One vital aspect of understanding the meaning of any ancient text, and particularly Scripture, is doing what it takes to understand the cultural flavor of any particular passage. Too often we read a single sentence and base our entire theological framework on what that single sentence means to us today, without any regard for what was meant when it was written. I have done it all too often myself. When we read our own meaning into a text, we strip it of all of the weight and importance that was intended by it to its original audience. I believe that we may have done this in the case of John 14:6, but that’s not the point of my writing, at least not at this point.
Rather, I would like to introduce you to patrilocal family systems. I know, sounds interesting. This term, patrilocal, refers to how the family unit lived in relation to the oldest living male, especially in ancient Israel. My friend Ash’s family is a good example of patrilocal culture. His family unit is made up of 800 immediate family members, and about 3000 in the extended family. His father’s house was an apartment attached to his grandfather’s house. His father’s siblings all lived in attached apartments, and his whole neighborhood was made up of cousins. Literally everyone around was an aunt, uncle, or cousin. Semitic cultures are still centered around the bet ‘ab, or father’s house (Sandra L. Richter, Epic of Eden, 34).
This patrilocality “helps us see that one of the primary goals of Israel’s tribal culture was tribal solidarity — the tribe intended to live together” (Richter, 37). This was a matter of defense, of provision, and of survival. Patrilocal culture explains why I never encountered a homeless person while living in Jordan. It would be a shame for the family to allow one of their own live on the streets. There was always a place in the father’s house/bet ‘ab for the family.
And if there wasn’t, a place could be built. Every single home is unfinished, ready for the next level to be built in order to make a place for the family. On the roof of almost every building in Amman Jordan you will see re-bar sticking out. This is because, as the family grows larger, a new apartment may need to be built to provide a dwelling place. Remaining connected to the father’s house is remarkably important.
Another aspect of patrilocal culture is the family tomb. The bones of the family members, after decomposition, were gathered together “such that the family member was housed permanently with the rest of the clan. The biblical expressions ‘to sleep with’ and ‘to be gathered to’ one’s fathers are the literary expressions of this ‘secondary burial’ practice in Israelite culture” (Richter, 37). Think of Jacob and Joseph requesting that their bones be carried and buried in the Promised Land. Since the Israelites (and later the majority of the Jews of Jesus day) had no belief in the afterlife, this burial practice was a way of staying together with one’s own family after death. This was eternal rest.
So, when Jesus begins his diatribe in John 14 by saying, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” it seems he is using a cultural norm as a metaphor for his ‘Father’. This should not be taken to mean that God literally has a really gigantic house somewhere and that every person who believes in Jesus will have their own little apartment in this big mansion. Sorry if Audio Adrenaline got your hopes up in the early 90’s about a “big, big house with lots and lots of food”. It’s a metaphor. And it is one that the disciples would have been incredibly confused by, since it is taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar all at once. Perhaps this is why Thomas asks Jesus what in the world he is talking about.
It is also clear from the context of this conversation recorded in the Gospel of John that Jesus has death on his mind. The bulk of this book is about Jesus’ death, and this section of the book is a series of wandering diatribes given by Jesus to his disciples. With death on the mind, when he tells the disciples they will be “gathered together” with him, he may be not referring to the after-life as we know it, but to the ancient patrilocal burial practices of gathering the bones of the family to their eternal rest together in the ‘Father’s house’.
What I mean to say is, it is very possible that Jesus isn’t referring to life after death in heaven somewhere in this passage. This will be hard to wrestle with for anyone raised the way that I was raised, since this passage is always understood as being about going to heaven after death. Jesus’ metaphor here is more a promise to his disciples that they are a part of a new, more important family than even their own. It is a promise that they won’t be left alone in their death, since they all abandoned their own families, their own bet ‘ab, to follow him. It is a promise that when they die, they will rest forever with Jesus, wherever that may be.
It might seem that I am splitting theological hairs here, but I am not. It is different to say that Jesus is promising his disciples that they are a part of a new family and that they will rest forever together than it is to say that Jesus is promising his disciples (and all Christians) a new home in heaven. Those are two very different meanings. One is finding meaning in the cultural context of Jesus’ day, and the other is finding meaning in the cultural context of post-Reformation Christendom.
This understanding of patrilocal culture will impact how we understand John 14:6, especially when Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” But that will have to wait for another time. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts.