The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament

Written by Kenneth E. Bailey Reviewed By Silviu Tatu

The author, a specialist in New Testament cultural backgrounds, is especially known for his monographs on the cultural setting of the Gospels, all of them published with InterVarsity Press (Downers Grove, IL): The Cross and the Prodigal: The Fifteenth Chapter of Luke, Seen Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants (1973), Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (1976), Through Peasant Eyes: More Lucan Parables, Their Culture and Style (1980). Bailey’s publications also include Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story (2003) and Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (2008). The last study opened a new area of inquiry which led to another volume: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (2011).

In his most recent book, Bailey investigates the heritage of Psalm 23, tracing the literary theme of the good shepherd in three OT texts (Jer 23:1–8; Ezek 34; Zech 10:2–12), and its appropriation in five NT texts (Luke 15:1–10; Mark 6:7–52; Matt 18:10–14; John 10:1–18; 1 Pet 5:1–4). The literary theme of shepherding is actually composed of ten subthemes: the good shepherd, the lost sheep, the opponents of the shepherd, the good host(ess), the incarnation of the shepherd in drawing near to sheep/people, the high personal cost of shepherding, repentance, bad sheep, a celebration (often a festal meal), and the ending of the story which seals the shepherd-sheep relationship. Most of the texts selected contain at least seven subthemes, while only Mark 6 contains all ten of them. Each chapter of the book focuses on one of the biblical texts and assumes the following structure: Introduction (including Bailey’s own translation), Rhetoric (including an outline of the literary structure), Commentary (explaining the literary structure, socio-cultural context, and intertextuality), and Theological Cluster (summarizing the text’s main theological ideas).

Bailey’s greatest strength is the investigation of the original Middle Eastern context of each passage. Besides his own experience and knowledge, Bailey employs some noteworthy tools: commentaries on Psalm 23 written by Middle Eastern authors (M. P. Krikorian, Faddoul Moghabghab, George M. Lamsa, Stephen A. Haboush, Abrahim Mitri Rahbany, Nerses the Graceful of Lambron) as well as Western missionaries to the Middle East (William Thompson and Eric F. F. Bishop), four Arabic NT commentaries (Ibn al-Tayyib [d. 1043], D. Ibn al-Salibi [d. 1164], Ibrahim Sa‘id [1970], Matta al-Miskin [1999]), and twenty Arabic translations of the Bible (translated into English by the author).

Bailey notes that the theme of God’s shepherding has undergone a process of transformation across the centuries. Whereas David used the metaphor to describe his own condition and relationship to God, subsequent biblical authors replaced the individual in the metaphor with the community of God’s people. Trouble and rebellion arise not only from the lost sheep, as in the original metaphor, but also from the hired human shepherds (Jer 23) and the sheep who never strayed from the flock (Ezek 34). Zechariah 10:2–12 also elaborates the political interpretation of Psalm 23 by depicting sheep as soldiers.

Turning to the NT, the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–7) recasts the sinner (represented as a sheep) in an active position, being able to turn back from wandering by one’s own choice. By contrast, the passage in Mark 6:7–52 weaves the literary motifs of Psalm 23 through the context surrounding Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand; in this context of John the Baptist’s death and the political disorientation that ensues, Jesus plays a multifaceted shepherd’s role for Israel. Matthew 18 adds to the Markan account a focus on the “little ones” as the object of the shepherd’s particular interest. From a different perspective, John 10 makes the most of the close relationship between sheep and shepherd and envisages the shepherd as sacrificially protecting his sheep. The book’s last chapter tackles 1 Peter 5:1–4, where the apostle applies the great qualities of Jesus the Great Shepherd to the elders, the shepherds entrusted with the church of Christ.

Several improvements could have sharpened the argument of the book. First, Bailey’s preference for new terms which replace some classical terminology may confuse the reader, such as “ring composition” for chiasmus and “cameos” for chiasmus components. Second and following Bailey’s own criteria for selecting the texts, it is surprising that he has left aside important texts such as 2 Samuel 7:8–16, Psalm 80, Zechariah 11:4–17, and Acts 20:18–35. Moreover, including the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10) as a shepherding text only to balance the main male actor of the lost sheep parable with a female actor seems unjustified, since the cluster of themes common to the other texts cannot be found here (pp. 145–152). Third, Bailey does not engage his texts critically. He avoids discussions on the selected texts in terms of their origin and date, as well as on alternative sources for the shepherd image, both in the Bible and the ancient Near East.

Psalm 23 and its theme of the Good Shepherd have long captivated the minds of Christian authors. In this book Bailey demonstrates that there is a close connection between the theme of God as Shepherd as depicted in Psalm 23 and other texts in the Bible. Bailey’s approach is accessible, avoiding technical and overly specialized language. The fact that Bailey draws attention to the Arabic heritage of Christian literature on this topic is most welcome. The volume will prove to be stimulating devotional reading and a useful tool for preaching.

Silviu Tatu

Silviu Tatu
Institutul Teologic Penticostal din București
București, Romania

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