Jesus’ “I Am” Sayings in John 8

Jesus’ “I Am” Sayings in John 8 April 21, 2017

RJCFrontCoverThe following is an excerpt from my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (RJC), with scripture quotations from the New American Standard Bible:

Jesus’ “I Am” Sayings with a Predicate

As mentioned earlier [in RJC], there are several other “I am” (Gr. ego eimi) sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel that have a predicate nominative, and some of these allude to Old Testament, messianic prophecies. If any of these predicates that Jesus applies to Himself are also applied to God in the Bible,[1] this does not necessarily indicate that Jesus is God but merely that God manifests Himself as such through Jesus as His agent.[2] For example, Jesus is “light” because “God is light” (Jn 1.4, 7-9; 1 Jn 1.5). The “I am” sayings of Jesus that have a predicate are as follows, with some corresponding Old Testament passages appended:

  • “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6.35): alludes to combining Deut 8.3 and 18.15-19.
  • “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8.12; 9.5): alludes to Isa 9.1-2; 42.6; 49.6; 60.1-3.
  • “I am the door of the sheep” (Jn 10.7, 9)
  • “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10.11, 14): alludes to Ps 23.1-2; 78.52; 80.1; Isa 40.10-11; Jer 31.10; Eze 34.12-16; Zech 13.7.
  • “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11.25)
  • “I am the true vine” (Jn 15.1, 5): alludes to Isa 4.2; 5.1-7; 11.1; 27.2-3; 53.2; Jer 12.10; 23.5; 33.15; Zech 3.8; 6.12; Ps 80.8-17.
  • “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14.6)

Since Jesus’ ego eimi sayings with predicates do not represent a claim to be Yahweh, shouldn’t we expect the same of His ego eimi sayings without a predicate?

“The Son of Man” Interpretation of John 8.28

This question about the meaning of Jesus’ predicateless “I am” saying in Jn 8.24 reemerges four verses later. In v. 28, Jesus says to these Jews, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He.” This expression, “lift up,” refers to Jesus’ imminent crucifixion (Jn 12.32-34); “you” lifting Jesus up refers to the Jewish religious leaders’ participation in that future, wicked deed. The “I am,” here, clearly refers to Jesus being “the Son of Man.” This sentence may therefore be paraphrased simply, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the Son of Man.” Whereas Jesus hinted in v. 25 that He meant in v. 24, “I am the Son of Man,” here in v. 28 He expressly declares it. Bultmann explains concerning the “I am” in both v. 24 and v. 28, “Thus everything that he is can be referred to by the mysterious title ‘Son of Man.’”[3]

This remark by Bultmann arouses a question debated by modern scholars: Did Jesus ever mix or blend Old Testament images referring to Himself, e.g., Daniel’s Son of Man, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, or the Messiah? The New Testament sometimes does so, and it even presents Jesus as doing so (e.g., Lk 24.26, 46). Here, in Jn 8.28, Jesus’ words, “lift up,” seem to echo Isaiah’s words about the Suffering Servant being “lifted up and greatly exalted” (Isa 52.13). The Hebrew word translated “lifted up,” which is nasah, has three meanings: (1) literally lifted up, (2) bear guilt, and (3) take away guilt.[4] All three reflect Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Then, too, “lifted up” and “greatly exalted” perhaps describe Jesus’ ascension and subsequent exaltation as the Son of Man in Dan 7.13-14.[5]

Post-Nicene church fathers could not have seen, and therefore endorsed, this Son of Man interpretation of Jn 8.24 and v. 28. Their faulty understanding of Jesus as the Son of Man prevented them from doing so. We have already seen that they regarded this title as referring exclusively to Jesus’ humanity. Thus, they would have reasoned that Jesus could not have meant that people could have their sins forgiven, and thus receive eternal life, merely by believing in Jesus’ humanity.

John provides additional evidence that this Son of Man interpretation in Jn 8.28 is correct. As in the case of the restored blind man in Jn 9.35-38, John here adds concerning Jesus, “as He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him” (v. 30). Believe what? They believed Jesus was the Son of Man sent by God, who was “with” Him (vv. 28-29).

The evidence is overwhelming that Jesus’ “I am” sayings without the predicate, in Jn 8.24 and v. 28, do not equate Himself with Yahweh’s “I am” in either Ex 3.14 or Isaiah but simply mean, “I am the Son of Man who brings light to the world.”

