Christology · Jesus Christ

Is Jesus of the Fourth Gospel the I AM of the Old Testament?

One of the most popular textual interpretations used to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ, in particular by Evangelical systematic theologians and apologists, is the idea that Jesus called himself the “I AM” in John 8:58. [1] According to this argument, Yahweh of the Old Testament appears to Moses in the burning bush and commissions him to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt. When Moses asked what he should tell the Israelites by whose name he would lead them, God said,

I AM THAT I AM; thus you shall say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. (Exodus 3:14)

The LXX renders this verse this way:

Και ειπεν ο Θεος προς Μωυσης εγω ειμι ο Ων και ειπεν ουτως ερεις τοις υιοις Ισραηλ ο Ων απεσταλκεν με προς υμας;

So, when Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” he used the Greek εγω ειμι thereby calling Himself the Ego Eimi or I AM of the Old Testament. Apart from its popularity in Evangelical circles, even more liberal scholarship has accepted this standard interpretation of John 8:58, albeit with a significantly different understanding. James McGrath is one such theologian and scholar of Early Christianity. In his book, The Only True God, McGrath makes the following observation:

“Most scholars think that this use of ‘I am’ reflects the occurrence of this phrase in the Septuagint version of Isaiah as a name for God.” [2]

Accepting the Ego eimi/Divine Name link, McGrath argues correctly that the ancient custom of representation allowed for the representative to bear the title or name of the one represented. [3] This same established pattern has been followed in the theology Second Temple Judaism as well as in John. McGrath also posted an article on his webpage [4] dealing with the John 8:58 text upon which a very interesting and encouraging engagement ensued. Even though I am in agreement with McGrath’s overall Christology, particularly the notion of the divinely approved representative bearing the Name of Yahweh, I am not convinced that John 8:58 employs this notion, however uncritically traditional interpretation has come to accept it.

The Disagreement

James McGrath outlines several lines of support for the Divine Name understanding of John 8:58. My disagreement with these and other points he raised as necessary premises for the traditional interpretation I presented in the comments. What follows is a summary of these excellent points and my response to them:

  • In Exodus 3, the divine name Yahweh is explained in terms of “I am that I am,” or “I am the one who is” from LXX versions.

The main weakness in this argument is that the LXX does not present God’s Name as Ego eimi, but as ho On. After His self-identification, Yahweh continues, saying that Moses should proclaim that ho On (not Ego eimi) sent him to Israel. If a direct link between John 8:58 and Ex. 3:14 is sought, and the bridge between the two texts is NAME, then it certainly cannot be claimed from Jesus’ use of ego eimi, simply because NAME is not understood to be the cultural scheme triggered by ego eimi; ho On is. McGrath later notes that some scholars no longer maintain the John 8:58/Ex. 3:14 link. [5] This point is further explored below.

  • Another probable link between John 8:58’s ego eimi and the divine Name is the repeated “I am” used in Deutero-Isaiah (43:25, 51:12, LXX) by which the one God declares his unique existence.

The LXX renders the two Isaiah texts as follows:

εγω ειμι, εγω ειμι ο εξαλειφων τας ανομιας σου… [lit., I am, I am the Extinguisher of your lawlessness…](43:25)

εγω ειμι, εγω ειμι ο παρακαλον σε [lit., I am, I am your Comfort…](51:12)

James makes an interesting point, saying “It is certainly possible that the author of John could have read Isaiah as saying ‘I am “I AM”, the one who…’ To be fair, it is possible that the author could have understood the double ego eimi as “I am I AM.” And John’s free usage of various theological traditions and midrashim allowed him to read the Isaiah texts this way. But a possible reading of the text is still just that: a possible reading. In order to use this as support for the I AM reading in 8:58, more than just a possible reading is required. In her study on the subject, [6] Catrin Williams addresses the double “I am” in the LXX, and notes the proposal by C.H. Dodd that the double I am reading could have been understood as “I am ‘I AM’ who erases your iniquities.” But Williams continues:

