An Enigmatic Mirror
The Divine "I AM": John 8:48-59
These passages are obviously messianic or divine titles in John, but nonetheless may not necessarily intend to use the egō eimi/I am as a divine title.
In other passages in John, however, egō eimi/I am is used in an absolute sense, meaning that there is no predicate. As Jarl Fossum noted, "The Greek phrase 'I am' without a predicate is meaningless. Thus, there must be some esoterical significance to the use of egō eimi in [John]." This is especially clear in these passages:
- ". . . unless you believe that egō eimi/I AM you will die in your sins" (8:24).
- ". . . when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that egō eimi/I AM . . ." (8:28).
- "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, egō eimi/I AM" (8:58).
- ". . . when it does take place you may believe that egō eimi/I AM" (13:19).
To make sense of the statements, most modern English translations render the phrase egō eimi/I AM as "I am he" in these passages, adding the pronoun "he" not found in the original Greek. However, this does not help grammatically in 8:58. It is more likely that in all these four passages (and some of the I Am statements above as well), the Greek egō eimi is intended to refer to the name/title of God in Genesis 3:14.
Jesus' claim is not simply that "I am" or "I am he," but "I am the I AM" who revealed his name to Moses. Jesus thus indeed existed before Abraham, because he is the preexistent Logos who was with God in the beginning (1:1-2).
This is apparently how the Jewish critics of Jesus understood his statement, because "they picked up stones to throw at him" (8:59). They did so for two reasons: because he publicly spoke the I AM name of God, and because he blasphemously claimed to be God, the I AM. As we noted earlier, such blasphemy was considered a capital offense under first century Judaism.
Author's Note: I'm going to be on vacation for a few weeks and will recommence this column in the third week of July.
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William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.