John 8:56-59 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
This verse is often used to attempt to prove two things about Jesus which are not taught in the Bible.
- That Jesus here claims to be God, Yahweh.
- That Jesus here claims to have preexisted Abraham.
Sometimes the two ideas are combined, such as by Eugene Petersen in his paraphrase, The Message:
John 8:58 (The Message) “Believe me,” said Jesus, “I am who I am long before Abraham was anything.”
The first idea is easier to deal with, so we will look at that first:
1. Did Jesus claim to be God, Yahweh?
It is frequently claimed, and frequently assumed as a proven fact in many Christian commentaries, that the Greek phrase “I am” (ego eimi) is a reference to the name of God in Exodus 3:14. Part of this is the oddness of “I am” to English ears. But then that is an oddness that is the choice of translators. In other Greek texts the forms “it is” “he is” “they are” “I am”, are simply translated “it exists” “he lives” “they live” “I live”. For example:
‘Wouldest thou then return again with us to thy home, that thou mayest see the high-roofed house of thy father and mother, and see them too? For of a truth they still live [eisi, 3rd person pl. of eimi], and are accounted rich.’ (Homer, Odyssey 4:133)
2Sa 22:19 And Asahel pursued Abner, and as he went, he turned neither to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner. 20 Then Abner looked behind him and said, “Is that you, Asahel?” And he answered, “It is I.” [ego eimi]. (LXX)
Satan said; “Are you Eve?” She replied to him “I am” [ego eimi] (Apocalypse of Moses 17:2, pseudepigraphic Jewish text, c.1stC AD)
Jhn 9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am he.” (ego eimi).
And as for Ex3:14, for all the certainty that many people have that John 8:58 must be making reference to Ex.3:14, a quick comparison of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Ex 3:14, the Greek original of John 8:58, and the modern Hebrew NT translation of John 8:58 shows that this is not automatically the case:
Exodus 3:14 (Hebrew) And God said unto Moses, I am (ehyeh) HE WHO (asher) I AM (ehyeh): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, IS (ehyeh) has sent me to you.
Exodus 3:14 (Septuagint) And God said unto Moses, I am (ego eimi) THE BEING (ho on): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, THE BEING (ho on) hath sent me unto you.
John 8:58 (ESV, Greek NT) Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am (ego eimi).”
Hebrew text of John 8:58 (UBS modern translation from Greek) Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before the vitality of Abraham (biterem hayut Avraham), I was (ani hayiyati).”
Of the four verses paralleled above the modern UBS Hebrew NT (1953) is not directly relevant to John 8:58 because it is simply the view of some modern translators on how John 8:58 “ought” to be translated and is no more reliable than any English version, sometimes less so. However the point is that the modern Hebrew NT, when faced with Ex.3:14 (in Hebrew and Greek) and John 8:58 (in Greek) had to make a choice to either try and replicate the divine name from Hebrew Ex.3:14, or to render the idea of Jesus existing before Abraham. The translators couldn’t do both, they couldn’t ‘have their cake and eat it’ and John 8:58 in the Hebrew be both Jesus claiming to be Yahweh, and also Jesus claiming to have existed before Abraham, the Hebrew doesn’t allow it.
Attempts to reconstruct the original Aramaic of Jesus?
The UBS Hebrew NT does not of course claim to be a ‘reconstruction’ of the words of Jesus as they might have been spoken, it is simply a translation of the Greek newly into Hebrew (not ‘back into’ Hebrew). Other Christians have tried to actually ‘reconstruct’ the original text of John 8:58 as Jesus might have spoken it in Aramaic or Hebrew.
Exodus 3:14 (Hebrew) And God said unto Moses, I am (ehyeh) HE WHO (asher) I AM (ehyeh): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, IS (ehyeh) has sent me to you.
Theoretical Aramaic reconstruction of John 8:58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was I-am-who-I-am (ehyeh asher ehyeh).”
The problem with such a construction is immediately obvious. If Jesus had said what the Aramaic reconstruction wants Jesus to have said then John in translating it would have been obliged to translate Jesus’ words according to the Greek of the Greek OT familiar his readers:
1st C. Greek of Exodus 3:14 And God said unto Moses, I am (ego eimi) THE BEING (ho on): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, THE BEING (ho on) hath sent me unto you.
Theoretical Greek translation from Aramaic reconstruction of John 8:58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am the Being (ego eimi ho On).” [for example only, no Greek manuscript of John has these extra words]
We’re now going round in circles. This Aramaic ‘reconstruction’ of what Jesus “might have said” leads to then reconstructing the Greek of Exodus 3:14, against all the manuscript evidence and early Jewish and Christian quotation, and then finally requires the ‘reconstruction’ of John 8:58 itself. In conclusion this entire ‘Aramaic original’ theory only serves to demonstrate that John 8:58 doesn’t quote, or even allude to, Exodus 3:14. Further confirmation of this is that the Peshitta (the ancient Christian Aramaic translation of the Greek using a language similar to that spoken by Christ) translates Exodus 3:14 according to the Hebrew original, and John 8:58 according to John’s Greek original, with no connection between the two verses.