“This is an attractive suggestion, and may even account in part for the later Johannine usage of the absolute εγω ειμι. But with regard to LXX Isaiah, it could be argued that it is the application of a translational device rather than specific theological concerns that explains this rather unstylistic rendering of Isa. 43:25 and 51:12… [I]t is possible that אנכי was translated as εγω ειμι in order to demonstrate that this pronomial form carries particular emphasis (‘I, I am the one who blots out your sins’).” [7]

In a footnote she notes:

“The second εγω ειμι in both Isa. 43:25 and 51:12 is omitted by 106, 109 736 of the Hexaplaric recension. Some textual witnesses also insert αυτος after the second εγω ειμι in Isa. 43:25…and in Isa. 51:12.” [8]

Reflecting on Samaritan and Rabbinical sources – some with which the author of the Fourth Gospel was undoubtedly familiar – Williams discusses the significance of Deut. 32:39 which also contains a double self-identification (אני אני הוא). She notes:

“The importance attached to Deut. 32:39 as the climactic expression of divine sovereignty in the eschatological future leads to its frequent citation in monotheistic declarations… Even the two words אני אני… are often preceded or followed by the phrase ‘there is no second’ (לא שני). Hence, God’s own declaration of his exclusive divinity …provide [sic] a sound scriptural basis within Samaritan theology for worshippers to proclaim ‘there is no God but one’ [9]

The double εγω ειμι of Isaiah, therefore, does not provide the necessary certainty to link John 8:58 to the divine Name.

  • In John 17:12 Jesus declares, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” This name Jesus had during his earthly ministry, which he also uses to protect his disciples.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Fourth Gospel is the apparent boundless scope of theological resources the author generously gleans from to make his theological points. This can be seen in the various traditions of divine representation the author uses and applies to Jesus Christ. Gleaned from Hellenistic Judaism, Jesus is identified as the logos (Joh. 1:1, 14, cp. Wisdom 8:4-6, Philo Leg. All. II. 86; Ag. 51). From Rabbinic Judaism, the author used the Name of God (Joh. 5:43, 17:6, 11, 12 cp. Similtudes of Enoch 39.7, 9, 13; 41.2, 6; 43.4; 45f.; 46.6-8; 47.2; 48.7, 10 etc.) and His glory (Joh. 1:14 [also note here the wordplay in eskinosen cp. shekinah], 2:11, 7:18, 17:5, 22, 24 cp. Sanh. 6.5; Aboth 3.2; Targum Onkelos on Ex. 33.14f; 34.6, 9) as His means of being present among mankind. Jesus is depicted as the medium through whom God Almighty is seen (either as logos, Name or glory). In none of these occurrences of Jesus being depicted as the logos-made-flesh, the Name-revealer or the glory-of-God do we find either a specific event or announcement from which point on Jesus would be such. It is even implied by the author that no one event would sufficiently reveal the glory of God (cp. 14:9, 21:25). It is further suggested by the prolepsis used in John 17:5 that God had intended Jesus to inherit this glory since time immemorial. In the prologue Jesus appears as the one who bears the Father’s glory (1:18). So while Jesus is quoted as uttering the words in 17:12, his bearing the Name in no way necessitates a point at any time when Jesus had to explicitly state that, either in 8:58 or anywhere else.

  • The Gethsemane story in John has Jesus declare, “Ego eimi,” which McGrath says meant more than the casual “it is I” or “that’s me” (see John 9:9). The fact that those who have come to arrest him fall to the ground at the pronouncement necessitates another layer of interpretation besides the mundane meaning of the phrase. That he declared the divine Name is implied.

The above argument insists that recognising the Divine in Jesus’ statement would have been the only cause of such a response by his enemies. Self-identification, it is argued, would not have been sufficient to justify such utmost surrender by the crowd. This argument, however, decides for the author what he had intended to convey by the stories he recorded. If the author intended to show that Jesus had glory which even his enemies couldn’t resist and that even the darkness would yield to him as the Light, then surely the account in 18:5-7 achieved just that. Uttering the Divine Name is not by necessity the only condition for the crowd’s response to Jesus’ statement.[10] Since the expression ego eimi is naturally used to denote self-identification (‘I am he,’ ‘it is I,’ cp. John 9:9 and Testament of Job 29:3, 4; 31:5, 6), greater weight should be given to the possibility, if not the reality, that this self-identification and what it meant either for the author or for the crowds was what evoked their respective responses.

