A Tribute to Dr. Randall Bailey: Biblical Scholar, Intellectual Freedom Fighter and Committed Contrarian

bailey.jpg

On June 30, 2015, Dr. Randall Charles Bailey, one the nation’s most distinguished biblical scholars, retired from his post as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

I first encountered Dr. Randall C. Bailey during the first semester of my initial year as a seminarian at the ITC when I took his introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament course.  Prior to taking his course I hadn’t heard of Randall Bailey though I would soon find out that he had previously taught just about all of my former pastors.

I remember sitting in the auditorium the first day of class and overhearing one of my classmates tell someone that she heard “Dr. Bailey will take your Jesus.”  At the time I didn’t know what this meant but I remember thinking to myself “if your Jesus can be taken by a seminary Bible course then you’re probably better off without that Jesus anyway.”

Once the course began it didn’t take long to understand why Dr. Bailey had developed a reputation for being the ITC’s resident “Jesus Taker.”  In reality, his reputation had very little to do with Jesus and more to do with his commitment to critically engaging the biblical text and calling into question many of the ideologies and ethics put forth by biblical writers.  This commitment disturbed many of the more theologically conservative and fundamentalist students who viewed Dr. Bailey’s scholarly approach as an affront to their faith.

On the other hand, I along with many others, found Dr. Bailey’s views and critical perspectives to be refreshing, intellectually stimulating and underappreciated.   So much so that I personally went on to take three more of his courses and serve as his teaching assistant my entire last year of seminary.

Over the last several years since leaving seminary Dr. Bailey and I have remained in close connection and fellowship. During this time I’ve developed a great admiration for Dr. Bailey as a mentor-scholar-teacher.  In all of these capacities I’ve witnessed him demonstrate a distinguished level of professionalism, dedication, and service that can clearly be seen in his teaching, scholarship, and contributions to the church and society over the last few decades. 

 

Early Scholarship and Black Theology

Dr. Bailey began teaching at the Atlanta University in the School of Social Work in the 70’s and went on to obtain a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology and a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion.  In 1981 he began teaching at ITC as an instructor and steadily moved up the professorial ranks for three decades until in 2011 finally becoming the first Distinguished Professor in the history of the Interdenominational Theological Center. 

Early in his career Bailey’s focus was doing scholarship that would further the goals of the black theology movement.  This was the work of using biblical scholarship as a tool to advance liberation and freedom in the church and society.  In many ways this focus was the result of Bailey’s commitment to the black church tradition which is where he experienced his adult conversion to Christianity.

As Bailey sought to make his own scholarly contributions to the black theology movement, he used the work of legendary black biblical scholars like Charles Copher and Cain Hope Felder and early feminist biblical scholarship to help him develop his voice.  A major aspect of this early Bailey scholarship was furthering the work of uncovering and recovering the presence and contribution of African people in the Bible.

One example of his this early scholarship was his assertion that Africans in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were not lowly and inconsequential, as some white scholars have suggested.  Instead, he argues that Africans in the Bible were viewed as the high standard of evaluation and measurement for ancient Israel and the early church; which is why the nation of Egypt has such a pronounced presence in the biblical narratives.  

Ideological Critic and Bible & Sex Scholar

By the 90’s with the rise of postmodern deconstructionist studies Bailey began to be greatly influenced by ideological criticism.  This opened the door for him to begin to critique the biblical text as a religious anthology with a mixed bag ethics.  From this would emerge one of the most controversial and noted aspects of Bailey’s scholarship which is the bold assertion that many parts of the bible do not promote justice and liberation. 

For example, while many scholars view the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 as a beautiful hymn of praise that demonstrates Mary’s joyousness to be used of God to birth God’s son, Bailey has a different viewpoint.  In his assessment, Mary is a teenage girl whose body was used without her consent, therefore that makes her song a dangerous example of how woman religiously justify their being abused by appealing to faulty notions of spiritual piety.  Moreover, the narrative depicts a God more concerned with birthing a male child than protecting a young woman’s body.     

[Not exactly what you learned in Sunday school, right? ]

This interpretative claim and those like it are why Dr. Bailey’s classes are often filled with lively debate and verbal exchange.  It’s also why his classes have been the catalyst for a number of intellectual and theological awakenings among his students. 

In recent years, Dr. Bailey is most widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading scholars of the Bible, Sex, and Sexualities.  For over two decades he has spent considerable time writing, speaking, teaching, and thinking about interpretations of sex and sexualities in the biblical text and how those interpretations either promote or demote human liberation and sexual expression.  In particular, he’s given special attention to advocating for queer biblical studies.  This is the study of using queer, feminist, postcolonial, historical-critical and other contextual interpretative methods to explore queer themes in the Bible. 

One example of this work is Bailey’s reading of the Genesis 39 narrative of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  According to Dr. Bailey, based upon word studies and literary structure the real conflict between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is Joseph’s sexual relationship with Potiphar which he flaunts in the face of Mrs. Potiphar.  Similar to this are his readings that Jonathan and David were sexual partners and that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was more about is about the abuse of daughters facilitated by a deity who supports the sexual abuse of women. 

Distinguished Service and Scholarly Legacy

The choice to be a radical-status quo-challenging biblical scholar is not easy because you’re constantly pushed to the margins and demonized for your views.  Dr. Bailey has had to deal with this reality most of his career.  But that has never deterred him from his mission to set captive minds free and I’m personally grateful for this because once upon a time I was one of those minds.      

Over the years there have been a couple people who’ve questioned me about why I continue to support and associate with such a “polarizing figure” as Dr. Bailey?  My answer is always the same, “I don’t agree with all of Dr. Bailey’s views but what I know for sure is that at the core of everything he believes is a genuine love for humanity and a desire to see all God’s children live in freedom and equality which is enough reason for me to remain honored to call him my friend.”       

Without a doubt, the Interdenominational Theological Center is losing a scholarly giant and as a result the institution won’t be quite the same without him.  The fact is there aren’t many credentialed biblical scholars running around these days with Dr. Bailey’s quality of intellectual engagement, originality of thought, and willingness to give voice to scholarly opinions and voices that are often marginalized in mainstream theological thought.  

Nonetheless, the good news in his retiring is that he leaves a legacy of distinguished scholarship that will not soon be forgotten.  To his credit he has nearly 100 scholarly publications, dozens of special lectureships and professional awards.  He has held offices in scholarly Guild Associations, in Ecumenical Councils, and has taught courses and lectured in institutions on three other continents beyond North America.  He has also been fortunate to preach in churches of several denominations on five continents.  Perhaps, most notably, he has helped mentor future generations of Black Theological Scholars; and along with other faculty members at ITC assisted over 20 students in gaining admission to PhD programs in various theological disciplines.  Of these 12 have already received their degrees and are performing in significant ways in the church and the academy.   In addition, he has also mentored a number of pastors and church leaders who are presently engaged in creative and liberating ministry. 

This is the rich legacy that Dr. Randal C. Bailey leaves behind and since he’s only retiring from ITC and not from life service, I’m glad he’ll have the opportunity to add to this legacy. 

So my prayer is that God would grant him many more years of courageous truth-telling, scholarly production, and fighting on behalf of religiously and socially disenfranchised groups because Lord knows the church and our society desperately need voices like his.