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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

25

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.

  • 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
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    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
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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 think the above comment by Frank is pure fiction. The Jews in the narrative are upset about Jesus claiming pre-existence, not supposedly using a title of God "I am" inasmuch as saying "I am" is just a common phrase you can't live without, "I am happy," "I am sad," etc. Are we to suppose that in deference to God using this as a title once in Exo 6, the Jews never used "I am" in a sentence? – david brainerd Aug 28 '14 at 5:02
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    Someone apparently deleted my comments so I'll repeat them. In the next chapter the man born blind says "EGW EIMI" and no one bats an eye. So also Paul says "EIMI hO EIMI" (1 Cor 15:10) and no one bristles or worships him. Maintaining the word order into English is what makes this sound dramatic. It should read "I am before Abraham is born". This makes Abe's birth future in relation to the present. – Ruminator Aug 25 '17 at 11:33
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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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    This answer does not substantiate why these variant translations appear in these quotes - are these definitely variations in the source texts, or are these variants in how different sources were translated by others? Why take later Syriac translations as a benchmark over the Greek texts they were translated from? Even assuming it's an issue in the source, are there any compelling reasons why these later manuscripts should be taken over p66 which is 2nd Century? The pasted text might be helpful to the discussion, but don't address most of the key hermeneutical questions about their claims. – Steve Taylor Mar 7 '16 at 14:03
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In the book called ‘Truth In Translation - Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament” author Jason Debuhn looks at selected passages in 9 Bibles - The Amplified New Testament (AB); The Living Bible (LB); the New American Bible with Revised New Testament (NAB); THE NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (NASB); the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (NIV); New Revised Standard Version Bible (RSV) New World Translation of the Holy Scripture (NWT) Good News Bible in Today's English Version (TEV); King James Bible (KJV)

In Chapter 9 entitled “Tampering with tenses” he discusses John 8:58. On page 104 he lists the various translations of that text

KJV Before Abraham was, l am. NRSV Before Abraham was, I am. NASB Before Abraham was born, I am. NIV Before Abraham was born, I am! TEV Before Abraham was born, 'I Am'. AB Before Abraham was born, I AM. NAB Before Abraham came to be, I AM. NWT Before Abraham came into existence, I have been. LB I was in existence before Abraham was ever born!

Straight after listing those renderings on page 104 and 105 he points out…

You may think that there is a particularly difficult or convoluted Greek clause underlying this mess of English. But that is not the case. The Greek reads: prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi. What Jesus says here is fine, idiomatic Greek. It can be rendered straightforwardly into English by doing what translators always do with Greek, namely, rearrange the word order into normal English order, adjust things like verbal tense complementarity into proper English expression. These steps of translation are necessary because Greek and English are not the same language and do not obey the same rules) grammar. Leaving the translation at the stage of a lexical ("interlinear”) rendering, which is one way to describe what most translations do here simply won't work. That is because Greek has more flexibility with word order than English does, and it can mix verbal tenses in a way English cannot

As a part of his summary on that verse he says on pages 110 and 111,112

In John 8:58, all translations except the LB break the first-personpronoun + verb ("I am") clause out of its relation to the syntax of the sentence, and place it artificially, and ungrammatically, at the end of the English sentence. These modern translations violate their standard practice of using correct English word order by in this case slavishly following the Greek word order, apparently under the influence of the KJV. Even the TEV, supposedly written in modern idiomatic English does this.

All translations except the LB and NWT also ignore the true relation between the verbs of the sentence, and produce a sentence that makes no sense in English. On top of this, we see the strange capitalization in the NAB, AB and TEV. These changes in the meaning of the Greek and in the normal procedure for translation point to a bias that has interfered with the work of the translators....

....The LB comes out as the most accurate translation of John 8:58. The translator avoided the lure of bias and the pressure of the KJV tradition. The NWT is second best in this case, because it understands the relation between the two verbs correctly, even though the influence of the KJV has led its translators to put the verb improperly at the end of the sentence. The average Bible reader might never guess that there was something wrong with the other translations, and might even assume that the error was to found in the LB and NWT. When all you can do is compare the English translations, and count them up like votes, the LB and NWT stick out as different in John 8:58. It is natural to assume that the majority are correct and the odd ones at fault. It is only when translations are checked against the original Greek, as they should be, that a fair assessment can be made, and the initial assumption can be seen to be wrong.

