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What is the oldest record of the interpretation that the "I am" ego eimi in John 8:58 claim is Yahweh claim of Exodus 3:14?

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם

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    If you're a Trinitarian I imagine you'd argue that the Jews that wanted to stone him would be the first to interpret it in such a way -though I think there are alternate explanations for why the Jews may have wanted to stone Jesus. Either way super interested in the Christian history of this interpretation.
    – Austin
    Aug 5 at 5:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Steve Taylor
    Aug 6 at 5:33
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So there are perhaps two angles to this question:

  1. What's the first literal claim of 'I Am' = 'Yahweh' in reference to this verse?
  2. How early was this understood as a claim to divinity?

I introduce the second angle because of your follow-up comment that expresses that view that prior to evidence including a clear direct link to 'YHWH', this passage would not be a claim of divinity otherwise. Due to the weight of the historic evidence, I will therefore treat them in reverse order, for sequential order sake. So we'll get to the core question eventually, but that's not to say that the passage was commonly understood in any other way before that point.


How early was this understood as a claim to divinity?

This seems to be the uniform perspective of the early church:

The sacred books acknowledge with regard to Christ, that as He is the Son of man, so is the same Being not a [mere] man; and as He is flesh, so is He also spirit, and the Word of God, and God. And as He was born of Mary in the last times, so did He also proceed from God as the First-begotten of every creature; and as He hungered, so did He satisfy [others]; and as He thirsted, so did He of old cause the Jews to drink, for the Rock was Christ Himself: thus does Jesus now give to His believing people power to drink spiritual waters, which spring up to life eternal. And as He was the son of David, so was He also the Lord of David. And as He was from Abraham, so did He also exist before Abraham. And as He was the servant of God, so is He the Son of God, and Lord of the universe.

Origen doesn't state the equivalence outright, but at least had a known capability in Hebrew which adds significance to his own exegesis of the passage:

We worship one God, the Father and the Son, therefore, as we have explained; and our argument against the worship of other gods still continues valid. And we do not reverence beyond measure one who has but lately appeared, as though He did not exist before; for we believe Himself when He says, Before Abraham was, I am. Again He says, I am the truth; and surely none of us is so simple as to suppose that truth did not exist before the time when Christ appeared. We worship, therefore, the Father of truth, and the Son, who is the truth; and these, while they are two, considered as persons or subsistences, are one in unity of thought, in harmony and in identity of will. So entirely are they one, that he who has seen the Son, who is the brightness of God's glory, and the express image of His person, has seen in Him who is the image of God, God Himself.

He proves Himself to be God by offering divinity, which if He were not God He could not give. If Christ was only man, how did He say, Before Abraham was, I Am? For no man can be before Him from whom he himself is; nor can it be that any one should have been prior to him of whom he himself has taken his origin. And yet Christ, although He is born of Abraham, says that He is before Abraham. Either, therefore, He says what is not true, and deceives, if He was not before Abraham, seeing that He was of Abraham; or He does not deceive, if He is also God, and was before Abraham.


What's the first literal claim of 'I Am' = 'Yahweh' in reference to this verse?

We're disadvantaged in this because most of the early church fathers (Origen a noteworthy exception!) did not evidence an interest or understanding of Hebrew, and seemed to use the word 'Lord' whenever quoting the Tanakh just as their Jewish counterparts did. Widespread use of the LXX meant that there just wasn't much evident interest in the Hebrew text at this point. And so it's difficult to be sure many of them even understood that 'I Am' had 'Yahweh' as a Hebrew equivalence.

The first instance I would call a certain reference would probably go to John Chrysostom in his Homily 8 on John (347-407AD) - this is merely an extract, but if you continue to read from this point you'll see an extensive and precise argument on this point:

But wherefore said He not, Before Abraham was, I was, instead of I Am? As the Father uses this expression, I Am, so also does Christ; for it signifies continuous Being, irrespective of all time. On which account the expression seemed to them to be blasphemous . Now if they could not bear the comparison with Abraham, although this was but a trifling one, had He continually made Himself equal to the Father, would they ever have ceased casting stones at Him?

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    @Michael - since the question is about the earliest treatment of this passage by Christian writers, I'd suggest that it's beneficial to see how the same passage is treated by writers before Chrysostom, as otherwise just jumping straight to the 4th Century quote could be mistaken by some readers for suggesting that this passage was not used by much earlier authors as pertaining to the divinity of Christ. A bit of extra context is always good, especially since not many people read the early church fathers these days :)
    – Steve Taylor
    Aug 5 at 11:56
  • Steve, I dont think we can find an older ref to it before Chrysostom, he must be the first one to come up with this allusion, though it should be noted that he only mildly alluded to it. The contrast with "I was" doesnt make sense, as "I am" is a very common phrase used by all. I even suspect the line "On which account the expression seemed to them to be blasphemous" may have been added later by scribes coz it doesn't go well with his exegesis as he said it was a trifling comparison with Abraham. He gave a special meaning to "I am", and that originated the interpretation.
    – Michael16
    Aug 5 at 12:46
  • @Michael16 - the contrast is that Jesus was talking in the past tense, then flipped into the present tense for no other reason. It'd be like me saying, "before I went to the shops, I running". Jesus had just stated that he was alive at the same time as Abraham (who 'saw his day'), and the Jews questioned how this was possible when he was only 30 years old. Jesus didn't equate himself with the Abraham's status, but his age. And he reinforced it by using the first name God revealed himself to Moses by, 'I Am'. Even if the term 'YHWH' never existed, Jesus' point would be the unmistakable.
    – Steve Taylor
    Aug 5 at 13:35
  • @Michael16 - That's probably why you didn't think it goes well with the exegesis - you had mistaken Chrysostom to be comparing Christ's status with Abraham, when actually the point was that Christ was older than Abraham, and claims to have always been - making himself equivalent with God.
    – Steve Taylor
    Aug 5 at 13:39
  • I see, I forgot about that he could say "before Abraham was I was", but the same can be said with "I am". This is why Chrysostom alludes to the I am of Yhwh for the being. The charge of blasphemy was only made after he claimed superior status than Abraham in the phrase, which is a Messiah claim rather than God. Both are essential same, he was making himself equal with God. The topic is only about the I am interpretation, which no doubt that Chrysostom started with an allusion to Yhwh name. He gave it a special meaning, tho there was nothing unique to the phrase.
    – Michael16
    Aug 5 at 13:46

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