The Divine "I AM": John 8:48-59

 The Divine Name: I AM
At the same time that God revealed his divine name YHWH, God also revealed another name to Moses, "I am who I am" (ʾehyeh ʾǎšer ʾehyeh) (Ex. 3:14).

Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations." (Ex. 3:14-15)

At Mount Sinai, Moses was given two names for God to Israel: YHWH and I AM. This naturally led to all sorts of speculation among Jews on the meaning and relationship of these two names.

What is important for our purposes is how Jesus and his followers applied these titles to Jesus. The Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, made in the second century B.C., translates these two divine names in very special ways. As noted last week, following pious Jewish traditions of the 2nd century, the divine name YHWH is not spelled out in Greek, which would require using vowels, and would thus necessarily reveal the sacred pronunciation. Thus the Greek Jews translated the sacred name YHWH as kurios ("Lord"), following the Jewish practice of saying ădōnāy ("Lord") in Hebrew instead of pronouncing the divine name.

In the case of the I AM title, however, the Septuagint simply translates the name ʾehyeh ʾǎšer ʾehyeh (I am who I am) into Greek as egō eimi ho ōn, meaning "I am the one who is," in Exodus 3:14a, and ho ōn (the one who exists) in 3:14b. The phrase egō eimi is used in the same sense referring to God in the Greek Isaiah 43:10, 25, 45:18 (translating the Hebrew ǎnî hûʾ, "I am he"). In Isaiah 51:12, the Hebrew phrase "I, I am he" (ʾānōkî ʾānōkî hûʾ) is rendered in Greek as egō eimi egō eimi, apparently meaning "I am (the) I AM," understanding the second egō eimi/I AM as the proper name of God from Genesis 3:14. Thus the Greek phrase egō eimi/I AM came to be understood in certain Greek-speaking Jewish circles as the second sacred name of God, along with kurios/YHWH. At the time of Jesus, the Greek kurios had become the standard translation for the divine name YHWH, and egō eimi for ʾehyeh/I AM. Both kurios and egō eimi are titles for Jesus among early Christians.

I AM Statements in John
The problem here, of course, is that egō eimi is an ordinary Greek phrase meaning "I am" and was used constantly in Greek conversation. It is clear, however, that it is used as a divine title in a number of passages in the Gospel of John (and only in John). First, there are a number of passages where egō eimi/I am introduces a messianic title of Jesus.

  1. "I am the bread of life" (6:35, 6:48).
  2. "I am the light of the world" (8:12).
  3. "I am the door" (10:9).
  4. "I am the good shepherd" (10:11).
  5. "I am the Son of God" (10:36).
  6. "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25).
  7. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14:16).
  8. "I am the true vine" (15:1).

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:

  1. ". . . unless you believe that egō eimi/I AM you will die in your sins" (8:24).
  2. ". . . when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that egō eimi/I AM . . ." (8:28).
  3. "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, egō eimi/I AM" (8:58).
  4. ". . . when it does take place you may believe that egō eimi/I AM" (13:19).
6/30/2011 4:00:00 AM
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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.