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John 8:58 - sample of verse commentary [John 8:58]in "The Nazarene Commentary"
John 8:58 - Jesus said to them: "I tell you this truth: I existed before Abraham came into existence."¹
¹ I existed before Abraham came into existence: In Greek the later part of this verse reads: PRIN ABRAAM GENESTHAI EGO EIMI. This text reads in English in the Greek-English Interlinear New Testament as: ‘Before Abraham came into being, I AM.’ We note the "I AM" is capitalized. When we check other translations we note they tend to also capitalize this "I AM." We note first that these same translations do not do this in # John 8:28 where Jesus also said, "I am." This has us puzzled at first.
Some have suggested that the "I AM" in verse #58 is a quote from # Exodus 3:14 and so he believes with great fervor Jesus is making himself the Yahweh of the Burning Bush account where the Almighty God declares His Name. We turn to some translations and they do, indeed, have # Exodus 3:14 as ‘I am that I AM.’ (KJV) Since some capitalize both "I AM" in John and Exodus it would seem our friend’s idea has some validity on brief examination. How are we to know whether the Nazarene is lifting the "I AM" of # Exodus 3:14 and applying this title to himself in # John 8:58? What can this mean?
One could go all the way back to # John 8:1 (or, # John 8:12 in some versions) and check this dialogue between the Nazarene and the Jewish scribes and Pharisees, but we note the immediate question at hand. Verse 58 begins, ‘Jesus said to them’, so he must be responding to a question. Sure enough, we note in the previous verse (57) these godly Jews asked, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ To which Jesus answers in verse #58, ‘Before Abraham existed, I am.’
We discover that the English "am" is similar to the Greek eimi which, according to Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, page 222, means "as a predicate to be – 1. be, exist." As in Shakespeare, "to be or not to be, that is the question." It would seem to a fair mind that the subject is, "How could you possibly have known Abraham?" To which the Nazarene simply answers, ‘Before Abraham existed, I existed’, or, ‘I existed before Abraham existed.’ The pre-existence of Christ is something stressed only in the Gospel of John and it seems that this is what is being done here. It seems a strange way to go about claiming one is the Yahweh, or El’Shad-dai of # Exodus 3:14.
We remember that the Nazarene has already used the whole Greek expression ego eimi in # John 8:18, 23, 28 and the Jews did not seem to think Jesus was laying claim to being Yahweh there. We note first # John 8:17, 18 where Jesus does quote from Moses (# Deuteronomy 19:15) using the rule of ‘the testimony of two men is true .’ When checking out this verse in Moses we note it actually says, ‘two or three’! If Jesus believed in a triune view, or any other concept of "three, " this would have provided an outstanding Trinitarian opportunity. However, instead of applying "three men" and their testimony, he only makes application of "two" when he goes on to say: ‘I am (ego eimi) the one testifying about myself.’ Now, that makes "one person." Then Jesus adds, ‘and the One having sent me, the Father, testifies about me.’ That makes, by Jesus’ own addition, "two." He either misses this opportunity to make some statement about "three, " as # Deuteronomy 19:15 would allow, or he has no such thought about "three."
Here, in # John 8:17, 18, when the Nazarene used "I am" (ego eimi) there was no confusion among the Jews: Jesus was some one other than the Father, who was another. That the Jews understood the Father to be God is shown in # John 8:41; John 8:54. So could not # John 8:17, 18 read: "I am the one testifying about myself and God who sent me testifies about me"? Jesus equals "one" and God equals "one" which adds up to "two witnesses" with no mention of a third.
The other occurrence of ego eimi is at # John 8:28 where Jesus says, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man then you will know that I am.’ This comes in answer to the question in verse #25, ‘Who are you?’ Is it fair to say the Nazarene’s answer is, "the Son of Man"? This is an expression from # Daniel 7:13 and had always been applied by the Jews to the Messiah or Christ. Here in verses #26-29 Jesus make a clear distinction between himself and The God who sent him, the Father. This designation from # Daniel 7:13 is a true quote or allusion where the Messiah is ascending to the one called "the Ancient of Days."
Now, it seems to us that Jesus had clear opportunity to identify himself with "three persons" using # Deuteronomy 19:15, but he does not. He has another opportunity when he is directly asked about his identity, but here his answer is, "the Son of Man."
We are now wondering whether # John 8:58 and its ego eimi is a quote or allusion at all. First, we check Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece which faithfully identifies source words or quotes and to our surprise this excellent work does not list # Exodus 3:14. We also check the New Jerusalem Bible that we have found to be reliable in its cross-references to quotes and allusions. Even this work does not show # Exodus 3:14 as a source of Jesus’ "I am."
