherds,” he adds. Luke says the shepherds left Bethlehem “praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Bailey explains that the “all” refers to the quality of the hospitality that welcomed Mary, Joseph, Jesus…and the shepherds.

“Our Christmas crèche sets remain as they are because ‘ox and ass before him bow, for he is in the manger now.’ But that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them the story is enriched, not cheapened,” Bailey explains.

Luke’s Christmas story shows how Jesus emptied himself and chose to take on flesh in a peasant home. Bailey writes: “These people did their best and it was enough…. The shepherds were welcome at the manger. The unclean were judged to be clean. The outcasts become honored guests.”

Arabic-speaking Christians—whom Bailey calls “the forgotten faithful”—have always understood Jesus as born in a house or a cave. Many Palestinian homes began as caves.

Few Western Christians have discussed Christmas with Middle Eastern Christians. “Middle Eastern Christians are surprised to learn we make such a big deal of Christmas. The gospels have only 5 chapters about Christmas and about 30 on Holy Week and the resurrection. So the big feast for Christians in the Middle East is for the cross and resurrection, not Christmas,” Bailey says.

Kenneth E. Bailey on Jesus as Theologian

Kenneth E. Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern New Testament studies and prolific author and lecturer, has a gift for bringing the gospels alive. He compares it to switching from black and white TV to color TV. His strategy depends on respecting Jesus as a theologian, viewing scripture inspiration as a divine process, and paying attention to the gospels’ Middle Eastern village context.

“Not that we’ve got the story necessarily wrong, but there’s an excitement that’s missing if we don’t try to penetrate the world of which Jesus was a part. Worship takes on new intensity and meaning,” Bailey says.

The power of story and metaphor

He laments that Christians “too often understand Jesus as a simple man, telling simple tales to children. We see him as the perfect example of love, the agent of salvation, the Word made flesh among us, all of which is true. But he’s also a theologian, once you see him as a metaphorical theologian rather than a conceptual theologian.

“Metaphorical theology creates meaning through story, symbol, and metaphor. And then you can extract ideas from it.

“A conceptual theologian creates meaning through logic and philosophy, which he or she may, then, illustrate. But an illustration is not a parable. An illustration is an attempt to understand an idea. A parable is a way to create meaning,” Bailey says.

The people who listened to Jesus knew the scriptures. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Shepherd, they would have pictured Psalm 23. “When Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd,’ he’s identifying himself with the God who comes after us and seeks us and carries us home,” Bailey explains.

Paul wrote about Jesus being in the form of God, yet emptying himself and being made in human likeness. “This high Christology is not something dreamed up by the church. It’s at the heart of what Jesus said about himself,” Bailey says.

Inspiration a divine process

Besides marginalizing Jesus as a major theologian, many scholars and commentators try to authenticate “the real Jesus.” They sift and parse through these stages:

  • Jesus and his audience
  • Eyewitness testimony and oral tradition about what Jesus said and did
  • Stories translated into Greek
  • Final selection, editing, and arrangement of New Testament literature

Bailey agrees that those four stages happened between when Jesus said or did something and when the stories became fixed in print in the canon of the New Testament. Some scholars see this process as deterioration.

“The focus becomes ‘was the story created by the church—or was it something Jesus said?’ This frustrates me because I have such a high regard for the way oral tradition and eyewitness testimony function in the Middle East.

“What we have in the gospels is history, theologically interpreted. We have events—and the gospel authors’ authoritative insider interpretation of their significance,” he said at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Bailey often explains that Jesus could have written a book. Instead he lived, worked, and talked with disciples. Christ trusted that the disciples would process what he said and did and what that meant.

“Inspiration is not a moment when Jesus opened his mouth. Inspiration is a process that lasted about 60 years. It’s what produced the Greek New Testament that has changed the world,” Bailey says.

Middle Eastern village context

Pretend that the Roman Catholic Church has amnesia and forgets 1500 years of everything said and done in Rome. Preposterous, right?

