John 8:58

John 8:58  –   “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am.”

This verse is taken by many Christian teachers, apologists and Bible commentators as one of the clearest statements in the NT of the pre-existence and deity of Messiah. It appears that Jesus is saying 1) that he existed before Abraham, and 2) that he is himself  Yahweh, in accordance with Exodus 3:14. This has been the standard way of understanding this passage ever since the early church fathers from the middle of the second century forward. What I hope to show is that this interpretation of this text is merely superficial and was driven by a different mindset than what we find in the whole of Scripture.

 

 

The Exodus 3:14 Connection

There are two aspects of the Trinitarian interpretation of this text we need to look at. First is the claim that Jesus, in saying the words ‘I am’, is claiming the Divine name for himself in accordance with Exodus 3:14. This is a clear assertion that Jesus was claiming to be, in fact, Yahweh, the God of the OT. Exodus 3:14 reads as follows in most versions of the Bible:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ “

Immediately one can see the verbal similarity between the statement of Yahweh and the statement of Jesus, as it stands in most English versions. This is what has led many to conclude a meaningful connection between the two statements. But I will show that this connection between the two statements is purely superficial.

The Hebrew behind the phrase ‘I am who I am’ is ehyeh asher ehyeh. The usual translation of ‘I am who I am’ is by no means certain. Many recent scholars have called into question this rendering of the Hebrew phrase, including many Jewish scholars, insisting on the translationI will be who I will be.’ As I understand, this is because ‘ehyeh’ is the first person singular imperfect form of hayah . According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon hayah has three predominate meanings I. fall out, happen, occur, take place, come about, come to pass. II. come into being, become, arise, appear, come on the scene. III. to be, exist, live. Now in Biblical Hebrew, the imperfect, as well as the perfect, does not have tense but denotes incomplete action, whether in the past, present or future. The tense or time factor of the verb is determined by context and syntax. Imperfects are usually expressed in English by the future tense, although they can express present and even past action; whereas Hebrew perfects are usually expressed by the present or past tense, although they can express future action. So we can see that it is not a simple matter to translate this phrase. It really seems to be a matter of what one thinks God is trying to convey in the answer to Moses’ question in v. 13:

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them.”

I must point out something which is usually not perceived when v. 14 is read in isolation from the context of the whole passage. What God says in v.14 is not the answer to the question of what is God’s name. The answer to that question comes in v. 15:

God said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH (not ehyeh), the God of your fathers… has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

What God says in v. 14 is not his name proper, but appears to be a play on words, in that ehyeh sounded like YHWH, at least in Moses’ time. We see this kind of playing off of words that sound similar a number of times in the OT, e.g. Gen. 2:7; 4:1; 5:29; 30:18; 41:51; 49:8; Ex. 2:10; 18:3; Josh. 5:9; Jdg. 15:16; Jer. 1:11-12; 19:1,7,10; 48:2; Micah 18-16. It may be, in this case, more than just a similarity of sound, it may involve a similar meaning. But the exact, definite meaning of YHWH is debated.

So how should the phrase ehyeh asher ehyeh be translated? As I said before this depends on what one thinks God’s answer to Moses to be communicating. If one is of the mind that he sees it as a declaration by God of his eternal self-existence, then he will probably translate it in the traditional way as ‘I am who I am.’ But, if one instead, sees this as a declaration by God of his faithfulness to Israel, to be with them and to deliver them, based on his covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then he will translate it as ‘I will be who (what) I will be’ or ‘I am who (what) I will be.’ This would have the meaning of  ‘I will be whatever I need to be to Israel to fulfill the covenant I made with their fathers.’

Now because the traditional way of translating this phrase as ‘I am who I am’ is so familiar ( and I might add sentimentally dear), whenever an alternate translation is offered many will just reject it out of hand as an attempt to ‘change the word of God.’ Therefore it is necessary to take some time to show the validity of the translation ‘I will be what (or who) I will be.”

