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The standard way to translate Jesus' John 8:58 statement is

"Before Abraham was, I am."

Yet, a minority position is to translate 8:58b as 'I am he'. This is the view taken by Sozzini as well as contemporary Biblical Unitarians such as the translators of the REV.

What are the reasons for translating it as 'I am he' instead of 'I am'?

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    @Michael16 That question is interesting, but quite open-ended and focused on what He originally said in Hebrew (or Aramaic). But it partially inspired this question! :) Jun 9, 2022 at 4:06
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    @Michael16 Ya, often there's a tension on SE in terms of specificity. The question "What is the basis for Jesus being God?" would have to cover an interpretation of John 8:58, but we would say those are different questions. But none of the answers to that question are specific enough to what I'm asking here. Jun 9, 2022 at 5:53
  • This is the que more specific and same as your que. There's a very good answer by David there. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/55803/… also there are countless questions in the same like by that person asking for specific logic of Jews to stone or charge blasphemy. They all cover these verses. He was merely claiming to be greater than Abraham as shown in the context. The Messiah is said to be greater than all, including Moses and Abraham in the Jewish interpretations.
    – Michael16
    Jun 9, 2022 at 6:58
  • @Michael16 Perhaps it makes no sense, but various interpreters have made the claim that it means 'I am he' (as the same phrase is translated in various other places in the NT, including John). I'm trying to figure out what the strongest argument is for it, to see if there's a good case for it. Jun 9, 2022 at 15:59
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    @Michael16 Sure, so it's a debate about context. The immediate context is Abraham's vision of 'my day'. Who's day? The Messiah's. 'Before Abraham, I am [he, the Messiah]' Cf. Babylonian Talmud, 7 things that exist before the foundations, 'the name of the Messiah'. Jun 9, 2022 at 18:16

3 Answers 3

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The debate is simple - it resolves to a matter of the intention of the statement:

  • "I am he" is a statement of identification
  • "I am" is a statement of existence.
  • For "Historical Present" aspect, see Daniel B Wallace, "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics" (GGBB), P515 and 530, 531 - it is simply not grammatically possible, primarily because such cases demand the third person, not first person speech. [Note: Historical present" is a writing technique that uses the present tense to more vividly portray a past event so as to place the listener/reader in the past action. However, this always uses the third person speech and not first person as in John 8:58 - see GGBB(p526-531) for more detail.]

Identification

If we assume "I am he", then we must look for what Jesus is (then currently) identifying Himself as. The only precedent for the implied "he" is:

  • Abraham (V58, 57, 56), which is impossible as Jesus says He existed before Abraham
  • The Father (V54), which nobody would like unless one is a modalist
  • God (V54), which Unitarians and Arians would not like, but is preferred by modalists
  • "Messiah" is grammatically impossible because there is no adjacent antecedent.
  • The REV's translation "I am the One" suffers from exactly the same problem - what is the antecedent? That is, what does "the one" mean?

For example, when the man born blind uses the phrase Ἐγώ εἰμι, he is clearly identifying himself as the man bon blind, and thus, it is valid to translate, "I am he".

Existence

If we assume the purpose of Jesus' statement is existence, then we have the rather simple statement that Jesus existed before Abraham, consistent with John 17:5. See appendix below.

Daniel Wallace in GGBB (page 531) offers this comment on the NWT translation assuming the historical present and its justification in the translators notes:

In effect, this is a negative admission that if ἐγὼ εἰμί is not a historical present, then Jesus is here claiming to be the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, the I AM, the eternally existing One, Yahweh (cf Exod 3:14 in the LXX, Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν).

In any case, the fact that Jews regarded Jesus claim to exist before Abraham and thus was the "I AM" of Ex 3, as blasphemous, indicates that they believed Jesus was claiming far more than simple pre-existence.

APPENDIX - Jesus’ Pre-existence

The Bible presents a simple sequence to demonstrate the eternal pre-existence of Jesus:

  • Jesus existed with God in heaven and was instrumental in the creation
  • Jesus became human (was incarnated)
  • Jesus died and was resurrected and returned to heaven.

We see this many times in the Bible, especially in the Gospel of John, such as:

  • John 1:1-3 - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made.
  • John 1:14 - The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
  • John 1:15 - John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ ”
  • John 1:18 - No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.
  • John 3:13 - No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • John 3:16, 17 - For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. [NOTE - God cannot send someone who does not exist!]
  • John 3:31 - The One [= Jesus] who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all.
  • John 6:38 - For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.
  • John 6:61, 62 - But Jesus, aware that his disciples were complaining about this, said to them, “Is this offensive to you? What then if you see the son of man ascending to where he was before?
  • John 8:38 - I speak of what I have seen in the presence of the Father
  • John 8:58 - “Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was [born], I am!”
  • John 13:1, 3 - It was now just before the Passover Feast, and Jesus knew that His hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the very end. ... Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.
  • John 16:27, 28 - for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
  • John 17:5 - And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed. See also V24.

The same idea is taught in other places as well.

