Jesus, the Metaphorical Theologian – Ken Bailey

Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15Ken Bailey has written a number of fascinating books on Jesus in his Middle Eastern context. In his introduction to Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (Concordia, 1992), he explains a key difference between how Westerners think and communicate and how Jesus did.

Westerners primarily communicate in concepts, but Middle Easterners communicate in metaphors and stories. Until Bailey learned to think this way from living in the Middle East, this prevented him from appreciating Jesus’ true brilliance.

Below are excerpts from Bailey’s enlightening essay. For more, read his book, Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15. – Lois




At least since the fifth century B.C., and the great days of classical Greece, the Western mind has done its serious thinking in concepts. In most forms of discourse, we from the West begin with an idea and then occasionally illustrate that idea with a simile, metaphor, or parable.

The conceptual language is primary and the metaphor or parable is secondary. The first is critical, the second is optional. If the listener/reader is intelligent enough, the speaker/writer may dispense with illustrations. For indeed, the story is presented only to clarify the meaning of the concept. If people are able to catch that meaning without using up time with illustrations, so much the better.

The illustration is useful for simplification, the Western mind thinks. It aids memory. It assists in adding emotional coloration and in catching and holding attention. But through all of this, the pictorial remains a secondary form of speech. The concept continues as the primary form of theological language.

A theological discourse is created by attaching one concept to another by means of logic. Philosophy then provides an overall structure for the material. This has been the primary Greco-Roman form of theological discourse and thereby the dominant Western form. It has been in use for centuries.

But there is another way to “do theology.” Middle Eastern creators of meaning do not offer a concept and then illustrate (or choose not to illustrate) with a metaphor or parable. For them the equation is reversed. Rather than

concept + illustration

the Middle Easterner offers

parable + conceptual interpretation.

The Middle Eastern mind creates meaning by the use of simile, metaphor, proverb, parable, and dramatic action. The person involved is not illustrating a concept but is rather creating meaning by reference to something concrete.

The primary language is that of the metaphor/parable and the secondary language is the conceptual interpretation of the metaphor that in Biblical literature is often given with it.

[An] example of this structure is in the well-known text of Isaiah 53:7-8:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth, INJUSTICE/ SILENCE

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, PARABLE

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, PARABLE

so he did not open his mouth SILENCE

By a perversion of justice he was taken away. INJUSTICE

The parable appears in the center and is encased with concepts that direct any reflection on the parable’s meaning. The meaning is created by metaphor. At the same time the metaphor, as it were, “cries out” for conceptual interpretation which appears in the text as a frame set around the metaphor. Thus concepts appear with the parable in Biblical literature and are not strangers to it (cf. also Isaiah 5:1-7).

Second, clearly the metaphorical language is the primary language which creates the meaning set forth in the discourse. The metaphor says more than the conceptual frame. The conceptual interpretive language is important yet secondary. The reader of Is. 53:7-8 knows that the lamb is unjustly treated and that it is silent. Thoughtful contemplation on this “parable of the lamb before its killer and shearer” has for centuries taken readers into great depths of meaning that reach far beyond the interpretation that encases the parable.

The concepts that surround the Biblical metaphors (as can be seen in the above texts) catch only a part of the meaning of the metaphor. Yes, the servant of God is unjustly treated. Yes, he is silent. But the picture of the lamb standing mute before the butcher or shearer creates far more meaning than the concepts which surround it.


The present writer [Bailey] earned degrees in philosophy and then systematic theology before turning to graduate work in New Testament. … I uncritically assumed that my own Western Greco-Roman mental processes were the only natural valid human way of creating meaning. A lifetime of ministry among Arabic-speaking Christians has led me to see otherwise. Here in the Middle East, from the beggar to the king, the primary method of creating meaning is the creative use of metaphor and story.

I discovered that I had been unconsciously trained to admire everything about Jesus except his intellectual astuteness. We knew that Paul was well educated. Certainly Paul was a theologian. Jesus, however, was a village boy who grew up and told childlike stories. These stories offer marvelous patterns of life for all ages, but—serious theology? Hardly! Such were the unexamined assumptions of my Western theological tradition. But this equation of Paul – serious theologian; Jesus – storyteller/ example of love, I was obliged to reexamine in the light of the style of doing theology that I gradually discovered among the Christians of the Arab world. …

The result has been a slow discovery of the fact that his intellectual acumen is no less significant than the matchless quality of his ethics. This shift was for me of the deepest significance. For if Jesus is an uneducated young man who tells stories primarily for children and simple fisher folk, then one set of perceptions apply as we examine his teachings. But if he is the first mind of the NT (Paul being the second), and if Jesus’ teachings are to be considered as serious theology, offered primarily to intellectuals, then a quite different set of assumptions and perceptions come into play for the interpreter.