  • The declaration in John 8:58 had the original hearers puzzled at first which lead them to attempt to stone him at the end. A mere “I am he” would not have evoked such a response from the crowd.

Williams takes a similar position:

“The fact that this Johannine scene of heightened opposition concludes with a description of ‘the Jews’ lifting stones to through at Jesus leads one to enquire about their perception of, and response to, his statement in 8:58…The cumulative effect of these three pronouncements [vv. 24, 28 and 58] is emphasized by Ashton, who states that the expected reaction – blasphemy – does occur when εγω ειμι is uttered for the third time.” [11]

But here Williams’ argument is circular in that the premise for claiming that εγω ειμι is a reference to the divine Name is the Jews’ reaction to the “blasphemy” in v. 58, while their lack of violence in vv. 24 and 28 is explained as as “misunderstanding.” The fallacy in this argument is also evident by noticing that it is again assumed that the Jews were justified to respond the way they did. Contrary to the overall theme in this Gospel, namely the wickedness and blindness of the Jews’ judgment, their response in v. 59 is accepted as valid. Their being depicted as those who are in darkness is no less evident here than their similar response to Lazarus’ resurrection in 12:10, with their motives for doing so equally unwarranted.

  • Jesus couldn’t explicitly state, “I am God,” because then the subsequent statement by Jesus, namely that he does nothing of himself, would not have made sense. Moreover, such a statement would ruin a double entendre of the sort of which the author was clearly fond?

Williams also refers to the ego eimi expression as a double entendre or Doppelbedeutung. [12] The difficulty in using a figure of speech as subtle as double entendre to prove the existence of an alternative meaning lies precisely in the fact that there should be certainty in the existence of that alternative. Compared to the double entendre found in John 2:21, for instance, the presence of an alternative meaning of ego eimi in 8:58 is not nearly as certain. Here again circularity is introduced. Double entendre would have been present here had we known for a fact that Jesus meant to have used the divine Name, not the other way around.

The Proposed Solution

The author of the fourth Gospel made generous use of figure of speech, including typology, prolepsis and metaphor. Motifs from the Genesis creation, from contemporary symbols, and various available traditions the author skilfully employed to convey a profound message about Jesus, the unique “Son of God” (John 20:31). In exploring the possible, if not the most likely significance the author wanted to convey in 8:58, alternative meanings to the Ego eimi statement should be explored using established literary devices the author employed elsewhere. The proposed solution is not a new one; it is one which has not been receiving the attention and sophistication it deserves. What follows is a brief proposal of this solution. From a narrative perspective, the author makes it clear throughout the text that the appearance of Jesus on earth resulted in the differential manifestation of light and darkness (1:7-10; 3:19-21; 8:12; 11:9, 10; 12:46); of life and death (3:15, 16; 4:14; 5:21, 24-26, 29; 6:33, 40; 8:12; 10:10, 11, etc.); of seeing and being blind (1:50; 9:37-41; 12:40, etc.). Those without faith, namely “the Jews,” revealed that they were in spiritual darkness, spiritually blind and dead. Using the Jews’ understanding of Jesus’ identity, works and sayings as a guide for truth is wrongheaded in determining what the author intended to convey. [13]Another pervasive theme throughout the Gospel is that of eschatological reality through the use of prolepsis. Both the prophetic past and the anticipated future are brought together in the Christ-event and its escalated effects, as presented by John. Drawing from “pre-existence” traditions, [14] the author further strengthens the notion of intentionality since time past of God’s ultimate purpose realising in Christ. [15] Appreciating these dominant strands so prominently present in John’s Gospel, several scholars have come to conclusions significantly different from the traditional interpretation.

