Analysis of language styles unlocks meaning
Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians
Author: Kenneth E. Bailey
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
By his own admission, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey is not intended to be a commentary on First Corinthians. Though it somewhat serves that function, Bailey’s primary concern lies elsewhere.
He looks first at Hebrew rhetorical style, presenting evidence that Paul uses language styles found in the Hebrew prophets, particularly Isaiah and Amos.
Secondly, Bailey brings to life Paul’s metaphors and parables, indicating that Paul was not merely illustrating but creating meaning.
Lastly, he looks at a representative sample of the translation history of 1 Corinthians into Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew. He continually shows how “Middle Eastern Christians have read and understood the text” (19) over the course of the last 1,600 years.
This serves as a wonderful supplement to a formal commentary. Despite the fact that it may not be classified as such, I think of it as one. Bailey’s knowledge of Middle Eastern manuscripts combined with his astonishing examination of Paul’s writing continually brings forth new understanding of the biblical text. He covers all the verses, though not all are examined in detail.
He looks at them in sections, being distinct parts of the messages that Paul wants to convey. He makes extensive use of diagrams that plainly show Paul’s precision. They are not as easy to read as the text that summarizes the meaning, but it is the best way to show the connections between the verses. In thirty plus years as a Christian, I have never seen anything so revealing. It is not as though Bailey is manufacturing hidden codes, he just quietly goes about showing what is there. I wondered if I could make these language patterns plain on my own, and I do not think I could. Bailey’s analysis is masterful throughout and represents a lifetime of learning. This book is a real gift to Bible students everywhere. However valid hidden Bible codes may be, this is much more exciting, especially since it seems authentic and sheds new light on familiar passages.
Bailey’s study of 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul speaks of head coverings, a difficult passage for moderns to understand and apply, is astonishing. Some, to say the least, have seen Paul’s views in general as dishonoring to women. Bailey shows that this reputation is undeserved and clearly wide of the mark. In his summation he writes, “Seen in this light, our understanding of the text and of Paul’s view of women are transformed. Women, for Paul, are not created ‘for men,’ that is, for their bed and board. Rather women, as descendants of Eve, are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). In this reading of the text, Paul the Middle Eastern male chauvinist disappears. In its place Paul emerges as a compassionate figure who boldly affirms the equality and mutual interdependency of men and women in the new covenant. I would submit that this is the heart of what Paul has to say in the five cameos that make up the center of this homily. This reading of the text helps explain why Greek women of high standing were attracted to Paul’s message and why they joined the movement he represented” (310).
I imagine women everywhere cheering these liberating thoughts. Let me add that there are many other gems, for men and women, just like the preceding. I must admit though, this book was worth reading just to find that passage. It is not because Bailey is saying what appeals to me, but because more often than not, his reading seems to get at the heart of what Paul was trying to say.
Reading this book reminded me of how often, despite our well-intentioned efforts, we get it wrong. I am not saying that the average person cannot understand the meaning of Scripture. I just rejoice in getting closer to the truth through people like Bailey, who has a wonderful blend of scholarly insight and humility. Even he acknowledges that it is difficult to fathom the depths of meaning in some passages.
Bailey has the tools to unlock passages that do not yield their treasures to the casual reader. This is what makes this book so rewarding. It is the treasure that an enlightened teacher is able to bring forth drawing on what is old and new.
This is not devotional reading or application-oriented, although the reader can find material along these lines. If you enjoy sound exegesis, this is for you. Let devotions and applications flow from a better understanding of the text.