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In John 8:58, the author quotes Jesus:

. ..πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί (NA28)
...before Abraham was, I am (ESV)

Many have understood this as a claim to divinity, and some translations render all caps "I AM" to reflect this. The NET notes:

I am! is an explicit claim to deity. Although each occurrence of the phrase “I am“ in the Fourth Gospel needs to be examined individually in context to see if an association with Exod 3:14 is present, it seems clear that this is the case here (as the response of the Jewish authorities in the following verse shows).

These words ἐγὼ εἰμί are reasonably distinct because:

  • The redundant pronominal subject is included.
  • It is unpredicated.

However, it's unlikely Jesus was speaking Greek, and I’m trying to figure out the words he likely spoke, what made them distinct enough to be upsetting ("So they picked up stones..."), and how they were connected to Exodus 3:14:

אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה ... אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִ אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ (BHS)
I am who I am. . . . I am has sent me to you. (ESV)

And the LXX:

᾿Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν· . . .῾Ο ὢν ἀπέσταλκέν με πρὸς ὑμᾶς. (Rahlfs-Hanhart)
I am the [one] being. . . . the [one] being has sent me to you. (my overly literal translation1)

I was considering that he might have said:

  • The Tetragrammaton: but it's hard to see how this could be translated ἐγὼ εἰμί,2 or understood to yield a semantically satisfactory sentence. . . . and it's not in Exodus 3:14. (It's in 3:15 & 16 etc, but it's 14 that everyone seems to cite as the referent.)
  • אהיה (I am): but it's hard to see how this would be distinctive enough to be recognized as a claim to deity.3
  • אני אהיה (I am with the redundant pronominal subject like the Greek): but it isn't it Exodus 3:14 (or 3:15 ff.), and I don't know if it even works in Hebrew.
  • אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (I am who I am): but this seems more naturally translated as the LXX: ᾿Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν·
  • Something else that my Hebrew isn't good enough to construct. (Check out how this Hebrew NT shifts it into the perfect, but that has even less to do with Exodus 3:14.)
  • Aramaic, in which case I can't even start.

Is anyone able to provide more educated speculation about what Jesus may have said that incited the authorities to pick up stones?


Notes
1. I realize there are better ways to do this, but I was attempting to make it very obvious exactly what words are there.
2. See also this answer about the rendering of the tetragrammaton in the LXX.
3. My search found 55 instances of this exact form in the Hebrew bible, with various first person subjects. To my knowlege there was not an association with the divine name outside of Exodus 3, nor any problem pronouncing this word.

  • That the words "I am" constitute an assertion of divinity is patently false or else Paul would have been less insensitive to using the words in reference to himself: Young's Literal Translation 1 Cor 15:10 "and by the grace of God ** I am what I am**, and His grace that is towards me came not in vain, but more abundantly than they all did I labour, yet not I, but the grace of God that is with me;" biblehub.com/1_corinthians/15-10.htm – Ruminator Aug 20 '17 at 16:15
  • @WoundedEgo Paul does not make the same claim. 1 Corinthians 15:10: χάριτι δὲ θεοῦ εἰμι ὅ εἰμι John 8:58 πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί – Revelation Lad Aug 22 '17 at 4:02
  • @RevelationLad, true, but "I am that I am" is more emphatic and more like the Hebrew of Exodus 3:4, no? If alluding to Exodus 3:4 is a capital crime, Paul committed it; more so than did Jesus. – Ruminator Aug 22 '17 at 5:02
  • @WoundedEgo The LXX of Exodus 3:14 is also ἐγὼ εἰμί. The English translation may appear to be similar, or more emphatic as you say, but the Greek in 1 Corinthians and Exodus is different. My opinion is the emphasis Paul makes is purposeful to avoid making the connection you are trying to make. That is, "By the grace of God I am what I am..." not "By the grace of God I am..." – Revelation Lad Aug 22 '17 at 5:14
  • @RevelationLad, Then why didn't they stone the man born blind?: "Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he. [EGW EIMI]". The "he" was added by the translators. Try it in John 8:58; it works. – Ruminator Aug 23 '17 at 0:25
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See also the follow-up Q&A to this one on the Greek antecedents of the absolute use of ἐγὼ εἰμί in the New Testament which advances and nuances the discussion below.

