Examines the meaning of “dwelt” (John 1:14a) to the audience and author of the Gospel of John through literary and historical-cultural contexts, focusing on religious factors behind the text.
Jan Paron / October 7, 2012
Upon my quest for understanding the original meaning of the word dwelt in John 1:14, I didn’t expect the complex dynamics that influenced the ancient’s perception of Jesus and their later understanding of Him dwelling among them (1:14). In addition to viewing within text structures, you have to go behind the text and examine mitigating cultural factors to see Jesus through Mediterranean eyes around the turn of the first century. These factors represent a range of possibilities, ranging from social to historical contexts. Since this is a broad topic, I only highlight the religious context as precursory points on the subject of dwelt.
Mitigating Cultural Factors: Influence of Audience’s Religious Backgrounds
The author heavily used a Jewish trajectory throughout the Book of John in typology, referring to the Old Testament. This book is rich in Judean references such as comparisons to “our father Jacob” (4:12) and “our father Abraham” (8:53), connections to the Law (1:17), interchange with Nicodemus (3:1-21), I AM statements and the true God (John 17). Could the Jewish audience of outsiders grasp Jesus dwelling among them any more than Nicodemus? The echoing of the Tabernacle of Moses during the Jesus/Nicodemus discourse certainly painted an understandable image of Jesus dwelling among them as the great I AM and High Priest, where dwelling connotes the pitching of the tent with the arrived Messiah among them.
Further, the author published this gospel after the Jewish temple’s destruction in AD 70. So Jewish Christians, who still identified themselves as Jews but believed the Messiah arrived, may look at “dwelt” as a replacement to the temple. The tabernacle connoted worship, and with that, sacrifices. Carson argued that John’s emphasis on Jesus’ replacement of the temple and Jewish feasts represents an effort to exploit the temple’s destruction evangelistically in an effort to reach Diaspora Jews and Gentiles attractive to Judaism.” Christ dwelling among the Diaspora Jews and Gentiles may signify the comforts of the living “Word.” The “Word,” though invisible to human eye, but attested from past generations, universally endures amid the living. With the trauma from historical events, geographical relocation, cultural morays such as household codes and other nuances, John may have used different rhetorical angles to illustrate Jesus dwelling among them as the only begotten Son (1:14), full of grace and truth to show all-encompassing salvation, comfort, worship, priesthood, atonement, deliverance, freedom , etc.
In conclusion, “dwell” might reflect different meanings dependent on the reader at that time. The author viewed the “Word” as God (1:1) who is the life and Light of men (1:4) and the only begotten Son of the Father (1:14) who was made flesh to dwell among His creation that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (3:16) and through Him “might be saved” (3:17). To the Jews, dwelling perhaps connoted the pitching of the tent with the Messiah among them. To the proselyte Jews, feeling the loss of the temple, the “Word” possibly offered a new temple within which to dwell. To the Gentile, “dwelt” maybe denoted the place to find the “Word” for worship, salvation and healing not found in polytheist Roman gods.
Reflections on Behind the Text Exegesis
My thoughts about the original meaning of dwelt for the authors and audiences from the Gospel of John represented hypotheses from a lay practitioner’s viewpoint. To do justice to New Testament culture and its relationship with behind the text scriptural meaning requires deep study. A careful reading of Scripture reveals cultural background. Also, researchers like Ben Witherington, Craig Keener, Jerome Neyrey, Bruce Malina and David de Silva extensively wrote to this end from primary source documents and offer great insight on the subject of biblical cultural anthropology.
For anyone interested in learning more about the New Testament social world, dig deep into Scripture, as well as read works of different authors such as those listed above. Research opens new doors for understanding. Based on this post, new areas emerged to investigate–actually more unanswered questions, than answered. For example, how do cultural determiners like honor, patronage, kinship and purity influence the meaning of “the Word dwelt among us” (1:14).
What’s more, examining Scripture behind the text provides a glimpse into the culture of yesterday and original textual meaning, which helps a person know how to apply Scripture to contemporary situations. One of my other areas to read about is variances in meaning of dwelt today across diversity of people. Does everyone understand dwell according to Scriptural truth?
- How can we gather information about current cultural contexts to adapt the method of delivery for the Gospel, but retain fidelity of its meaning?
- What are cultural differences in viewpoint of Scripture?
- Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: The Narrative, History and Theology of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
- De Silva, David. Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2000.
- Köstenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.
- Malina, B. The New Testament: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Metzger, Paul Louis. The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
- Neyrey, Jerome. The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective: Cambridge: University Press, 2007.
- Neyrey, Jerome and Steward, Eric. The Social World of the New Testament: Insights and Models. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.
- Witherington, Ben. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, Encountering John, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), loc. 411.
Jan Paron, All Rights Reserved 2012