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I already assumed the opposite in an answer to why there are so many Bible translations, on Christianity.SE. Now that we have an expert community, I'd like to check. The translators of the New World Translation (NWT) almost certainly know Greek better than me and are smarter than me, so maybe they had a good reason for their translation that I just can't see.

Comparing the New World Translation's take on John 8:58 to other English translations, we notice it's quite different from the rest. All other translations (that I've seen) translate "I am" whereas NWT translates "I have been" (NASB shown as an example):

New World Translation
Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”

New American Standard Bible
Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am."

I don't know Greek, so I'd like to hear the expert opinion. Is "I have been" a reasonable translation of the Greek text?
From the interlinear it looks like it boils down to, how should ἐγώ εἰμι be translated?

John 8:58 interlinear

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Where did you get that Greek from? That's really nice! –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 13:26
    
@Richard I can't remember for sure, I think it's from apostolic.interlinearbible.org/john/8.htm –  dancek Oct 6 '11 at 14:00
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@TRiG: look it up and post an answer. You're reminded. :) –  Wikis Feb 14 '12 at 11:15
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Reminder eventually heeded, @Wikis. –  TRiG Oct 27 '13 at 20:51
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2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It does not appear to be a very good translation of this word.

1473 (εγώ) is the personal pronoun, "I", so it tells us that Jesus was talking about Himself.

1510.2.1 (ειμι) is the real core of the question. 1510 is the infinitive "to be, exist". The following numbers (".2.1") tell you more about the nuances of meaning - tense, voice, etc. Some lexicons will give another code here instead - in this case, my intralinear has G5748. Either of these codes tell you that this word is present tense, indicative mood.

Based on these findings, the most direct way to express this in English is "I am".

Contrast this with the word He used to describe Abraham. In my intralinear, 1096 is also decorated with G5635; we'll come back to that. 1096 (γίνομαι) is the infinitive "to become, come into existence, arise, be made." Note that He chose not to use the same word, even though some translations will translate this "was". The majority of translations say either "was born" or "existed".

G5635 indicates the second-aorist tense, middle-deponent (active) voice, infinitive. Aorist tense is normally translated as past tense, though strictly speaking it is outside the concept of time. In this case, the second (punctiliar) aorist implies that the statement was, is or will be true at some point without a concrete definition of that point. Active voice ties the subject to the action - in a generic sense, he did it, it was not inflicted upon him. "Abraham came into existence".

Coupling this with our discussion above, one could amplify this as follows: "At whatever time Abraham came into existence, at that time I already was and still am."

However, there is another aspect that we have to consider as well. The Jews were quite aware that God used the name or term "I am" to refer to Himself. (c.f Exodus 3:14) The Septuagint even translates this with the exact same Greek words: εγώ (G1473) ειμι (G1510). (In this case, my copy of LXX uses Robinson's Morphological Analysis Codes - for 1510 in this verse, the code is V-PAPNS, which means "verb", "present tense", "active voice", "participle", "nominative", "singular" - effectively, exactly the same as above.) This explains their immediate response - they grabbed stones to kill Him, because they and He both knew that He had just claimed to be God and they couldn't or wouldn't accept that as truth.

The issue with this translation, then, is that it is rather weak linguistically. "have been" could be taken in a number of different ways - Jesus had previously existed, but subsequently did not, Jesus merely came into existence before Abraham, etc. None of these carry the weight of His claim - to be a member of the Godhead.

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Excellent answer –  swasheck Jul 8 '12 at 21:53
    
This is what the NWT Bible and JW's teach, that Jesus (Son of God Jehovah) is a firstborn son of God. By him and for his was EVERYTHING created. Therefore, Son of God existed before everyone existed (was created), including before Abraham... –  Jeremiah G Aug 15 '13 at 11:53
    
But they can't get there from John 8:58. The Greek is "I am" not "I have been." And the context beyond the verse shows that the Jewish leaders understood it as blasphemy, a claim where Jesus claimed himself to be God. –  Frank Luke Aug 15 '13 at 14:33
    
Claiming to be God may be one form of blasphemy, but it's hardly the only one, @FrankLuke. You can't get from "they thought it was blasphemy" to "he was claiming to be God". –  TRiG Oct 27 '13 at 20:52
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@Trig, yes, I can. It is well established in Biblical studies that Jews did use the personal name of God casually (YHWH, often translated "I Am"). In fact, in seeking to put a fence around the commandment not to take his name in vain, they used different circumlocutions (Matthew even hesitates to use "Kingdom of God" preferring "Kingdom of Heaven"). When Jesus says "I am" and they understand it to be blasphemy, the only king of blasphemy that fits is a claim to be God. Claiming to be pre-existent wouldn't cut it. Jesus using the name of God as his own would qualify were it untrue. –  Frank Luke Oct 28 '13 at 2:19
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I’ve finally dug out my copy of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures — with references (1984 edition, which as far as I know is still the latest). It has a simple footnote on this phrase, referring the reader to Appendix 6F: “Jesus — In Existence Before Abraham”.

The appendix article begins with a series of quotes, which I here present:

From the Fourth/Fifth Century:

before Abraham was, I have been

Syriac. Edition: A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Siniatic Palimpset, by Agnes Smith Lewis, London, 1984.

From the Fifth Century:

before ever Abraham came to be, I was

Curetonian Syriac. Edition: The Curetonian Version of the Four Gospels, by F. Crawford Burkitt, Vol. 1, Cambridge, England, 1904.

From the Fifth Century:

before Abraham existed, I was

Syriac Peshitta. Edition: The Syriac New Testament Translated into English from the Peshitto Version, by James Murdock, seventh ed., Boston and London, 1896.

From the Fifth Century:

before Abraham came to be, I was

Georgian. Edition: “The Old Georgian Version of the Gospel of John”, by Robert P. Blake and Maurice Brière, published in Patrologia Orientalis, Vol. XXVI, fascicle 4, Paris, 1950.

From the Sixth Century:

before Abraham was born, I was

Ethiopic. Edition: Novum Testamentum ... Æiopice, by Thomas Pell Platt, revised by F. Praetorius, Leipzig, 1899.

The appendix article continues as follows. (I’m taking just the first three paragraphs, because (a) I don’t want to quote too much, and (b) the rest of the appendix article is more theological in nature, while the first three paragraphs are technical.)

The action expressed in Joh 8:58 started “before Abraham came into existence” and is still in progress. In such situation εἰμί, which is the first-person singular present indicative, is properly translated by the perfect indicative. Examples of the same syntax are found in Lu 2:48; 13:7; 15:29; Joh 5:6; 14:9; 15:27; Ac 15:21; 2Co 12:19; 1Jo 3:8.

Concerning this construction, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, by G. B. Winer, seventh edition, Andover, 1897, p. 267, says: “Sometimes the Present includes also a past tense (Mdv. 108), viz. when the verb expresses a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues,—a state in its duration; as, Jno. xv. 27 [Greek text omitted because I don’t know how to type the diacritics], viii. 58 [ditto].”

Likewise, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, by J. H. Moulton, Vol. III, by Nigel Turner, Edinburgh, 1963, p. 62, says: “The Present which indicates the continuance of an action during the past and up to the moment of speaking is virtually the same as Perfective, the only difference being that the action is conceived as still in progress ... It is frequent in the N[ew] T[estament]: Lk 248 137 ... 1529 ... Jn 56 858 ...”

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Thanks TRiG, nice one. –  Wikis Oct 27 '13 at 21:06
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