Jewish use of ‘the Being’ (Greek: ‘ho On’) for Yahweh
The above paragraphs – dealing with modern 1953 Hebrew NT and theoretical Aramaic ‘reconstructions’ – are something of a red herring, since the only inspired version we have of John 8:58 is in Greek. So we have to repeat the comparison in Greek, using the Old Testament in use among Jews, and later adopted as the OT of the early church. As we saw above, and as with Hebrew of Ex.3:14, it’s not a match to John 8:58.
According to the Greek OT in use by Jews, and later the early church, the actual name of God in Ex.3:14 is shown to be “the being”, “the one who is”, “the existing-one” (ho on, in Greek letters ὁ ὤν), not “I am” (ego eimi). This understanding of Exodus 3:14 is the same as found in the works of the 1st Century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria.
And God said, “At first say unto them, ‘I am (ego eimi) THE BEING,’(ho on, nominative of ontos) that, when they have learnt that there is a difference between THE BEING (ontos, genitive of ho on) and that-that-is-not (me ontos), they may be further taught that there is no name whatever that can properly be assigned to Me (ep’ emou kuriologeitai), to whom (oi) only (monoi) belongs (prosesti) the existence (to einai). (Philo Life Of Moses Vol.1 :75)
That is Philo’s first usage, here is how F.H. Colson (Philo Judaeus, Complete Works Vol. VI, Loeb Classics, Harvard 1941) translates Philo’s references to God as “the being” (ho on)
* ho On, “He who is” (Philo, Life of Moses I 75)
* to On, “the Being who is” (Philo, Life of Moses II 67),
* tou Ontos, “of Him that is” (II 99)
* tou Ontos, “of the Self-Existent” (II 132)
* to On, “the Self-Existent” (II 161)
On and ontos are the same word, the present participle of “to be” — the different endings are due to case declension; the nominative form is on, wheras ontos is the genitive form (the ‘of’ form, “of-the-one-who-is”).
Philo’s evidence is interesting because he sits at the crossroads of the Jewish Bible and Greek philosophy. In following the Greek Old Testament use of “He who is” (ho on) in Ex3:14, he also creates a dialogue with Greek philosophers (such as Melissus of Samos 400BC) who consider existence in terms of ‘concerning existence’ (peri tou ontos). This is where the English word ontology, study of existence, study of being, comes from. Taking their cue from Ex3:14 (ho on), possibly also from Philo or other Hellenistic Jewish sources, and from Greek philosophers, there are also many Patristic references to ‘He WHO IS (ho on) and ‘concerning he/that which is’ (peri tou ontos) in early Christianity, 3rd 4th 5th C.
But the most important evidence against Jesus’ “I am” in John 8:58 being a claim to be Yahweh is found in Revelation where John follows Septuagint use of “He who is” (ho on) to describe God.
Rev 1:4 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, who IS (ho on), and who WAS (ho en), and who IS TO COME (ho erchomenos), the Almighty (ho pantokrator).
or again, a second time, identical in Rev 1:8 but the English below emphasizing the form of the Greek.
Rev 1:8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, HE-WHO-IS (ho on), and HE-WHO-WAS (ho en), and WHO IS TO COME (ho erchomenos), the Almighty (ho pantokrator).
and a third time, back to a smoother English translation:
Rev 4:8 holy, Lord God Almighty, who was (ho en), and IS (ho on), and is to come (ho erchomenos).
Note also the opposite : Rev 17:8 the beast.. which was (o ti en) and is not (ouk estin) but will be (estin).
Conclusion to the first question
The examples from Greek texts above should illustrate that no only is there no evidence to say that Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh, there is also evidence to show that he was not. If Jesus had wished to claim this then he could have used the actual phrase as found in Septuagint, Philo and Revelation “I am He Who Is” (ego eimi ho On), but he did not.
So……. why did they attempt to stone Jesus?
It is often assumed that the Jews attempted to stone Jesus because he used the divine name YHWH, and that this was a stoning offence under rabbinical law during this period. But we have already seen above that “I am” in John 8:58 is not the divine name. If there is any doubt about this remaining, look at John 8:23-25
John 8:21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (ego eimi) you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father.
So Jesus already in 8:24 used the exact same phrase as John 8:58 “I am” (ego eimi), without any angry reaction on the part of the Jews. This confirms that in 8:58 they attempted to stone him not for claiming to be God, for claiming to be “before” Abraham – that in itself was enough.