“To say that Jesus is ‘before’ him [Abraham] is not to lift him out of the ranks of humanity but to assert his unconditional precedence. To take such statements at the level of ‘flesh’ so as to infer, as ‘the Jews’ do that, at less than fifty, Jesus is claiming to have lived on this earth before Abraham (8:52 and 57), is to be as crass as Nicodemus who understands rebirth as an old man entering his mother’s womb a second time (3:4).” [16]

“Jesus has been emphasizing his Messianic claim. He does not say that before Abraham was born the logos existed; he says ‘I am.’ It is Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the man whom the Father had consecrated to the Messianic work who speaks. Just before this he had spoken of ‘my day,’ which Abraham saw (John 8:56), by which we must understand the historical appearance of Jesus as Messiah. Abraham had seen this, virtually seen it in God’s promise of a seed (Gen. 12:3; 15:4, 5) and had greeted from afar (Heb. 11:13). And now it is this one who consciously realizes the distant vision of Abraham who says, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am.’ Jesus, therefore, seems to affirm that his historic Messianic personality existed before Abraham was born. If that be the case, then its existence before Abraham must be thought of as ideal.” [17]

Keeping in mind the pattern of sourcing classical Jewish images and applying the typology to Jesus, as well as the overall genre of the Gospel, namely a highly theological approach to the significance of this historical figure, a much more obvious and ostensibly richer meaning is derived from Jesus’ statement in 8:58. The ego eimi in John 8:58 is a simple phrase of self-identification (as can also be seen elsewhere, cp. 9:9) pointing to the significance of God’s prophetic plan for humanity, as seen in Jesus. [18] It is not a name, as used in the text, nor is the natural use of it meant to convey historical or actual existence. It should be understood that Jesus had been the one intended by God; seeing Jesus meant discerning what the precise design plan was for humanity since time immemorial. Knowing perfectly well that Messiah had been notionally reserved with God in heaven, Jesus self-identifies as the one as whom this figure had been revealed. This one had been reserved since ancient times, hence his statement, “[Since even] before Abraham was born, I have been [the intended one.]” [19]

Endnotes

[1] Charles H. Talbert, Reading John, p. 163: “’I am’ there functions as the divine name of the one God besides whom there is no other…In John 8:58, for Jesus to say, ‘ego eimi/I am,’ is for him to manifest the divine name.  The pre-existent one is God (1:1-2) who, therefore, can reveal God.”

[2] James F. McGrath, The Only True God, p. 61.  Similarly, John A.T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, p. 177:  “This history [of the wisdom and light and love of God] comes to its climax in Jesus and is so totally incarnate in him that he can speak directly in the name of God and utter the divine ‘I am’.  Indeed it is God speaking and acting.  As the embodiment of this ‘I am’, Jesus does not speak ‘of himself’.  It is no wonder, therefore, that he sometimes sounds like a ventriloquist’s dummy.”

[3] Ibid., p. 61.

[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/06/i-am-the-name-of-god.html

[5] Interestingly, neither Talbert (Reading John, p. 163) nor F.F. Bruce (The Gospel & Epistles of John, p. 205) links John 8:58 to Ex. 3:14.

[6] I am He, The Interpretation of ‘anî hû’ in Jewish and early Christian literature.  Wissenschafliche Undersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe 113.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000.

[7] Ibid., pp. 59, 60.

[8] Ibid., p. 59 n. 22.

[9] Ibid., p. 79, 80.

[10] cp. Kethuvoth 63a:  “When he came to him [R. Akiba] asked, ‘Would you have made your vow if you had known that he was a great man?’ ‘[Had he known]’ the other replied. ‘even one chapter or even one Single halachah [I would not have made the vow]’. He then said to him, ‘I am the man’ [Lit., ‘I am he’].  The other fell upon his face and kissed his feet and also gave him half of his wealth.”

[11] Op. cit., p. 279.

[12] Ibid. p. 279.

[13] The Jews’ conspiring to kill the resurrected Lazarus in 12:10 is as baseless and morally reprehensible as their attempts to stone Jesus in 8:59.