The Preexistence of Jesus in John 8.58?

Jesus continued to dialogue with these Jews (Jn 8). Three times they mention their forefather Abraham. Then they inquire of Jesus, “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham,… whom do You make Yourself out to be?” (Jn 8.53, cf. v. 25).

This is the second time in this dialogue that Jesus’ interlocutors have asked Him who He is. Jesus responds, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day” (v. 56). Did He mean that the deceased patriarch, looking from far off in Paradise, actually saw Jesus on earth? No. Since Jesus said “My day,” not “Me,” He could have referred to a legend then current and contained in pre-Christian Jewish Literature. It claimed that during Abraham’s lifetime he saw in a vision “the end of days,” which rabbis call “the days of Messiah.” Or Jesus could have inferred Abraham’s near offering of Isaac as a type of Jesus’ impending crucifixion.

Regardless, as usual Jesus’ antagonists thought literally and thus misunderstood Him again. They replied, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” (v. 57). Their response represents a reversal of thought, going from the idea of Abraham seeing Jesus to Jesus seeing Abraham. Why this switch? Apparently, they did it to avoid the appearance of acknowledging Jesus’ superiority over Abraham.

Jesus answered their question by asserting, “before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). Scholars generally think this is the strongest statement in the New Testament gospels in which Jesus claimed to have preexisted. And we have seen that traditionalists [people who believe Jesus is God] generally have thought that if Jesus preexisted, He must have been God. But, both logically and according to Judaism, preexistence does not necessarily indicate deity. M.M.B. Turner observes, “other beings than God were thought by the Judaism of the day to pre-exist Abraham.”[6]

Scholars debate if Jesus meant in Jn 8.58 that He had a personal preexistence. Some have insisted that He intended less, e.g., that He preexisted only in the sense that He outranked Abraham in the kingdom of God. Others have proposed that what Jesus had in mind was that the messianic concept merely preexisted in the mind, and therefore the plan, of God. Some apocalyptic Jewish Literature seems to depict the Messiah preexisting creation (e.g., 1 En 48.2-4; 62.7; 4 Ezra 12.32). But Judaism has debated whether it means this or merely that the name of the Messiah had already been predetermined before creation. For Jews, the preexistence of Messiah’s name indicates His superiority over all other human beings, including Abraham.

This latter interpretation accords well with the entire narrative in Jn 8.31-59. Recall that the Jews asked Jesus if He was greater than Abraham. But they reversed the order of Abraham seeing Jesus’ day to avoid the appearance that they assented to Jesus being superior to Abraham. Accordingly, Jesus’ response in v. 58 might be paraphrased, “Before Abraham existed, in the mind of God I was greater than Abraham.” Infuriated at Jesus’ claim to be superior to Abraham, they reached for the rocks to stone Him to death.

Did Jesus’ hearers regard His assertion in Jn 8.58 as blasphemy? Traditionalists think so because they interpret the Jews’ attempt to stone Him as evidence that they rightly understood His words as an indirect claim to be God.[7] C.K. Barrett counters, “Stoning was the punishment for blasphemy … but this does not mean that Jesus had claimed to be God.”[8] Moreover, if they had understood this saying as a claim to be God, it surely would have surfaced at Jesus’ subsequent hearing before the Sanhedrin.

A Different “I Am” Saying

So, Jn 8.58 presents the third and final time in this dialogue in which Jesus pronounced the predicateless “I am (He).” Does it differ from the previous two?

Philip Harner produced a highly acclaimed scholarly treatment of Jesus’ “I am” sayings in the Fourth Gospel.[9] We have seen that he interprets Jesus’ first two “I am (He)” sayings, in Jn 8.24 and v. 28, as an insignificant, common expression in which only the context can supply an implied predicate. He therefore dismisses these two ego eimi sayings of Jesus as having no correlation with Yahweh’s “I am” sayings in the Old Testament.

However, Harner interprets Jesus’ “I am (He)” saying in Jn 8.58 differently. He maintains that this one is “a distinct, self-contained expression that is complete and meaningful in itself. It is an ‘absolute’ phrase, in the sense that it does not need to be completed by any predicate derived from the context.”[10] For support, Harner cites C.H. Dodd and C.K. Barrett as adopting this “absolute” usage interpretation of v. 58, in contrast to that of vv. 24 and 28, and connecting it to Yahweh’s “I am” sayings in Deutero-Isaiah.[11] In so doing, they seem to acknowledge that, in Jn 8.58, Jesus indirectly claimed to be Yahweh. Harner, on the other hand, only concedes that the connection indicates the unity of the Father (Yahweh) and the Son while the Father, as God, still remains numerically one.[12] Harner is careful to maintain that “this unity does not violate the integrity of monotheistic belief,”[13] insinuating that the traditionalist view does.

