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Whose goodness faileth never

05 June 2015

Paula Gooder has high expectations of a thematic study

The Good Shepherd: A thousand-year journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament
Kenneth E. Bailey
SPCK £12.99
(978-0-281-07350-4)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

KENNETH BAILEY is a remarkable New Testament scholar. He stands out from all the rest because he knows things that other New Testament scholars simply do not.

He lived in the Middle East for about 50 years (in Egypt, Lebanon, and then at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute just outside Bethlehem). As a result, he has an instinctual knowledge of what the Middle East feels like, geographically and culturally. Add to that his fluency in Arabic and his ability to read commentaries in Arabic which others can't consult, and it becomes clear quite what a unique contribution he makes to our knowledge of the New Testament.

He draws on all of this knowledge in this new book in which he traces the theme of "the good shepherd" through the Bible, from Psalm 23 to Jeremiah 23.1-8, Ezekiel 34, and Zechariah 10.2-12; into the New Testament and Jesus's sayings about being a good shepherd, in Luke 15.1-10, Mark 6.7-52, Matthew 18.10-14, and John 10.1-18; and then on from there to 1 Peter 5.1-4 and its discussion of elders as shepherds.

This idea allows Bailey to reflect on the development of this significant metaphor throughout the Bible, and to observe not only why Jesus's adoption of it in the Gospels tells you much about who he thought that he was, but also why it was significant that it was picked up in 1 Peter as a metaphor for leadership.

There is much to enjoy in this book. Bailey's unique insights into the text drawn from his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and language are as sparkling as they are in his other books. Indeed, the small cameos that he draws from time to time of what it is really like to be a shepherd in the Middle East make the book worth reading for the sake of these alone.

Overall, however, I must admit to a sense of disappointment. In my view, this book is just not quite as good as it could have been. The idea is brilliant, but the execution of it isn't quite as good as I had expected. I had hoped for more connections to be drawn between the different chapters, so that, by the chapter on 1 Peter and the elders as shepherds, a rich theological understanding of the theme could shed new insights into this theme of leadership.

For me this did not happen. It might have been Bailey's love of lists, which I find hard to engage with, but I did not love this book as much as I thought I would. It still has much to offer, though, often in the small details and stories that Bailey scatters along the way.

 

Dr Paula Gooder is a writer and lecturer in Biblical Studies, and is Canon Theologian of Birmingham Cathedral.

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