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After Jesus took action which resulted in a man blind from birth seeing, a controversy over the man's identity ensues. Near the end of the dispute the man responds to those who are interrogating him by asking a question:

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (John 9:27) [ESV]
ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς Εἶπον ὑμῖν ἤδη καὶ οὐκ ἠκούσατε· τί πάλιν θέλετε ἀκούειν μὴ καὶ ὑμεῖς θέλετε αὐτοῦ μαθηταὶ γενέσθαι

Undoubtedly, "to become his disciples" is sarcasm; everyone reacts by claiming to be a disciple of Moses (9:28). The question describes a situation in which a change, if made would paint this picture of the action, γενέσθαι:

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This "now" and "later" condition describes the man himself. When Jesus encountered the man He acted without asking if he wanted "to become" a man with sight. Even though Jesus did not ask, receiving sight divides the man's life into two periods of time:

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Ironically, the man's question retrospectively describes his own transformation. The difference is his life looks from the past to the present while his question looks from the present to the future. The meaning of γενέσθαι as depicted in the events is a difference in condition, either past and present or present and future.

Before the event with the blind man, Jesus used γενέσθαι to describe His relationship to Abraham: "...Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι..." There is an event in Abraham's life after which he became "Abraham:"

No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:5)

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Historically, before Abraham γενέσθαι he was Abram. If one places an event in the life of Abraham using the element of time the event may have occurred when Abraham was called Abram.

The use of γενέσθαι in the events of the man blind from birth demonstrate how prefacing γενέσθαι with πρὶν when speaking of an historical situation in which a change occurred, creates a single statement with two identical meanings:

  • "before [the change]..."
  • "when [as yet unchanged]..."

In the case of Abraham, if one speaks to an existence "before Abraham γενέσθαι" it would seem to be equivalent as saying "when Abram was." So when Jesus states, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί is He placing Himself in the period of time when Abraham was called Abram?

If so, is Genesis 17:1 a better understanding of how "I am" was received by the crowd?

Now Abram came to be ninety-nine years of age, and the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am your God; be well pleasing before me, and become blameless
(Genesis 17:1 LXX-Genesis)
ἐγένετο δὲ Αβραμ ἐτῶν ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα καὶ ὤφθη κύριος τῷ Αβραμ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεός σου εὐαρέστει ἐναντίον ἐμοῦ καὶ γίνου ἄμεμπτος

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    To whoever voted to close, the question is quite clear: So when Jesus states, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί is He placing Himself in the period of time when Abraham was called Abram? – Der Übermensch Jan 9 at 3:14
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The time-period Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with whatever point in time God changed the name of Abram to Abraham. This was the one, same man, whatever name he should rightly be called by. The time-period Jesus draws attention to was a time before that man existed.

The man born blind whom Jesus gave sight to was still the same man. The time-period (before being gifted sight, or after it) had nothing to do with the point of the miracle or the debate that ensued. To dwell on that time-period is to miss the point of the account - namely, proof of Jesus being who he claimed to be, the Son of God.

Likewise with dwelling on whether Jesus referred to Abram or Abraham. That is not simply irrelevant to the point of the account, it actually detracts from it. Jesus said he existed from prior to 2166 B.C.E. (if that is taken to be the year of Abram's birth). None of his audience picked a quarrel with Jesus about a specific time either before or after the name-change! They quarreled at the claim of Jesus to have been existing for more than 2200 years! Why? Because they knew that Jesus was using "I Am" as an ascription of deity. That's why they picked up stones to try to stone him to death. This was no mere argument about whether Jesus claimed to be existing after, or before the name-change of this man (who they claimed was their father).

Nobody back then thought Jesus was claiming to be born as Abram. He was claiming to be the great "I Am" who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush - an event that happened in 1446 B.C.E., some 720 years after Abram's birth. So, this isn't about dates or name-changes. It's about the Name of God being taken upon Jesus' lips and ascribed to himself. Blasphemy, had it not been true.

As a title, the "I Am" statement is specific to the one God, the Creator - not to Abram/Abraham! Thus, it is equally specific to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, and why he rightly used it as a title, as an ascription of his deity.