First, the word ehyeh appears 43 times in the Hebrew Bible and in the majority of those occurrences nearly every modern or popular Bible version translates the word as “I will be,” including the LXX. I will not list every verse here; anyone can look up the word in a concordance and find the verses. But I will list a few, those in Exodus, Deut., Joshua and Judges:

  1. Ex. 3:12 –     Here just two verses before v. 14 we find God encouraging Moses with this promise, I certainly will be with you … ”  –  ISV
  2. Ex. 4:12 –      “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth … ”  –  ESV
  3. Ex. 4:15 –      ” … and I, even I, will be with your mouth … “  –   NASV
  4. Deut. 31:23 –   “The LORD (said) to Joshua … I myself will be with you.” –   NIV
  5. Joshua 1:5 –   ” I will be with you, just as I was with Moses … “  –    HCSB
  6. Joshua 3:7 –   “And the LORD said unto Joshua … know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.”  –   KJV
  7. Judges 6:16 –  “And the LORD said unto him: ‘Surely I will be with thee, and thou shall smite the Midianites … ”  –   JPS Tanakh
  8. Judges 11:9 –   “Jephthah said to the leaders of Gilead, “All right! If you take me back to fight with the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me, I will be your leader.” – NET

So you can see that many Bible versions have no problem with translating ehyeh as ‘I will be’ rather than ‘I am.’ This is not to say that ‘I am’ would not work in some occurrences of the word, but only to show the legitimacy of  ‘I will be’ as a translation choice. There are a few of the 43 passages where ehyeh occurs where ‘I am’ does work better, like the four passages in Job at 3:16, 10:19, 12:4, 17:6. So we can see the flexibility of the imperfect Hebrew verb form and how context is necessary to help determine tense. Now the fact that all of the translations that translated ehyeh as ‘I will be’ in the majority of it’s occurrences, especially at Ex. 3:12 and 4:12,15, chose to translate it as ‘I am’ at 3:14, is suspicious. Could this be a simple case of Trinitarian bias in translation. One person in a recent Facebook discussion mocked this idea as conspiratorial, pointing out that some of the translators on these translating committees are not even Christians, much less Trinitarians. I don’t know if that is true, but even if it is it is irrelevant. The editors of the major Bible translations are Trinitarians and no doubt have the final say on any verse’s final wording. What is never known by the reading public is the various alternate translations which were offered by the translators. You can believe that, concerning an important verse like Ex. 3:14, committed Trinitarian editors do not want to lose the connection with John 8:58, even if it is a superficial connection, and so would choose ‘I am’ over the better ‘I will be.’ Many modern versions do however include a footnote with the alternate reading ‘I will be what (or who) I will be,’ such as the NIV, ESV, HCSB, and ISV.

Further evidence of the validity of this alternate reading are the Greek translations of Aquila  and of Theodotion. Both of these 2nd century Greek versions of the OT translate ehyeh asher ehyeh into Greek as esomai hos esomai. Esomai is the future indicative 1st person singular form of eimi and is translated into English as ‘I will be.’ It is true that the earlier LXX translates the passage into Greek as ego eimi ho on meaning ‘I am the one who is,’ but some  scholars feel that Aquila and Theodotion were assuming to correct what they felt was an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew into Greek. Could the translators of the LXX have been influenced by Greek metaphysics to translate this passage as a statement by God of his eternal self- existence rather than as a statement of his commitment to be to Israel whatever he would need to be in order to fulfill the covenant he made with their fathers? I think that is entirely possible.

The famed Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his notable work The Pentateuch and Hoftorahs, said this in a footnote regarding Ex. 3:14:

“Most moderns follow Rashe in rendering ‘I will be what I will be’ i.e. no words can sum up all that he will be to his people, but his everlasting faithfulness and unchanging mercy will more and more manifest themselves in the guidance of Israel. The answer which Moses receives in these words is thus equivalent to, ‘I shall save in the way that I shall save.’ It is to assure the Israelites of the fact of deliverance, but does not disclose the manner.”