[14] According to the Jewish understanding of that time, several things “pre-existed” with God before creation. These included Torah, Paradise, the name of Messiah, Gehenna, throne of glory, the temple and repentance (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39b, Peshikta Rabbah 152b; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Zechariah 4:7; Similitudes of Enoch 45:3, 4; 48:2-6; 62:6, 7). Their pre-existence was understood to be not literal, but ideal or notional. Heaven and earth, for instance, were understood to have been created by God after taking counsel with Torah (Avot 3:14).  In later writings other entities were added to these seven and among these were the saints or believers who also “pre-existed” (1 Enoch 106:19).

[15] E. C. Dewick, Primitive Christian Eschatology, the Hulsean Prize Essay for 1908, “When the Jew said something was ‘predestined,’ he thought of it as already ‘existing’ in a higher sphere of life.  The worlds’ history is thus predestined because it is already, in a sense, pre-existing and consequently fixed.  This typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of pre-existence by the predominance of the thought of ‘pre-existence’ in the Divine purpose.”

[16] J. A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John, p. 384.  Also, “Of the ‘I am’ sayings in this Gospel those with the predicate ‘I am the bread of life,’ ‘the door,’ ‘the way,’ ‘the good shepherd,’ etc. certainly do not imply that the subject is God. Of the ‘absolute’ uses of ego eimi, the majority are simply establishing identification: ‘I am he.’ This is so of 4:26 (the Messiah you speak of); 6:20 (confirming Jesus’ identity on the lake at night, exactly as in Mark 6:50, Matt. 14:27); 9:9 (on the lips not of Jesus but of the blind man) and 18:5-8, the ‘I am your man’ at the arrest (cp. Acts 10:21), even though it evokes awe (though not the reaction to blasphemy) in the arresting party. There is the same usage in the resurrection scene of Luke 24:39, ‘it is I myself’…Three other occurrences, 8:24, 28, 13:19 are I believe correctly rendered by the NEB ‘I am what I am,’ namely the truth of what really I am. They do not carry with them the implication that he is Yahweh (indeed in the latter two especially there is a contrast with the Father who sent him), but in contrast ‘the Christ, the Son of God,’” pp. 385-387.

[17] G.H. Gilbert, The Revelation of Jesus, A Study of the Primary Sources of Christianity, pp. 214, 215.

[18] Cp.  E.D. Freed, “The phrase is specifically Messianic. In John 8:24 ego eimi is to be understood as a reference to Jesus’ Messiahship…‘If you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins’” (“Ego eimi in John 8:24 in the Light of its Context and Jewish Messianic Belief,” JTS 33, 1982, p. 163).

[19] For my rendering of the ego eimi as “I have been [the one],” see K.L. McKay, A New Syntax o the Verb in New Testament Greek, An Aspectual Approach, p. 42.

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9 thoughts on “Is Jesus of the Fourth Gospel the I AM of the Old Testament?

  1. Hi Jaco:

    Thank you for this thoughtfully developed argument. The problem with your understanding of verse 58, as I see it, is that if one accepts the preferred reading of verse 57, then a claim to have existed merely in God’s plan ignores what just preceded it, and makes Jesus offer a non sequitur.

    Why do you opt for a non sequitur when a contextually appropriate response based on sound grammatical principles is available?

  2. Thank you, Sean

    I think the matter is not as straight forward as you say above. An early textual variant may shed some light on the possible nuances conveyed by the Jews’ reply. P75 has the verse, “has Abraham seen you?” While not rendering a judgment on the superiority of one tradition over the other, comment by Mikeal Parsons reveals that more than just the seeing was involved:

    “P75 has changed the question asked by the Jews, ‘Have you seen Abraham?’ to ‘Has Abraham seen you?’ The result is a reversal of roles in which Jesus assumes a higher status than Abraham. The variant makes more explicit Jesus’ affirmation, ‘Before Abraham was I am.” – A Christological Tendency in P75, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 105, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), p.474.

    The one beheld is therefore of higher status than the one doing the beholding/seeing. The Jews’ reply in such a way, namely that Jesus saw Abraham, could perhaps have been deliberate to maintain the superiority of the one beheld (Abraham). Jesus’ answer is still in response to v.56, namely that Jesus had been there in prophecy, since Abraham beheld his day in the far future.

    I am reluctant to read the Gospel with too much of a literal eye, Sean. Metaphor, fine nuance and typology make me tread very lightly.

