Addendum to John 8:58


In this post I want to deal with an issue I did not touch upon in my post on John 8:58. Some recent scholars and/or Trinitarian apologists have seemingly abandoned the idea that the use of ‘I am’ by Jesus in John 8:58 is a direct reference to Exodus 3:14. Why they do so I don’t know. James White , in his paper titled Purpose and Meaning of “Ego Eimi” in the Gospel of John In Reference to the Deity of Christ, says this under the section Old Testament Background of ego eimi:

Suffice it to say that the position taken by this writer reflects a consensus opinion of many scholars … that the closest and most logical connection between John’s usage of ego eimi and the Old Testament is to be found in the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew phrase ani hu in the writings (primarily) of Isaiah. It is true that many go directly to Exodus 3:14 for the background, but it is felt that unless one first establishes the connection with the direct quotation of ego eimi in the Septuagint, the connection with Exodus 3:14 will be somewhat tenuous.

My contention in my post, that the connection between John 8:58 and Ex. 3:14 was tenuous at best and none existent at worst, was based on other considerations beside that which White mentions here, but the fact that he sees a “consensus of opinion of many scholars,” is itself confirmation of my conclusions in that post.

Later in the same paper, in the Conclusion, White says: “It could fairly be admitted that an immediate and unqualified jump from the ego eimi of John 8:58 to Exodus 3:14 is unwise.” Not withstanding this consensus among scholars, many lay-persons and lay- apologists will continue to think they have a solid case for Jesus’ deity in the supposed connection between the two passages.

But now White and other scholars think they have found a better way to view Jesus’ ‘I am‘ statements in John’s gospel. They now connect it with the Hebrew ani hu, which, in the LXX, is translated as ego eimi, the same Greek words in John’s gospel, translated as ‘I am‘ in English. The assertion is that in the OT ani hu becomes a way that God speaks of himself, a sort of code for his Godhood, a declaration of his absolute being. These passages then get translated into the LXX as ego eimi. Then the link is made to Jesus’ ego eimi statements in the gospel of John. And presto! Absolute proof that Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh. So let’s look at this OT phrase to see if this assertion holds water.

First of all, ani = I and hu = he, so the phrase is literally ‘I he’, but this is translated in most cases as “I am he.” From what I understand, in Hebrew the verb meaning to be is often not explicit in the text, and must be supplied. The relevant passages are Deut. 32:39; Is. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6. In all of these passages God speaks these words concerning himself. But the simple fact is that these words are simply a way of self identifying. I do not think that any of these occurrences of the phrase demand the meaning of absolute being, though this is true of God, but rather God is identifying himself as the one who is doing a certain thing or fulfilling a certain role in relation to his covenant people Israel. The context must determine precisely what God is claiming. So let’s look at these verses.

Deut. 32:39   –  “See now that I, I am he! There is no God besides me.”

Here ‘I am he’ points to the next phrase, i.e. I am the one who alone is God

Is. 41:4  –  “Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, Yahweh — with the first of them and with the last — I am he.”

Here ‘I am he’ points back to what was just said, i.e. Yahweh who calls forth the generations from the beginning.

Is. 43:10  –  “You are my witnesses,” declares Yahweh, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no God was formed, nor will there be after me.”

This one could be pointing back to v.3 where Yahweh declares to be Israel’s God, Holy One and Savior. Or it could be pointing forward to v.11 that he is Yahweh, Israel’s only Savior.

Is. 43:13  –  “Yes from ancient days I am he.”

This one is easy, just go back to the previous statement, “You are my witnesses that I am God. Yes from ancient days I am he.”

Is. 43:25  –  “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

Yahweh is saying he is the one who forgives Israel’s sins.

Is. 46:4  –  “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

Again, the context makes it obvious. Yahweh is Israel’s sustainer.

Is. 48:12  –  “Listen to me , O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: I am he, I am the first and I am the last.”

God is proclaiming himself to be the first and the last in relation to Israel {see 41:4}; he is the one who created the nation, he will be the one to carry them through to their ultimate destiny. As in 41:4 he was with the first generation and will be with the last.

