Review: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians @ivpress @ivpacademic

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Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). Reviewed by John C. Poirier.

At 560 pages, Kenneth Bailey’s Paul through Mediterranean Eyes represents a good introduction to 1 Corinthians, moving through the letter at a somewhat rhetorical level, and with due attention to matters of cultural background. It is really a sort of rhetorical commentary, although its author presumably doesn’t think of it as a commentary. The book is well written, and will appeal to pastors and lay students of 1 Corinthians.

Why “pastors and lay students”? Although the book’s imprint is “IVP Academic”, it is not really academic in the full sense. It is more pastoral, although it possible that Bailey thinks of his discussion of Paul’s supposed use of ring composition (see below) as a contribution to scholarship. Much of the commentary that Bailey provides falls into the category of preaching rather than of serious exegetical work. When he unpacks seven supposed aspects of the Pauline conception of evangelism from 1 Cor 12:22–24 (pp. 344–45), for example, he is moving in the realm of an enlarging homiletical style of interpretation rather than serious exegesis. And while the allusions to a “mountain-pass journey” that Bailey finds in 1 Cor 12:31–14:1 (p. 358) are about as ethereal as anything I’ve read, I have no doubt that they’ll “preach”. Although this work will undoubtedly be welcomed by many scholars, it is clearly more at home on the pastor’s shelf. This impression is strengthened by the sparseness of the footnotes, and by the (otherwise remarkable) fact that the bibliography lists no works in German or French.

A word should be said about the title, as Bailey seems to take the word “Mediterranean” in a unique direction. In keeping with his earlier books on the Gospels, Bailey seeks to illuminate the NT text through Middle Eastern culture, and his use of “Mediterranean” appears to be an attempt to say that Paul was influenced by both Greco-Roman and Semitic contexts. The main point of Bailey’s book, in fact, is to show that there are a number of Semitic aspects to Paul’s writing and reasoning that we should not neglect. But the word “Mediterranean” only works if one comes at this study within the context of Bailey’s earlier work, where one already knows the author’s agenda. The descriptor “Mediterranean” does not fit if one comes at it from the range of meaning usually attributed to it. Dictionaries typically define “Mediterranean” people as dark-skinned Caucasians, and not as Semites. Thus to read Paul through what dictionary editors would call “Mediterranean eyes” would mean to read him within the same Greco-Roman context that scholars have been accustomed to using. Thus there is a bit of a problem with the book’s title.

I noted that the work falls into the category of commentary, but, in at least one respect, Bailey aimed at doing something much more than write yet another guide to 1 Corinthians: he argues at length that there are literary-structural aspects to Paul’s writings that traditional (“Western”) treatments have failed to elucidate. He argues that Paul does not write in a straightforward linear progression of thought, but rather uses “ring composition” – a stepped-and-inverse-stepped approach to unfolding meaning (as in an A-B-B-A, or A-B-C-C-B-A style). According to Bailey, one must match up the corresponding opening and the closing steps (or steppes) in the ring composition in order to understand all that Paul is trying to say about a particular point: “If the author is presenting his/her case using an ABC-CBA structure, then half of what he/she has to say about (A) will appear at the beginning and the other half will appear at the end” (p. 50). In fact, Bailey litters his book with charts purporting to show that this sort of approach pervades the entire letter. Unfortunately for Bailey, he never makes his case that these structures are really there, or that they must be recognized as such in order to understand Paul completely. The purported examples of ring composition are often wispy at best. It is very doubtful, for example, that the first three verses of 1 Corinthians contain an A-B-B-A ring structure – that structure seems to have been forced on the text (p. 55). And Bailey makes a wholly unfortunate choice when he includes 1 Cor 12:31 and 14:1 within the ring structure that he imposes on 1 Corinthians 13 (p. 353). He does this, of course, to show that ring structure analysis makes a difference: the “faith, hope, and love” of 1 Corinthians 13 (Bailey argues) are the “higher gifts” that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor 12:31 (p. 356). It’s an interesting experiment, but it’s unconvincing: Paul does not view faith, hope, and love as the gifts of 12:31. (To read 1 Corinthians 13 as a bridge does not preclude reading 12:31 as a “hinge verse”.)

I don’t think that ring composition, even when it was intentionally practiced, was intended as a sort of puzzle that the reader set out to solve after reading the whole section. Bailey uses Isaiah throughout his book to demonstrate how ring composition works. According to Bailey, an “ancient, literate (and illiterate) Hebrew” would be able to discern the ring-compositional structure of Isa 28:14–18, and “would naturally compare the two cameos numbered 1 on the outside and then the pair of cameos numbered 2 and so forth” (p. 49). But how likely is it that Isaiah’s readers really read that way? Is it not more likely that Isaiah’s meaning simply unfolded through straightforward attentive reading without the help of Bailey’s secret decoder ring? The mind (Eastern or Western) is able to read complete meaning units just as easily as it can write them. Aspects of simple ring composition often occur subconsciously as the imprint of a complete meaning unit within the writer’s mind. And they are properly read in the same way. Bailey thinks that the “average modern reader” is at a disadvantage when reading ring compositions (p. 48), but the fact of the matter is that simple ring structures seem to be a natural structural aspect of communicating meaning. Modern writers employ ring structures without even noticing it. For example, did Bailey notice that his exposition of the A-B-B-A structure in 1 Cor 7:14 (p. 207) was itself written in an A-B-B-A structure?

Enough about ring structures – how does Bailey’s book hold up as a commentary? It is worth reminding the reader that this book is more pastoral than academic, and on that level it succeeds. In fact, I can see pastors (etc.) deriving a great bit of benefit from this book. It is also worth reminding the reader that the book is not a commentary in the pure sense, in that it is also something more like a narrative reading guide. As with commentaries in general, this book has a mixture of good and not-so-good judgments. For example, Bailey’s personal experience with a Middle Eastern brass-makers market (p. 360) adds a fascinating dimension seldom found in works of this type. But Bailey’s identification of prophecy with preaching (pp. 337, 362) made me feel like I was reading a book from the 1950s. (Is that idea still with us?)

I doubt that scholars in general will glean much from this book. Pastors and lay readers, however, will find much in it that helps them understand 1 Corinthians better. Yet, it is my hope that such readers don’t take Bailey’s overdone treatment of rhetorical structure too seriously.


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