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John 8:53-59 (NRSV):

53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ 55 though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

What is it about what Jesus said that the Jews wanted to throw stones at him?

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  • I have no objection to (in fact actually enjoy) your stream of questions about Christology and Pneumatology. Is there some battle you are having with others about these matters, or, are you just exploring? – Dottard Feb 19 at 10:35
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    @Dottard - I would say exploring. But the idea of the question came to me when I read someone on here claiming that Jesus never existed before his incarnation, which made noise to my ears given what John 8:58 says, and I found strange that nobody had asked the question before, so I went ahead with it. – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 19 at 12:44
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator: It occurs to me that you will benefit from exploring the historical origins of various theological beliefs and how they came to the current commonly encountered forms after being shaped by centuries, even millenia, of cultural influences, societal circumstances and political agendas. At one extreme you see people claiming that John 8:58 does not imply Jesus pre-existing before Abraham, contradicting John 17:5 as you noted. At the other end you see people claiming that John 8:58 implies Jesus is God. Well, take a careful look at all the verses I cited. =) – David Feb 19 at 15:01
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I've significantly reworked my answer to this question after significant changes in my views re Biblical Unitarianism over the past 2 months. – One God the Father Mar 31 at 16:52
  • LXX of Exodus 3:14 used ho ohn for the divine name, but Jesus said ego eimi to the Jews in John 8:58. The divine name is not ego eimi (ἐγώ εἰμι) which Jesus said. It is ho ohn (ὁ ὢν), which Jesus did not say. Exodus 3:14 LXX “And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING (ego eimi ho ohn – εγω ειμι ο ων); and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING (ho ohn – ο ων) has sent me to you.” if Jesus claimed that he is the ‘I am’ of Ex. 3:14 and John understood it to be so, why did John not write ego eimi ho ohn. Is John 8:58's "I am" mean I will be what I will be? – Alex Balilo May 10 at 6:07

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A Blasphemy Which Requires Stoning
There are three points in the Fourth Gospel at which the Jews respond to something Jesus said by wanting to kill Him. The first is in Chapter 5; the second in Chapter 8, and the third in Chapter 10. It is in the final event in which John includes the reason for stoning:

31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. 32 Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” 33 The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” (John 10) [ESV]

The Jews attempted to stone Him again. This is the second time they wanted to take this action. The first is found in 8:59. The Jews give a reason: blasphemy. They explicitly state Jesus made Himself God when He said I and the Father are one (10:30).

The Expositor's Greek Testament gives this comment on the charge of blasphemy:

On the question whether it was blasphemy to claim to be the Christ see Deuteronomy 18:20, Leviticus 24:10-17, and Treffry’s Eternal Sonship. It was blasphemy for a man to claim to be God. And it is noteworthy that Jesus never manifests indignation when charged with making Himself God; yet were He a mere man no one could view this sin with stronger abhorrence.1

I believe the point of how Jesus responds to the Jews is additional confirmation they correctly understood the significance of His claim.

The Earlier Claim of Divinity
The first time John records this as a reason the Jews wanted to kill Jesus is in Chapter 5:

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)

There is no mention of the type of death they planned, but the reason is given: Jesus made Himself equal to God. This initial statement serves as the point of reference to which both Jesus and others repeatedly look back to leading up to the first attempt to stone Him:

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. (7:1)
Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” (7:19)
Some of the people of Jerusalem therefore said, “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? (7:25)
I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (8:37)
but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. (8:40)

John is clear on the reason: the Jews wanted to kill Jesus for making Himself God. This animus was already present prior to saying, Before Abraham was, I am (cf. 7:1, 19, 25); references to the existing desire to kill Jesus such as "...you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you" (8:37) point back to the earlier statement. In other words, My claim to be equal to the Father finds no place in you and so you [continually] seek to kill Me.

As C.K. Barrett explains the "I am" in 8:24 is a claim to eternal existence, but that meaning was not one which the Jews immediately understood.

The absolute use of ἐγώ εἰμι at [6.20; 18.6][8]...can readily be understood from the context; here however it seems impossible to supply an appropriate complement from the context. Moreover the question that follows (σὺ τίς εἶ; v. 25) suggests that the words were not plain to the hearers. ἐγώ εἰμι without compliment (see also vv. 28, 58 and 13.19) is hardly a Greek expression. It occurs not infrequently in the LXX and on this basis (rather than on direct translation by John of a Semitic original) the words should be understood. In the LXX they render אני הוא ('ani hu', literally "I (am) he"), which occurs especially in the words of God himself, and there is a particularly close parallel to the present passage in Isaiah 43.10, ἵνα γνῶτε καὶ πιστεύσητε καὶ συνῆτε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι (אני הוא).

