The Power (or lack thereof) of Words

Do you think words have been cheapened in postmodern society? In an overstimulated world, where we receive thousands of messages each day, I wonder if we've lost the ability to communicate with words only in a way that truly pulls at our heart strings or delivers a message of unfiltered truth that can be coherent and understood. Perhaps that is why we rely so much on the fusion of words, images, sounds and constant movement. Certainly that combination packs a powerful punch. How often do you encounter a brilliantly, but succintly written speech or sermon or letter that cuts you to the core? Maybe it happens more often that I think it does. I guess I am just thinking of time when I've gotten lost in others' wordiness or how often I've come to the table with presuppositions that distort the potential impact of anothers' words. Does our society have too many false messages and too many skepticisms? Or has this always been? Maybe this isn't all so bad, I'm not really the best wordsmith when I commnicate anyways. :)

What's caused this surge of interest in "words?" Well, I've been going through John's Gospel slowly and carefully, trying to absorb as much (or more than usual) I can. The opening passage has always seemed powerful, but I've never investigated it deeply.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." John 1:1-3

To someone who maybe didn't grow up in Sunday School culture, this would be a weird thing to read. The Word? Just tell us the guy's name. So, for as long as I can remember, I've known that "the Word" in this passage is Jesus Christ. And I still believe that. But why "the Word" I've always wondered. I've heard bits and pieces about this Greek word logos, but have never understood it fully (and still don't!). This is a summary of some of what I've discovered recently from studying this passage, in particular from William Barclay:

John wrote his gospel after the other three gospel accounts. The basic problem at the beginning of the church was that it began within Judaism. Greeks had never heard of a “Messiah” or even had an expectation of one. Jesus’ ministry primarily took place in Jewish areas. The task of the early church was to create a predisposition in the Greeks to receive the Christian message. In 100 AD, John was living in a Greek city (Ephesus) and he tackled this problem. Solution: in both Greek and Jewish thought, their existed the idea of “the word.”

1) To Jews, a word had independent existence-it did things. For that reason, Hebrew had few words (10,000) compared to 200,000 in Greek.

2) The OT is full of examples. Jacob receives his Father’s verbal blessing and it can’t be taken back. God creates the universe through his words. Isaiah 55:11, God’s words accomplish the purpose for which they were sent out.

3) From 100 years before Jesus until his day, Hebrew was no longer spoken, except by scholars. Instead, Aramaic, a development of Hebrew, was spoken by the common people. Targums were the Aramaic translations of the OT and they did not use anthropomorphisms in reference to God, e.g. instead of saying “to meet God” they said “to meet the word of God.” And thus, the “word of God” (the Memra) became a common expression.

4) In Greek, “word” is Logos and it means word and reason. Wisdom and reason are very much the same thing and wisdom is God’s agent in enlightenment and in creation (Prov 3:18-20 – The Lord by wisdom founded the earth…). The most important is Prov 8:1-9:2, in which wisdom appears to have had an eternal existence, in a similar way to how John describes the existence of the Word.

5) In Ephesus, in 560 BC, there was a philosopher named Heraclitus who believed that all existence was in a constant state of flux (you never step into the same river twice) and that which controlled this pattern was Logos, the word, the reason of God. He believed nothing moved aimlessly, but that the Logos controlled the specific way that things played out in the universe. He further believed that it was the Logos of God that implanted reason, knowledge and the consciousness of right and wrong in each individual. The Stoics agreed with this belief and could not dismiss the fact that their was order in the universe. The stars are held in place the seasons change, etc, and all this is held in place by the Logos of God.

6) Additionally, Philo, a Jew living in Alexandria knew the Jewish scriptures and Greek thought intimately and he too believed that it was the Logos of God which created the universe. He believed that the Logos was the intermediary between God and the world and that Logos was God’s stamp on all human thought and consciousness.

So essentially, John came to the Greeks saying, “This Logos which you say is the wisdom, reason and power of God from the beginning of all time, this Logos became flesh…the mind of God became a person.” And similarly, the Word directly spoke to the Hebrews, because of their predisposition to believing in the power of God's words.

Now, how's that for some wordiness :)


chris ridgeway said…
wow - some good stuff in there. I didn't know about the Aramaic expressions, among other things. good finds. I keep thinking you and I need to be friends and talk random stuff like this more... it'd be cool to compare notes better - I'd learn stuff. :)
Unknown said…
What I like is how the Greek word for "word" (logo) has been made into a modern word that's definitely lost it's meaning - accoring to logo = a graphic representation or symbol...

So over the span of about 2000 years, we've gone from words to small pictures that may mean words (hieroglyphics, in a sense). In a few more millenia, we'll be struggling to communicate with grunts and pointing. If that's the case, then I was definitely born ahead of my time.
Jonathan King said…
ridgeway, for real.

chairman, yes, you were born ahead of your time in more ways than you know (or i know, for that matter, not sure what i meant by that).

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