So the bottom line is then, that the NWT is correct in translating ego eimi as “I have been” except that they put it at the end of the sentence.

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Everyone seems to be missing an obvious and important point on this verse. Trying to prove that it should be translated as "I am" over "I have been" is not the issue. The issue is word order. It is incorrect to translate the verse "before Abraham was born, I am". why? Because it is left in an interlinear form. Therefore, this is ultimately not an English translation, and the verse is left incomplete.

If you have the Living Bible (which is in favor of the Trinity), it says “The absolute truth is that I was in existence before Abraham was ever born!”.

This is the correct way to read the verse. Why? Because the "subject", that is the person talking, Jesus, when he says "I am", is now moved to the beginning of the sentence.

The word order in Greek at John 8:58 is "Predicate + Subject + Verb" but we must rearrange the word order when we translate to English, which is "Subject + Verb + Predicate/Object ". You can compare the same word order found in John 14:9, and John 15:27, which all other bibles suddenly remember how to translate from Greek to English.

Greek Scholar notes: Kenneth Mckay, says that John 8:58 "would be most naturally translated 'I have been in existence since before Abraham was born', if it were not for the obsession with the simple words 'I am'" (K. L. McKay, 'I am' in John's Gospel, Expository Times 1996: 302-303).

As for the implication that Jesus is God in this verse, I believe that the context bears out that this is not his claim, just from reading around the verse. Remember Jesus is speaking of God being his Father. This is a very bold claim, referring to YHWH in such a personal way has never been done before, nor by any prophet. Note what Jesus says at John 8:38 and 40 that they are already seeking to kill him at this point, well before vs 58. He then accuses them in vs 44 "You are of your father the devil". All of this builds from Jesus' claim that he is from God, and that God is his father.

If you go back to John 5:18, it reads "For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God"-NASB

We know that Jesus is the Son of God, him claiming that God was his father was in their eyes enough to enrage them. John 19:7: "The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God."-NASB

So going back to John 8:58 if Jesus says "I have been in existence since before Abraham was born", K. Mckay says that "The claim to have been in existence for so long is in itself a staggering one, quite enough to provoke the crowd's violent reaction" (page 302).

  • Welcome to BH.SE! If you haven't already done so, please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. – enegue Aug 1 '17 at 22:30
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The NWT translation of John 8:58 is not reasonable, since it mangles the tense of the word εἰμί (Present/Active/Indicative/2nd Person Singular - "I am"), which they don't do for Paul's statement in Act 17:28, where they have:

For by him we have life and move and exist, even as some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his children.’

The word the NWT gives as "exist" here, is ἐσμεν (Present/Active/Indicate/2nd Person Plural - "we are"). If they were consistent, then they would have at least given "I exist" in John 8:58.

Given the controversial nature of Jesus' teaching about himself -- to the Jews then, and others since -- it is "Most, truly" clear that he was making a reference to the continuous nature of his existence, as did Yahweh in Exodus 3:14.

  • The translators of the NWT state that their goal is to "strike a balance between using words and phrasing that mirror the original and, at the same time, avoiding wording that reads awkwardly or hides the intended thought". Their priority is not just to be accurate, but to also be readable. Your example of Acts 17:28 has different context and different sentence structure, so it allows for a different (perhaps more understandable) translation. – 4castle Aug 23 '17 at 1:57
  • @4castle Saying, "Their priority is not just to be accurate ...", is simply YOUR justification for the NWT translators spinning the text in the way you prefer. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of accuracy. There is nothing particularly different about the two contexts that merits accuracy in one, but not the other. – enegue Aug 23 '17 at 4:18
  • How do you define "accuracy"? If you mean that you prefer a word-for-word translation, feel free to use an interlinear translation. I think you will quickly find that word-for-word translations are nearly unreadable, and can be easily misunderstood due to how different languages differ greatly in grammar, sentence structure, and idiom. Would you really prefer if it said "we have life and move and have been"? – 4castle Aug 23 '17 at 4:21
  • If you compare how the NWT has translated Acts 17:28 to other Bible translations, you will see that pretty much all translations using different wording from John 8:58. It just doesn't make sense to translate it the same way in the context of the verses. This is not specific to the NWT at all. – 4castle Aug 23 '17 at 4:30
  • I have no desire to try to persuade you, nor, indeed, have the power to do so. I have written my answer to share with others my thoughts on the question. That is the principle purpose of this site. The comment feature is really not designed for discussion. – enegue Aug 23 '17 at 4:36
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In the context of a prior persecution of Jesus, when there it is clear to the Jews that He is a blasphemer and makes himself equal to God, i.e. making himself Jahve (Jehovah) (John 5:18), it is only reasonable to conclude that for majority of the listeners Jesus' wording of "before Abraham was, I am" was not something totally unexpected, but confirmed their suspicion and even conviction that Jesus is a blasphemer and in the "I am" implied a sacrilegious theology;