J. Washington Watts, professor of OT at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary from 1930-1968, in his 1977 work A Distinctive Translation of Exodus With An Interpretive Outline, said this:

“Such a translation as ‘I am what I am’ appears to be ruled out completely by the fact that the verbs here are imperfects. ‘I am’ is the normal translation of the Hebrew perfect, not an imperfect … The translation offered here relates this explanation of the name to covenants with the patriarchs. As such it was a basis of assurance concerning Yahweh’s presence and support. This thought is made explicit in the verse that follows, and the proper name Yahweh, the memorial name, is made synonymous with the description ‘I shall continue to be what I have always been.’ This makes the description a restatement of Yahweh’s faithfulness and assurance that he will fulfill the covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

So my point is this: It appears that the better translation of Ex. 3:14 is “I will be what I will be,” on both grammatical and contextual grounds, and so any verbal connection to John 8:58 is brought into serious doubt.

Another thing that needs to be considered is the LXX rendering of ehyeh asher ehyeh and how this corresponds with the ‘I am’ statement of Jesus. As noted above, the Greek of the LXX reads ego eimi ho on, which is translated into English as ‘I am he (the one) who is’ or ‘I am the being.’ My point here is not to argue for or against the validity of this translation of the Hebrew phrase into Greek, but merely to show the unlikely connection to John 8:58. Now when Jesus spoke the words recorded in John 8:58 it is highly certain, even indisputable, that he was not speaking in Greek. The context tells us he is addressing the Pharisees in Jerusalem and so would be speaking in Hebrew, or at least in Aramaic. The apostle John would most likely have been present when Jesus spoke those words. Now if John had heard Jesus speak the words ‘I am’ in Hebrew and understood him to be claiming to be the same one who spoke the words ehyeh asher ehyeh to Moses, what would be the best way for John to communicate that in the Greek language? If John wanted his readers to understand that Jesus was claiming eternal self-existence, how could John best get that point over in Greek? All he would have to do is put into Jesus’ mouth the  exact words of the popular and widely used LXX – ego eimi ho on – and any Jew in the dispersion and any Gentile proselyte or convert to Judaism would have immediately made the connection to Ex. 3:14. But this is not how John translated Jesus’ words; he simply has Jesus saying ego eimi. In the LXX the ego eimi is not the part of the statement that supposedly conveys the idea of eternal self-existence, but rather the ho on. In other words, why doesn’t John record Jesus as saying ‘ego eimi ho on’ i.e. ‘I am he who is.’ The ego eimi part of ego eimi ho on is nothing more than me saying ‘I am Troy’ or “I am a man.’ I contend then, that this also makes it extremely unlikely that Jesus’ ‘I am’ has any connection whatsoever to Ex. 3:14.

The Grammar of John 8:58

As in the case with Ex. 3:14, the traditional English translation of John 8:58 is not without dispute. The English “before Abraham was I am” seems like a rather straight-forward translation of the  Greek prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi. Here’s the breakdown on the grammar:

  • prin  –  adverb meaning before , prior to
  • Abraam  –  masculine singular noun in the accusative case, Abraham
  • genesthai  –  aorist infinitive verb in the middle voice meaning to become, come into a new state of being, to be born, to receive being, arise, come on the scene, come about
  • ego  –  1st person singular personal pronoun meaning ‘I’
  • eimi  –  1st Person singular present indicative verb meaning to be, to exist, to live

Now the word we need to look at closely is eimi. It seems to be a clear cut, foregone conclusion, taken with ego, that the only possible translation would be “I am” or “I exist”. But there may be more than meets the eye here. There is a use of the present indicative verb form in Greek that can be expressed by the perfect tense in English. It is known as the progressive present or the present of past action. The rule seems to be that when there is an indicator of past time the present indicative is best translated as a perfect tense in English. This Greek idiom expresses the idea of an action occurring in the past and continuing to the present. Biblical examples are:

1.) Luke 15:29  –  ” … Look, so many years (past time indicator) I serve (present indicative verb) you, and I have never disobeyed your commandment, and you never gave to me a young goat … ”   Literal translation from the Greek.