The Question

This is an excellent question, and one that in different forms has been pondered by interpreters of John's gospel for centuries. My own way of capturing what is at stake here would be to put it this way:

  • what Jesus is reported as saying in John 8:58 caused outrage in his hearers;
  • although reported here in Greek, it is safe to assume there is Hebrew or Aramaic antecedent for it;
  • so what did Jesus' audience hear in those simple words?

By "hear", here, I don't mean just the actual words spoken (or intended by the narrator), but what resonances did the audience catch that caused outrage, and which (we can further assume) John expected his readers to be able to hear as well?

OP asks for "educated speculation", and that is in part what this answer aspires to. "Speculation" suggests there is a degree of guesswork: true, there is. But there is also evidence, long observed, on which judgments have been formed.1 There is a vast secondary literature on this question as well, so this answer will be limited to some key observations drawn from the more significant contributors to the discussion.

John 8:58 interpreted

To begin with, it can be agreed (perhaps ironically), that in spite of some question about what lies behind the egō eimi statement, the interpretation of the claim is widely agreed. On this specific point, Barnabas Lindars may be taken as representative in noting:2

  • in this gospel, "John never simply identifies Jesus with God";
  • this verse comes as the climax of a dispute over how it is that Jesus "continues forever" (Jn 8:35);
  • the saying is in the simple present tense.

All of which points to Jesus' implicit claim here to "timeless pre-existence". This, or something like it, is found widely in the commentaries.

᾿Εγώ εἰμι = ?

But that, of course, simply leads us to OP's question. What connections were forged in the minds of the hearers between Jesus' claim, "egō eimi", and the prior tradition?

One obvious connection is explored already in the question posed: that there is a strong allusion to Exodus 3:14 here, and the revelation of the divine name to Moses, especially as it comes down through the (thoroughly Hellenistic) Septuagint rendering. (I won't repeat this here; it's set out with clarity in the question.) This association is widely repeated in more popular Bible guides,3 and is a fairly natural association.

It might come as a surprise, then, that the more common scholarly understanding sees Exodus 3:14 lying very much in the background, and not providing the primary allusion for Jesus' words as presented by John. The primary association is found rather in the Hebrew expression אֲנִי הוּא = ʾănî hûʾ and especially as found in Isaiah 43:10bα (see also the LXX):4

לְמַ֣עַן תֵּ֠דְעוּ וְתַאֲמִ֨ינוּ לִ֤י ...
...lĕmaʿan tēdĕʿû wĕ taʾămînû lî
...that you may know and believe me,
...ἵνα γνῶτε καὶ πιστεύσητε
...hina gnōte kai pisteusēte
...that you may know and believe

וְתָבִ֙ינוּ֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י ה֔וּא
wĕtābînû kî-ʾănî hûʾ
and understand that I am he.
καὶ συνῆτε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι
kai sunēte hoti egō eimi
and understand that I am he.

Every substantial commentary on the Greek text of John's gospel has some discussion of this question.5 However, without doubt the major contribution on this front in recent years (and which should be consulted by anyone interested in this question) is Catrin H. Williams, I Am He: The Interpretation of A̓nî Hû ̓in Jewish and Early Christian Literature (WUNT II/113; Mohr Siebeck, 2000).6 Some of the factors that come into play for Williams and the (many) others who concur with her reading are as follows:

  • The "absolute" use of the Greek egō eimi (without "complement" or predicate) is (in the words of C.K. Barrett) "hardly a Greek expression", "...ἐγώ εἰμι is in itself (as Greek) a meaningless expression".7 This makes the search for its antecedents in Jewish literature pressing.
  • The Exodus 3:14 text has a superficial appeal, but that leaves the "absolute" use as an oddity...
  • ...except that it "prepares the way" for different versions of the "I-formula" ("I am YHWH", "I am he") that appear elsewhere, especially Deuteronomy 32:39 as found in the LXX; Isa 43:10 (cited above); and 45:18 (via the LXX). These provide a form of words in which the solemn self-declaration of the LORD is rendered into Greek with the "absolute" (no complement) form of egō eimi.
  • The use of this formula in Jewish liturgy, and its associations with the Temple in particular, are explored exhaustively by Williams, and provide some obvious links with the John 8 context.
  • The John 8 usage is often taken in tandem with the other occurrence in the gospels of the "absolute" egō eimi, that found in Mark 14:62.8 This wider view demonstrates a convergence on the same ʾănî hûʾ via LXX self-declaration as the primary source of the statement, "egō eimi", spoken by Jesus in Mark and John.