George Beasley-Murray says substantially the same thing. He states, “This use of ego eimi in v. 58 is slightly different from those in vv. 24 and 28, where ‘I am he’ is clearly in mind, whereas no predicate is intended here. Nevertheless the Old Testament revelation formula [in especially Deutero-Isaiah] is in the background…. Is then the statement an assertion that Jesus is God? Not in terms of identification. It is an affirmation of Jesus as the revelation of God,… As such it entails unity with God, as John 1.1.”[14]

Jesus’ “I am” Saying in John 18.5

Recall that Judas had led the Jewish religious officials and Roman soldiers during the darkness of night to the Garden of Gethsemane to locate and arrest Jesus. Only John the Evangelist informs that, as they approached, Jesus “went forth, and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They answered Him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He said to them, ‘I am He.’ And Judas also who was betraying Him, was standing with them. When therefore He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (Jn 18.4-6).

The traditional Christian interpretation of this multitude falling to the ground has been that, upon hearing Jesus’ words—“I am He” (Gr. ego eimi)—a supernatural force exuded from Jesus, knocking them to the ground. Some commentators have linked these words of Jesus with Ex 3.14, just as they have with those thrice-repeated in Jn 8. For example, R.E. Brown asserts regarding this text, “the Johannine tradition ‘I am’ serves virtually as a divine name with the power to cast men to the ground (18.5).”[15]

Such an interpretation is both unnecessary and unwarranted, especially if our interpretation of the thrice-repeated “I am” in Jn 8 is correct. Rather, the multitude was surprised when Jesus courageously “went forth” to meet His enemies. J.H. Bernard puts it well, “the men who came to make the arrest (some of whom at least did not previously know Jesus even by sight) were so overcome by His moral ascendancy that they recoiled in fear.”[16] Indeed, this episode alludes to David’s words in Ps 27.2, “When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.” Accordingly, those in the foreground, startled by Jesus’ bold response, quickly drew back. As they did, they may have bumped into others behind them, causing many to stumble and fall. Perhaps it was like the Three Stooges! Whether God resorts to the use of supernatural power, He still causes His enemies to appear as stooges.

Summary

In sum, Jesus did not intend that His “I am” sayings without the predicate, in Jn 8.24 and v. 28, allude to either Ex 3.14 or the Deutero-Isaiah passages and thereby indirectly identify Himself as Yahweh. Rather, the predicate is implied from the context of Jesus’ speech. On these occasions He indirectly claimed to be the promised One of the Old Testament, the One sent by Yahweh, perhaps the Messiah or the Suffering Servant, but certainly the Son of Man of Dan 7.13. Jesus may have purposely uttered His “I am” saying in v. 58 as an allusion to Yahweh’s “I am” sayings in Deutero-Isaiah. If He did, it was only to highlight the unity between Himself and Yahweh His God.

[1] R.E. Brown (John [i-xii], 397-98) refutes R. Bultmann (John, 279) by affirming that Jesus draws from the ot background in some of His “I am” sayings with a predicate.

[2] Cf. Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 132.

[3] R. Bultmann, John, 349. Contra R.E. Brown, [John (i-xii), 348], who denies Bultmann’s affirmation.

[4] B-D-B, 669d.

[5] Cf. R.E. Brown, John (i-xii), 146.

[6] M.M.B. Turner, “The Spirit of Christ and Christology,” 171. Origen would have surely denied that preexistence indicates deity. He embraced the Platonic teaching of the preexistence of all souls, which the Catholic Church later condemned, and rightly so.

[7] E.g., J.H. Bernard, John, 322; D.A. Carson, John, 358.

[8] C.K. Barrett, John, 352.

[9] P.B. Harner, The “I AM” of the Fourth Gospel.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Ibid., 49-57.

[13] Ibid., 56.

[14] G.R. Beasley-Murray, John, 139.

[15] R.E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 488.

[16] J.H. Bernard, St. John, 2:586-87.

…………….

To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book,  with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.

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