Here we see the present indicative verb used with a past time indicator.  Note how it doesn’t sound right in English. Now observe how modern versions translate the verb in English by a perfect tense:

  • NIV  –  “Look! All these years I have been slaving for you …”
  • ESV  –  “Look, these many years I have served you …”
  • HCSB  –  “Look, I have been slaving many years for you …”
  • ISV  –  “Listen! All these years I’ve worked like a slave for you …
  • NAS  –  “Look, for so many years I have been serving you …”

The implication of the present indicative in this case is that the son has been serving his father so many years and still is.

2.) John 15:27  –  “And you also are witnesses, because  from the beginning (past time indicator) you are (present indicative verb) with me.”

Again we note how this doesn’t sound right in English, and how modern versions translate it:

  • NET  –  “And you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • ASV  –  ” and ye also bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.”
  • CSB  –  “And you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • NIV  –  “And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • ESV  –  “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Again, the implication is that the disciples have been with Jesus from the beginning and still are.

3.) 1 John 3:8  –  ” from the beginning (past time indicator) the devil is sinning (present indicative) …”

  • NASB  –  ” … the devil has sinned from the beginning … “
  • ESV  –  ” … for the devil has been sinning from the beginning …”
  • ISV  –  ” … because the devil has been sinning from the beginning …”
  • NET  –  “ … because the devil has been sinning from the beginning … “
  • NASB  –  ” .. for the devil has sinned from the beginning … “

Other examples of this phenomenon in the NT are: Mark 9:21; Luke 13:7; John 5:6; 8:25; 14:9; Acts 15:21; and of course John 8:58. There are also examples of the ‘progressive present’ in the LXX and in extrabiblical and secular writings of the time.

In John 8:58 we find the same kind of past time indicator (before Abraham was) in conjunction with a present indicative verb (I am). But what we fail to find is any popular modern version translating this ‘progressive present’ in the same way they translated the other verses of similar construction, i.e. with a past or perfect tense verb. Why? Well I am sure the editors of these Bibles will have a ready excuse, but one has to be suspicious as to why John 8:58 is the only case of a progressive present, in these versions, that is not translated with a past or perfect tense. Could their choice to translate John 8:58 in this way have been theologically motivated? Indeed, I think it highly probable.

So how does this information affect our understanding of Jesus’ statement in John 8:58? It becomes possible and even probable that the present indicative ‘I am’ can be translated into English as a perfect tense, i.e. ‘I have been.’ This would even further detach this passage from any connection with Exodus 3:14, and nullify the claim that Jesus is here asserting self- existence. At best this verse could only be a support for the pre-existence of Jesus, but not for a self claim to deity.

Next, I want to deal with the absence of a predicate in Jesus’ statement. It seems that we have two options here: 1.) We can take eimi as copulative in function, in which case the predicate must be supplied by implication from the context; or 2.) we can take eimi in an existential sense, in which case no predicate would be needed. Let’s look at the first option. As stated above, if eimi is serving as a copula, then good English requires a predicate in order for the statement to make sense. This predicate, if not explicit in the Greek, is implicit and must be supplied by the English reader. Now before you go and accuse me of adding words to Scripture, I want you to see that this is the practice of all modern versions in all verses where eimi is clearly functioning as a copula but where the predicate is not explicit in the text. The construction ego eimi without a predicate occurs 18 times in the NT: Matt. 14:27; 26:22, 25; Mark 6:50; 13:6; 14:62; Luke 21:8; 22:70; John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28; 8:58; 9:9; 13:19; 18: 5,6,8. I will not deal with every one of these verses but mainly with those in John’s gospel. But let’s look first at Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8, which both read, strictly from the Greek, “Many will come in my name saying ‘I am’ …” As you can see, this makes no sense in English without a predicate, so modern versions supply the implied predicate, mostly with ‘he,’ hence ‘I am he.’ ‘I am he’ is found in the ASV, CSB, ESV, NET, NASB, NIV and HCSB, while the KJV has ‘I am Christ‘ in both places. The interesting thing is that Matthew, in his account in 24:5, supplies the predicate himself, reading in Greek, ego eimi ho christos, i.e. ‘I am the Christ.’ Matthew obviously understood Jesus’ ‘I am’ in this way.