Similar passages occur at Deuteronomy 32.39; Isaiah 41:4; 43.13; 46.4; 48.12. In the Isaiah passages the meaning of the Hebrew is apparently "I am (forever) the same" with perhaps an allusion to the name יהוה (YHVH) given in Exodus 3:14-16;...The context demands a similar meaning for the Greek, though ἐγώ εἰμι is in itself (as Greek) a meaningless expression. The Lord, the first and with the last, is the eternal one. The εἰμι, that is to say, is a properly continuous tense, implying neither beginning nor end of existence...This meaning is particularly appropriate to v. 58 (where see the note), and appropriate also to the present verse, where it reinforces the assertion that Jesus belongs to the eternal heavenly world (ἐκ τῶν ἄνω). We may say then that ἐγώ εἰμι, thus understood, (i) indicates the eternal being of Jesus; (ii) thereby, and in itself, places Jesus on a level with God (ἐγώ εἰμι usually is found in the LXX on the lips of God himself; at Isaiah 47.8; Zephaniah 2.15 it is arrogantly used by men who put themselves in the place of God; and both אני and הוא were used as divine names.2

Before Abraham was, I am was another statement which the Jews understood to be a claim of divinity, either making Himself equal to God (5:18) to making Himself God (10:33) and so they picked up stones intending to carry out the sentence for blasphemy.

Trinitarian Postscript
The Trinity is often questioned by pointing out Jesus never claimed to be God. Literally speaking this is correct, but clearly the Jews did not see this technicality as a means to avoid the obvious: making oneself equal to the Father was a claim to be equal to God and so to be God.

If Jesus understood the Trinity as three divine persons who are equal, then claiming equality with the Father is not only a claim to be God (as the Jews recognized) it is the way in which a Trinitarian conveys their identity as God. No One of the Three may say "I am God" because no single person of the Godhead is "God." Rather one person of the Trinity may only proclaim equality with another. For the Son, that means equality with the Father (explicitly made at 5:17 and 10:30) or the Holy Spirit, explicitly made by John (cf. 1 John 2:1).

Therefore, the Son proclaiming equality with the Father is a claim to be God, as the Jews understood, and it is the proper manner in which to make that claim.


1. Expositor's Greek Testament
2. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, S.P.C.K, 1962, p. 282-283

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    After all, you did not provide evidence that Jesus is trinitarian, and in fact Jesus explicitly stated: "out of God I went forth and come, for not even from myself I have come, but that [one] sent me forth" (John 8:42), directly implying that he is not God (because he did not come from himself but he came from God). – David Feb 19 at 20:24
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    @David Right, or compare John 17:3 "Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent." These statements are stronger than implying, they are Jesus stating he is not God. The only way around it is to introduce an ad hoc trinitarian (or what have you) paraphrase of the term 'God'. – One God the Father Apr 30 at 17:26
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    @RevelationLad Matthew 9 regarding the same incident says "they were filled with awe and glorified God, who had given such authority to men." Or John 20:23 "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." Where in scripture does it say God cannot give such authority to men? – One God the Father Apr 30 at 18:58
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    @RevelationLad The ancient Jewish critics here didn't think Jesus was claiming to be God - that would be a category error. They thought he was improperly claiming attributes and abilities he shouldn't have been, because (so they thought - incorrectly!) those were reserved for God. Equal in some sense, not identical. – One God the Father Apr 30 at 19:06
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    @RevelationLad Then what do you think ancient Jews made of Psalm 2:7? "You are My Son; today I have become Your Father." – One God the Father Apr 30 at 22:18
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The claim of Divinity

The people sought to stone Jesus for blasphemy - the statement that put them over the edge, and would serve as their justification for trying to stone him again later (see John 10:31-33), wasn't simply that He insulted them or claimed to have existed since before the days of Abraham - He claimed something much more than that. Those well-versed in the Torah understood what He meant:

"Before Abraham was I am" (John 8:58)

As Talmage explains:

"This was an unequivocal and unambiguous declaration of our Lord's eternal Godship. By the awful title I AM He had made Himself known to Moses and thereafter was so known in Israel" (Jesus the Christ pp. 411-412)

The Hebrew words involved

"The Hebrew Ehyeh, signifying I Am, is related in meaning and through derivation with the term Yahveh or Jehovah...the Lord further revealed Himself, saying 'I am the LORD: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob...but by my name Jehovah was I not known unto them.' The central fact connoted by this name, I Am, or Jehovah, the two having essentially the same meaning, is that of existence or duration that shall have no end." (ibid pp. 36-37)

"The true significance of this saying would be more plainly expressed were the sentence punctuated and pointed as follows: 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am'; which means the same as had He said 'Before Abraham was I, Jehovah.'" (ibid p. 37)

Thus it appears that Jesus is applying Exodus 3:14 to Himself.

Conclusion

The Jews at the time believed Jehovah's name should not even be spoken. Jesus claimed to be Jehovah. To those who did not believe Him, He had just committed the most serious crime known to Judaism. This would ultimately be the grounds by which the Sanhedrin later found Him guilty prior to turning Him over to Pilate (see Luke 22:70-71).