Summary

There is much more that could be said -- but Catrin Williams has probably said it. I hope this is sufficient to provide a meaningful response to a good question: that the popular identification of "I am" in John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14 is superficially appealing but ultimately unsatisfactory; that the ʾănî hûʾ sayings in the Hebrew Bible provide the more plausible background for Jesus' speech at various points in the gospel of John (and Mark).9


Notes

  1. That is, this question is subject to evidence and argument like any other "accepted" question on BH.SE; it should not be misconstrued therefore as "opinion based" - unless the vast majority our questions are to be designated in this way.
  2. For the following, B. Lindars, The Gospel of John (New Century Bible; Eerdmans, 1981), p. 336.
  3. As, for example, in the NET Bible at John 8:58, as noted by OP; similarly given in the ESV Study Bible.
  4. (There appears to be some English text missing from the LXX translation of Isa 43:10 at the link provided.) The expression also appears as אָנֹכִי הוּא ʾānōkî hûʾ (e.g. Isa 43:25), but I will just use one form for convenience in this answer.
  5. Note in particular the appendix devoted to it in R.E. Brown's The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible; Doubleday, 1966), pp. 533-538.
  6. There is a generous preview in Google Books; I will not cite or interact with the rich body of earlier scholarship on this question that she so ably presents. See also more recently, and less substantially, Yung Suk Kim, Truth, Testimony, and Transformation: A New Reading of the "I Am" Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Wipf & Stock, 2014).
  7. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (SPCK 1978), pp. 341f.
  8. Note that there are two further "non-complement" egō eimi sayings in Mark (adding 6:50 and 13:6); and there are further examples in the gospel of John (4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 9:9; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8).
  9. And in case the question about what form this would take in Aramaic, the answer is אֲנָה הוּא or אֲנָא הוּא.
  • I'm willing to eat some serious crow on this one. Having examined the various other uses in the Gospels, "I am he" for ἐγώ εἰμι makes a lot of sense, and the tie back to the LXX in Isa 43:10 a good argument. I have one question though. Barrett's contention "'...ἐγώ εἰμι is in itself (as Greek) a meaningless expression'" does not make sense to me. Cont... – ScottS Oct 1 '14 at 13:31
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    Since the Hebrew (אֲנִי הוּא) is a verbless clause, why would the Greek add the verb and remove the predicate nominative with ἐγώ εἰμι if that phrase was not already in usage to reflect "I am he"? It seems if it is "meaningless" in Greek, that the translation would have either been kept direct with the Hebrew as εγω ουτος or simply added the verb as εγω ειμι ουτος. Does Williams discuss extra biblical uses of εγω ειμι as a declaration of "I am he" (much like Jn 9:9 usage) in her work that justifies the LXX translation as "good" Greek? – ScottS Oct 1 '14 at 13:36
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    @ScottS (1) Barrett speaks as one who had classical Greek from childhood: those (of us) who come to Greek via NT just don't hear its "accent" the same way. (2) How LXX-Deut and LXX-Isa ended up with ἐγώ εἰμι for אֲנִי הוּא is a different question! (3) The point isn't that the LXX rendering is good Greek; only that these instances of the non-complement egō eimi provide the more plausible source of the same use in Mk and Jn. | P.s. Best to read Williams for yourself, I reckon! – Dɑvïd Oct 1 '14 at 14:07
  • No time to read Williams myself (maybe someday). I understand and agree with (3), but I do feel (1) and (2) relate (unless I completely misread Barrett). "Meaningless" is not a statement about an accent (pronunciation) issue. If the phrase indeed had no meaning in Greek, it makes less sense that LXX translated it as it did (rather than one of the other two ways). But if it had extra biblical support for meaning an elliptical expression for "I am he," then it makes perfect sense for its use in LXX for the Hebrew verbless clause אֲנִי הוּא. I think I'll ask this as a new BH.SE question. – ScottS Oct 1 '14 at 14:31
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    @ScottS - sorry: my bad. "Accent" here was a metaphor. I meant he can spot the bad Greek that those who stay within NT bounds can't. It still means looking into the mechanism for rendering in LXX-Deut and LXX-Isa which is an interesting question in its own right. Must check Wevers' Notes on Greek Deut to start with; Isaiah translator was much more "free"; also worth seeing what Field has for this. But this goes beyond my BH.SE pay-grade. ;) – Dɑvïd Oct 1 '14 at 14:46
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Professor of Religious Studies , Jason David BeDuhn of Northern Arizona University in his book "TRUTH IN TRANSLATION Accuracy and Bias of the New Testament" compares ten major English translations and list them as follows:

