"Jesus said to them: "Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been," New World Translation.
The Jehovah's Witnesses deny that Jesus is God. So, when it comes to translating and interpreting Bible verses that show the deity of Jesus, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society will go to great lengths to support their false presupposition. Sometimes they will even translate verses in a way that is consistent with their belief system. In the Jehovah's Witness Bible, known as the New World Translation (NWT),1 John 8:58 is a verse that they have translated in a manner deliberately consistent with their theology. Following is the verse in context from the NASB:
In John 8:56-59 says, "'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.' 57The Jews therefore said to Him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?' 58Jesus said to them, 'Truly truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.' 59Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple." (All Bible quotes are from the NASB)
The issue at hand is the phrase "I am" in verse 58. The Jehovah's Witnesses have "translated" the Greek present tense ("I am") into the English perfect tense ("I have been") which is more consistent with their theological position that Jesus is not God in flesh. In the Greek, the words are "ego eimi." Literally, this is "I am." "Ego eimi" is the present active indicative first person singular (I am) and not the perfect active indicative first person singular (I have been). It would seem that the natural and correct translation into the English is "I am," but the NWT does not translate this into the present tense. Why? I am firmly convinced it is because translating John 8:58 as "I am" would be too close to God identifying Himself as the "I am" in Exodus 3:14. Therefore, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has opted for a different rendering.
"And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" (Exodus 3:14).
But the issue is not settled so easily. Does the Bible ever legitimately translate the present tense 'ego eimi' into the English perfect tense "I have been"? Yes, it does. In John 14:8-9 it says, "Philip said to Him, 'Lord show us the Father, and it is enough for us.' 9Jesus said to him, 'Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father?'" Where Jesus says, "I have been" is in the Greek present tense, 'ego eimi'. Literally, again, this is "I am." Here we have an example of the Greek present tense being translated into the English perfect tense. This is the very same thing the Watchtower organization claims is legitimate in John 8:58. Why is this translated into "I have been?" Quite simply because if we did not do this, then the English would say, "I am with you so long . . . " That is awkward in the English, so translators translate it as "Have I been so long with you . . . " It is legitimate to do this in some instances where it is warranted in order to make the English more readable and clear. But is it necessary to do this in John 8:58? I don't believe so unless your underlying presupposition is that Jesus is not God in flesh.
Additionally, to make the issue even more complicated, there are some English Bible translations that render John 8:58 other than "I AM." For example, the Living Bible (1973, a paraphrase) says, "The absolute truth is that I was in existence before Abraham was ever born." The New Living Translations says, "I existed." The Bible in Worldwide English translates it as "I already was." The 1960, 1973 NASB had a marginal rendering of "I have been." Because of this, the Jehovah's Witness will claim the NWT is, therefore, legitimate since other Bibles have translations other than "I AM" in John 8:58. But from what I have seen of these other translations, they are intended to be looser renderings of the Greek and therefore take more liberties in translation. The NASB, for example, is intended to be as literal as possible as does the KJV which both translate the verse as "I AM." The 1973 NASB marginal quote above is just that--marginal and is not what they rendered into the English text. The preferred translation is "I am." Take Young's Literal Translation as another example. In John 8:58 it states, ". . . Before Abraham's coming--I am." In fact, other translations render it as:
- "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was born, I am," (ASV).
- "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am," (KJV).
- "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am," (NASB).
- "I tell you the truth, Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!" (NIV).
- "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM," (NKJV).
- "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am," (RSV).
- "Truly, truly, before Abraham was, I am," (NLT).
- "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am," (RSV)
- "Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am!" (KJ21).
- "Verily, verily, I say to you, Before Abraham's coming--I am,' (YLT).
- "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am," (Darby).
- "Antes que Abraham fuese, yo soy," (Spanish) - uses "yo soy" which is "I am."
- "En vï'ritï', en vï'ritï', je vous le dis, avant qu'Abraham fï't, je suis," (French) "je suis" which is "I am."
Of course, the Jehovah's Witnesses will cite translations that have renderings other than the plain "I am" for John 8:58 and in so doing claim legitimacy. Unfortunately, since different translations do have different renderings, the debate will continue between the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian apologists until the Lord Jesus returns.