Is. 51:12  –  “I, even I am he who comforts you.”

Yahweh is Israel’s comforter.

Is. 52:6  –  “Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that same day, that I am he who has spoken. Behold, it is I.”

Yahweh is the one who has foretold of Israel’s redemption from their slavery to foreign powers.

Both Is. 43:25 and 51:12 have anoki hu instead of ani hu, though the two words seem to be parallel in usage, with anoki being perhaps more emphatic.

So it should be evident that in none of these passages does the phrase ani hu = I am he stand alone as an absolute statement of eternal self- existence, as scholars are asserting. In each case, the context tells us what Yahweh is pointing to about himself when he uses this phrase. Again these are not ontological statements of Yahweh’s essential nature, but God’s way of emphatically pointing to the covenant roles or functions he performs in relation to Israel. Scholars are simply making to much out of this phrase, overstating the case, I suspect, because having admitted the tenuous connection of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements with Exodus 3:14, they have looked for some other connection that would support the assertion that Jesus was making a claim to deity. In other words, this theory is being driven not by a strict exegesis of the text, but by the theological presupposition that Jesus is God. In fact this whole theory is based upon circular reasoning, as I will show.

Ani hu, in all of the passages above, is translated into the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek version of the OT at use in Jesus’ time) by ego eimi. One thing that this clues us to is that the word ‘he’ or some other predicate such as ‘the one,’ is implicit in ego eimi. Therefore, the English versions that add a predicate to the occurrences of ego eimi  in the gospel of John, where  a predicate is lacking in the Greek, are correct to do so. Now we can assume that Jesus spoke in Hebrew and so the Hebrew behind John’s ego eimi is almost certainly ani hu. But as we saw in the case of the OT usage, the ego eimi on the lips of the Lord in the NT is also not being used as a stand alone statement of eternal self-existence, but in imitation of the OT usage, as an emphatic way of pointing to the role or function which Messiah bears in relation to Israel. Let’s go through the relevant passages in John, just as we did with the OT passages, to see if this assertion bears out. Taking ego eimi to be translating ani hu, I will add the word ‘he.’

John 4:25-26  –  The woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes , he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking to you.”

This should be obvious to everyone; “I am he” means I am the Messiah.

John 6:20  –  But he said to them, ” I am he, don’t be afraid.”

Here Jesus comes walking on the water to the disciples in a boat, and they were terrified. We are told by Trinitarian apologists that Jesus then tells them “Hey don’t be afraid, I am God.” How absurd! Almost all modern English versions give the true sense, as a simple statement of self identification, “It is I, don’t be afraid.”

John 8:24  –  “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”

This is one of the verses that are taken by Trinitarian scholars as a stand alone, absolute claim to deity. Hence the claim is made that belief in the deity of Messiah is necessary for salvation. But this is merely an interpretation, and that based on the a priori belief that Jesus is God. The very next verse rules out that interpretation, for the Jews to whom he was speaking, and who certainly would have been familiar with the phrase ani hu, do not gasp in horror that Jesus is claiming to be God, but they simply ask, “Who are you.”  This shows that they understood ani hu as a simple “I am he” or “I am the one.” They are not sure to what he is referring. Jesus answers, “What I have been telling you from the beginning.” So what has he been telling these Jews (specifically the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem) ? In chapter 5 he claims, 6 times, to be the one sent by the Father, the son of the Father and the son of man. All of these should have been understood by the Jews as a claim to be the promised Messiah. The discourse in chapter 6 takes place in Capernaum, not in Jerusalem and so is not relevant. Chapter 7 finds him once again in Jerusalem, where again, 5 times he claims to be the one sent by God. The discourse of chapter 8 begins with Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world,” a clear reference to such Messianic passages like Is. 9:1-2; 42:6 and 49:6. He continues on, once again claiming to be the one sent by God, i.e. the Messiah. So clearly, Jesus’ “I am” in v.24 is not a claim to absolute eternal existence, but to being the promised Messiah.

