I first became aware of Bailey’s work when I picked up on a few references to his influential paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and The Synoptic Gospels. As suggested by a reading of this paper, and from the title of the book being reviewed, the key strength to Bailey’s work is putting things in their cultural context. Many modern, western, adherents to and critics of christianity (myself included) tend to read the bible in the light of their own cultural conditioning. Bailey spent many years living and working in the Middle East and as such is a rarity amongst western scholars to have such depth and breadth of understanding of the modern and ancient world in which Jesus lived.
This book is then a collection of essays where Bailey attempts to draw meaning out of them that would have made sense to those living through the events at the time they were occurring as well as the first readers (intended audience and slightly beyond) of the gospels. There is not really a running narrative, so each of the essays can be read in isolation if you want to. They are grouped together by theme. So for example, the early section is devoted to the nativity narratives of Luke & Matthew. There are also sections on the Lord’s Prayer, the miracles of Jesus and of his parables.
I found it a fascinating book and every essay contained something that I found deeply thought-provoking or where the author simply points something out that I had never noticed before; sometimes chiding myself for not having noticed sooner. In what he writes, there is a presupposition that the gospels are historically accurate. For my part, I retain a sceptical approach particularly with respect to the nativity narrative. After all, there was none included in the earliest gospel: Mark, which, if we are to accept the testimony of Papias (as quoted by Eusebius) that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, who clearly wasn’t around at the time of nativity. So where did the narratives come from? It is unlikely that either the authors of Matthew and Luke’s gospels were present at the birth, so it does leave an unanswered question; one which does cast something of a shadow over the historical reliability of the Christmas story.
Key to his analysis is to look at the rhetorical structure of the language, which he does by a clever use of indentation, showing where passages have a parallelism to them, but where the climax of the text is found in the centre of the passage, rather than at the end. It showed me ways of reading passages that I had never considered before, and such fresh insight is as welcome as it is challenging. Though it is a work of immense scholarship, Bailey’s writing style is very down to earth and highly accessible.
Some of the essays on the parables seem to be summaries of his work elsewhere as there are frequent footnotes effectively saying “[for more detail, see Poet & Peasant]” so if you have read that book then don’t be surprised if this covers much of the same ground.
That said, this is one of the best theology books I’ve ever read and I anticipate coming back to it many times over. I cannot recommend it highly enough to you.