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  • Thank you. The expression "I am" is used three times in the discussion 8:24, 28, 58. To throw them all into the same bucket as an expression of pre-existence ignores the fact that 8:58 includes a specific reference to a specific person and so a specific period of time. Many who deny the deity of Christ agree with your position because pre-existence to Abraham says nothing about if or when Jesus came into existence. OTOH if 8:24 means pre-existence in general and 8:58 is specific to Abram/Abraham, then the the final claim to be "I am" means "I am YHVH" who named Abraham and called Abram. – Revelation Lad Jan 28 at 16:47
  • Also, the blind man used the same expression to describe himself (9:9). So it is the context, not the words by themselves which impart the meaning of a claim to be God. That is, "I am" is not a stand alone title for God, but may convey that meaning in some contexts. – Revelation Lad Jan 28 at 16:52
  • @Revelation Lad It's true that to “throw all [the ‘I am’] phrases into the same bucket as an expression of pre-existence” is wrong. There is something profoundly unique about Jesus’ use of it in Jn 8:58. But when you say “Many who deny the deity of Christ agree with your position” I have to disagree because I am profoundly at odds with anti-Trinitarians on this verse and they with me. Bringing in any or all of the other “I am” phrases into the debate detracts from the significance of Jesus’ use of it in 8:58 and that's why anti-Trinitarians keep trying to do that. Are you an anti-Trinitarian? – Anne Jan 28 at 18:34
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    @Anne Indeed, in this phrase ("I am") the "am" is not a copula as in a formula "x is y", but bears a Parmenidian notion of existence in absolute sense "I exist", just like in σὺ εἶ ("You are" i.e "You exist") in Psalm 89:2. Anti-Trinitarians are biased and do all sorts of nasty acrobatics to torture the clarity of text, but what can we do? – Levan Gigineishvili Jan 28 at 20:50
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The answer to this question hinges on the meaning of γίνομαι, of which γενέσθαι is the aorist, infinitive middle voice.

before answering this question, let us observe that many version choose to rending this verb as "born" -

  • NIV: before Abraham was born, I am!
  • NLT: before Abraham was even born, I Am !
  • BSB: before Abraham was born, I am!
  • NASB: before Abraham was born, I am.
  • Amplified: before Abraham was born, I Am
  • ASV: Before Abraham was born, I am
  • GNT: Before Abraham was born, 'I Am'.

A few other choose a different twist such as:

  • NET: before Abraham came into existence, I am!
  • New Heart: before Abraham came into existence, I AM.
  • Weymouth: before Abraham came into existence, I am.
  • WEB: before Abraham came into existence, I AM.

A few other treat the verb as part of the verb "to be" (eimi)

  • BLB: before Abraham was, I am.
  • ESV: before Abraham was, I am.
  • KJV: Before Abraham was, I am.
  • CSB: before Abraham was, I am.

The odd one out (but most literal) is:

  • YLT: Before Abraham's coming -- I am;
  • LSV: before Abraham’s coming—I AM

So what are we to make of this excellent question?

Both BDB and Thayer say that the primary meaning in John 8:58 is, "come into being"; specifically:

BDB: (1) to come into being through process of natural birth or natural production, be born, be produced, eg, John 8:58, Rom 1:3, Gal 4:4, 1 cor 15:37, Matt 21:19.

Thayer: 1. to become, i. e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being: absolutely, John 1:15, 30 (ἔμπροσθεν μου γέγονεν); John 8:58 (πρίν Ἀβραάμ γενέσθαι); 1 Corinthians 15:37 (τό σῶμα τό γενησόμενον); ἐκ τίνος, to be born, Romans 1:3 (ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυίδ); Galatians 4:4 (ἐκ γυναικός); Matthew 21:19 (μηκέτι ἐκ σου καρπός γένηται, come from); of the origin of all things, Hebrews 11:3; διά τίνος, John 1:3, 10.

It appears these standard lexicons are followed by the NIV, NLT, BSB, NASB, Amplified, ASV, GNT, etc.