In Chapter ten "TEMPERING WITH THE TENSES" deals exclusively with John 8:58 analyzes grammar and syntax of this verse and other similar verses.

KJV before Abraham was, I 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

NW before Abraham came into existence,I have been.

LB I was in existence before Abraham was ever born.

Quote "What is going on here? You may think that there is a particularly difficult or convoluted Greek clause underlying this mess in English. But that is not the case. The Greek reads "prin Abraham genesthai ego eimi". What is 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 into normal English order,and adjust things like verbal tense complimentary into proper expression"unquote.

The chapter runs into ten pages, the concluding paragraph is as follows.

"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 NW 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 but the verb improperly at the end of the sentence. The average Bible reader might never guess that there was some thing wrong with the other translations, and might even assume that the error is found in the LB and NW When all you can do is compare the English translations, and count them up like votes,the LB and NW stick out 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 original Greek, as they should be, that a fair assessment can be made, and the initial assumption can be seen to be wrong".

  • You might want to check out Trevor Allen's 2016 critique of DeBuhn's work. The PDF of the critique is here: livingwater-spain.com/beduhn.pdf. – rhetorician Sep 2 '17 at 22:40
  • As a Greek I can read the Greek Koine and agree with the rendering of the verse by Debuhn . I used his work to add strength to my answer. – Ozzie Nicolas Oct 9 '17 at 19:13
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The six times in John's Gospel when Jesus says "I Am" followed by nothing else, which are four times when preaching (8:24,28,58; 13:19) plus two times when responding to the party that had come to apprehend Him (18:5,8), the words ἐγὼ εἰμί (Ego Eimi) translate אהיה (Ehyeh) of Ex 3:14.

Jesus' listeners might have understood that the expression in itself was a claim to divinity if Jesus said it in Hebrew in the middle of a dialogue carried out in Aramaic. Moreover, I hypothesize that Jesus did exactly that in his trial, as the High Priest and the scribes would certainly have understood the reference to Ex 3:14:

But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" And Jesus said, "I Am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven." (Mk 14:61-62).

But just as the composite scriptural quote following "I Am" in this passage was enough in itself to be understood as a claim to divinity, so was the text preceding "I Am" in Jn 8:58: "before Abraham came to be (genesthai)", as it implied Jesus' pre-existence since time immemorial before being conceived in human form.

The case that John has Ex 3:14 in mind when recording Jesus stating "I Am" followed by nothing else is further supported by understanding the falling to the ground of the soldiers that had come to arrest Jesus in response to his saying "I Am" in light of the rite of the feast of Atonement. For that, we must note two facts:

  1. The term "fell" (epesan) is used 5 times by John in Revelation in the sense of "fall on their face" to worship: 5:8, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16 and 19:4.

  2. By the time of Jesus, the proper Name of God in the third person revealed in Ex 3:15: YHWH, "He causes to be" if vocalized YaHWeH, was uttered by only one person, the High Priest, on only one day of the year, the feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur), 6 times when making a sacrifice for his own sins, one time when drawing the lot for the he-goats, and 3 times when loading the iniquities and transgressions of the sons of Israel on the he-goat to be sent to the desert (Lev 16:20-22). The prayer used by the High Priest for the latter function, and the people's response, are in the Mishna, tractate Yoma, chapter 6:

He then came to the he-goat which was to be sent away to Azazeil and forcefully leans his hands on it and confesses. And so he would say: Please O YHWH, they have done wrong they have transgressed they have sinned before You - Your nation the House of Israel, Please, O YHWH, forgive them for their doing wrong, for their transgressions and for their sins, as is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant: “For on this day He will effect atonement for you to purify you before YHWH” (Leviticus 16:30). And when the priests and the people who were standing in the courtyard heard the fully pronunced Name come from the mouth of the High Priest they would kneel, prostate themselves, fall on their faces, and call out: Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. He gave it over to the one who was to lead it [to Azazeil].

