Sunday, September 11, 2016

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes–Birth Stories

38d2ea28-d0b8-4953-b962-1b9a41648f0b_1.521799f19899b1e8b6f68e4eef180b97It is a new year (educational year) and so I am beginning a new book for my New Testament Devotionals. Over the next few weeks I will be reading through Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, by Kenneth E. Bailey. The main purpose of this book is to take a fresh look at the Gospels in the context of Middle Eastern culture. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Dr. Bailey has spent considerable time working and teaching with Arabic speaking Christians and hopes to better understand the Gospels through their cultural insights. The book is divided into several sections. The first section discusses the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. When I complete each section I’ll post a summary and quotes from the discussion of each story. I’ll divide longer sections into multiple posts.

Few are aware of the existence today of more than ten million Arabic-speaking Christians who possess a rich heritage of ancient and modern literature. Speaking a Semitic language, these Christians are a people who live, breathe, think, act and participate in Middle Eastern culture; they are rooted in the traditional ways of the Middle East. Their voices, past and present, need to be heard in biblical studies. 11–12

All the intelligent people were not born in the twentieth century. When we observe these sophisticated, thoughtful and artistically balanced rhetorical styles (in the Bible), we form a high opinion of their authors. 18

My intent is to contribute new perspectives from the Eastern tradition that have rarely, if ever, been considered outside the Arabic-speaking Christian world. It is my fond hope that these essays may help the reader to better understand the mind of Christ, and the mind of the Gospel author/editors as they recorded and interpreted the traditions available to them.  21

Luke 2.1-20

The birth story of Jesus in Luke is one biblical story that has accrued a lot of extra-biblical traditions. According to Bailey many of them come from a 2nd century writing called the Gospel of James. The idea that Mary and Joseph would have been rejected by the people of Bethlehem (their relatives) or that they would have gone to a public inn does not fit the culture, nor the biblical text. It is much more likely that they were received into a one-room typical peasant home, in which the animals were kept and fed at night. The baby was born some days after arrival and the shepherds welcome and praise reflect Luke's theme that Jesus reaches out to the rejected, lost and poor.

The more familiar we are with a biblical story, the more difficult it is to view it outside of the way it has always been understood. And the longer imprecision in the tradition remains unchallenged, the deeper it becomes embedded in Christian consciousness. The birth story of Jesus is such a story. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 25

(The Shepherds) would find the Christ child in an ordinary peasant home such as theirs. He was not in a governor’s mansion or a wealthy merchant’s guest room but in a simple two-room home like theirs. This was really good news. Perhaps they would not be told, “Unclean shepherds—be gone!” This was their sign, a sign for lowly shepherds. 35

That manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened. 36

Matthew 1.1-21

In chapter 2 Bailey looks at the genealogy and opening of the birth story of Jesus in Matthew. In the genealogy he focuses on the 5 women in the list, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (who he refuses to name) and Mary. They are quite a collection of sinners and people who exercise great faith, but who all had issues that would have normally separated them from Jewish society. They are a great illustration of the kind of people Jesus came to save. The second part of the chapter deals with Joseph. He was a just man, but one who tempered that justice with mercy as he did not prosecute Mary. Then, when the angel spoke to him, despite his anger and confusion, he stood against his society, and with God, to take Mary as his wife.

With such a list, Matthew gives us clues about the kinds of people that the Messiah came to save. He was to be a Savior for women and men who were both saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. This genealogy is truly comprehensive. Many can look at the stories of these women and men and find some reflection of themselves. Matthew 1.1-17, 42

In his dealings with Mary, Joseph acted out of this prophetic definition of justice. Without that prophetic understanding of justice embedded in Joseph’s mind, Jesus would not have been born. Joseph is, therefore, not a passive, mute figure. Rather, he acts as a strong, thoughtful person whose bold decision at a point of crisis saves the life of the mother and her unborn child. Matthew 1.18-21, 44

