Jesus said in John 8:58, "Before Abraham was, I am." This is a very important verse to Trinitarians because it is one of the places we use to show that Jesus is God. We maintain that Jesus attributed the divine name of God ("I AM" from Exodus 3:14), to Himself, but this verse alone may not be sufficient to prove His deity. There are a combination of other verses that contribute to the doctrine. Nevertheless, there are many non-Christian groups that deny that Jesus is God. Therefore, when they come to this verse, it must be dealt with. The reason is simple. If Jesus did say, "I am," it would give strong evidence that Jesus was claiming to be God.
This paper will not attempt to analyze the Greek translation principles that have lead various Bibles to render John 8:58 as "I have been" or "I was in existence," etc. Suffice it to say that the best recognized translations which have sought literal renderings of the text have translated the verse as "I am": NASB, NIV, KJV, RSV, etc.
The Jehovah's Witness Watchtower organization claims that the best translation of John 8:58 is "Before Abraham was, I have been." Notice that they do not have it say, "I am." Is it legitimate for the Watchtower organization to insist that John 8:58 is best translated as "I have been"? Let's take a look.
Ego Eimi means "I am"
In Greek, the words recorded in John 8:58 are "'prin abraam genesthai ego eimi." Literally, this is "Before Abraham was existing, I am." "Ego eimi" is literally, "I am." This is the present tense. To say "I have been" is to use the perfect tense. In Greek, his would have been "aemane," but Jesus didn't use it here. He used the present tense "ego eimi" which is "I am."
There are places, however, in the New Testament where the Greek present tense of 'ego eimi' "I am" can be translated into the English perfect tense "I have been." An example of this is John 14:9 where Jesus says, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me . . . " In this verse, "Have I been" is originally the Greek present tense 'ego eimi'; but here, Jesus was answering the statement in verse 8, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Since in English it is awkward to say, "I am with you so long, and you still don't know me . . . ,?" it is then rendered as, "Have I been with you so long, and you have not come to know me . . . ?" The translation of the Greek present into the English perfect tense is perfectly justifiable here because it doesn't make sense in English, but is it the case with John 8:58? Must it be translated as "I have been"? No. There is no linguistic requirement to translate it as "I have been" particularly when you notice that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus after he said, "ego eimi."
Some say that the reason the Jews wanted to kill Jesus after He said, "Before Abraham was, I am" is that it was the last straw in a series of difficult and insulting things Jesus had been saying to the Jews in John chapter 8. Others say that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus for saying "Before Abraham was, I am," because "I am" is close to God saying "I am that I am" in Exodus 3:14. In other words, we can make the case that for Jesus to say, "Before Abraham was, I am" was equivalent to claiming God's name for Himself. This is something the Jews would absolutely protest. Let's look at the arguments:
The first argument states that Jesus had upset the Jews so much by what He had been saying that when he finally made his statement in verse 58, it was the last straw; the Jews snapped, and then they tried to kill him; but, they maintain, it wasn't because Jesus was claiming the divine title. They had just had enough.
What had Jesus been saying? Following is a list of some key statements by Jesus in chapter 8.
- "I am the light of the world" (8:12).
- "I am He who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of me" (8:18).
- "You don't know me or my Father" (8:19).
- "You are from below, I am from above" (8:23).
- "Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins" (8:24).
- "The things which I heard from Him [God the Father], these I speak to the world" (8:26).
- "I speak these things as the Father taught me" (8:28).
- "I always do the things that are pleasing to Him" (8:29).
- "I speak the things which I have seen with My Father . . . " (8:38).
- " . . . you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God, this Abraham did not do" (8:40).
- " . . . I proceeded forth and have come from God . . . " (8:42).
- "Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death" (8:51).
- "It is my Father who glorifies Me . . . " (8:54).
- "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58).
The preceding list has many profound statements. It is perfectly understandable that the Jews would be upset, but, it was Jesus' statement in 8:58 that triggered their murderous attempt. Was it because Jesus said "Before Abraham was, I have been" or "Before Abraham was, I am"? Which would be the phrase most likely to be the last straw for the Jews? It is quite possible that either statement would be sufficient; but, of course, any claim by Jesus to the divine name would be a stronger motivation for the Jews to kill Him.
Also, notice statements 1, 5, 11, and 14. These are clear declarations by Jesus where He exalts Himself to heavenly level. The Jews could easily see this and would protest--particularly when Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am." Since He did say, in Greek, "I am," it is more likely that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus for blasphemy. Consider Leviticus 24:16 which says, 'Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him" (NASB).
The Connection with John 10:30-33
Capital punishment was only for serious sins: blasphemy, adultery, etc. From what I can see in the Bible, saying you had a preexistence isn't blasphemy. However, claiming to be one with God is quite different. In John 10:30-33 Jesus said, "I and the Father are one. The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32Jesus answered them, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?" 33"The Jews answered Him, 'For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (NASB).
Between John 8:59 where the Jews picked up stones to kill Jesus and John 10:30-33 where they again picked up stones to kill him, there is no mention of stoning whatsoever. John 10:31 is referencing back to John 8:59 when it says "The Jews took up stones again to stone Him." Note that they again wanted to kill Him, and this time they give the reason why. They said that Jesus was claiming to be God. Now, where would they get that idea? Could it have been where he said, "Before Abraham was, I am"? Could it be from where Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (10:30). Since they wanted to kill Him both times, it would seem that Jesus had been making some very serious claims, or was it simply that the Pharisees misunderstood Jesus; and that Jesus never did claim to be God?
But, if Jesus was not claiming to be God in John 8:58 and 10:30, then what was it that He said that warranted such a violent response from the Jews in both cases? What phrase from Jesus did the Jews react to and what 'misunderstanding' did they have about what it was Jesus said that led them to claim that he was making Himself out to be God?
In my opinion, the best explanation for the Jews wanting to kill Jesus is that Jesus was claiming equality with God. They considered this blasphemy. The cults, like the bad religious leaders who opposed Jesus, deny who Jesus really is as well.
For further reading go to Who is Jesus according to the apostle John?
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