(The original response was Psalm 113:2 "Blessed be the Name of the LORD for ever and ever". It was later modified by the rabbis by changing "the LORD" to "His glorious kindgdom" and recorded that way in the Mishna).

http://www.emishnah.com/moed2/Yoma/6.pdf

http://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Yoma.6

From these data, the meaning of the fall to the ground of the party that had come to apprehend Jesus when He said "I Am" for the first time is crystal clear: Jesus is the High Priest who is carrying out the true Atonement prefigured by the rite in the Mosaic Law, and that at the time of loading the iniquities and transgressions of men on the victim that will carry them, pronunces the proper Name of God, with the difference, with respect to an ordinary High Priest, that:

  • since Jesus Himself is the victim, He bears and carries our iniquities and transgressions Himself,

  • since Jesus Himself is God, He pronounces the proper Name of God in the first person.

Finally, the third time when Jesus pronounces the proper Name of God in the first person as true High Priest of the true Atonement is not recorded in John's Gospel but in Mark's, in the reply to the High Priest quoted above. To validate the interpretation of this "I Am" as the third utterance of the divine Name in the first person by Jesus as High Priest of the true Atonement, we must note that, in the Jewish rite, immediately after the High Priest finished his prayer uttering the divine Name by a third time, the goat was taken to the desert. Similarly, immediately after pronouncing the third "I Am" in Mk 14:62, Jesus started to be spit, striken, mocked and slapped by the Jews (Mk 14:65).

Acknowledgment: I learned of this theological meaning of the passage from a site on the revealed Name of God by a Jewish scholar:

http://www.exodus-314.com/home/introduction/exodus-314-in-christianity.html?id=39

From the same site, I quote a passage in support of understanding אהיה (Ehyeh) of Ex 3:14 as the name of God in the first person, i.e. when said by God Himself.

Finally to the contributions of two 12th century exegetes who were also Hebrew grammarians: Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. First to Abraham Ibn Ezra, who often consulted his good friend Judah Halevi on matters of exegesis and grammar. These exegetical discussions evidently included the interpretation of Exodus 3:14, because not only do they both correctly identify ehyeh as the Divine name in this verse, but they both also find the meaning of this name in ehyeh asher ehyeh and identify Yah as a related name. However, Ibn Ezra was bolder than Halevi in certain very important respects and most especially in regard to his grammatical analysis of the verse.

Briefly stated, Ibn Ezra identified the first ehyeh of ehyeh asher ehyeh as a Divine name and proposed that the asher ehyeh fragment of this declaration explains the meaning of the first ehyeh. He further stated that ehyeh and YHWH are both proper names of God and even that they have the same meaning, the only difference between them being that ehyeh is in the first person while YHWH is in the third.[26] Ibn Ezra thereby implicitly identified ehyeh as the name YHWH when employed by God in naming Himself. He did not separately mention the ehyeh of 3:14b, but the similarity of his interpretation to Halevi's strongly suggests that he did regard the ehyeh of 3:14b as the Divine name and so presumably identical in meaning to the first ehyeh of ehyeh asher ehyeh.

The second of the two grammarians, Rashbam, went one step further again, in that he did specifically identify the ehyeh of 3:14b as the first person form of the third person name YHWH, and so he explicitly identified it as the name YHWH when used by God in naming Himself,[27]

[26] Strickman N. and Silver A. (trans), Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch: Exodus (Shemot), (NY: Menorah, 1997), p.64. In a footnote to Ibn Ezra's comment on Ex.3:14, the authors explain his interpretation as follows: "According to I.E., That I Am explains I Am. In other words, God's name is not I Am That I Am. His name is I Am, the meaning of which is, That I Am". Ibn Ezra's comment on Ex.3:15 describes the name YHWH in the following terms: "Another name meaning the same as the first one. However, one name (EHYH) is in the first person and this name (YHWH) is in the third person".

