Canon Kenneth Bailey • Presbytery of Shenango, Pennsylvania
By the Rev. Mark Michael
The Rev. Canon Kenneth Bailey, one of the most innovative New Testament scholars of the 20th century, died May 23 at his home in western Pennsylvania. He was 85.
Raised in Egypt as the son of American Presbyterian missionaries, Bailey spent most of his career teaching seminarians in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus. He wrote a series of books and articles that used his deep knowledge of Middle Eastern peasant culture to illuminate Jesus’ parables and the writings of Saint Paul.
Joined by his wife, Ethel, Bailey began his life’s work by following his parents into the mission field in Egypt. He first worked as a village evangelist, and then began teaching at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. For nearly 20 years, and through Lebanon’s brutal civil war, he served on the faculty of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, the Middle East’s largest Protestant seminary. Through his evangelistic work, discussions with his students, and parish visits, Bailey gained extensive knowledge of contemporary proverbs and social practices among rural Middle Easterners. He also studied Arabic Christian commentaries on the New Testament that had been almost completely ignored by Western scholars.
Mary Mikhael, one of Bailey’s students who later became president of the Near East School of Theology, said that as a teacher “he not only gave scholarly information, but gave himself so that students see his love to Jesus, and want even to drink all Jesus said and [did].”
She wrote about his attention to Middle Eastern peasant traditions: “Listening to Ken teaching, you feel he is taking you on the road you knew, telling you the story that is part of your experience, digging information you know your grandparents lived with but did not notice.”
In the early 1990s, Bailey became canon theologian of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf and took up a research position at Notre Dame University’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.
In a groundbreaking 1991 article, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” he made a strong case for the reliability of the kind of oral traditions he had observed and recorded. Bailey argued that Middle Eastern peasants provided new insights into many “problem passages” that had been troubling scholars for centuries.
The article anticipated the New Testament guild’s strong contemporary interest in the history of reception and social science by 15 to 20 years, said Garwood Anderson, professor of New Testament and Greek at Nashotah House. That article, published in the Singapore-based Asia Journal of Theology, “is in everyone’s bibliography,” Anderson said.
Bailey was well known for ten books, especially Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP Academic, 2008). That book set forth his distinct methodology and many of his best-known themes. An opening section on the birth narratives argued against the assumption that the holy family was cast out by finding “no room at the inn.”
Instead, Bailey believed the holy family was graciously welcomed into a typical peasant home, and Jesus was born on the ground floor, where animals spent the night, a theme he treated imaginatively in a Christmas musical, Open Hearts in Bethlehem.
His lengthy commentary on 1 Corinthians, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (IVP Academic, 2011) argued for a complex Hebraic rhetorical structure behind Paul’s arguments. His other works treated the relationship between the Testaments and the biblical doctrine of God.
Bailey was best known, however, for his interpretation of Jesus’ parables, seeing in many a theme of “anger reprocessed into grace.”
“I have taught and preached the parables frequently, and when people thought that I had brought some remarkable insight to this or that parable, I almost always had to confess that, no, I hadn’t — that was Ken Bailey,” Anderson said. “And I can always tell when I hear someone preach on the parables that they have (or haven’t and should) read Bailey.”
Bailey, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), became canon theologian for the Diocese of Pittsburgh at the invitation of the Rt. Rev. Alden Hathaway, Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1981 to 1997. He served in that role for 23 years, preaching in local congregations and presenting study days for the clergy. He led Bible studies at the Primates’ Meeting in 1996 and taught multiple courses at Nashotah House and Trinity School for Ministry.
The Very Rev. George Werner, former dean of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, said he regularly sought Bailey’s guidance while serving a six-year tenure as president of the House of Deputies. At a particularly contentious time, Bailey regularly offered Bible studies that Werner used to open meetings between hostile factions. “Fists would unclench,” Werner recalled. “We got people talking about the things that united us as a community instead of the things that divided us.”
“We will miss him very much,” said the Most Rev. Robert Duncan, seventh Bishop of Pittsburgh, who worked closely with Bailey for more than two decades. “He loved the Word of God, loved the Semitic people, and he loved teaching. He sparkled when he taught. He loved to give us insights that took us deeper into the Word.”