In the meantime, let's turn to page 467 of the 1969 Greek Interlinear used by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society:
The Watchtower's own interlinear translates John 8:58 as "I am" even though in the NWT it renders it as "I have been." In this, they admit that the Greek is indeed, "I am," the present tense. They will not deny this. What they assert is that it should be translated into the English, "I have been." Should it or could it? If it should, then Greek scholars would echo the NWT rendition in the great majority of instances; but they do not. Essentially, the Watchtower organization is saying that all the translations that have "I am" as the rendering are wrong, and that the "proper" translation is "I have been." In a footnote at the bottom of page 467 regarding John 8:58 in the NWT is this comment:
"I have been = ego eimi after the a'orist infinitive clause prin' Abraam genesthai and hence properly rendered in the perfect tense. It is not the same as ho ohn', meaning "The Being" or "The I Am" at Exodus 3:14, LXX"
The "LXX" is the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The question is whether or not Jesus was quoting from the LXX or if He was simply translating the Hebrew. Again, Exodus 3:14 says, "And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.'" The phrase "I AM WHO I AM" is rendered in the Greek LXX as "Ego eimi ho on." Literally, this is "I am the being one." Most Bibles translate the Hebrew from Exodus 3:14 as "I am"--the present tense as did the Hebrew translators of the LXX. The LXX also has it in the present tense which is what the Greek syntax states. Jesus uses the present tense in John 8:58.
In spite of some of the translations regarding John 8:58, I do not believe the NWT's version of John 8:58 is warranted for three reasons: First, it purports to "transmit his [God] thoughts and declarations as accurately as possible."2 I do not believe this is the case at all. Rather, I see the Watchtower's bias against Jesus' divinity overtaking this verse and altering it as it has done in other verses such as Heb. 1:8 and Col. 1:15-17. Second, the most literal translations such as the NASB, the NIV, and the KJV do not render this verse as "I have been" but as "I AM." And, third, the context of the verse does not support the JW position.
It isn't the English but the Greek that upset the Pharisees
"'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.' 57The Jews therefore said to Him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?' 58Jesus said to them, 'Truly truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.' 59Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple."
The Pharisees didn't speak English. They spoke Hebrew and Greek. In the Greek text, Jesus uses the present tense. It was this Greek present tense (I am) that upset the Pharisees so much and not the perfect tense (I have been).
If Jesus were really saying to the Jews, "I have been," then why would the Pharisees want to kill him (v. 59)? Since blasphemy or calling yourself God was punishable by death, isn't this a confirmation that Jesus was saying "I am," and that the Jew's understood what he was saying? Absolutely! That is why the best translation is simply "I am."3
I also need to mention that in Mark 14:62, where Jesus answered the High Priest who said, "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? 62And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. 63Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? 64Ye have heard the blasphemy. . ." Jesus responded with "I am" which provoked the authorities and prompted them to seek death. This is particularly revealing when we compare John 10:34 where the Pharisees want to kill Jesus because they said He was making Himself equal to God. The phrase, "I AM" in these contexts would surely imply that.
Undoubtedly, Jesus knew the difference in the Greek between "I am" and "I have been." Jesus did not use the form "I have been" in the Greek but used the form "I am." It is the Greek and not the English that the Pharisees were upset about.
But the Pharisees were so upset
At this point, many of the Jehovah's Witnesses assert that by the time Jesus said, "Before Abraham was I have been," (NWT) they had already been thoroughly agitated by Jesus and basically snapped and tried to kill Him at this final comment. Furthermore, the Jehovah's Witnesses deny that Jesus was claiming the divine title of Exodus 3:14 where God said to Moses, "I am that I am." But which do you think would have upset the Pharisees more, saying "Before Abraham was, I am" or "Before Abraham was, I have been"? Obviously, the former would be more upsetting, and that is exactly the phrase that Jesus used.
If Jesus wanted to avoid any confusion with the Pharisees, why didn't He use one of the past tenses? Certainly he must have known that saying "Before Abraham was, I am" to the Pharisees would cause some problems. And it did. The aorist (I was), the perfect (I have been), and the pluperfect (I had been) all deal with the past; yet Jesus chose to deliberately use the present tense "I am." He used a past tense verb when describing Abraham ("before Abraham was . . . ") but a present tense verb when describing Himself ("I am"). He deliberately brought attention to the words, "I am." The Pharisees understood this and was indeed the last straw for them.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have spent a great deal of time developing and crafting linguistic arguments to favor their translation of John 8:58. Wading through their arguments dealing with Greek tenses, verb forms, and grammar rules is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is sufficient to mention that the Jehovah's Witnesses have a theological bias against the deity of Christ. Their translation of John 8:58 and their attempts to justify this translation are directly related to their presuppositions against Christ and his deity.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society teaches its members to deny the deity of Christ. From this base, any and all affirmations to Jesus' deity will be undermined in whatever way possible. John 8:58 is just another example of this bias.
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- 1. WE = WorldWide English Bible; YLT = Young's Literal Translation; KJ21 = 21st Century King James Version
- 2. New World Translation, 1961, p. 5.
- 3. I should note that, most probably Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in Aramaic, a Hebrew Dialect. It is possible He spoke to them in Greek. But, since all we have is the NT Greek and no Aramaic writings of the NT, we must work from what the Greek says.