How can we know if the ego eimi in # John 8:58 is a quote or strong allusion to # Exodus 3:14? We turn to # Exodus 3:14, 15 in the Jewish Greek Septuagint. There, in answer to Moses’ question of God at the burning bush, El’Shad-dai reveals to Moses His sacred name. Rendering this in English at the point of our interest, it reads: ‘And The God spoke to Moses, saying, (= ego eimi ho on; I AM THE BEING, LXX); and He said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, ho On (= The Being) has sent me to you… This is my name for ever.’ Which part of the whole phrase ego eimi ho On does God take to be His name? Is it not ho On and not ego eimi. Here in # Exodus 3:14 ego eimi is emphatic, meaning "I am… somebody."
Now, we remember that there is something interesting here in the account about the burning bush. The Nazarene alludes to it at # Matthew 22:32 (see also # Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:20-26) where Jesus seems to be referring to someone other than himself when he mentions, ‘He is The God (not "I am God"), not of the dead, but of the living.’ Additionally, Peter alludes to # Exodus 3:14 at # Acts 3:13 and he seems to draw a clear distinction between ‘The God of Abraham (= Yahweh)… and His Servant-boy, Jesus.’
We also remember that the dear apostle John himself in the Apocalypse uses ho On and applies it to someone other than the Lamb. Note # Revelation 4:8 and ho On is the "Lord God Almighty" (the El’Shad-dai of # Exodus 3:14) who sits upon the Throne and to whom the Lamb approaches to receive the Little Bible.
We also note in the process of checking the ego eimi of # Exodus 3:14 (LXX) that the Greek is slightly different from the ego eimi of # John 8:58. In Exodus it is emphatic and in John it is not. Our good Christian friend has stressed the emphatic "I am" and we note that ego eimi is often used in such cases as "I am the Vine." Note the emphatic ego eimi Iesous ("I am Jesus") at # Acts 26:15. Or, in the case of the blind man who uses the emphatic "I am…" at # John 9:9. That is, "I am… someone (a blind man)." The Greek ego eimi is not emphatic in # John 8:58, though it is in # Exodus 3:14.
In # John 8:58 there is no suggestion of "I am… someone." It is simply, "I am." Though this is difficult to render in English, judging from what has been noted above, if Jesus were quoting # Exodus 3:14 (in Greek) he would not have said ego eimi but rather ho On. If Jesus had respond to the question of the Jews, ‘Before Abraham existed ho On’ a plausible argument might be presented that this is the Nazarene’s quote of # Exodus 3:14.
Since it is not, the suggested way to translate this unique case of ego eimi is admitted by A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of John (printed by the United Bible Societies): "In many languages it is impossible to preserve the expression I am in this type of context, for the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ would be meaningless. To make sense, one must say, ‘Before Abraham existed, I existed.’" This being the case we checked other translations: Lamsa: I was; Moffatt: I have existed before Abraham; Beck: I was before Abraham; Williams: I existed before Abraham was born; New World: before Abraham came into existence, I have been. So, it seems many translators do not render ego eimi as I AM but in harmony with the context show Jesus’ reply had to do with his confession of pre-existence, not his divinity.
How do some scholars render the I AM of # John 8:58? Compare more than a dozen. 1869: "From before Abraham was, I have been." The New Testament, by G. R. Noyes. 1935: "I existed before Abraham was born!" The Bible-An American Translation, by J. M. P. Smith and E. J. Goodspeed. 1965: "Before Abraham was born, I was already the one that I am." Das Neue Testament, by Jörg Zink. 1981: "I was alive before Abraham was born!" The Simple English Bible. Moffatt: "I have existed before Abraham was born." Schonfield and An American Translation: "I existed before Abraham was born." Stage (German): "Before Abraham came to be, I was." Pfaefflin (German): "Before there was an Abraham, I was already there!" George M. Lamsa, translating from the Syriac Peshitta, says: "Before Abraham was born, I was." Dr. James Murdock, also translating from the Syriac Peshitto Version, says: "Before Abraham existed, I was." The Brazilian Sacred Bible published by the Catholic Bible Center of São Paulo says: "Before Abraham existed, I was existing."-2nd edition, of 1960, Bíblia Sagrada, Editora "AVE MARIA" Ltda.
Remember, also, that when Jesus spoke to those Jews, he spoke to them in the Hebrew of his day, not in Greek. How Jesus said # John 8:58 to the Jews is therefore presented to us in the modern translations by Hebrew scholars who translated the Greek into the Bible Hebrew, as follows: Dr. Franz Delitzsch: "Before Abraham was, I have been." Isaac Salkinson and David Ginsburg: "I have been when there had as yet been no Abraham." In both of these Hebrew translations the translators use for the expression "I have been" two Hebrew words, both a pronoun and a verb, namely, aní hayíthi; they do not use the one Hebrew word: Ehyéh.
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