Even if (let us suppose hypothetically) Jesus did not put this meaning, so to say, grammatically, but only indicated His pre-existence before Abraham's birth, the Jews who already knew and suspected Him being a blasphemer, would definitely see in the "I am" this theological implication. Who on earth would have reasoned about the subtleties of Hebrew or Greek grammar, when there was a clear terrifying expectation of blasphemy of Jesus equaling himself to God on the part of the enraged Jews immediately after the words "ἐγὼ εἰμί" were uttered? Since the expectation was of this concrete theological blasphemy, then the "ἐγὼ εἰμί" would definitely bear for them this blasphemous implication rather than a mitigated and lessened one of Jesus simply making himself a pre-existent but not eternally existent being.

Thus at least a conspicuous majority of them would have naturally seen a blasphemous theology in Jesus' "I am". Moreover, Jesus apparently makes a direct allusion to Psalm 89:2 (or 90:2 according to an alternative numeration), which in the Greek Septuagint reads:

πρὸ τοῦ ὄρη γενηθῆναι καὶ πλασθῆναι τὴν γῆν καὶ τὴν οἰκουμένην, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος σὺ εἶ

Before mountains came to being, and earth and the world was formed, and from eternity to eternity, You are.

The verb γενηθῆναι is the same as in John 8:58, and the "You are" has the same existential import as the "I am", meaning "You exist", and therefore also the "from eternity to eternity" is automatically implicated in Jesus' words, which makes him identical with Jahve (Jehovah). (In later theology this identity was expressed in the theological notion of "essence" - οὐσία which is absolutely identical in the Father and the Son, whereas the no less outspoken difference between Jesus and the Father by the notion of "person" - ὑπόστασις, which they have absolutely uniquely and uninterminglably).

It was just impossible for Jewish religious experts present at Jesus' address not to see a clear and intentional allusion to the Septuagint text of the Psalm 89:2 and thus their rage is clearly related to Jesus making himself eternally existing, just as God. It cannot be more clear. And for sure Jews saw this quite unequivocally.

Also later they had to admit directly: "we do not want to kill you because of good deeds, but because of being a man you make yourself God" (John 10:30-33).

  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. I have broken up your wall of text into paragraphs, to make it easier for people to read. I have also added formating for your quote from LXX. – enegue Aug 22 '17 at 21:56
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Attempting to identify Jesus with Jehovah some say that ego eimi is the equivalent of Ani hu (I Am He) which is used by God.However, it is to be noted that this Hebrew expression is also used by man, as in 1Chronicles21:17. Further attempting to identify Jesus with Jehovah some try to use Ex.3:14 which reads ego eimi ho on. Which means I am The Being or I am The Existing One. This attempt cannot be sustained because the expression in Ex.3:14 is different from the expression in John 8:48. Throughout the Christian Greek Scriptures Jehovah and Jesus are never identified as the same person.The earlier Hebrew Scriptures quote is from the LXX.

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    In 1 Chr. 21:17, אֲנִי הוּא (LXX: ἐγώ εἰμι) is followed by a relative clause. In John 8:58, ἐγώ εἰμι stands alone with nothing following. Unfortunately, you are comparing apples to oranges. You also stated, “Throughout the Christian Greek Scriptures Jehovah and Jesus are never identified as the same person.”—Quite the contrary. Rom. 10:9 cp. Joel 2:32 identifies Jesus as Yahveh. – user862 Jan 28 '17 at 19:25
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  • @user863 Paul quotes Joel 2:33 at Acts 2:21 & Rom 10:13 showing that Yahveh is to be called on. The New Testament in Hebrew reads in these verses "YHWH" is support of Calling on "Yahveh"! – user26950 Oct 28 '18 at 18:52

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