Book Review – Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes [Combined Edition] by Kenneth E. Bailey
Within this combined edition Kenneth E. Bailey, through his personal experience of living in the Middle-East for many years, turns his attention upon the parables of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
The main thrust of the first section (Poet & Peasant) is on the identification and classification of the poetic form of the parables, and then turns to the application of this in interpreting a few of the parables contained within the “travel narrative” of Luke (9:51-19:48). These include;
The Unjust Steward (16:18)
The Poem on Mammon and God (16:9-13)
The Friend at Midnight (11:5-8)
The Parable/Poem on a Father’s Gifts (11:9-13)
The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (15:4-10)
The Father and the Two Lost Sons (15:11-32)
Whereas as the second section (Through Peasant Eyes) analyses the following Parables, using the same literary-cultural approach;
The Two Debtors (7:36-50)
The Fox, the Funeral and the Furrow (9:57-62)
The Good Samaritan (10:25-37)
The Rich Fool (12:13-21)
Pilate, the Tower, and the Fig Tree (13:1-9)
The Great Banquet (14:15-24)
The Obedient Servant (17:7-10)
The Judge and the Widow (18:9-14)
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14)
The Camel and the Needle (18:18-30)
Bailey’s literary-cultural hermeneutic is informed by the following components: an analysis of the literary structure/form of the parable itself, his own first-hand knowledge of Middle-Eastern culture and formalities, historical Middle-Eastern translations of the Lucan texts (exploring the reasoning for the translators lexical decisions where variance from a western translation occurs), and engaging the perspectives of other respected scholar’s understandings of the parables — especially those who bring a Middle-Eastern perspective to the text.
The result of this approach is that Bailey brings to the foreground an understanding of the parables that anchors them to the mind-set of their originally intended audience. Many times this approach clashes with some of the traditional western interpretations that have been breathed into the parables (for example; the parable of the unjust steward and the reason for the master’s praise), but I feel that this is an essential move that saves these stories from over-allegorisation, on the one hand, and recapturing the heart-beat of the 1st century context on the other.
For those who are wary of the over use of form-criticism, I share your concerns; especially when it is in regards to detecting a poetic structure with stepped or inverse parallelisms etc. After all, it’s easy to start spotting patterns everywhere without some limitations/rules to guide that process. However, even though Bailey uses form-critical methods in determining the climax, turning point and theological motifs of the parables, I feel that he never goes over-the-top and that he keeps himself fairly restrained. Bailey takes the first few chapters of Poet & Peasant setting out this method and his constraints to it. But even if you ignored everything attached to a specific poetic structure, in my opinion the Middle-eastern perspective alone is enough to securely ground Bailey’s interpretations or, at the very least, challenge the foundations of the Western understandings that we currently attach to them
Overall, I think this book is an absolute must read for anyone wishing to recapture Jesus’ teachings through the parables. It’s not a quick read, and it’s one of those books which requires the reader to give it some time on their first read-through (I got the most out of this when I could read a chapter in one-sitting or by at least giving a minimum of thirty minutes to it each time I picked it up). I feel it’s helped me to grasp some of the parables in a fresher and more authentic setting, and this combined edition will definitely become my first-point of call when studying them in the future.
My only issue, and it is minor, is that the volume as a whole is light (but not entirely absent) on any redaction criticism; i.e. why did Luke record this parable as he does, where he does? How do the parable’s themes fit in with any of Luke’s overarching themes and what he is trying to communicate about Jesus to his letter’s recipient (Theophilus)? Also, could this form-critical approach be applied to the parables contained in Matthew and Mark, and why are there differences where they occur in those sources? I could also add, that although I am currently inclined to agree with Bailey’s conclusions of Jesus being the originator of these poetic constructions, just stating “I see no reason why Jesus didn’t say this” (my paraphrase) doesn’t silence those who would argue that, a) Jesus didn’t say these parables, or b) he maybe said something similar but this is still an early church retrospection and not a reproduction of the historical Jesus.
Of course, none of this is the author’s main intent within this book, and other sources will need to be sought to answer these points. But even with these issues not being explored at a deeper level, I would still stand by what I said earlier: this volume is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand the challenge of Jesus’ parables in his own context.
Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed – Available Now.