Bailey says Middle Eastern Christians are the living inheritors of the cultural world of Jesus and Semitic languages. Yet they fell off the Christian radar screen after 451, when the Council of Chalcedon reaffirmed that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

“There are 15 million Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East. Their scholars go way back. These centuries of scholarship are what I’ve spent my life trying to reclaim,” he says.

In books such as The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants and Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Bailey explains what Christians miss out on when they don’t “participate in the culture of those who first heard the gospel.

“In the parable of the prodigal son, is the father running down the road a big deal? For us, no. For a Middle Easterner, yes,” he says. In Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15, Bailey quotes Ben Sirach, a Jewish philosopher who 200 years before Christ wrote, “A man’s manner of walking tells you what he is.”

Understanding Middle Eastern village life helps Bailey ask fresh questions. He traces answers through early Christian commentaries, medieval Arabic, and Jewish literature.

“As westerners, we tend to universalize our culture. Parables do speak to everyone, but we need to understand the Middle East context—or parables become ethics, not theology,” he said at the Calvin Symposium.

For more than ten centuries, Christians who translate the gospels into Arabic have not seen the prodigal as repenting in the far country. They say he’s returned to his senses. He’s figured out how to play his father and earn money for food and land.

Bailey elaborates in Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. The prodigal does not understand costly love till he sees his father publicly humiliating himself by running to welcome the son. Only then does the prodigal give up his idea of restoring himself. The party is not because he repented. The party celebrates the father’s joy that the younger son accepted the grace of being found.

Kenneth E. Bailey on Authoritative Insider Interpretation in the Bible

Some Christians feel unsettled to hear that Luke didn’t know Jesus. Luke did not personally see or hear what the gospel of Luke reports Jesus saying and doing. These same Christians may feel uneasy to learn that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t written till decades (30 to 60 years) after Jesus ascended into heaven.

The gospel authors used written sources and stories that had been passed on orally, just as a biographer today might draw on books, unpublished letters, and interviews with a subject’s relatives and friends.

“There is a yearning in every Christian age [to understand scriptural inspiration] as direct dictation from the Holy Spirit into the mind and hand of people who wrote the Bible,” says Kenneth E. Bailey.

Bailey often reminds readers and audiences that Jesus could have written a book, but he didn’t. Bailey sees scripture inspiration as a process, not a single moment in time. “Christian faith is based on fact, but not bare fact. The gospels are based on a Middle Eastern understanding of truth and give an authoritative insider interpretation of what events mean,” he said.

Bare facts don’t always tell truth

Perhaps you’ve said (or been told), “Cut to the chase! Just give me facts.” Bailey explained why bare facts aren’t always enough—even though “our current Western scientific mentality tempts us into reductionism.

Shelby Foote in his trilogy of Civil War history spends 185 pages on the Battle of Gettysburg. Imagine if someone could have set up 75 cameras from different angles to film that battle. What would you get? Blood and guts. From Foote you get the meaning of the event,” he said.

Bailey shared an insight from Bishop Kenneth Cragg, a scholar who has written extensively on Arab Christians and Islam. He compared gospel writers to a filmmaker who has to squeeze the death of John F. Kennedy into a documentary only an hour long.

If the documentary did not include eyewitness accounts, interviews, and information from other sources, then the assassination could be reduced to a single sentence: A man in a warehouse shot another man in a passing car. “And if that is all you say about it, then you are lying,” he said.

Bailey affirms that the Spirit of God guided the process of the Bible. “God as Jesus invites disciples to participate with him in an inspired process to produce a book which has changed all our lives,” he said.

The text is inspired—not the translation

When preachers at the Worship Symposium asked Bailey how to share his ideas without alarming their congregations, he said, “As Protestants, we are so proud of our sola scriptura. We build up around scripture our traditional interpretation of scripture. Don’t let your congregations absolutize a translation. The text is inspired, not the translation.

“My interpretation is not inspired. Our understanding of scripture has to be tentatively final. Sorry about the oxymoron. Today I have to be obedient. But tomorrow I will understand better. I am a sinner in need of Christ.”

Especially since the Enlightenment, people in the Western hemisphere tend to assume that reason is universal. A lay Christian might hear a scholar talking about biblical interpretation and think the scholar is saying that the Word is wrong.

