There is a pernicious Euro-American centricity that undergirds much of our understanding and perspective on the Scripture. I am thankful, though, that a number of scholars are taking a new look at the social, cultural, and rhetorical foundation that those Scriptures are rooted in order to help us re-capture a non-Western and pre-Western perspective on the Text.

Enter Kenneth Bailey’s new book Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. Bailey joins the likes of Ben Witherington—for which he is eminently known—in examining the socio-rhetorical-culture milieu that Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth is mired in. And Bailey, like Oden, seeks to pull the reader’s head out of the sand of Euro-American centrism and into the new, fresh air of the Middle East by giving them Middle Eastern eyes. As Bailey states, “in the wider world, Middle Eastern Christians are often forgotten. The current discussions of the emergence of the Christian ‘Global South’ and its numerical dominance over Christians in Western Europe and North America, overlooks the Middle East entirely. Have already discussed a few topics in the Gospels in the light of important Middle Eastern Christian sources, this volume intends to focus similar attention on 1 Corinthians.” (18)

Over the past forty years or so as Bailey has worked through this text, he says “at critical points in the text, I have asked, ‘How did Middle Eastern Christians across the centuries understand this text?'” Bailey sets out to answer this question throughout his examination of 1 Corinthians. He has three basic concerns in his approach to 1 Corinthians: 1) Paul, a Middle Eastern Jewish Christian, uses rhetorical styles that were available to him in the writings of the Hebrew prophets; 2) Middle Eastern life and literature is of assistance in recovering and bringing to life Paul’s metaphors and parables; and 3) he examines 23 representative samples of the long heritage of Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew translations of 1 Corinthians. (19)

Bailey begins by arguing that 1 Cor is Paul’s most contemporary letter, holding along with an apparent cloud of witnesses throughout the historic Church (including Ambrosiaster, Chrysostom, Bishr ibn al-Sari, and Calvin) that this letter is not simply occasional but written to all the Church. And it’s a letter “with a carefully designed inner coherence that exhibits amazing precision in composition and admirable grandeur in overall theological concept” with “five carefully constructed essays, which themselves showcase a discernible theological method.” (25)

Here’s Bailey’s thematic outline:

I. The Cross ad Christian Unity 1:5—4:16
II.   Men and Women in the Human Family 4:17—7:40
III.      Food Offered to Idols (Christian and Pagan) 8:1—11:1
IV.   Men and Women in Worship 11:2—14:40
V. The Resurrection 15

He also argues this outline reveals three principle ideas: the cross and resurrection (I, V); Men and women in the human family and in worship (II, IV); and Christian living among pagans (III).

I find both this outline and these three principle ideas helpful, if not innovative. A glance through my commentaries on 1 Corinthians—Fee, Thiselton, Collins, Ciampa/Rosner, and Witherington—don’t share his thematic outline, though Collins comes close who identifies 6 rhetorical “demonstrations.” And from what I remember, and in my review of these commentaries in light of this review, I don’t recall them drawing out the Hebraic rhetorical style that Bailey centers upon. In fact the most recent addition to the 1 Corinthians commentary library from Ciampa and Rosner state Paul uses Graeco-Roman rhetoric. Except a Hebraic rhetorical style culled from the prophets themselves is what Bailey argues for: “Using his own Jewish literary tradition, he built on the rhetoric of the classical writing prophets and composed a series of masterpieces not the topics he selected.” (27)

He also argues that rather than being an occasional letter written specifically to the Church at Corinth, Paul “looked at the specific problems that surfaced in Corinth and selected some of them. The topics he chose were those that new Christian communities were debating in many places. He then composed 1 Cor and sent a copy to Corinth and to churches everywhere. He did address Corinthians and at the same time, he invited the rest of the Church to ‘listen in’ on his ‘phone conversation’ hoping to serve the entire church.” This is why he argues the book is composed of five carefully constructed essays. (27) This seems to fly in the face of prevailing modern commentaries, which D. G. Dunn states and whom Ciampa and Rosner quote: “1 Corinthians cannot be properly understood unless it is read against the backdrop of its historical context and as part of a dialogue with the Corinthian church itself.” I’m sure Bailey would agree with this to some extent, but ultimately would move beyond what appears to be a straightjacket approach to interpreting the letter by doing so in broader, general sense. Here is how he summarizes his argument:

it appears when a long list of problems surfaced in Corinth, Paul selected those of general concern and addressed both the Corinthians and the church at large in a single letter. For this extraordinarily well-constructed, important document Paul reached back  into his own Jewish past and co-opted rhetorical styles sanctified by the classical writing prophets…The result was one of Paul’s finest efforts and it can indeed by called “Paul’s most contemporary epistle.” (30)

Again, an interesting methodological position, but also seemingly innovative in comparison to the modern exegetical tradition. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. But I think it’s a supplemental position, since it does seem to be an unusual one.

Additionally, as mentioned before, Bailey uses his extensive Middle Eastern background—which amounts to 40 years worth living and teaching experience in Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Jerusalem—and historical commentaries from the Middle East that stretch from the 4th through the 5th centuries to illumine Paul’s use of metaphor and parable. As we’ve come to realize over the past few decades, getting the 1st century backdrop to Paul and his letter-receiving communities is important. Bailey seeks to do so by emphasizing the Middle Eastern nature of that backdrop, which he does in his own unique way. And while this way is a good supplemental way, I wonder how safe that way is considering how informed it is by “how Middle Eastern Christians across the last 1,600 years have understood 1 Corinthians,” especially those from the 4th and 5th century.