The irony is that the one accused of blasphemy was the one person who lived on this earth who was incapable of blasphemy. He was charged with blasphemy against Himself.

(thoughts drawn from Jesus the Christ p. 629)


Addendum 1 – grammar of the predicate nominative

Some additional grammatical detail may help flesh out the points summarized above.

“What makes “I am” distinctive in God’s declaration to Moses (Exod 3:14) is that it doesn’t have a predicate nominative. (…the predicate nominative is the second half of the sentence; for example, “I am the good shepherd.”). “Say to the children of Israel: I AM has sent you.” There are three times in the Gospel of John when Jesus says “I am” without a predicate nominative. These passages seem to be more about Jesus’ deity than all the other “I am” sayings in John.” (see here)

John 8:58 is one of those examples—there is no predicate nominative, which makes the reference to Exodus 3:14 stand out.

Addendum 2 – trinitarian interpretations

I see that this thread has developed into a discussion of the nature of God. Ultimately, I believe this is a subject more fitting for SE-Christianity.

Am I trying to slip in a trinitarian argument? Nope. I am aware of non-trinitarians and trinitarians who hold to the argument I presented. I don’t see anything in Jesus’ discussion with the Jews in John 8 that makes a case for a trinitarian interpretation. Incidentally, the main source I quoted doesn’t either.

Nor does my explanation suggest Jesus claimed identity with His Father—as noted in other posts, such a claim is nowhere to be found in the New Testament.

If you want to talk theology I’m game—check out my YouTube channel and/or private message me.

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    "He had just committed the most serious crime known to Judaism." So is the beggar at John 9:8 also committing the most serious crime known to Judaism, uttering the exact same words ('ego eimi')? – One God the Father Feb 19 at 5:34
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    @AnthonyBurg (1 of 2) In John 9:9; the beggar was not identifying himself with Jehovah. The crime was not the words 'ego eimi'; the crime was claiming to be Jehovah. The most serious crime known to Judaism was blasphemy (note that the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of blasphemy but then in front of Pilate had to claim he'd committed a different crime. Pilate could care less if Jesus committed blasphemy) – Hold To The Rod Feb 19 at 5:56
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    @AnthonyBurg (2 of 2) Also, there isn't enough context to infer that the beggar spoke in Greek. Based on the context of the latter portion of John 8, I doubt Jesus was speaking Greek on that occasion either. My argument is based on the Hebrew of the Torah. – Hold To The Rod Feb 19 at 5:58
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    "the beggar was not identifying himself with Jehovah [...] the crime was claiming to be Jehovah" Where does Jesus claim to be Jehovah? What you have is an allusion, at best. What Jesus is claiming is that he existed before Abraham. – One God the Father Feb 19 at 6:02
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The statement "πριν αβρααμ γενεσθαι εγω ειμι" = "I am before Abraham came to be" here is a claim of pre-existence, not of identity with YHWH. According to John, Jesus consistently claimed to be sent from God (John 8:25-26), and claimed to be superior to Moses and Abraham. But not once did he claim identity with his father. In fact, Jesus made clear that the father was greater than him (John 14:28), but that he came in the name (authority) of the father, and he would send out his disciples in his name as well. Delegated authority is not the same as identity (see Gen 41:39-44 and 1 Cor 15:27).

In fact, the only instance of "I am that which I am" ("ειμι ο ειμι") in the entire NT is not attributed to God or Jesus but to the author of 1 Cor 15:10! Evidently, bare "εγω ειμι" is merely descriptive rather than one that is intended to reflect some identification with YHWH. (See also LXX 2 Sam 13:18, 15:26,28, 20:17, Jdg 6:18, Ruth 4:4, 2 Kg 10:9 where "εγω ειμι" has no predicate and is not identifying and yet means nothing more than "I am [here]".)

So why then did the Jews attempt to stone Jesus? The answer is obvious and was already implied in the text of John 8. The whole incident started with Jesus saying "I am the light of the world. The [one] who follows me shall never walk in the darkness but will have the light of the life." (8:12), and insisting that the father who sent him witnesses this (8:16). The Jews already wanted to catch him (8:20) but did not. After that, Jesus escalated by saying "You are from the below. I am from the above. You are from this world. I am not from this world." (8:23).

Not enough to incite them? Jesus goes on with "Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am [the one], you will die in your sins." (8:24). Of course the Jews ask, which one? (8:25) And Jesus replies, "What also I spoke to you [in] the beginning." (8:25), clearly referring to the light of the world whom the father sent from the above.

At that point already Jesus himself knows that they seek to kill him (8:37), NOT because he said he is before Abraham came to be (he has not said it yet!), but because (in his own words) "My word does not have place in you" (8:37). You can continue reading to see what else Jesus says that riled up the Jews, but it is clear that the Jews wanted to kill him from early on in the incident.

