Review by Jim Miller
[easyazon-image align=”right” asin=”0830825681″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51FKEv4Im8L._SL160_.jpg” width=”107″]I thought I understood the Christmas story: the Virgin Mary was pregnant with Jesus; a Roman tax law required Joseph and his espoused wife to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, eighty miles to the south; they arrived late and at night and were hastily given a room in a dirty stable; the baby Jesus was born soon after, and placed in wooden cattle trough; a bright star appeared above the cave, leading three mysterious Magi to Jesus; and angels suddenly appeared to shepherds in the field—and there you have it, the first-ever Christmas. But Dr. Kenneth Baily dismisses it and offers a different version of the story in his 443-page book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, a fascinating look at the New Testament, this time from the perspective in which it was written.
Bailey is a well-qualified expert in Middle Eastern culture, having spent forty years teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He thinks we may have misread the Bible through our modern Western eyes. Taking the nativity account, for example, Dr. Bailey shows in the opening chapter that maybe we’ve misinterpreted the story wrong. He points out that Joseph and Mary were both of the lineage of King David,” a rather exalted pedigree, especially in Bethlehem, the “City of David” no-less, and would not have been relegated to a nasty stable, especially in Mary’s expectant condition (there were very strict rules of hospitality in biblical Israel). More likely, they were given a room (“katalyma” = guest room) in a relative’s home. Mary certainly had family living in the region (e.g., Elizabeth), who would have gladly opened their home to her expectant cousin. Bailey notes that feeding-cribs were actually located inside the one-room living-quarters of homes, having the stable attached and adjoined to the house. So when the infant Jesus was “laid in a manger,” it would have actually been within the living quarters of a home.
It is also probable that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem some weeks before Jesus was born, not the very night of his birth, as tradition says. And that while the Magi may have been directed to Bethlehem by the king’s advisors, they were led to Nazareth by some astral phenomenon. Finally, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus arrived in Nazareth months after the baby’s birth, receiving the Magi there weeks later. In it all, Dr. Bailey remains faithful to scripture.
That’s just the first chapter. Bailey also finds often startling Western misconceptions in Jesus’ actions, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Parables, his relation to women as read through Middle Eastern eyes, giving readers more than a few “aha” moments. “Not that we’ve got the story necessarily wrong,” he writes, “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.” And it really does.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. An ordained Presbyterian academic, he also serves as Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Pittsburgh ( Episcopal Church), U.S.A. In addition to a doctorate in New Testament, he holds graduate degrees in Arabic language and literature as well as systematic theology. He spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He is the author of many books in English and Arabic, including Poet and Peasant.