That’s not to dismiss them, however. As I argued with Oden’s Mark book, I think us Euro-American centric interpreters need the voices from across the ocean and throughout the past, especially the ones closer to the moment and closer to the environment. My caution is that sometimes such a method can bring things to the text that simply weren’t there before or intended by the author, but we shall see.

So how does Bailey use his Middle Eastern experience and sources to help give us a sharper, crisper reading of 1 Corinthians? Look at some examples:

His commentary on 1 Cor 1:17-2:2 draws a parallel between this passage on the cross and the suffering servant hymn of Is. 50:5-11. Bailey argues the same rhetorical device of Is. appears in this 1 Cor. passage, which is an important piece of Jewish background to Paul’s hymn to the cross as “by building on Isaiah, Paul discusses the cross in a way that could communicate to Jewish readers/listeners on a very deep level. Likewise, Paul was “concerned for his Greek readers/listeners who would not have had the background in the book of Isaiah.” Therefore, according to Bailey, Paul takes a page out of Greek hero tradition by formulating this piece after Greek funeral orations: “A careful examination of Pericles’ oration and Paul’s hymn to Christ crucified reveals seven points of comparison and contrast.” These two points illustrate how Bailey situates Paul’s letter in Hebrew rhetoric and Middle Eastern culture. (90-95)

In commenting on the guilt induced by receiving the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner found in 1 Cor 11:27, Bailey illumines the strong connotation by bringing into the discussion Middle Eastern versions of the word used over the last thousand years for the Greek enokhos (guilty): “Some read shajab (destroy) or shajib (destroyer). “Guilty against” appears along with “criminal in regard to.” Khati’a ila (sin against) is used both in Arabic and in Hebrew. All of these versions recognize that something dark and sinister is taking place.” So we can see commentors and words from the Middle East use strong language to talk about the person who is “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. (322-323)

The famoupassage on love in 1 Cor 13 carries an interesting translation of vs. 8: “love never falls.” We’re used to the translation “love never fails,” but Bailey reveals that “Oriental versions have preserved this concrete image and consistently translated the text literally. In the days before dynamite, bulldozers and backhoes, most Mediterranean mountain “roads” were narrow paths. Falling was an ever real possibility. Strabo describes the road from Athens to Corinth by saying ‘The road approaches so close to the rocks that in many places it passes along the edge of the precipices, because the mountain situated above them is both lofty and impracticable for roads.’ Paul had walked that road. Regardless of danger along ‘the mountain pass,’ love does not fall. Paul’s model was surely the life of Christ. He was the one whose love never “fell down,” even when nailed to the cross.” Interesting illumination of the cultural background and Middle Eastern translation/interpretation! (379-380)

In 1 Cor 15:25 we read that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies are under his feet.” Bailey explains that his “image ‘under the feet’ the projects the extent of his victory is a powerful Middle Eastern Metaphor.” He goes on to explain how a life-size wooden statue of Pharaoh Tutankhamen is on display in the Cairo Museum of Antiquity, and this statue is of the Pharaoh on a throne with his feet elevated on a stool with all of his enemies carefully carved onto its surface with their hands tied behind their backs! And as Bailey goes on to say, “For Paul, all things will be under the feet of Christ. The language carries with it the image of total surrender and the impossibility of the enemies ever contemplating a ‘comeback.'” (446-447). That little nugget refracts this passage a bit more sharply in the light of Middle Eastern perspective.

Obviously, in a massive commentary volume like this one on 1 Corinthians (a 560 pages worth!) you can’t evaluate everything. And these few examples don’t do this commentary justice. I do think they help one understand how Bailey is using his source material and Middle Eastern cultural understanding to illumine the text for us. To be honest I was surprised there wasn’t a stronger sense of that perspective woven throughout the text, which could be both a good and bad thing: good in the sense that Bailey isn’t controlling the interpretive effort and bad in the sense I’m not sure the commentary does everything he set out to do. The commentary was “Paul through Middle Eastern eyes,” or “Mediterranean eyes” as it was title, but as I made my way through the book it didn’t seem to be as saturated as I thought it would have been, either in the Hebraic prophetic rhetorical tradition or Middle Easter cultural experience as the author promised.

Now this isn’t to say I don’t think this is a solid offering, especially a solid supplemental one to the mainstay 1 Corinthian commentaries. It is and I think what it offers is more than made up in my perceived mark-missing. Not only does it bring good sense of the Middle East/Mediterranean world to bear on the interpretive enterprise—and when he does it’s solid—the commentary also brings a (perhaps, much) stronger rhetorical analysis to that effort. Bailey brings much detailed rhetoric analysis to Paul’s letter, even if it is more innovative and different than the prevailing structural analysis of 1 Cor commentaries of yore. It also provides interesting intertextual links between the Tanak, especially Isaiah, and has a fascinating appendix discussion on the role of the Book of Amos in the opening of the letter.

So by and large a good supplemental commentary that provides a needed service in helping pastors, students, and scholars alike shed a purely Euro-American centric in favor of recapturing a Middle Eastern perspective on one of the most crucial epistles of Paul for our contemporary situation.