But what does that “before Abraham mean? This brings us to the second question:
2. Did Jesus claim to exist before Abraham?
This second question can be divided into three points:
2-i. Why didn’t Jesus say “I was”?
The first point is that if Jesus had intended to claim to preexist Abraham then the last thing he should have said was “before Abraham was, I am”; he should have said “before Abraham was, I was” (Greek: ego en). This is itself shows that John 8:58 doesn’t mean what people want it to mean.
True there are a few translations which do render John 8:58 as “I was”. For example we have already seen one translation above, the Hebrew UBS NT which has rendered “I am” (Greek : ego eimi) in John 8:58 as “I was” (Hebrew : ani hayiyti) but the point is that such translations are not consistent:
original Greek text
John 8:24 “I am” (ego eimi)
John 8:58 “I am” (ego eimi)
UBS Hebrew NT translation
John 8:24 “I am” (ani hua)
John 8:58 “I was” (ani hayiyti)
New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses)
John 8:24 “unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.”
John 8:58 “Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”
The above rendering “I was” is quite rare.
2-ii. “Born” or “become”?
The second point relates to what exactly the verb “Abraham becomes” is meant to mean. It is not the normal NT word for “born” (gennao), but instead the word meaning “become”, “take place”, “come to pass”, or “made” (ginomai). Why?
It is true that the word “become/made” (ginomai) can be used for contexts of birth, particularly in the Greek OT when translating Hebrew “begot a son”:
Genesis 21:5 LXX Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac his son was born (egeneto autoi, literally “became to him [a son]“)
But more normally if the word used is “made” (ginomai) the emphasis is on how someone is born. For example the Greek dramatist Aeschylus records the citizens of Thebes calling to the goddess Aphrodite claiming that they were “made” from her blood. But there is no specific reference to “born”, the Thebans are talking about their nature (or so they believed). Paul does the same regarding the birth of Christ:
And Aphrodite, you who are the first mother of our race, defend us who are made (ginomai) from your blood. We come to you, crying out in prayers for your divine ears. (Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes 140)
Gal.4:4 made (ginomai) of a woman, made (became, ginomai) under the law.
Rom.1:3 made (ginomai) of the seed of David
1Co15:45 the first Adam was made (ginomai) a living soul.
A more common use is with ages. Xenophon records the Persian prince Cyrus “becoming” (ginomai) fifteen or sixteen years old:
But when Cyrus becoming (ginomai) about fifteen or sixteen years old, the son of the Assyrian king, on the eve of his marriage, desired in person to get the game for that occasion. (Xenophon Education of Cyrus, 1:4:16)
The point is that the phrase “Abraham becomes” does not have to mean “Abraham was born”. In fact it is difficult to find any parallel for “he becomes” meaning “he was born” in the NT:
Matt 1:16 Of whom was born (gennao, not ginomai) Jesus.
John 9:32 He was born (gennao, not ginomai) blind.
Acts 2:8 In our own language in which we were born (gennao, not ginomai).
Rom.9:11 the children being not yet born (gennao, not ginomai)
2-iii. “Before something in the past” or “before something in the future”
The third point is that the preposition “before” (prin) does not in itself indicate the time of the following action. Whether the action which happens “before” is future, present or past is determined by the following verb. In the following examples the verb in bold decides the tense of the main clause, what comes next is after:
Mark 14:30 before (prin) the cock crows (fonesai - aorist active middle deponent) twice, you will betray me three times
= first “you will betray me three times “, then afterwards the cock [will] crow
John 4:49 before (prin) my son die (apothanein - second aorist active middle or passive deponent)
= first come [to prevent that] then afterwards my son [will] die.
John 14:29 before (prin) it comes to pass (genesthai - second aorist middle deponent middle or passive deponent), I have told you.
= first “I have told you,” then afterwards it [will] come to pass.
Acts 2:20 before (prin) comes (elthein - second aorist active middle or passive deponent) that great and glorious day
= first the sun shall be turned to darkness, then afterwards [will] come the great and glorious day.
Acts 7:2 before (prin) Abraham resides (katoikesai - aorist active middle or passive deponent) in Haran.
= first God appeared to Abraham, then afterwards Abraham resides in Haran
This is strange to us since in English we expect the verb with “before” to also carry a tense. But in Greek under normal circumstances it is the main verb (the I was/am/will be, etc.) which indicates how the verb in the “before-” clause should be translated. Greek leaves blanks __ for English to fill in:
- before (prin) this comes to pass (genesthai, no tense indicated), I went.
= English ‘before this happen__ (English must add [-ed] to show past), I went (past)’
- before (prin) this comes to pass (genesthai, no tense indicated), I go.
= English ‘before this happen_ (English must add [-s] to show present), I go (present)’
- before (prin) this comes to pass (genesthai, no tense indicated), I will go.