John 8:28  –  “When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will know that I am he…”

They will know that he is who? The son of man.

John 13:19  –  “I am telling you before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am he.”

In verse 18 Jesus quotes a passage from the OT (Ps. 41:9) in reference to his betrayal by one close to him. He then says that he is telling them before his betrayal happens so that  when it does happen, they will believe what? That he is God. That makes no sense at all. The ability to predict the future would not be seen by any Jew as a mark of deity. Many prophets of the past had predicted the future in great detail without anyone accusing them of thinking they were God. Surely in the disciple’s minds, Jesus would have been at least a prophet. No! He told them in advance so that when it happened they would believe he was the one of whom the prophecy spoke.

John 18:4-8  –  Jesus … went out and asked them, “Who is it that you seek?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” Jesus said … When Jesus said “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them “Who is it you seek?” And they said “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered “I told you that I am he …”

According to Trinitarians, when the soldiers said “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus is supposed to have replied “I am the self-existent eternal God.” And further proof that this is what Jesus meant is that the power of those words knocked these men to the ground. Really! What absurd lengths some people go to find their favorite traditional beliefs in the Scriptures. Once again, this is a simple statement of self-identification. Jesus is simply saying “That’s me, I’m the guy.” But what about them falling to the ground? Note that the text does not say that they were knocked down to the ground, but that they moved back and fell down. Now if the words “I am” are so powerful that these men could not stand when Jesus uttered them, then why did some such phenomena not occur any of the other times Jesus uttered those words? This is simply much ado about nothing. These soldiers, probably from the temple guard, along with some officials from the chief priests, are coming to Jesus at night. Though they had torches the light was probably not very bright. They would be walking in a tightly knit group, staying close to those carrying the torches. These men knew who they were going to arrest, a man who had displayed a miraculous power like nothing any of them had ever seen, but had only heard of from the OT stories. Not long before this night he had raised a man to life who had been dead at least four days. No doubt there was some apprehension on the part of these soldiers, perhaps even fear, not knowing what they might be getting themselves into trying to arrest such a man as this. Jesus approached them, but they did not know he was Jesus, and when he told them who he was, the initial reaction of those in the front was to move backwards suddenly, pushing themselves into those behind them, creating a domino effect, causing them to fall down. It is not even necessary to assume that every single person fell. This is certainly a more reasonable explanation.

The only remaining verse is, of course, John 8:58, which may be the only occurrence of ego eimi that has an existential meaning. But it is not necessary to postulate a meaning of eternal self-existence, just some sort of prior existence. As I show in my post on John 8:58, this can be understood as pre-existence in the predetermined plan of Yahweh, rather than a literal, personal pre-existence.

I said earlier that I would prove that this theory, that Jesus was purposely using the ani hu phrase to declare himself God, is based  upon circular reasoning. First of all, the theory is based on the assumption that ani hu, as spoken by God in the OT, is a declaration of his eternal self-existence. This assumption is unproven, as I have shown. This is simply the opinion of some scholars who are committed to the false idea that Jesus just is Yahweh. But even if it were true that ani hu in the mouth of Yahweh was just such a statement of his eternal self-existence, that would not mean that if someone other than God said those words that they would be claiming eternal self-existence. The only reason these scholars think that Jesus’ “I am” statements are an absolute declaration of eternal self-existence is because they already believe Jesus is Yahweh. Are we to believe that no one else can utter the words ‘I am he’ without making a claim to deity. If we assume Jesus to be what he is unambiguously called in Scripture, i.e. a man, then there would be no need to take these ‘I am’ statements as anything more than an emphatic way of identifying himself as Israel’s promised Messiah, sent by God. It is the presuppositional belief in Jesus’ deity that then becomes the basis for interpreting Jesus’ words as a claim to deity. In other words, it is impossible to prove, from Jesus’ use of ani hu, that he is indeed Yahweh. But if one already accepts the belief that Jesus is Yahweh, he will see Jesus’ words as confirmation of that belief. That, my friends, is circular reasoning.





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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