Most Christians have believed that Jesus was and is God. One type of biblical evidence some of them cite for support is the supposed identification of Jesus as Yahweh, which is God’s name. (YHWH appears over 7,000 times in the Hebrew Bible, and it is traditionally translated in full capitals as “LORD” in English Bibles.)
The Gospel of John is unique in that it has several sayings of Jesus in which he says, “I am,” which is ego eimi in the Greek New Testament. Jesus often supplied a predicate, but sometimes he didn’t, leaving some ambiguity. Scholars call these “the ego eimi sayings of Jesus.”
Once the Johannine Jesus supplied a predicate by saying, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8.12).* His opponents objected to this identification, and Jesus replied, “‘unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.’ And so they were saying to Him, ‘Who are You?’ Jesus said to them, ‘What have I been saying to you from the beginning?’” (John 8.24-25). The answer is that the Johannine Jesus had been saying to them from the beginning of his ministry in Jerusalem that he is the Son of Man (3.13-14). (The NASB adds “He” to “I am” in John 8.24, but it is not in the Greek text.)
Some traditionalists—people who believe Jesus was God—assert that Jesus’ “I am” sayings without the predicate, especially in John 8, are an indirect claim to be Yahweh due to the miraculous burning bush incident recorded in the Old Testament (OT).
Therein, the angel of the LORD [Yahweh] appeared to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed, and the angel spoke to Moses on behalf of Yahweh. God thereby told Moses that he would use him to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and bring them into the promised land (Exodus 3.1-10). Moses asked how he should answer the Israelites if they ask, “What is His name?” God answered, “‘I AM WHO I AM;’ and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14). This “I am” translates ‘ehyeh in the Hebrew text, which means “the self-existent one.”
We read next in Exodus 3, in vv. 15-16, “God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The LORD, the God of your ancestors,… has sent me to you.”‘” Thus, “I AM” refers to Yahweh, which is translated “LORD” in most English Bibles.
The Johannine Jesus could not have meant that he was the “I AM” in Exodus 3.14, the Self-existent One, because Jesus sometimes claimed the exact opposite about himself. For instance, when he was wrongly accused earlier of “making himself equal to God” (John 5.18), he refuted this notion by saying of himself, “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing” (v. 19, cf. v. 30).
Likewise here in John 8, Jesus disclosed his inadequacies and his essential subordination to God (=the Father) by saying in John 8.28, “When you lift up the Son of Man [by crucifixion], then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” Thus, Jesus admitted he depended upon the Father for everything, including his words and works. And Jesus makes it clear that what he means by the words “I am He” is that “I am the Son of Man.” What Son of Man? The one portrayed in Daniel 7.13-14 to whom God will give a great kingdom.
Rudolf Bultmann well said that Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John 8.24, 28 mean “everything that he is can be referred to by the mysterious title ‘Son of Man.’”
Some recent traditionalist scholars have exchanged this Exodus 3 interpretation of Jesus’ “I am He” sayings in John 8 for four “I am He” sayings of Yahweh in Isaiah 41.4; 43.10, 13; 48.12. Therein, Yahweh extolls himself as the only God by saying, “I am He.” But citing either OT text to support the assertion that Jesus claims to be Yahweh removes Jesus’ “I am” sayings from their context.
Interpreting Jesus’ three “I am” sayings without the predicate in John 8—vv. 24, 28, and 58—as an indirect claim to be Yahweh is arbitrary; thus many traditionalist scholars have rejected it. John Calvin said of v. 24, “Some of the ancient writers have deduced from this passage the Divine essence of Christ; but this is a mistake.” Besides, if Jesus’ opponents had thought he therein identified himself as Yahweh, they would have perceived it as the greatest blasphemy and reached for the rocks to stone him.
Some of Jesus’ other “I am” sayings show that he clearly did not identify himself as Yahweh, which suggests he did not do so in John 8 either. For example, Mark records that Jesus said, “Many will come in My name, saying, ’I am He!’ and will mislead many” (Mark 13.5). While Mark and Luke have “I am He,” Matthew has, “I am the Christ” (Matthew 24.5). It must be concluded that this “I am” saying without the predicate in Mark and Luke mean Jesus said he was Christ, not Yahweh.
Some traditionalists claim that the Apostle Paul’s occasional practice of applying OT passages about Yahweh to Jesus indicates he believed Jesus was Yahweh. The most prominent examples they cite are Paul’s quotation of Joel 2.32 in Romans 10.13 and Isaiah 45.23b in both Romans 14.11 and Philippians 2.10-11 (cf. Psalm 145.21).
In Romans 10.13, Paul quotes the prophet Joel, “WHOEVER WILL CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED” (Joel 2.32). “THE LORD” substitutes for “YHWH” (Yahweh), and Paul seems to apply it to Jesus. But in doing so, Paul does not mean Jesus is Yahweh; rather, calling upon Jesus is the same as calling upon Yahweh, who is God the Father, since access to the Father is attained through Jesus his agent.
Also, Paul applying Isaiah 45.23b twice to Jesus, bowing the knee to Jesus, and confessing Jesus’ name is adoration directed to both Jesus and the Father. For Jesus had taught that whoever receives, honors, beholds, and believes the Son does likewise to the Father (Matthew 10.40; John 5.23; 12.44-45; 13.20). Paul quotes Yahweh in Isaiah 40.13 by saying, “For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE SHOULD INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16; cf. Romans 11.34). Paul only means, here, that the risen Christ and Yahweh think alike.
Some traditionalists also think calling Jesus “Lord” in the New Testament (NT) is an indirect identification of him as Yahweh due to the practice of translating “YHWH” as kurios (lord) in the Septuagint (LXX), the 3rd century BCE Greek OT. But how people translate scripture proves nothing. Plus, during the latter half of the 20th century, it was discovered that Jewish copies of the LXX retained YHWH, thus not translating it, whereas copies that translated it as kurios were produced by Christian scribes.
Some traditionalists also cite a few other OT texts about Yahweh that are applied to Jesus in the NT. For example, Zechariah relates that Yahweh says of the Jews, “they will look on Me whom they have pierced” (Zechariah 12.10). This text is applied to Jesus in John 19.37 (cf. Revelation 1.7). But it only indicates Jesus is Yahweh’s agent.
In sum, neither Jesus nor anyone else in the Bible ever identified him as Yahweh.
*Scripture quotations are from the NASB.
To see a list of over eighty posts on this blog about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here. They are condensations of portions of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. Buy this book at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian Christian for 22 years until reading myself out of it in the Bible.