Jul 1, 2012

A Review of Paul through Mediterranean Eyes

Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011).

Let me begin by noting how much I appreciate the work of Kenneth Bailey in general. I feel that I have benefited from the insights that he brings to the text drawn from his experiences of living and working in the Middle East and especially enjoyed his Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes which was published a few years ago.

So I was really looking forward to going through Bailey’s most recent book, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. Having gone through the book now, I am still generally enthusiastic, but this volume is hard to evaluate because it does not claim to be a commentary. Yet, in many ways it reads like a commentary. Introductory matters are addressed, the argument and basic structure of the book are outlined, the text is explained, and practical implications are identified. This raises the question as to whether a work that does not claim to be a commentary (p. 19) but acts like one should be evaluated. Having wrestled with the issue, I have decided to follow the well-known aphorism that “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck” then it is a duck. So “cultural studies” notwithstanding, we will treat Paul through Mediterranean Eyes as commentary on 1 Corinthians.

As a commentary, there are a number of features that make Paul through Mediterranean Eyes a helpful contributory tool for studying 1 Corinthians. One valuable, and really unique, contribution is Bailey’s interaction with a number of Arabic resources in the form of translations and commentaries (e.g., pp. 52, 82, 200, 204, 215, 237,287, 331, 354, 377, 379, 466, 497, 498). Bailey also brings interesting Middle Eastern cultural insights to the discussion (e.g., his discussion of the foot, p. 341). Another contribution is Bailey’s insistence that 1 Corinthians is better read as Hebrew rhetoric which often results in a ring/chiastic structure with paired cameos (pp. 33-53). While this reviewer is not convinced that the structural suggestions made in this work always work, the focus on structure is sometimes overlooked in some commentaries. A third feature that I appreciated was Bailey’s admission that Paul through Mediterranean Eyes is a confessional commentary in that Bailey writes as a Christian for Christians (p. 18). As such, he does not hesitate to tease out the theological and practical implications of the text at hand, especially at the end of his analysis (e.g., 71, 100-1, 323-24). Finally, it is clear that Bailey is interacting with top-shelf resources on 1 Corinthians (e.g., Barrett, Conzelmann, Fee, Murphy-O’Conner, Thiselton, Garland) but he does his own work and makes his own contributions. One might be able to say a number of things about this work, but “rehashed” is not one of them.

My criticisms of the work are fairly minor. I have already noted that I did not find all of the ring/chiastic structures to be convincing, and I sensed at times that the suggestions were a bit forced and thus, artificial. As with any commentary, readers will disagree with certain points. For example, some interpreters will not agree with Bailey’s presentation of agape/agapaō as a “higher level of love” (p. 349). As D. A. Carson and others have noted, such distinctions might be exegetically fallacious. In sum, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes is a book worth considering as a supplementary text for those that want to dig a bit deeper into 1 Corinthians or those who are already well-versed with the standard resources.


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