Furthermore, prior to 8:58, Jesus did not say anything that clearly requires him to pre-exist before his birth. He merely said "Abraham, your father, exulted that [he] might see my day, and [he] saw and rejoiced." (8:56). Notice that the Jews did not question the possibility that Abraham could have seen Jesus' day, but rather that Jesus had seen Abraham, otherwise how did he know whether Abraham rejoiced or not? That is why they asked him, "Fifty years you do not yet have, and you have seen Abraham?" (8:57) And finally Jesus said "I am before Abraham came to be" (8:58), clearly implying for the first time in that incident that he existed before Abraham. That was just the final straw.

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    Your answer has several problems: 1) The way to claim pre-existence is with γεννάω (which always has the sense of being born in the Fourth Gospel) not γίνομαι (which is never used with the sense of being born). 2) Twice Jesus made claims the Jews took as making Himself equal to the Father (5:17 and 10:30) 3) Making Himself equal to God (5:17) requires being in existence before Abraham (and Abram). 4) The correct Greek for "I am that which I am" (cf. Exodus 3:14) is ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν both of which are used throughout the Fourth Gospel. 5) Trying to kill Me refers to His earlier claim Chapter 5. – Revelation Lad Feb 19 at 17:09
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    @RevelationLad: No that is completely incorrect! You are another one who is not getting the grammatical structure of John 8:58 correct! Please read this comment that I wrote earlier. So your objection is invalid because I never claimed that Jesus came to be before Abraham. You not only read the Greek wrongly, you read my English translation wrongly... – David Feb 19 at 17:17
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – curiousdannii Feb 20 at 22:32
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In the Gospels we have a number of incidents where the local Jewish leadership accused Jesus of blaspheming because He claimed equality with God. While some modern theologians might argue about these and what Jesus intended, the people at the time had no doubt.

  • Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26 – Jesus is accused of blasphemy because He forgave a man’s sins, believing that only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7).
  • John 5:17, 18 – Jesus “blasphemed” because, “He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”
  • John 10:30-33 – “I and the Father are one.” At this, the Jews again picked up stones to stone Him. But Jesus responded, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone Me?” “We are not stoning You for any good work,” said the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because You, who are a man, declare Yourself to be God.”
  • Matt 26:63-66, Mark 14:61-64, Luke 22:67-71 – At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, He is accused of blasphemy for claiming to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
  • John 8:58 - “Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!” Thus, Jesus is accused of blasphemy for claiming a pre-existence before Abraham, and, claiming to be the “I AM” of the OT.

In each case, Jesus' claim to divinity is unmistakable. Let us examine the last instance in more detail. The references in the OT to unpredicated "I AM" always refers to YHWH, the LORD God almighty in the LXX.

  • Ex 3:14, 15 - God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.h This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” God also told Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.
  • Deut 32:39 - See now that I am; there is no God besides Me. I bring death and I give life; I wound and I heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand.
  • Isa 41:4 - Who has wrought and done these things? he has called it who called it from the generations of old; I God, the first and to [all] futurity, I AM
  • Isa 43:10 - Be ye my witnesses, and I [too am] a witness, saith the Lord God, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know, and believe, and understand that I am: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none.
  • Isa 43:25 - I am, "I am", that blots out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and thy sins; and I will not remember [them]
  • Isa 45:19 - I have not spoken in secret, nor in a dark place of the earth: I said not to the seed of Jacob, Seek vanity: I am "I am", the Lord, speaking righteousness, and proclaiming truth.
  • Isa 46:4 - I am; and until ye shall have grown old, I am: I bear you, I have made, and I will relieve, I will take up and save you.
  • Isa 51:12 - I am "I am", he that comforts thee: consider who thou art, that thou wast afraid of mortal man, and of the son of man, who are withered as grass.
  • Isa 52:6 - Therefore shall my people know my name in that day, for I am, he that speaks: I am present.

Thus, Jesus' usage of the term "I AM" in John 8:58 was consistent with:

(a) The usage of the term in the OT as shown above

(b) Jesus' pre-exitence

(c) "I AM" is a designation of YHWH, the LORD.

The Jewish leadership recognized this immediately and wanted to stone Jesus for blasphemy (V59).

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This claim of Jesus confirmed the conviction of the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus was a blasphemer as claiming His divinity, for they plainly say "we do not want to kill you for good deeds, but because being a man you make yourself God" (John 10:33), and "God" here does not mean a) any created being, even as elevated as angel or archangel (otherwise, they would say, "being a man you make yourself an angel", or b) any relative sense, as in Psalm 82:6, which would not be a blasphemy in their eyes, but God in full sense of this term.

Now, the full sense of God means necessarily that He exists always and always, infinitely, perfectly and, therefore, changelessly. If so, then also beyond time, for time is nothing else than that which measures change, whereas changeless infinite perfection cannot be measured by any time, Newtonian absolute time is a stupid idol if one thinks that God's way of existence can be measured by Newtonian absolute time, for infinite perfection cannot be measured by Newtonian absolute time, for any time is abolished in That Realm.

