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Ken Bailey on Issues Etc.

A while back Issues Etc. re-ran a 1999 series on interpreting parables in the original cultural context featuring author Ken Bailey. The five-part series can currently be found on the Issues Etc. archive page for Ken Bailey [link].

I love this sort of in-depth study; it really makes the text come alive.

At the same time I can’t help wondering how much of this sort of thing is necessary to be a theologically orthodox Christian. I come out of a tradition that values the plain meaning of the text in translation and prefers to ignore any questions regarding accuracy of translation, the difficulty of being certain when attempting to add anything to the plain meaning of the text.

Anyway, in this case Bailey assembles an interpretive framework for the parables in Luke 15 that makes them seem less foreign by appealing to his description of the culture in which they were originally spoken. It’s fascinating stuff; I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide just how Lutheran the results are.


  1. Timothy F Simpson
    October 22, 2011 at 7:32 am

    The problem with “the plain meaning” concept is that it ends up being “the plain meaning to a person who lives a couple thousand years after the text was written and who doesn’t know the language and culture in which the text was imbedded.”. Which means as a reader, one fills the gaps in the text with stuff from one’s own experience, rather than first situating the text in it’s own world and then trying to hear it the way it would first have been heard. Every community that understands these texts to be canon will always make the imaginative leap to bring the text into contemporary life for purposes of application. But doing this without having first understood the text on it’s ow terms would simply be to use the scripture as a PREtext for saying whatever it is that you wanted to say. I teach biblical studies at the college level and require an essay on a Parable of Jesus using the kind of social-scientific methods that Bailey advocates. You’d have to read the essays to get the full effect of the difference between people who do the assignment properly and those who try to take a shortcut and avoid that step and who just try to interpret “the plain meaning” of whatever parable they choose. The cockamamie concepts that people read into the parables are amazing. So for me there really isn’t a legitimate option other than Bailey’s way. The New Testament world isn’t our world. People don’t know a thing about inheritance law or wage-labor issues, or absentee landlords or a host of other matters from antiquity that are addressed in the parables and elsewhere. Modern analogs are useless. Pretending otherwise is self-deception. The interpretation of these texts hinges on specific social, cultural, political, economic and other factors of which non-specialists are simply unaware. It’s why pastors need to have gone to seminary and to have obtained proficiency in both Hebrew and Greek as well as the society and culture of the worlds in which those languages operated. Otherwise they are just offering conjecture about the meaning of the texts from which they are preaching.

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