Let’s look at the verses in John, excluding 6:20 and 8:58. In 4:26 ‘he’ is added as a predicate by the ASV, CSB, ESV, HCSB, ISV, NET, NIV, KJV and NASB. In 8:24, 28, 13:19  and 18: 5, 6 and 8 ‘he’ is added by the ASV, CSB, ESV, HCSB, NET, NIV, KJV and NASB. In 9:9 the ASV and KJV add ‘he‘, ESV and NIV add ‘the man‘, and the CSB, HCSB, NET and NASB add ‘the one.’

Why have all of these translations added these words that are not in the Greek text? Simply because in English a copula without a predicate doesn’t make sense. Anyone reading John’s Greek gospel in the first century would automatically mentally add the predicate implied by the context. Our English translations are correct to add the predicates in order to smooth out the sentence. But what about John 8:58? None of these versions has supplied a predicate at 8:58. Is this another case of translation bias? Perhaps, for you can be sure that the editors of these Bibles do not want to lose the connection of this verse with Exodus 3:14, as a proof text for Jesus’ deity, although, as we have shown, that connection is tenuous at best. But perhaps some of them see the ego eimi in 8:58 as an existential statement, i.e. “Before Abraham was, I exist.” Of course that does not work in English. This is where they would have to follow their pattern of translating the present indicative, when accompanied by a past time indicator, with a perfect tense verb, i.e. “Before Abraham was, I have been.” But as noted above, none of these versions followed their normal pattern for translating the progressive present at 8:58.

So based on the two grammatical options for eimi, and the fact that eimi is a progressive present, we could translate the verse in two ways. Based on option 1 above we could read:

“Before Abraham was, I have been the one.”

And based on option 2 above we could read:

“Before Abraham was, I have been.”

Immediate Context

Now the context must determine what ‘the one’ would mean. We know from the context of the whole book of John that ultimately ‘the one’ would refer to the promised one, the Messiah. The whole purpose of the book was to inculcate the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, not that he is God.

“But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  John 20:31

The more immediate context would be the whole of chapter 8, for v.58 is still part of the discourse which began at v.12. In v. 12 Jesus claims to be the light of the world, perhaps with Messianic passages from Isaiah in mind, such as 9:2, 42:6 and 49:6. In vv.16 and 18 he claims to have been sent by the Father. This is the language of agency i.e. he is the appointed agent of the Father. In v. 24 he tells them, “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he,” meaning the one sent by the Father and the light foretold by Isaiah. In v.28 he says, “When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will know that I am he,” i.e. the son of man. In vv. 31-47 Jesus claims that his word, as the Father’s appointed agent i.e. the Son, is the truth of God, which must be believed and held fast in order for one to be considered a child of Abraham. In v. 51 he claims that his word must be held fast if one would have life. To this the Jews respond:

” … Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you make yourself to be?   vv.52-53

In v. 56 Jesus says :

” Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day, and he saw and was glad.

It is often asserted by trinitarian apologists that Jesus was saying that Abraham actually saw him as the pre-incarnate Son, as the Angel of the Lord. But Jesus does not say that Abraham saw him personally, but that he foresaw the time of Messiah, in which Abraham rejoiced, knowing that, in that time, he would be raised from the dead to receive his inheritance {see Rom. 4:17 and Heb. 11:13 & 19}.