Thus, the wording of Jesus: "Before Abraham was (i.e. before a creature Abraham whose life is measured by time and whose life is posited in a certain duration within the linear history of mankind was introduced to existence from non-existence through birth in history), I, Jesus, am" (not "was", which would be grammatically correct), clearly stating by this that His being is not measured by time but is always, in the eternal sameness of infinite perfection together with the Father; thus, just saying the same as what God said to Moses, that His name is "I AM" (Exodus 3:14), that is to say, eternal, necessary, infinitely perfect Being.

As they clearly saw that Jesus claimed just the same by His grammatically weird "I am", they took the murderous stones in their hearts to punish who was a blasphemer in their eyes.

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    "confirmed the conviction of the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus was a blasphemer as claiming His divinity, for they plainly say "we do not want to kill you for good deeds, but because being a man you make yourself God" (John 10:33)" The 'Before Abraham was, I am (he)' statement of Jesus is happening in John 8, though. If they took him to be claiming to be God at John 8, why is it at John 10:24 they ask him whether he's the Christ? Did they just forget all about him claiming to be God at John 8? Or is it his claim at John 10:30, immediately prior to 10:33, that 'I and the Father are one'? – One God the Father May 1 at 19:16
  • @OneGodtheFather Jesus addresses not the same Jewish leaders in different episodes. He in many instances shows His divine authority (by forgiving sins; by allowing worship to Him; by acting miracles without prayer to Father, but with sovereign authority, which no angel or prophet is permitted; by making Himself the "Lord of Sabah", etc.), thus Jewish authorities are alert and scandalized at His words and actions, want frequently to trap Him at pronouncing what they think a blasphemy and often the reason for not stoning Him is their fear of wrath of people who consider Him the Pleaser of God. – Levan Gigineishvili May 2 at 17:04
  • "confirmed the conviction of the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus was a blasphemer as claiming His divinity, for they plainly say" So on the one hand, you are treating them as monolithic, but then turning around and saying he's addressing different groups and so what he says in one episode doesn't apply to another. This seems problematic to me. – One God the Father May 2 at 20:56
  • @OneGodtheFather The Lord travelled all the time and accordingly His audience, both well-disposed and ill-disposed, changed. Problematic would be and even incredible to assume that one and the same group of ill-disposed Jewish religious experts followed Him everywhere and attended all of His speeches. That He blasphemed about His divinity could be rumored around and this could foment interest of all, both well- and ill- disposed Jews, so they would be doubly attentive at His words and actions: the first - to praise Him, the second - to catch Him at blasphemy and accuse Him. – Levan Gigineishvili May 3 at 6:38
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When echoing John's phrase "the Jews," please keep in mind its ahistorical nature, John's anti-Judaism, and the antisemitic uses that it was later put to. "The Jews" includes Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and all or virtually all of Jesus's followers. Note that Luke 4 gives a nearly identical incident, ending in the same way, but without blaming "the Jews." This is the sort of thing that the Catholic church, for example, made an attempt to address in Vatican II.

John is here conflating incidents that are separate in the synoptics. In Mark 6, Jesus fails to perform "mighty work" in Nazareth, and in a scene at the synagogue there, the people are offended that he tries to stand up and teach. They insult his parentage by referring to him as the son of Mary, whereas in their culture, he should have been referred to as the son of Joseph. What they mean by this is that they consider Jesus to be a person born from forbidden sex, who is therefore marginalized and is not supposed to be taking this role. This slur is made more explicit in John 8:41, presumably because John's gentile audience would not have understood the implicit slur about paternity. In Mark, the incident continues uneventfully and Jesus just goes away.

Luke adds drama to the scene at Nazareth by making it into an escalating verbal confrontation, in which Jesus declares himself to be a prophet and implies that he's the messiah. They then attempt to execute him (WEB): "They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff." There is actually no hill in Nazareth that could have served this purpose. Luke describes what he thinks is prescribed by tradition, and later the talmud, as a ritualized form of capital punishment (Sanhedrin 6-IV) for specific crimes. If the criminal wasn't killed by the fall, he would be stoned to death. This was the method of execution that actually was used against Jesus's brother James.

Luke likes to supply legalistic details that he has no way of knowing about. The actual incident would have been more like backwoods vigilante justice, but since Jesus has just pronounced himself as a prophet, it seems clear to me that he is to be executed for being a false prophet. (But various interpretations have been proposed, Hill 1971.) The torah defines the crime, the punishment, and the criteria for deciding, sensibly enough, whether the prophet is false:

Deuteronomy 18:20 -- But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. You may say in your heart, ``How shall we know the word which Yahweh has not spoken?'' When a prophet speaks in Yahweh's name, if the thing doesn't follow, nor happen, that is the thing which Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.

Jesus is guilty under this legal test, because (in Luke, by implication) he failed to heal.

John describes the attempted lynching in almost identical terms to the ones used by Luke, but he moves the scene to the treasury in the temple and makes Jesus's messianic claim more explicit, rather than depending on implications based on the manipulation of scriptural quotes.