[27] Propp W., Exodus 1-18, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, (NY: Doubleday, 1998), p.225

http://www.exodus-314.com/part-i/exodus-314-in-judaism/exodus-314-in-medieval-jewish-thought.html

1

Perhaps the following may help:-

The following is how several other Biblical authorities translate John 8:58:-

"I have existed before Abraham was born"-James Moffatt 1948 (Impression)

"I tell you for a positive fact, I existed before Abraham was born."-The Original N. T. by Hugh J. Schonfield 1985

"Truly truly I tell you, I am from before Abraham was born."-The N. T. by Richmond Lattimore

"I tell you, I existed before Abraham was born!"-Edger J. Goodspeed 1935 copyright

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘I most solemnly say to you, I existed before Abraham was born.’"-Chas. Williams’ The New Testament.

“He said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I have been.” -A. S. Lewis’ “The Four Gospels” According to the Sinaitic Palimpsest.

“‘Believe me,’ Jesus replied, ‘before Abraham was born I was already what I am.’”-The Twentieth Century New Testament.

“Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Before Abraham was born, I was.”-G. M. Lamsa’s The Modern New Testament.

“Jesus said to them: Verily, verily, I say to you, That before Abraham existed, I was.”-Jas. Murdock’s The Syriac New Testament.

“Jesus: ‘Before there was an Abraham, I was already there [war ich schon da]!’”-F. Pfaefflin’s Das Neue Testament (German).

“Jesus said to them: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you: Before Abraham was born, I was [war ich].’”-C. Stage’s Das Neue Testament (German).

“Jesus answered: ‘In truth, in truth, I say to you: Before Abraham was born, I was [era yo].’”-Nácar Colunga’s Nuevo Testamento (Spanish).

“I have been” (haiithi) instead of in the imperfect form."-F. Delitzsch’s Hebrew New Testament and that by Salkinson-Ginsburg both have the verb in the perfect form.

"The absloute truth is that I was in existance before Abraham was ever born!"-The Living Bible.

"Jesus answered, "The truth is, I existed before Abraham was even born!"-New Living Translation 1997

"Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly I tell you: before Abraham was born, I have already been."-The Unvarnished N.T. translated by Andy Gaus 1991

"Jesus said to them, "Mark my words and make no mistake: before Abraham himself was born, I already have being.""-'The Four Gospels' by Norman Marrow p.171

'The Companion Bible' has the following marginal note about the phrase "I am" on page 1540 as found in John 8:58, " 58 was = came into existence : i. e. was born. I am."

“Jesus said to them, “The truth is that I existed before Abraham was born!””-A Translation for Translators, ebible.org

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First here’s some background and outline related to why Jesus’ statement in John 8:58 questioned.

. ..πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί (NA28) ...before Abraham was, I am (ESV)

What’s startling about Jesus’ statement as recorded/translated by John is the use of the present tense, ἐγὼ εἰμί (I am). John’s language in his first chapter has: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, … Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης …Commentators have pointed out John’s use of γίνομαι (became, came into existence) for created things here to contrast what wasn’t created with the imperfect of εἰμί. This type of wording is similar in 8:58, except in this case εἰμί is present tense, not imperfect tense. The present tense leads to a double entendre with the meaning, “I was before Abraham came into existence,” but also with the meaning “I am” as in Exodus 3:14 and Isa 43:10 LXX.

How common is double entendre in the Gospel of John? When it occurs, translators and commentators dispute which meaning to translate or interpret as John’s intent, while they should probably accept the double entendre as intentional and attempt to translate it as such. The following are some examples.

In 1:5 is the word, καταλαμβάνω, which can mean 1) to overcome, gain control over, or 2) to understand (Louw-Nida). Translations struggle with this because both meanings fit. For his symbolism using light and darkness, you can’t un-shine darkness on light to take light away. Darkness cannot overcome light. From the standpoint of light symbolizing knowledge and truth coming through Jesus Christ, darkness unable to understand light makes sense. Ideally translators should look for words, such as grasp which conveys both meanings.