The Jews then retort, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” This is often understood as if these Jews really misunderstood what Jesus was saying. But were these Jews really that stupid? I do not think so. This is what people often do in debate when they cannot respond to an opponents argument — they twist their opponents words, mockingly, to make it seem like the opponent meant their words in some ridiculous way. But Jesus never said he saw Abraham. So Jesus, ignoring their attempt to make him look foolish, said “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was, I have been.” This would be the translation based on option 2 above. Without the connection to Ex. 3:14 there is no reason to read this as a claim to deity. At most it appears to be a claim to have existed before Abraham. Is Jesus claiming to have existed before Abraham was born? Yes, but only in a certain manner. If this is the way we should understand eimi, i.e. existentially, then we can understand Jesus to be claiming some kind of pre-existence, before the time of Abraham. I say some kind of pre-existence because in the Hebrew worldview pre-existence was not literal and personal, but only in the mind, plan and purpose of God.

Pre-existence in Jewish Thought

Some ancient Jewish writings help to give us insight in this matter. From the Genesis Rabbah, a midrash on the book of Genesis, at 1.4 we read:

Six things precede the creation of the world; some of them were actually created, while the creation of the others was already contemplated. The Torah and the Throne of Glory were created … The creation of the Patriarchs was contemplated … [The creation of] Israel was contemplated … [The creation of] the temple was contemplated … The name of Messiah was contemplated …

From the Babylonian Talmud, Peshaim 54a, we read:

Seven things were created before the world was made, and these are they: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, and the house of the sanctuary, and the name of the Messiah.

We see from these texts that in the Jewish mind these things had a sort of existence long before they were actually brought to pass in the real world. This existence was not viewed as actual but in the purpose and plan, the blueprint as it were, of that which God willed to bring about. Many scholars over many years have confirmed this Jewish perspective of pre-existence. Norwegian theologian and professor Sigmund Mowinckel, in his work titled, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, wrote this concerning pre-existence in Jewish thought:

Attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel … as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. the same is also true of the Messiah … in Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.” This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.     p.334

E. G. Selwyn in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Emil Schurer in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol.2 p.522 wrote: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.”

Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p. 218 of Born Before All Time?, wrote: ” … in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

Reverend Maurice Wiles, Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine:

Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds … Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Talk of his pre-existence ought probably in most, perhaps in all, cases to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind.

Now this concept of things existing in the mind, will and plan of God before they have actual, real world existence can be seen in Scripture. One example is Rev. 4:11:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and our God … for you created (aorist indicative) all things, and on account of your will they existed (imperfect indicative) and were created (aorist indicative).”

Here we see that all things were existing because of God’s will and then were created. In Isaiah 37:26 the word of the LORD came against Sennacherib, “Have you not heard? Long ago I accomplished it. From ancient times I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you exist to turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps.”

The Apostle Paul tells us something interesting about God in Romans 4:17:

As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He (Abraham) is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed — the One who … calls things not existing as if existing.

Paul seems to be implying that this is a normal way for God to speak. But when God calls things which do not exist as if they did exist, is he lying? No, because they do exist in a particular way, i.e. in his purpose and plan. God said to Abram, before he even had a child, “I have made you a father of many nations.” The only sense in which this could be true is that in God’s plan He made Abram such.

So, though Jesus’ statement in John 8:58 implies a pre-existence before Abraham, this should not be understood as a literal, personal existence, but an ideal existence in God’s plan. His statement also asserts a priority over Abraham in the purpose of God. Remember the Jews’ question, “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” Indeed, Jesus is claiming a greater position in the plan and purpose of God than that of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as King David, all had important roles in God’s plan, but they were in a sense only means to the ultimate figure in God’s plan, Messiah. You see, the Messiah had to come from a certain people, through a certain family line. God chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob. From Jacob he chose Judah, and from him David. All of these played an important role in bringing the Messiah into the world, but it is Messiah who is the focal point of God’s overall plan. Though Abraham could also be said to have pre-existed in the plan of God, Messiah’s pre-existence would be antecedent to Abrahams. God, as it were, wrote the plan concerning Messiah, and then wrote Abraham into the plan as the means through which he would bring Messiah into the world.