= English ‘before this ____ happen (English must add [will -] to show future), I will go (future)’
It can be seen from the below that “before it comes to pass” (John 14:29) and “before Abraham comes to pass” (John 8:58) are identical in Greek. It is only the context which tells us that the things which “will come to pass” in John 14:29 must be future, whereas “Abraham becomes” in John 8:58 we’d expect to be past – certainly if Jesus had said “I was”. But he did not do so:
John 8:58 before (prin) Abraham comes to pass (genesthai - second aorist middle deponent middle or passive deponent), I am.
= first I am [present], then afterwards Abraham [will] become.
That doesn’t make sense to us. It is not a translation problem, but a logic problem. How is it possible that Jesus could say first (speaking of AD30) and then afterwards Abraham (2000 BC)?But what if our assumptions about what is future and what are past are wrong? Then any argument from these “before” constructions is circular reading. What’s more we know also that the whole view of the New Testament requires putting many things in the New “before” the things in the Old. The NT demands a time adjustment of how we view God’s plan.
Isaiah 46:10 LXX Declaring first the last things, before (prin) they come to pass (genesthai)…
In Isaiah 46:10 LXX we have the same verb syntax as John 8:58 and John 14:29, and here (as in John 14:29) it is clearly grammatical nonsense to say that Isaiah means “declaring (present) first the last things, before they already came to pass (English past tense)”, so why is it so certain that “before Abraham becomes, I am” must be read “before Abraham became (past tense), I am”. Before Abraham became what? The more natural reading of “before becomes, I am” would be “before Abraham is to become (future tense), I am”. It is not grammar which forces our reading, but knowledge of linear time – that Abraham was Christ’s ancestor.
In fact Christ has already explained the context in v.56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The seeing was in the past. But when was Christ’s day? Clearly it is future to Abraham: firstly 27-30AD, when Christ was preaching, culminating in his sacrifice, resurrection and ascension, but also secondly the “day” of Christ relates to the other “day of the Lord” verses in Christ’s teaching and elsewhere in the New and Old Testaments — the day when Christ will raise Abraham from the dead and Abraham will see Christ.
Luke 17:22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.
So the “before” here is actually correct, because Christ’s resurrection is before the “day” when Abraham will be raised (Heb11:13,39) and eat with Christ in the kingdom (Matt.8:11). There’s a contradiction in the “before” for Christians who believe that Abraham went to heaven at death, so was “before” Christ, but there’s no contradiction if Abraham is still asleep waiting the resurrection.
This is an example of where two wrong ideas (Abraham going to heaven + Jesus existing before Abraham was born) work together to compound a problem. But it’s also an example of where fixing one wrong idea (Abraham didn’t go to heaven according to Heb11:13,39) helps fix the other wrong idea (not “before Abraham became I was,” but “before Abraham becomes I am,” since Abraham hasn’t been raised yet).
That is still only half of the story however. Jesus says “before Abraham became (genesthai) I am”, this is not a reference to the future Abraham but Christ being (now) before the Old Testament Abraham “was”. Which requires moving on from John 8:58 to deal with a more difficult verse:
John 17:5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
However, before going there, remember — as far as John 8:58, the context above already demonstrates that Jesus could have said “before Abraham was, I was“, if that’s what he wanted to claim, but he didn’t.
Conclusions to question 2, the “before… I am” problem.
The main conclusion we can reach is that the sentence simply does not make sense by any conventional reasoning about time. From the view of the doctrine of the Trinity, it makes no sense that Jesus should say “before Abraham.. I am” when he should say “before Abraham.. I was”. From the view of Jews it also does not make sense that Jesus could in any sense say “before Abraham becomes/is made, I am” – even in terms of Jewish belief in resurrection this is an affront to Jewish belief about Abraham.
So two explanations are offered here:
2 – explanation A:
It can be argued that the “become” is simply an ellipsis for “be raised” – “before Abraham will be [raised] I am. The problem with this is that if Jesus had wanted to say, “before Abraham will live again” or “before Abraham is raised” then he could have done so. Grammatically it would require only substituting “live again” or “be raised” for the verb “become”. Which tends to support the alternative explanation:
2 – explanation B:
The other explanation relates to the perspective of God in having made all things in the old creation for Christ, and all things in the new creation through Christ.
What is happening in John 8:56-59 is about establishing Jesus’ rights as firstborn over Abraham and the patriarchs.
John 8:58 Before Abraham becomes, I exist.
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one (including even Abraham) comes to the Father except through me.
Heb 11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
So this is the day that Abraham rejoiced to see, but which we have seen and Abraham has not yet. Hence Jesus is before Abraham. Not that Jesus “was” before Abraham became, but Jesus “is” before Abraham becomes.