Bailey says we often don’t see that “the way we reason and what becomes reasonable for us is influenced by our language, culture, history, tradition, economic system, and our military. That’s the sieve through which we perceive the world and come up with what is reasonable. But somebody halfway around the world processes the same data and comes up with a different conclusion.”

Consider the phrase fed up or the word mad. “In Egyptian English, a visitor might say, ‘Thank you. I cannot eat any more cookies. I am fed up.” Someone from the United States or United Kingdom would probably use another word, such as full.

A British person who says, “I’m mad about my flat!” is likely far happier about the apartment than an American who says the same phrase but means “I got stuck with this place.”

Bailey explains, “When you get into the nitty-gritty of telling and responding to Jesus’ story, then we start getting a lack of universality of our own culture and reasoning process.”

Enhances biblical understanding

His years of living, researching, and teaching in the Middle East convince him that “the most profound theology in scripture comes out in story—Psalm 23, parables of the Good Shepherd and/or prodigal son….”

Bailey compares his life work to looking for diamonds in a gravel pit.

And what light do these diamonds shine on people who care about reading the Bible and understanding God? Does Ken Bailey’s work nullify what Christians think they know?

As you might expect, he answers with a story. “Suppose I’ve spent my life going to a beach. I’ve seen waves splashing against rocks, ships on the water, fishermen casting lines. One day at this beach someone says, ‘Ken, I have two snorkels. Let’s go.’

“Suddenly I see coral, seaweed, and fish. These undersea views in no way invalidate the beauty of what’s above. In my work, I’m looking for the coral and the fish.”

Learn More

Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Musical Drama was written by Kenneth E. Bailey, with songs by David M. Bailey. Read excerpts from the introduction and chapter on Jesus’ birth of Bailey’s newest book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Kenneth E. Bailey is an engaging speaker. Church education classes use his lectures on VHS and DVD, along with downloadable free study guides. Read and review his books for your church library.

Purchase “Finding the Lost,” a feature-length movie about the parables in Luke 15. Bailey wrote the script. The movie was produced in Cairo with Arab film stars.

Ken Bailey traces many erroneous Christmas traditions back to The Protevangelium of James, a novel about Jesus’ birth. It was written in 200 AD by an anonymous Christian who didn’t understand Palestinian geography or Jewish tradition. Browse Christianity Today Christmas resources.

Middle Eastern shepherds stay in the fields with their flocks from May to October. When the season turns cold and rainy, shepherds and sheep sleep indoors. Perhaps the early church chose December 25 for liturgical or cultural reasons. Bailey compares it to how Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday is different from her birth date.

Listen to Ken Bailey’s sermon “The Wonder of the Nature of Faith: David, Jesus and Hebrews 11.” Read a sermon on the prodigal son by emergent kiwi blogger Steve Taylor, a Baptist pastor in New Zealand.

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, by Gregory Beale and D. A. Carson, is a one-volume commentary on how New Testament writers understood and interpreted the Old Testament.

Browse related stories about ancient Christmas sermonsEugene Peterson and Bible translationsmusic from other cultures, and worship drama.

Start a Discussion

Talk about what a better understanding of Jesus’ world could do for you:

  • What is your reaction to Ken Bailey’s take on the Christmas story? Which changes might you like to make in your congregation’s Advent or Christmas services?
  • Share examples of how Christians confuse culture with faith. Talk about what you’ve seen elsewhere and what you sense in your own tradition or church.
  • What do you gain or lose by seeing biblical stories, metaphors, or parables as a primary way of creating meaning…rather than as illustrative sugarcoating on a theological pill of logic?
  • How might your worship change if you focused more on Jesus as a metaphorical theologian?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to understand the world Jesus lived in and see how it enhances biblical understanding?

  • Did you design a participatory project that helped Christians from different cultures—including Middle Eastern ones—talk about their faith practices?
  • Which intergenerational or multisensory ideas have helped your congregation better understand gospel parables? How did this new understanding change the way you worship, welcome visitors, or interact with your neighbors?