Kenneth E. Bailey has contributed a helpful volume to the literature on 1 Corinthians. He did not intend to produce a commentary that interacts with all the major commentaries and studies on the letter. Nevertheless, he has consulted many such works and their presence is evident. Bailey’s purpose was to take a fresh look and see what results it would yield. He states, “The lenses I intended to use for this purpose are the rhetorical styles of 1 Corinthians that can be traced to the writing prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, and the culture of the eastern Mediterranean world as it can be recovered” (p. 21). More specifically, Bailey addresses three concerns (p. 19). These, in part, are his contribution to the study of 1 Corinthians. First, Bailey is convinced that Paul used a Hebrew rhetorical style similar to what is found in Isaiah and Amos, and he wishes to demonstrate how this insight can impact understanding of what Paul wrote (p. 19). Second, he uses his vast experience in Middle Eastern culture to bring Paul’s figurative language to life (p. 19). Finally, he examines “representative samples of the long and illustrious heritage of translations of 1 Corinthians in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew” (p. 19). This is handled primarily in notes with the original texts recorded in appendix 2 (pp. 509–26).
Bailey explores Hebrew rhetorical patterns by examining passages in the prophets (pp. 33–53). He describes parallelism between individual lines and relationships between larger sections of texts. Chiasms are prominent in his analysis (e.g., see the passages from Isaiah, pp. 36, 40, 45). He then answers the question, Who cares? (p. 50). He proceeds with eleven points of defense that can be summarized as follows: If the author wrote it this way, it can reveal meaning and thus allow readers to understand the text more accurately (pp. 50–52). His point is well taken. Though some may question the extent to which these rhetorical patterns naturally arise from the text itself, nevertheless, this is a fresh and worthwhile endeavor. It is well thought through and clearly presented.
The rhetorical approach permeates this volume. The table of contents is indented to reveal a chiastic structure in some sections (pp. 7–9). First Corinthians is divided into a greeting (1:1–9), concluding remarks (16:1–23), and five major sections: I. the cross and Christian unity (1:10–4:16), II. men and women in the household (family) (4:17–7:40), III. Christian and pagan (and responsibility) (8:1–11:1), IV. men and women in worship (11:2–14:40), V. resurrection (15:1–58). These five major sections also form a chiasm. Thus, the cross (I) is paired with the resurrection (V), men and women in the family (II) and in worship (IV) are paired, and Christians and pagans (responsibility issues) are at the center (III). He calls these major sections “essays.” His focus is on larger subsections within the essays (homilies and smaller cameos) and not on words and phrases. (For a full description of the labels for the rhetorical sections discussed, see pp. 527–28). Also, each major passage discussion begins with a “rhetoric section” and is followed by a “commentary section.”
Does this approach pay off? Does this rhetorical reading with insights from the Mediterranean world aid understanding? Bailey’s rhetorical discussion is thorough. He has thought through 1 Corinthians in light of this perspective and provided helpful insights. For example, 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1 revisits the issue of idol meat begun in chapter 8. This second discussion can seem out of place and even contradictory at times. However, in light of Bailey’s approach, the connection to chapter 8 is easily made (paired chiastically). This is the final discussion on this topic and it brings his teaching on idol meat and responsibility together. Eat with thanksgiving but do not offend anyone (pp. 283–92). Within this passage, Bailey’s chiasm leads him to emphasize 10:28–29a, the section about sensitivity to one’s fellow Christian (p. 284). Most interpreters would probably come to a similar conclusion. However, Bailey’s discussion explains the details from a structural (rhetorical) perspective that other more traditional approaches often lack.
Bailey’s use of the Mediterranean world is also very helpful. For example, he draws upon an Islamic perspective to illustrate how one might be impacted by Paul’s teaching about being the temple of God (3:16–17; pp. 132–33). For a culture that is entirely focused on Mecca, it would be shocking and potentially liberating to learn that God dwells within them (p. 132). It is likely that the original readers would have experienced a similar reaction. On the contentious passage about women keeping silent (14:34–35), Bailey believes that this does not apply today. The command is likely due to disruptions in the worship because of the educational level and habits of women in the ancient Corinthian church (pp. 412–17). Bailey’s description of his experience in Egypt related to this should not be missed (pp. 413–14).
On other points of interest in 1 Corinthians, Bailey suggests the following. For κεφαλή (11:3), Bailey prefers the meaning “origin of” (pp. 302–3), and the “baptism for the dead” (15:29) refers to those who have been baptized after the death of a Christian loved one in order to be with them at the resurrection (p. 450). On such issues, one would have liked to have seen more interaction with scholarly material on the passage. Bailey often minimally supports his view and then moves on.
Following the main text of this volume come two appendixes. The first explores common themes in 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament book of Amos (pp. 500–8). The second collects the evidence from the “oriental” versions used (pp. 509–26) by Bailey to examine the tradition of translations into Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew. For each phrase, there is an English translation, the Greek, a Syriac translation, and then a listing of Arabic and Hebrew readings from various manuscripts (with dates). Next is a three-page glossary of rhetorical and literary terms that appear throughout the book (pp. 527–29), an eight-page bibliography (pp. 530–37), and information about the versions used (pp. 538–43). The volume concludes with four indexes: ancient authors (p. 544), modern authors (pp. 545–47), ancient texts (pp. 548–49), and Scripture (pp. 550–60).
This commentary provides a different perspective on 1 Corinthians than most are familiar with. This alone makes it valuable. It also means that the book at times presents a generally fourth-century and later Eastern interpretation of the text (written of course by a twenty-first century Christian). It does not immediately follow that this period had a privileged understanding of Paul’s intended meaning. Too much time had elapsed from the original composition to the main sources used here. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that this perspective may have more in common with Paul than a twenty-first century perspective and provides the modern interpreter with more options to refine his or her understanding of Paul. As with all commentaries, one must use it critically. Further, in fairness to Bailey, his reliance on this material is not exclusive. He also utilizes commentaries and other sources that attempt to unpack Paul’s original meaning. Bailey’s writing style is accessible to all. It is best consulted for passage-length discussions. Information on a single verse is not easily forthcoming. For this approach, this is ideal. One needs the fuller discussion of a passage to understand Bailey’s points on specific clauses.
Bailey has contributed a unique and thought-provoking commentary on 1 Corinthians. In his own modest assessment, not wishing to make a claim to be a “commentary,” he calls this a volume of “cultural studies” (p. 19). This book may be viewed as a unified collection of cultural studies; however, it is truly a commentary and deserves a place on the shelf among other serious commentaries on 1 Corinthians.
About the Contributors
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.