    1. “I am reluctant to read the Gospel with too much of a literal eye, Sean. Metaphor, fine nuance and typology make me tread very lightly.”

      I can understand that, yet I don’t personally see any reason to think that John didn’t intend us to read John 8:56-58 literally. When we have to place words in brackets to bring out what we infer from a text (and I’ve done this myself at times), the question naturally emerges: Am I importing or exporting the inference?

      Bear in mind that the inference the Jews made about personal preexistence doesn’t emerge solely from the “you have seen Abraham?” part, but from the “you are not yet 50 years old” part. I don’t think there’s any questioning that they thought Jesus was suggesting that he personally existed even before Abraham was born, and Jesus says nothing that would dispel that notion. Rather, he replies with a statement that, absent extra bracketed clarifying data, confirmed as true what they considered preposterous, which partially accounts for the rabid response. Their response is also accounted for in that they considered Jesus’ words to constitute a blasphemous lie. To claim to speak for God as His agent and then lie in the commission of your agency would make God a liar. I know I’ve said this before, but thought it bore repeating.

      Thank you for the reference to Parsons’s article. I’ll check it out.

  3. Thanks Sean,

    I still think that the Jews’ misunderstanding was clarified by Jesus’ referring to his prophetic pre-existence. From a redactional perspective, the writer(s) could have intended to trigger schemes of prophetic typology. I am not so convinced that looking at the legitimacy of the Jews’ response should give us an idea of what Jesus meant when he uttered the words. John 12:10 is a classical example of totally baseless murderous intent.

    The fact remains that a Trinitarian interpretation of any biblical text is a fundamentally flawed exercise which has overstayed its welcome. We can also agree that the writer(s) of the Gospel glean from a rich and diverse tradition pool. Ultimately rigorous study and discussion should bring us closer to the original meaning of these texts.

    Thanks!

  4. Hi Jaco:

    “I still think that the Jews’ misunderstanding was clarified by Jesus’ referring to his prophetic pre-existence. From a redactional perspective, the writer(s) could have intended to trigger schemes of prophetic typology.”

    Perhaps, but just keep in mind that your interpretation of verse 58 hinges on the assumption that the words you added to the text in brackets was what Jesus/John intended. But then, I have to wonder why Jesus, according to John, didn’t just phrase his response in a way that makes the point that you infer clear?

    “I am not so convinced that looking at the legitimacy of the Jews’ response should give us an idea of what Jesus meant when he uttered the words. John 12:10 is a classical example of totally baseless murderous intent.”

    What I’ve been trying to point out isn’t that we should base our understanding on the Jews response, but on the whole interaction, including Jesus’ response to the Jews in light of what they inferred from his previous statement. In the two related accounts in John (5:18-23; 10:25-38) Jesus responds to his adversaries specific charges, and I would expect him to do so here, unless there were some compelling reason to think otherwise.

    As I said on Dustin Martyr’s blog a while back, it would be the grandaddy of all coincidences for Jesus’ response, when properly rendered, to be an exquisitely fitting reply in context, yet that NOT be what Jesus/John meant!

  5. Jaco,

    I am in broad agreement, but I think something is missing. I would throw in the idea, common in Christadelphian circles that Jesus’ use of ‘I am’ in 8:58 is his claim to be the present tense fulfilment of the future tense of Ex 3:14a. This is not to deny that the inter-textual links with Isaiah 43 are not also in play, but they complement the connection with Exodus 3.

    Andrew

    1. Thank you Andrew,

      This is an interesting proposal, to be sure. Yahweh did indeed “Become” whatever was needed in Jesus. I do think, however, that the sentimental theological link to Ex. 3:14 is unwarranted, as the normative use and understanding of ego eimi, with its theological triggers in notional pre-existence, would have been sufficient.

      Thanks,

  6. Well done, Jaco! I found your rebuttal to the Is. 43 argument particularly thorough and convincing. I am inclined to agree with you that while Andrew makes an interesting point regarding Jesus as the fulfillment of Ex 3:14, the link between Jn 8 and Ex 3:14 is unwarranted.

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