An example in Jesus’ conversation is ἄνωθεν in 3:3. This word has the meanings 1. locally from above, 2. temporally—a. from the beginning, b. for a long time, 3. again, anew (BAG 1979). This site has questions posted and answered related to Jesus’ intent here. What adds confusion is mostly likely Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek to a Pharisee. Did these multiple meanings in Greek (from above and again) in particular reflect what Jesus said? The Syriac Peshitta is an early translation of the Bible into a language similar the Aramaic influenced Hebrew the Jews spoke in Jesus’ day. The Peshitta translates this word as ܡܶܢ ܕ݁ܪܻܝܫ. The equivalent Hebrew words with the same meaning are מִן־ רֹאשׁ, which mean from the head, first, new, top. Note רֹאשׁ is used in Gen. 1:1 for the beginning. It’s used for new in the Jewish New Year. With Jacob’s ladder in Gen. 28:12, וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה (and the top of it reached the heaven), top translates רֹאשׁ. Thus, it is highly likely that John’s Greek did accurately reflect Jesus’ words.

Here’s an example from Luke instead of John, but it’s an example of Jesus using play on words that the Greek translation doesn’t readily show. This is from Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (pp. 378–380). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic:

Second, Jesus asks the pointed question, “If you have not been faithful in unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the truth to you?” (Lk 16:11, my translation). This text exhibits a play on words in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke at home. He says:

If you have not been amin [faithful]

in the unrighteous mammon [your material possessions]

the amuna [the truth]

who will ja’min ith kun [entrust to you].

The root amn, which appears in the word amen, is used here four times. It makes the point that anyone who cheats on his or her taxes will never understand the gospel. Those who have been unfaithful before God with material possessions cannot expect God to reveal his greater treasure to them, which is the truth of God.

Why would Jesus use play on words? In the first century people didn’t carry around notepads to take notes. They depended in memory to remember what their teacher said. Play on words was a memory tool. Second Jesus’ play on words with Nicodemus (ch3) and the Samaritan woman at the well (ch4) were attention getting tools that got his listeners to ask questions. Finally as in John 8:58 and, as double entendre is most commonly used, it implied a second meaning without actually stating it. This was also Jesus’ reason for using parables (Luke 8:10).

As far as Hebrew translations of the New Testament, the link you gave references Franz Delitzsch’s translation as its source. As you mentioned, unlike Exodus 3:14, it has the 1st person singular pronoun, אֲנִי, but uses the perfect tense of the same verb that is imperfect in Exodus 3:14. The Bible Society in Israel Hebrew New Testament translates ἐγὼ εἰμί as אֲנִי הוּא, the two pronouns I he with is/was understood, but not written. This is the same wording as Isa. 43:10. As noted in David’s answer LXX translates these words as ἐγώ εἰμι in Isa. 43:10. Looking at both Biblical Aramaic and the Syriac Peshitta in John 8:38 the language seems too different to give any information.

As for as Tetragrammation goes, Jesus didn’t seem to be that direct in his statement. Do we even have an adequate explanation of exactly how Tetragrammation fits Exodus 3:14? While we can’t tell exactly what Jesus said in Hebrew/Aramaic, John carefully worded his gospel with the ambiguous meanings being intentional. As important a statement as Jesus’ in John 8:38, it is inconceivable that John would not have carefully worded it. As you have noted ἐγὼ εἰμί does match the LXX in Exodus 3:14 as well as Isa. 43:10, and the New Testament writers often, but not always, quote the LXX, so that doesn’t seem an accident. In both cases ἐγώ εἰμι refers to God.

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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; and of course Jesus knew their ominous expectations and fears when He pronounced intentionally those absolutely provocative words. That is to say, it was an intentional "blasphemy" from His part, in order to reveal His divinity.

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 (and not eternal divine existence), 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, immediately after the words "ἐγὼ εἰμί" were uttered, 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 agitated and enraged Jews? Since the expectation was of this concrete theological blasphemy, then the "ἐγὼ εἰμί" would definitely bear for them this dangerous implication rather than a mitigated and lessened one of Jesus simply making himself a pre-existent but not eternally existent being. And clearly Jesus knew about their expectation before saying those words, thus, putting in them exactly the theological meaning.

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 exactly 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 His being identical with Jahve's (Jehovah) being, thus makes Him Jahve, for Jahve means "the one who is", and Jesus' "is" is the same "is" as Jahve's. (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 plainly 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 unequivocally related to Jesus making himself eternally existing, just as God. It cannot be more clear. And for sure Jews saw this quite intelligibly.

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).

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