  • Phil 2:5-8 - Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross.
  • Col 1:16, 17 - For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
  • Heb 1:2, 3 - But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
  • 1 Peter 1:20 - He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
  • Rev 22:13 - I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

We even find this same idea in Messianic prophecies of Jesus -

  • Micah 5:2 - But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come forth for Me One to be ruler over Israel— One whose origins are of old, from the days of eternity.
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    +1 ""Messiah" is grammatically impossible because there is no adjacent antecedent." Can you say more about this? It seems the immediate target is the Messiah (the one Abraham saw - "He saw my day." Who's day? The Messiah's.) Not only that, but that's the question in John 7, and seems to be what Jesus is referring to at John 8:24 and 8:28. Jun 9, 2022 at 4:09
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    @OneGodtheFather - I agree that Messiah is the subject and that is the central teaching of what Jesus is saying. I also agree that the "I Am" in V24 and 28 may be the antecedent, but one cannot establish this grammatically. That is more a theological question, not a grammatical question.
    – Dottard
    Jun 9, 2022 at 6:00
  • @Dottard. Is it reasonable to interpret this verse with the understanding that Jesus is using the personal name ("YHWH ") or an exclusive title (such as "Most High" - Luke 6:35; Luke 1:32; Ps. 83:18 ASV, KJV) to identify himself: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, YHWH ." Or, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, the Most High." Does the immediate context allow a "title of God" interpretation for the use of ego eimi in this verse? Jun 9, 2022 at 6:22
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    You should have quoted or explained what is historical present. If it means "have/has been", then there are many ref to it. John 8:58; 14:9 (and Gen 31:38, 41) and Judges 16:17. I saw this on the wiki link of Wallace disagreement with McKay. The antecedent (Messiah) is known & awaited (see anaphoric article, "are you the Prophet?" in Wallace book). This referent doesn't have to be spelled out. Should have quoted why historic present requires third person. It's unexplained. I have been is far better than I am. ibiblio.org/bgreek/archives/96-12/0624.html
    – Michael16
    Jun 10, 2022 at 5:43
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    The ref to Exo 3 is ridiculous conjecture, & the long list of Jesus preexistence is very unnecessary unrelated and of a defensive nature, very typical.
    – Michael16
    Jun 10, 2022 at 6:15
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The Lord just makes a clear and unmistakable allusion to Septuagint 89 (90):2 "πρὸ τοῦ ὄρη γενηθῆναι καὶ πλασθῆναι τὴν γῆν καὶ τὴν οἰκουμένην, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος σὺ εἶ" ("Before mountains were brought forth and the earth and the world were formed, and from everlasting to everlasting You are").

This σὺ εἶ ("You are") denotes the eternal and necessary existence that pertains only to God. This explains the outrage of Jews who think Him to say a blasphemy of regarding Himself God.

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  • +1 Interesting line of thought! Jun 9, 2022 at 15:57
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Unfortunately, neither is the answer to your Q. A lot of issues on this passage. I have tried to limit so it not to overwhelming as so much can be written about this.

Quite a bit is covered in this - https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/60969/33268

Jesus figuratively “existed” in Abraham’s time. Even if you accept Jesus said ‘I am’ before Abraham – he does not say he was before Adam and this does not make him God. It is only that Jesus was in God’s plan before he was born.

Jeremiah 1:5 – Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart, I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Jesus clarifies just prior that he is not implying that he is God and Glory comes only from God.

John 8:

29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him."

54 Jesus replied, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.

Exodus: John 58 is an attempt to connect God in Exodus 3:14 "I am what I am" – but fails.

Exodus would have been in Hebrew, John would have been Aramaic – unfortunately we only have the Greek. Ego eimi ("I am"), used by John's Jesus, is not the same as ho on

ho on appears five times (Revelation 1:4, 8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5). Significantly, in each instance, it is used as a title or designation applied to God, not Jesus.

Messiah also does not equate to God & “Son of God” literally means “Servant of God” in Hebrew

Translation: 58 εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς· ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί. ἐγὼ (egó) was translated as I. εἰμί (eimi) was translated as am.

According to Strong's Greek Dictionary, eimi (εἰμί or εἰμὶ) means:

"am, have been, it is I, was.

The first person singular present indicative; a prolonged form of a primary and defective verb; I exist (used only when emphatic) -- am, have been, X it is I, was. See also ei, eien, einai, heis kath heis, en, esomai, esmen, este, esti, kerdos, isthi, o."

Also, according to Strong's Greek Dictionary, egó (ἐγώ) means:

I, me.

A primary pronoun of the first person I (only expressed when emphatic) -- I, me. For the other cases and the plural see eme, emoi, emou, hemas, hemeis, hemin, hemon, etc."

Also, according to Kypros.org's dictionary, eimai (είμαι), which is a sister word of eimi (εἰμί), means have.

So eimi (εἰμί) and eimai (είμαι) can mean have, am, and few other meanings depending on the sentence and the context.

Example of eimi (εἰμί)

John 3:28 αὐτοὶ ὑμεῖς μοι μαρτυρεῖτε ὅτι εἶπον ἐγὼ / ὅτι· οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ὁ Χριστός, ἀλλ' ὅτι ἀπεσταλμένος εἰμὶ ἔμπροσθεν ἐκείνου.

"You yourselves testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before him.'"

So it likely it should have been - "I HAVE (seen Abraham before he was even born)"

So many passages that Jesus proves he is not God - Just a few passages: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (From the NIV Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4)"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. (From the NIV Bible, Mark 12:29)"

""Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good–except God alone." (From the NIV Bible, Mark 10:18)"

"God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (From the NIV Bible, Numbers 23:19)"

KJV - Acts 3:26 - To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning every one of you away from his iniquities.

The link https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/60969/33268 & the above show there is no evidence that Jesus never implied he is God.

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