Matthew presents Joseph as a human being of remarkable spiritual stature. He possessed the boldness, daring, courage and strength of character to stand up against his entire community and take Mary as his wife. He did so in spite of forces that no doubt wanted her stoned. His vision of justice stayed his hand. In short he was able to reprocess his anger into grace. Matthew 1.18-21, 46

Matthew 2.1-12, Isaiah 60.1-7

In this section Bailey reads Matthew 2.1-12 as a fulfillment of Isaiah 60.1-7. He makes the point that it is not received well to go to an oppressed people and point out their sins. Jesus not only would point out the sins of the oppressor (Rome), but he also pointed out the evil in the hearts of his own people and provided a way to deal with it. This was not well received. Bailey also takes the view that the wise men came from Arabia, not Persia, and connects this with the prophecy in Isaiah 60 that has the rich sheiks of Arabia bringing their wealth to Jerusalem. I am not fully convinced by his argument. He then sees the prophecy fulfilled in the birth stories with Jesus fulfilling the role of Jerusalem. One of the main points of Matthew is that Jesus relives the story of Israel, but this time does it right, so this fits well.

In such a text (Ecc. 4.1) both the oppressors and the oppressed are trapped in prisons from which they cannot escape. Each needs grace from outside the prison. The text in Luke speaks of salvation from “our enemies” and of the internal problem of “our sins.” Matthew 2.1-12, 51

But for a Christian dwelling in the Holy Land, “the East” would refer to the other side of the Jordan River. Indeed, such a designation persists to this day...It is only natural to assume that Jewish Christians, living in the Holy Land in the first century thought and talked the same way. “The East” for them would naturally refer to the Jordanian deserts that connect with the deserts of Arabia. Matthew 2.1-12, 52

Sacred history is more important than sacred space. The earthly Jerusalem is, appropriately, a place of pilgrimage, worship and reflection for all three Abrahamic faiths and should be shared equally by them. But the followers of the Christ child know that the Jerusalem that matters is the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down as a gift of God at the end of history. Matthew 2.1-12, Isaiah 60.1-7, 55

The final section on the birth stories looks at the "slaughter of the innocents" in Matthew and the meeting with Simeon and Anna in the temple in Jerusalem in Luke. These stories foreshadow the life and mission of Jesus. Jesus was born into a brutal, sinful world. Herod's killing of the babies is very much like Pharaoh's killing of the babies in Egypt which began Moses' birth story. The story of the "new Exodus" that the Gospel would bring would happen amidst the same kind of brutality. The Luke stories highlight Luke's emphasis on women alongside the men. Jesus came for all people, male and female. All are called to discipleship and worship. Finally, Simeon's prophecy looks ahead to the crucifixion right from the birth story. Mary will share in the suffering of Jesus as the faithful disciple who will stay with Jesus when most everyone else has abandoned him.

Matthew presents pictures of the depth of evil that Jesus came to redeem. This story heightens the reader’s awareness of the willingness on the part of God to expose himself to the total vulnerability which is at the heart of the incarnation. If the Gospel can flourish in a world that produces the slaughter of the innocents and the cross, the Gospel can flourish anywhere. From this awareness the readers of the Gospels in any age can take heart. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, Matthew 2.13-18, 58–59

In the stories Luke chooses to tell he makes it clear that this Savior came for both women and men. A careful examination of the book of Luke unearths at least twenty-seven sets of stories that focus in one case on a man and in the other on a woman...the text presents one story from the life experiences of men and a second from the daily life of women. Even so the birth stories of Jesus, recorded in Luke, contain three such pairs. Luke 2.22-38, 62

On Golgotha Mary chose to remain to the end and witness the suffering of her son until his death. She was not under arrest and could have walked away. She knew she could not change what was happening before her by arguing with the soldiers or pleading with the high priests. The only decision she was free to make was to choose to remain and enter into Jesus’ suffering. Indeed a sword passed through her heart, and in the process, once again, she became a model for Christian discipleship. Luke 2.24-35, 61

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