Compared to the synoptics, John in general has a pattern of manipulating descriptions of violence to attribute greater violence to the leaders of Jesus's movement (the whip in 2:15, identifying Peter as the swordsman in John 18:10) and also to impute great, violent, and unreasonable hostility to "the Jews," as in this example. On the hypothesis of Marcan priority, it's most reasonable to take these attempted lynchings of Jesus as things that simply didn't happen historically. The nonexistence of an appropriate hill for Luke's story supports this interpretation. The attempted lynchings serve the early church's purposes of deflecting blame for violence against Jesus from the Romans to "the Jews," thereby making the new religion more acceptable to gentiles and the Roman empire.

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    ""The Jews" includes Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and all or virtually all of Jesus's followers." I understand the Jews here to refer to Judeans. Jesus, Mary, and the disciples were Galileans. Jews in the modern, conventional sense - yes. More carefully in this context, they were all Israelites. Galileans were country hicks vis a vis Judeans. – One God the Father Feb 19 at 18:23
  • Why do you insist there are no suitable hills in Nazareth? The Nazareth Range, in which the town lies, is the southernmost of several parallel east–west hill ranges that characterize the elevated tableau of Lower Galilee. Lowest elevation 320 meters above sea level, Highest elevation 488 meters above sea level. A 168 meter drop would do the trick. – Mike Borden Feb 19 at 20:16
  • There is a long line of fairly steep drops just south of the current location of Nazareth. Take a look. elevation.maplogs.com/poi/nazareth_israel.116402.html – Mike Borden Feb 19 at 20:23
  • @MikeBorden: There is a hill in the area that is a tourist attraction and is presumably the best candidate for being the cliff described in Luke, but it's quite some distance out of town: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Precipice – Ben Crowell Feb 19 at 20:24
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    @BenCrowell I'm saying that in this particular part of John, 'the Jews' is a reference to Judeans (and in particular, the specific Judeans Jesus was talking with). Obviously Jesus and John himself were Jews in the typical sense of that word nowadays. Yes, I know there is a history of anti-Jewish sentiments justified by this passage among others - I'm simply explicating the passage. – One God the Father Feb 19 at 20:41
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Just remember that Jesus didn't address the Jewish religious leaders in Greek. Nor did he speak to them in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic, the language enforced on the Jews during the Babylonian captivity. In fact the written characters we refer to today as Hebrew are actually Royal Aramaic, the alphabet of Babylon. Hebrew was gone from conversational use by the time of Jesus, and it remained that way until the 1947 revival of the language. This was the reason the Septuagint was produced in Greek. When the 70 scholars who worked on the project translated the Tetragrammaton (name of God), they chose the Greek word for Lord (Adonai) as a substitute EXCEPT in Exodus 3 (the burning bush narrative) where they used ego eimi (I am). There was no way of saying "I am" in ancient Aramaic, but John chose ego eimi as an equivalent for whatever it was that Jesus said in Aramaic to the Jewish leaders. John was clearly trying to tell his readers that Jesus made a claim of divinity and the Jewish leaders were outraged.

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    How do you know that Jesus didn't speak to the Jews in Greek? Greek was commonly spoken in the Roman occupied province of Galilee. – john Feb 20 at 9:32
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“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” - why did the Jews want to throw stones at Jesus for saying this? John 8:53-59

57 Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Enraged by Jesus’ claim to have existed before Abraham, the Jews pick up stones to hurl at him. But he hides and goes out of the temple unharmed. John 8:37-59; Revelation 3:14;

Revelation 3:14 KJV

14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

Colossians 1:15 (NASB)

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation:

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This and surrounding passages were puzzling to me, but now they make sense. There are a few keys to make the pieces fall into place.

  1. The purpose of John's Gospel is not to show that Jesus is God. This is very clear at John 20:31 (the last sentence of the Gospel), which states "these [events recorded in this Gospel] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name." Not God the Son.

  2. Ancient Jewish culture held to the concept of notional pre-existence, i.e., things were said to exist in the plan of God. See Jesus' Pre-Existence - Literal or Ideal?, which discusses the ancient Jewish idea of notional pre-existence. Compare Ephesians 1:4 ("For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence.").

  3. Abraham was told about God's plan to bring about a Messiah, and this is referenced immediately before Jesus says "Before Abraham was, I am."

  4. Stoning for blasphemy did not require a claim to be God. For example, St. Stephen was stoned for saying he saw Jesus 'at the right hand' of God (not that Jesus was God). Blasphemy was a broader concept, including lack of reverence for God or claiming attributes of God (which in the extreme would include claiming to be God Himself, but this would also be seen by ancient Jews as a category error, as "God is Spirit"). See https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-blasphemy-700714 .

  5. Some people claim the 'ego eimi' statement here ('I am') is Jesus claiming to be God, but 'ego eimi' is used in John 9:9 by a beggar. There is no indication in the text anyone thinks the beggar is claiming to be God. Rather, the beggar is indicating 'it is me'. Similarly, at John 4:26 when the woman at the well begins talking about the Messiah, Jesus responds by saying 'ego eimi' - usually properly translated as 'I am he' because that is the purpose of the statement in that context.