Now it is often claimed that because the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus, that this is proof that he was claiming to be God. This is supposed to be what blasphemy is — claiming to be God. But where does this idea come from? Nowhere in Scripture is blasphemy ever defined as ‘claiming to be God.’ It is not likely that anyone in the history of Israel was ever stoned for claiming to be God. If anyone had ever made such a claim he would have been pitied as deluded and out of his mind. Blasphemy was the sin of speaking about or against God in a derogatory way. Also, in the Jewish mind, one could also blaspheme against Moses, the temple and the law {see Acts 6:11-14}. The patriarchs were highly esteemed and for one to claim superiority over someone like Abraham would also be considered blasphemy, after all, he was the progenitor of their nation. It would also have been considered blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah {see Matt. 26:59-66; Mark 14:55-64; LK. 22:66-71}. Further proof that the Jews did not hear, in Jesus’ statement, a claim to be God, is the accusations brought against him at his trial before Pilate. In none of the gospel accounts is it said at Jesus’ trial that he had claimed to be God. Even in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is supposed to be making the clearest declaration of his deity, we do not find this being brought against him as an accusation. When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, in John 19, and Pilate was inclined to release him, they accused him saying, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the son of God.” (v.7) Pilate questioned Jesus further and again wanted to release him, but the Jews shouted, “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (v.12) This coincides with the other gospels {see Matt.27:11-13; Mark 15:1-3; Lk. 23:1-3}.

Conclusion

So, when all the evidence is taken together, it appears that the interpretation of John 8:58 which purports that Jesus is making a claim to deity is indeed a superficial reading of the text. The only thing it seems to have in it’s favor is that it supports the orthodox tradition of Christ’s deity. But it ignores so much in arriving at it’s conclusion. It ignores the Hebraic context and worldview in which the Gospel of John is positioned. It ignores the grammatical considerations which work against it. It ignores the tenuousness of the connection to Ex. 3:14. It ignores the immediate context of John’s gospel, who’s stated purpose is that his readers might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God { 20:31}.

One Final Alternative

There is one other possible translation and interpretation of John 8:58. It hinges on the word genesthai. This is translated in all versions, as far as I know, with a past tense verb in English, i.e. “before Abraham was (or was born) …” The verb form in Greek is an aorist infinitive. The aorist form definitely denotes past action only in the indicative mood. Here the mood is the infinitive, and so there is no definite time implied. It could be speaking of a past, present or future action; only the context can determine which. When we look at this exact word in other places in the NT we see that it often is used to denote a future action, e.g.

  1. Matt. 20:26  –  ” … whoever wants to become great among you… “
  2. Mark 1:17  –  “ … I will make you to become fishers of men … “
  3. Mark 13:7  –  ” … such things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”
  4. John 5:6  –  ” And Jesus seeing him … said, ‘Do you desire to be well.’
  5. Acts 26:29  –  “Paul said … “I wish to God … for all those hearing me today, to become as I am … “
  6. Acts 27:29  –  ” … they prayed for day to come.”

The reason that virtually all versions translate it as a past tense is because it is assumed that the context is referring to Abraham’s coming to be at his birth. But this is not the only possible way to understand the context. As we saw above, in the context of the passage, the Jews, in vv.52-53, mention the fact that Abraham died, yet Jesus claims that if anyone holds fast to his word they will never die. They want to know who he thinks he is claiming to be greater than Abraham. Then Jesus gives the answer about Abraham rejoicing that he would see Messiah’s day, presumably by resurrection. Then the Jews attempt to make Jesus look foolish, but he ignores them and states the phrase under consideration, which could be translated as “Before Abraham comes to be (in the resurrection) I am (to be).” If we take genesthai in a future tense then eimi would be copulative and the predicate implied from the context. Jesus would in this case be asserting that he would experience resurrection unto immortality apart from and prior to Abraham and all the righteous dead. This would, once again, mean that Jesus has the supremacy over Abraham and all others. This accords with Paul’s statement in Col. 1:17:

“… he is the beginning  and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he  might have the supremacy.”

And in Romans 14:9:

“For this very reason, Christ died and has come to life again so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

This interpretation works well with both the grammar and the context and should be considered viable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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