This question is based on a comment on this post to this question. In the comment, it was denied that the verb ἦν in John 1:1a (viz., ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος) is functioning as a substantive verb. It was affirmed, rather, that it was functioning as a stative verb and that “Ειμι is always stative.”

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Now, if ἦν is always stative, then εἰμί is always stative, as ἦν is a conjugation of εἰμί. According to LSJ on εἰμί, the first entry (A.), it states that εἰμί can be used as a substantive verb with the meaning of “exist” and “be.”

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We should not confuse the terms “substantive verb” and “substantive.” Here are some brief definitions of the term “substantive verb”:

Coghlan, p. 33:

Substantive Verb: one which simply expresses being. Hence the verb ‘to be’ is the only substantive verb in the language. It is therefore called the substantive verb; its characteristic function being to express the existence of a substance without the notion of action.

Earle, p. 289:

...the substantive verb to be ... The ‘substantive verb’ is so called, not from any connection with the part of speech called a substantive; but for a distinct reason. It is the verb which expresses least of all verbs; for it expresses nothing but existence. ... The verb substantive, then, is the verb which, unlike all other verbs, confines itself to the assertion of existence, which in all other verbs is contained by implication.

Not only LSJ, but also Thayer recognizes that εἰμί can function as a substantive verb, citing John 1:1a (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος) as one of the instances.

Thayer, p. 175, εἰμί

A stative verb, on the other hand, which εἰμί can certainly function as, just like the English verb “to be,” describes a static condition or state of being. For example, “I am sick.” “I am tired.” “I am happy.” But, not “I am,” and not “The Word was.” In the aforementioned examples, the verb is followed by a predicate adjective (“sick,” “tired,” “happy”). This is not the case with ἦν in John 1:1a. There is simply the subject ὁ λόγος, the verb ἦν, and the prepositional phrase ἐν ἀρχῇ modifying the verb ἦν. There is no predicate adjective.


(1) Is εἰμί (and ἦν) always stative (contra LSJ, Thayer)?
(2) Is ἦν functioning as a substantive verb with the meaning of “exist” in John 1:1a (the first independent clause in John 1:1)? Hence, “In the beginning, the Word was existing.”1


        1 Blum, p. 393


Blum, Edwin A. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Gospels. Ed. Walvoord, John F.; Zuck, Roy B. Colorado Springs: Cook, 2018.

Coghlan, John. Reformed English Grammar: A Critique & Textual Outline of English Grammar. Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1868.

Earle, John. The Philology of the English Tongue. 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1887.

Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

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1 Answer 1


The verb "to be" εἰμί (eimi in Greek) in almost all languages is probably the most used because it is worked so hard. Its versatility is shown clearly in John 1:1 as follows:

In the beginning was the Word = [= existence]

. And the Word was with [the] God [= relationship]

. . And the Word was God [= predication, in this case, a qualitative category statement]

More generally, the use of εἰμί (eimi) can be classified into at least four uses:

  • Existence, “I am.”, ie, unpredicated (see below).
  • Identification, eg, Luke 1:19, “I am Gabriel”; John 9:9, “I am [that one]”; John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd”.
  • Relationship, eg, Acts 18:10, “I am with you”.
  • Predication, eg, Acts 22:3, “I am Jewish”. (this is what some call the stative use.)

Seven times in the Gospel of John alone Jesus uses this verb to declare His eternal existence and well as identifying with the OT "I AM".

  • John 4:26 – “Then Jesus said, ‘I am.’” [To the Samaritan woman at the well. There is a reasonable case for this being identification, but that is a matter of taste.]
  • John 6:20 – “But then [Jesus] said to them, ‘I am. Fear not.’” [To the frightened disciples in the boat.]
  • John 8:24 – “If you do not trust/believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”
  • John 8:28 – “When you will lift up the Son of Man, then you will trust/know that I am.”
  • John 8:58 – “Truly, truly, I say to you; before Abraham existed, I am.” [The Jews then tried to stone Him for blasphemy.] Note that this and the previous two mean that Jesus, in the space of this chapter of John 8 uses the unpredicated “I am” idea in the present (v24), future (v28) and past sense (v58). V24 & 28 appears to be tied to believers’ salvation as well.
  • John 13:19 – “From now [on] I tell you before the occurrence, that you may believe when it occurs that, I am.”
  • John 18: 5, 6, 8 – “He said to them, ‘I am.’ …Therefore, when He told them, ‘I am’, they fell backward to the ground.” [This occurred when the Jews tried to arrest Jesus in the garden. It could be reasonably argued that this is a case of identification. However, the fact that the arresting mob fell backward suggests that much more is intended here.]

[There are another seven such in the other Gospels but I do not wish to clutter this too much.]

However, εἰμί (eimi) is capable of much more. I note that both Thayer and BDAG list numerous uses for this versatile verb, the first of which is invariably meaning "to exist". More specifically, both list John 1:1a as a statement of existence.

The distinguishing characteristic of stative verbs is their use to show the status of something. "I am in love"; or, "The car is broken". In English, this usually amounts to a simple copula between the subject and predicate (the state). When alone, eg, "he is", amounts to a statement of existence.

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    Excellent - and powerfully persuasive. +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 9:56

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