With these pieces in place, the passage and exchange has a straightforward meaning. There is a general reason the Jews wanted to throw stones at Jesus for saying this and an immediate reason.

Jesus with the 'before Abraham was, I am (he)' was clearly making some sort of claim that was interpreted as blasphemous, and hence they picked up stones.

Yet it would be incorrect to think they wanted to stone him just because of that comment. Consider the passage in John 8 leading up to this point, and you will see that Jesus gives the general answer straightforwardly.

Jesus says

"you are trying to kill Me because My word has no place within you. I speak of what I have seen in the presence of the Father, and you do what you have heard from your father." (John 8:37).

Then he says

"You are doing the works of your father." (John 8:41)

Then he says

"Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you are unable to accept My message. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me!" (John 8:43)

Who wouldn't want to stone someone who just said their father is the devil?

Their attempt to stone him is a culmination of this whole exchange. So the general answer to the question is they wanted to stone Jesus because his word had no place in them. It is incorrect to think they wanted to stone him just because of the final comment in the exchange.

But what of the statement "Before Abraham was, I am (he)" - why did the Jews decide only after this to pick up stones? Jesus here is claiming notional pre-existence as the Messiah, hence why he refers to God's plan just prior at John 8:56:

"Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day. He saw it and was glad."

Abraham rejoiced when he was told God's plan.

Given all this, the sense of Jesus' claim is clear.

"Before Abraham was, I am he who was part of God's plan as the Messiah."

It is a claim to Messiahship, just as in the 'ego eimi' at John 4:26.

It is for this - claiming to be God's representative and chosen one - after he had just told them they were liars and sons of the devil - that they picked up stones. They did this because his message, i.e., that he was the Messiah, had no place in them, as Jesus says just before.

Note: The standard trinitarian interpretation of this verse is that Jesus is claiming to be God. When you have a potentially unclear statement, but lots of clear statements elsewhere, you should let the clear statements inform the unclear one. Jesus repeatedly distinguishes between himself and God in numerous clear statements, perhaps most obviously John 17:3's "Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent." where the context makes clear the 'You' is the Father.

Q: Doesn't the statement in 8:37 refer to 5:18, which states explicitly the Jews understood Jesus made Himself to be God?

A: It is only at John 10, after Jesus claims "I and the Father are one," that the Jews take him to be claiming to be God. John 5:18 clearly states the Jews took issue with Jesus claiming to be the Son of God, not God the Son. "but He was even calling God His own Father [i.e., someone else], making Himself equal with God." They took him to be claiming equality in some sense, not identity. For example, if someone said I was making myself equal with the Mayor, they aren't saying I am claiming to be the Mayor, but rather inappropriately taking on powers that belong to the Mayor.

(It is also worth noting that at John 5:19 Jesus denies the charge that he is making himself equal with the Father. "Truly, truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself, unless He sees the Father doing it.")

Q: Isn't this a Christian nuance completely foreign to Judaism, both now and then? The Second Temple understanding of monotheism could be called radical monotheism in that the Jews denied there is any God other than Yahweh. So a claim to be the Son of God was a claim to be God. How could God have a singular Son (contradicting the Scripture relative to Israel as God's son) much less one that was not God in every sense as His Father?

A: The ancient Jews here would have been quite familiar with the Messianic Psalm 2:7, which states "You are My Son; today I have become Your Father." This is presumably what Nathanael was referring to at John 1:49, "“Rabbi,” Nathanael answered, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”" (and what John the Baptist is referring to at John 1:33-34, "'The man on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God."). Nathanael is not suddenly up and claiming Jesus is God at this point in John - it would make no sense. He is rather claiming Jesus is the Messiah. Similarly, the point with John the Baptist isn't that he's claiming Jesus is God (he has just quoted God as saying Jesus is a man), but that Jesus is the Messiah.

For a reference re the import of Nathanael's declaration, see the NET Bible's commentary on John 1:34, which says "Nathanael’s confession—You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel—is best understood as a confession of Jesus’ messiahship. It has strong allusions to Ps 2:6-7, a well-known messianic psalm. What Nathanael’s exact understanding was at this point is hard to determine, but “son of God” was a designation for the Davidic king in the OT, and Nathanael parallels it with King of Israel here."

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – curiousdannii Feb 20 at 22:35
  • For some critiques on the notional pre-existence view, please see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/58403/… – Spirit Realm Investigator Mar 31 at 17:32
  • @AnthonyBurg - maybe you should post your own answer then :) – Spirit Realm Investigator Mar 31 at 17:35
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Added a 5th point and a few other references (John 4:26, Ephesians 1:4, John 17:3). – One God the Father Apr 30 at 16:25
  • The statement in 8:37 refers to 5:18, which states explicitly the Jews understood Jesus made Himself to be God. This animus is repeatedly referenced before 8:37 (cf. 7:1, 19, 25). The Gospel writer repeatedly indicates the things Jesus said were understood by the Jewish people as claims to be God; a sentiment he agrees with and sets forth in the first verse: ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος – Revelation Lad Apr 30 at 19:00
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They wanted to stone him for blaspheming the name of God because Leviticus 24:13-16 says:

13 Then the Lord said to Moses: 14 “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. 15 Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible; 16 anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.

the answer above by @Revelation Lad points out the reference to John 10.

