“It is not enough then for the word to come down from heaven; it must also be born from the flesh. Hence it cannot be uttered all at once; it cannot dispense with the lapse of time required by the entire life of Jesus.”
“Short and concise utterances come from Him, for He was no sophist, but His word was the power of God.”1 This is how St. Justin Martyr describes the teaching of Jesus in a letter to the Emperor Hadrian. In another text, addressed to the Jew Trypho, he exhorts the latter to pay attention to the words of the Savior, “for they have in themselves such tremendous majesty that they can instill fear into those who have wandered from the path of righteousness, whereas they ever remain a great solace to those who heed them.”2
What is it that gives the words of Jesus their power and majesty? Does their mystery lie in the truth they convey, or is it in the persuasive reasoning that undergirds them? There must be something else; otherwise, how could we explain the fact that, according to Justin, they have the power to convert even the roughest of men and to produce moral imporvement where the efforts of a Plato or a Pythagoras were in vain?3 But what is in a word, apart from the idea it conveys, that can imbue it with conviction and firmness?
These questions call for urgent consideration at a time when the concept of “word” is in a profound crisis. According to Emmanuel Levinas, this crisis reflects the disintegration that threatens our society: “the wreckage preceding the catastrophe itself, like rats abandoning the ship before the shipwreck, comes to us in the already ‘in-significant’ signs of a language in dissemination.”4
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1. Cf. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 14, 5 (in Justin Martyr. The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Barnard [New York: Paulist Press, 1997], 33).
2. Cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 8, 2 (in St. Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003], 15).
3. This is a common idea in the Fathers. Cf. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi, 47, 5 (ed. Kannengiesser, Sources Chrétiennes 199, 438–440).
4. Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 59. Translation slightly altered.