6 Responses to “Jesus, the Metaphorical Theologian – Ken Bailey”

  1. 1
    Brian O|October 31, 2014

    Ken points out what we know from NT literature: That Jesus’ messages were complex and thought provoking. The conceptual discussion lacking in the NT forces us to see as the Pharisees did, in other words pick apart his messages.

    The holy ghost was sent to his followers so they could relate and go forward after Christ left. Otherwise they were basically lost to His messages.

    In no way was Jesus spinning simple yarns.

  2. 2
    KTR|November 2, 2014

    SIA for this long post.

    I find interesting the comments C.S. Lewis makes on Barfield’s “Romanticism Comes of Age.” Look for them in Chapter 12 of Lewis’ “Image and Imagination.” In it, Lewis quotes Barfield at p. 40:

    “The Greek youth of Homer’s day, as he approached manhood, did not ‘have a beard’, he did not even ‘grow a beard’; he did not require a substantive at all to express what was happening — he ‘foamed’! And again, in order to attribute youth, the Greek language did not require, as we do, the static, logical mode of copula and predicate ‘So-and-so-is-young’; it could say ‘So and so “blossoms” or “blooms”,’ using the same word as it used for the flowers of the field. It cannot be too often insisted that this was not a poetical metaphor, but a bedrock element in the Greek language; it is we, when we use such expressions to-day, who are trying to get back, via poetic metaphor, into the kind of consciousness which the Greek had and could express quite naturally and straightforwardly.”

    I think the common habit of reducing Jesus’ teachings to mere metaphors is dangerous. If a metaphor is merely a “word picture” then it carries all the pitfalls God warns of in Deut 4:15-19.

    I think God uses what we call metaphor to try to communicate a concrete and greater reality. So there will be a banquet in heaven, but what we call a banquet here is a tiny subset of what we will experience there. Jesus is actually bread, and what we call bread a small subset of the greater reality that is Jesus.

  3. 3
    Bruce P Greenough|November 3, 2014

    I wonder if the “turn around” difference can be described in this manner. We hear the metaphor of a shepherd’s staff used to describe a king’s rule and think of it – the staff – as an abstract concept for ruling. We see images of a pharaoh holding a staff and think “king.” Is it the Middle-Eastern way, however, to hear or see the image and think of the activity of a king’s rule – considering all the ways a shepherd uses his or her staff to tend their flock, and with those concrete images gain a better understanding of how a king is to rule their people?
    I find it interesting on many levels – not the least this metaphorical use difference – to see that every time God is described in Scripture as a shepherd the word is a verb (often a participle), not a noun. It’s not a title, it’s God’s active tending, pasturing, leading that is described. And that is best understood in its concrete imagery of the land and culture, as well as the Biblical descriptors. And that is much more than I tend to think of as metaphor.

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|November 3, 2014

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

    Karl and Brian, I see what your concerns are. The idea is not that we can reduce Jesus’ teachings to vague metaphors and then create our own meanings. Not at all. Rather, it’s that Jesus, like the rest of his Middle Eastern world, communicated important spiritual truths in concrete language, rather than in abstractions as our Western culture does.

    Bruce had a good point. The ancients often used concrete images metaphorically, to represent greater realities. For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:11:

    “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”

    If Western theologians had written the Bible, they would have translated this into concepts:

    “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

    Concrete metaphors are not hopelessly vague, simplistic and childish. They’re often rich and expressive. Our culture simply has a condescending attitude toward them.

    Regarding Jesus’ parables, we actually know of thousands of later rabbinic parables, and some are built on the same themes as Jesus’: farmers harvesting fields, shepherds losing sheep, guests at a wedding banquet, etc. Many are interpreting the imagery of the Prophets or Psalms. The stories aren’t random, and they definitely have a theological point to make.

  5. 5
    Nathan|December 25, 2014

    This article points out a truth I have seen, by life’s experience which I have not been able to express…stores stick to me like peanut butter on ribs…concepts can come and go like water passes thru our bodies. Maybe this is over simplifying. …

    For me, and not perhaps for others, I don’t find it necessary to defend the creator’s intellect or wisdom in how he chooses to communicate either directly, as through Jesus, or indirectly as through Paul. He did create Paul and seemed to guide his path as he grew to become a scribe. Jesus through a simple coin with Caesars picture confounds the intellectuals and wise of the time…terms like “born again” drew some intellectual teachers to question their own intellect, thinking, and grow up. Paul uses parables and stories of Christ and the Old Testament profits to start most of his teaching in the squares and market places, courts, and synagogues. In all cases only those with ears to hear…could or would hear..

    I hear the call and validation to teach in the way that our creator valued as the means of reaching his creation. Thank you so very much

  6. 6
    Thomas DeBoer|April 22, 2016

    I haven’t really ever thought of Jesus as uneducated. Growing up, I assumed that because he was God, he knew everything. As I’ve been taking a Class with RVL, I’ve learned that the had to learn about his Father, among other things. From this angle, the fact that Jesus was one of the Great minds of the NT is far more interesting.

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