γίνομαι as a process

The "becoming" as described in the OP (Abram becoming Abraham) is more akin to the BDAG meaning #5 for γίνομαι. I observe two things about this in Gen 17:1

  • γενέσθαι (verb Aorist infinitive middle) is not mentioned in Gen 17:1 in the LXX. The closest we get is another form, Ἐγένετο which is (Verb Aorist Indicative middle) saying that God came to Abram. The important point is that this verse is not discussing the change from Abram to Abraham.
  • The verb phrase "I am" does not occur in the Hebrew - all we have is אֲנִי which is the first person pronoun, "I". Thus, Gen 17:1 literally reads, " ... I God Almighty: walk before me and be blameless". [Most versions supply a verb, "am".] However, in the LXX we have Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεός σου = "I am the God of you".

CONCLUSION

I believe the evidence is in favour of the standard lexicons that suggest that γενέσθαι means (here) "was born", or (?) "came to exist" which is almost the same thing.

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  • I did additional checking. γενέσθαι is used 7 times in John: 1:12, 3:9, 5:6, 8:58, 9:27, 13:19, and 14:29. It does not appear the meaning applied at 8:58 is appropriate in any other use. If "came to exist" means Abram came to exist as Abraham, maybe...It is how the word is used elsewhere specifically 9:27 that I think the writer is pointing to; the meaning in 8:58 should apply to 9:27. But it looks like translators & lexicons treat 8:58 uniquely. Also I now see 13:19 uses both γενέσθαι and ἐγὼ εἰμί and that reinforces a meaning of "come into existence" (or born as Abram) isn't right (IMO). – Revelation Lad Jan 9 at 6:18
  • @RevelationLad - the meaning in John 8:58 is far from unique - look at eh many other examples quoted above with the same meaning by BDAG and Thayer. – Dottard Jan 9 at 6:33
  • According to the scholars, it is unique in John. When someone writes and repeatedly uses a word within their work, they expect a reader to apply the meaning consistently throughout. I do not think a writer expects the meaning they demonstrate by the repeated use of a word to be overridden by a different writer's use. I believe Thayers use of John 1:15 and 30, which are not even the same, while ignoring 6 other uses of the identical word is misleading if not completely off the mark. – Revelation Lad Jan 9 at 7:53
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    By your logic, "scholars" does not include BDAG and Thayer and all the contributors to those works. – Dottard Jan 9 at 7:57
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    @RevelationLad - your conclusion does not take account of other evidence such as John 1:15, 30, and others listed above. – Dottard Jan 9 at 10:10
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Anne has finely replied above, as well as Dottard: surely this has nothing to do with the time that lapsed between Abram's birth and his becoming Abraham, but here one and the same person of Abraham is referred to, and this person, as person, remains the same eternally (if you take a Biblical and a commonsensical perspective and not a Buddhist one, which denies existence of a changeless personal identity).

Take an analogy: if Bjorn's philologist parents called him diminutively "Bjorni" until he becomes 14-years old when the parents decide to call him already "Bjorn", and then the same parents would say to their scholarly rival, who slanders them to be newcomers in the world of philology, and then the parents - Olaf and Ingrid - say indignantly: "Before Bjorn was, we were philologists!" meaning, of course, not that they were philologists before Bjorni was called Bjorn, but before Bjorn was born.

But here even more is at stake: Jesus says that before Abraham was, He "is", just quoting the Psalm 90 (89):2, which states: "πρὸ τοῦ ὄρη γενηθῆναι καὶ πλασθῆναι τὴν γῆν καὶ τὴν οἰκουμένην, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος σὺ εἶ". - "Before the mountains existed, and [before] the earth and the world were formed, even from age to age, Thou art". And in this "art" ("are") there is not a copulative function, as in "x is y" formula, but an existential meaning: "You exist", and since this "exist" in God's case is eternal and changeless, then to it applies present tense. Exactly the same is in Jesus' paradoxical utterance "before Abraham was, I am". Note that the same verb in slightly alternative forms (γενηθῆναι vs γενέσθαι) is used both in Psalm 89:2 and in John 5:58.

The Jews, unlike Arians and their modern-day less sophisticated great grand-sons Jehovah-Witnessists, well understood the claim of divinity in Jesus' words, immediately being roused to stone Him for what they thought was a blasphemy. As they clearly say: "We do not want to kill you for good deeds, but because your blasphemy, for being a man you make yourself God" (John 10:33).

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