Historical Cultural Context
Children of God
This cultural reading of John’s prologue and his Gospel highlights the collectivistic nature of his community. Eighty percent of the world’s population at present live in collectivistic cultures. The percentage was higher in antiquity. Collectivists take their identity from the group, depend on the group, take their cues from the group (Judg 24:15; Acts 16:14-15). This was why intense interpersonal bonding was so important for John’s group.
The Christmas Midnight Mass and Mass at Dawn present Luke’s report of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:1-14, 15-20 respectively). The Mass during the day presents the masterfully crafted prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18). John offers a different interpretation of the birth of Jesus.
The prologue’s concentric structure contains seven pairs of parallels (e.g., Jn 1:1-2 and Jn 1:18; 2:3 and 1:17; etc.) announcing the themes that the Evangelist will amplify in the rest of the Gospel: Word, life, light, God, etc. However, the center of such a structure is focal because it presents the major thrust of the passage: “he gave power to become children of God”
How can an incorporeal God with no organs of generation have children? Becoming children of God means developing kinship-like loyalties to God, Jesus, and other group members. The emphasis is eminently group-centered and interpersonal. The general purpose of this gospel is to support the strong and intense interpersonal bonding of the members of John’s group with one another, with Jesus, and with God. Becoming children of God is possible only because the Word of God (Jn 1:1) became enfleshed in Israel in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is very likely the name John’s group called itself, the name by which it was known to others.
“Word” (Jn 1:1, 14) is the evangelist’s favorite term for self-revelation. It refers to that part of human experience particularly associated with communication, self-disclosure, self-expression. Applied to God, word is quite unlike human words. God’s word is always creative and powerful. In the Hebrew Bible, word is associated with two functions: God’s creation (Gn 1) and God’s self-revelation to prophets (e.g., Jer 1:4; Ezek 1:3). That this creative and powerful Word was to be found in Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, is a wonderful gift from God to the people who were in darkness, that is, Israel.
Yet not all (“his own”) accepted the light (Jn 1:11). “His own” could be Jesus’ immediate kinship group (Jn 7:1-7; 19:27), or his clan or people. Since natural generation does not make children of God (Jn 1:13), “his own” quite likely refers to Jesus’ ethnic relationship to Israel. Israel’s refusal to accept Jesus is confirmed later in the Gospel (Jn 3:11; 4:44; 5:43). Believers born “of God” and designated “children of God” acquire a new mode of existence that carried with it a lofty honor status of its own (Jn 1:12-13).
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14) is literally in Greek “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent/tabernacle among us.” These words allude to the tent of meeting (or tabernacle) that was the place of God’s presence among the people during their wandering through the desert in the Exodus (Exod 25:8-9). Now Jesus is God’s presence among human beings.
Individualists in Western and other cultures will feel uncomfortable with these sentiments. They would call collectivist behavior “group-think.” The challenge for both collectivists and individualists is to recognize the weaknesses of their cultural orientation and to balance it with the positive values of the other orientation. As the ancients taught (e.g., Aristotle, Horace, Ovid), virtue stands in the middle.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University