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What a wonderful reminder of the thoroughness of God's design - all along He had this son Jesus in mind through whom He would redeem the creation.

There could be no redemption under the Old Cov. yet the big figures like David and Abraham and several others had a glimpse of what, and possibly who was coming. They understood that they too were a part of the age of Jesus.

‘Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day, and he saw it and rejoiced.’ John 8:56

Before continuing with the answer, a quick reminder about understanding the bible. As noted below in Link 1, we must not know anything unless there is support from other biblical texts for an idea or belief. If there are texts that oppose our understanding, we have got something wrong and need to realign our position to be sure every text agrees with the passage in mind.

There no mention of Jesus before his conception and subsequent birth (~4BC) except in prophecy. Jesus is not mentioned in John 1:1-3 because John is not talking about Jesus. (does it say ‘Jesus’? No, it does not. Does it mean Jesus? No, it does not. Do we read Jesus? Yes, some do – why? Go figure!

John is taking about logos in that passage and later on he puts the focus on Christ. If we choose to read in whatever we like we are just adding confusion.

Anyway, what does before Abraham mean?

Paul gives a clue in Gal 3:16

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ.

So, quite unequivocally, Paul tells us what the ‘before’ means. Jesus was the one to come, yet he was planned well before Abraham existed. He would be the descendant of Abraham!

Our texts do not say, ‘before Abraham, I existed’.

The phrase egō eimi or ‘I am’ is used a bit in the NT by other people who certainly are not God or claiming to be God. To hang desperately to this one “I am” is to ignore other texts that are exactly the same and simply refer to the person in context. Jesus is saying nothing more than “I am the one”, “It is I”. Before Abraham, ‘I am the one’ that he looked forward to. ‘My day’, had just begun!

The man born blind John 9:9, ‘I am (he)’ egō eimi Matt 14:27 Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid. Mk 6:50 John 6:20 egō eimi The disciples said, ‘Surely you don't mean me, Lord?" egō eimi John 8:28 ‘you will know that I am he…’ egō eimi

While it’s tempting to cling to this ‘I am’ construct, it must align with the rest of the NT. Which is silent on Jesus being God from Matt to Rev.

To think that Jesus is claiming to be God is absurd – considering that he does so nowhere else, no apostle affirms this idea, but we have a consistent record of him claiming to be God’s human son, the Messiah, the one God sent, the one the Jews/Israelites were waiting for. Unfortunately, when he finally arrived, he was bringing in a new way of doing things – the law of sin and death was being superseded and they – the masters of the law, were out in the cold!

It’s also absurd as Jesus consistently has a God – the same God as everyone else. Does God have a God? Not unless one wants to twist the scriptures and play games with fanciful concepts not of the inspired text. Of course, God doesn’t have a God. We also know God cannot be tempted or sin or die – Jesus was tempted, he did die and when raised and exalted to God’s right hand and made heir to all God’s stuff God called His angels to worship him. This is all plainly revealed, yet stubborn ideas introduced 100’s of years after the cannon still sadly guide men’s faith and beliefs.

Let’s walk through the passage that ends with, ‘they picked up stones to throw at Him’.

The Jews were bewildered by the events regarding Jesus - they saw their eyes and heard with their ears but their minds could not grasp what was going on.

v48 They say Jesus has a demon… wrong!

v51 Jesus informs that he has the power of life – if people keep his word. They say he is over-rating himself.

V53 they say Abraham ‘is the greatest!’ The prophets are all dead – who are you?

V54 Jesus says he doesn’t need to glorify himself – the Father will do that. He doesn’t big-note himself, just tells it like it is. He says if he doesn’t tell the truth about knowing the Father – he would be a liar.

V55, he says they don’t know who the Father is. They still call Abraham their father!

V56 Jesus puts it all in context by reminding them of the promises to Abraham God made long ago – he was the one that was promised! I am the one that was always coming. This is my day now and there will be no going back!

V58 confused and threatened by Jesus answers to their silly questions and accusations, they respond with, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’

V59 Still confused and having no idea what Jesus is talking about, (just as Nicodemus thought, being born again was to re-enter the mother’s womb!) Jesus reminds them that God’s plan of which he was to be the centre was in place well before Abraham.

Their whole outlook had been challenged – perhaps, just quietly, they could feel the ‘spirit of truth’ in Jesus’ words - even though they refused to believe, they stooped to throwing stones like angry children.

Link 1 How to understand Titus 3:9?

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