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At John 8:58, Jesus says

"Before Abraham was born, I am the one." (REV)

The Greek is

πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί

Because the Jews then pick up stones, some Trinitarians believe there is an inference here that Jesus is claiming to be Yahweh, with a connection between God's name as revealed in Exodus and the Greek term ἐγὼ εἰμί (ego eimi).

So they would translate this as

"Before Abraham was, I AM." (NKJV)

where the 'I AM' is capitalized by the translator to indicate a reference to Yahweh, in the style of how 'LORD' is capitalized in various translations to replace Yahweh in the Old Testament.

Yet, if you go back to just John 8:24, Jesus uses the same phrase.

"Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins."

Here, most translations say "I am he" (ego eimi) instead of just "I am" (or "I AM"), because that's the sort of meaning the phrase imparts in Koine Greek.

Even closer, at John 8:28, Jesus says

"“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He"

Similarly, most translations say "I am he" (ego eimi) because, again, that's just what the phrase means in this sort of context.

Furthermore, if you just skip ahead 10 lines from John 8:58, someone else says 'ego eimi' at John 9:9.

"But the man kept saying, “I am the one.”"

Again, 'I am the one' is just a normal translation of 'ego eimi'. Not only did the man say 'ego eimi', he kept saying it.

We have 3 proximate uses of 'ego eimi' to John 8:58, yet none of them are typically translated 'I AM' or even just 'I am' and there is no recorded reaction to the use of the words.

According to those who think the picking up of stones is due to a reference to Yahweh because of the phrase 'ego eimi', how is this discrepancy explained?

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    I'm puzzled about how you assert that "ego eimi" means "I am he" because "that's just what the phrase means" when you also translate it two ways. That can't be "just what the phrase means" if it is translated two ways -- something else contextually at least would have to suggest one over the other. That said, "I am" is the literally meaning (ego = I; eimi = am) but that's not necessarily an indication of divinity every time it is used.
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 16:56
  • @eques 'I am he' and 'I am the one' are basically interchangeable when a man is saying it. Do you find these phrases to be significantly different in meaning (other than one uses gendered language)? Jun 2 at 17:03
  • I'm saying that saying that's "just what it means" is imprecise -- there is some reason why a translator used "he" in the one case and "the one" in the other and that would be some context which provides that shade of meaning. If it meant "just the one" it would always be translated that way, which is ostensibly false.
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 17:07
  • @eques No, many translators use 'I am he' at John 9:9. These are basically interchangeable. Jun 2 at 17:08
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    Did you quote from the same translation for your two verses above or two different translations?
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 17:09

3 Answers 3

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The literal meaning of "ego eimi" is simply "I am" (Ego = I; eimi = am).

It is not "I am he" or "I am the one" or so on. That is, the original Greek contains no elements which imply those extra words or their meanings universally.

Notably, "I am" only implies the divinity in some contexts, just as not every use of "I am" in the Old Testament implies "I AM" as in Exodus. Thus, Trinitarians would not assert that the use of "Ego eimi" (translated as "I am he" or "I am the one") in John 8 is Christ indicating his divinity, which is also demonstrated by the fact that some other than Christ (whom no one thinks is divine) uses the exact phrase in John 9:9.

The question then is why is "Ego eimi" in John 8:58 understood as referring to the divinity (and thus capitalized as "I AM" in many modern editions).

Grammatically, we have an odd sentence: πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί -- Before Abraham was, I am. The verb translated as was is also in the past in Greek (Aorist to be precise) and yet the sentence places a present event ("am") before something that happened (aorist = a simple complete event). This only makes sense if it refers to someone eternal, hence divine. Secondarily, because the Jews try to stone him after this, we can infer that they understood him as saying something blasphemous since blasphemy was punished by stoning.

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    +1 "This only makes sense if it refers to someone eternal, hence divine." This seems really important for this argument. How do you arrive at this? Jun 2 at 17:32
  • Do you agree with the 'I am he' translations at John 8:24 and 8:28? If so, who do you think Jesus is identifying himself as at those points? Jun 2 at 17:54
  • It only makes sense because it violates the usual order of tenses. If you say "before X, Y", Y is occurring at an earlier time than X, but in this case, we have a Y in the present tense and X in a past tense, so something in the present is occurring earlier than the past. Thus, it cannot be true in the ordinarily sense of the terms. The only "thing" we could possibly describe as existing presently and yet before a past event would be God because God does not change and created time.
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 18:15
  • I agree in the sense that I don't think there's any problem with them. The "he" or "the one" makes it fit English better -- different languages have different rules for what may be implied and how things may be emphasized. In 8:24, I think the "he" refers back to "one who gives testimony of himself" (whom the Father also gives Testimony of) and in 8:28 it refers to the "Son of Man"
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 18:19
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    Effectively. Grammatically, only 8:58 suggests something beyond an ordinary reading
    – eques
    Jun 2 at 18:27
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In John 9:9, the man is responding to the question "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" The words "I am" in that context are thus understood as a verbal abbreviation of "[yes,] I am [that man]".

In John 8:58, as noted in eques' answer, it makes much less sense for there to be an implicit 'him'/'he'. The most obvious 'target' for such would be Abraham, but then Jesus would be saying "before Abraham was [born], I was Abraham"... which seems very strange. Is Jesus Abraham reincarnated? Another possibility is that Jesus was speaking earlier of his Father, which doesn't help matters, since in that case, while we might not render his statement "I Aᴍ", it would thus be "I am the Father", which is essentially the same thing.

To be honest, what I find interesting is that John 8:24 has the same problem. While John 8:58 has the further problem that adding an implied "he" is arguably worse grammar, in John 8:24 it is very unclear what the target of the added "he" should be, which leads me to wonder if that verse as well ought to be translated "I Aᴍ". (To be clear, I'm not saying it's impossible to presume what "he" might be implied, just that it's very unclear.) This might even apply to John 8:28, although at least there is seems conceivable that the implication is "I am [the Son of Man]"... but again, it might also be properly interpreted as "I am [He who sent me]" (i.e. the Father).

It's also worth noting that we don't have an exact transcription of Jesus' words (which were presumably not Greek). It's not inconceivable that He actually used "יהוה‎", or an Aramaic equivalent, which the author chose to translate as "ἐγώ εἰμι".

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  • +1 @Matthew 8:56 is clearly about not just Abraham but Abraham's vision, tho'. Vision of what? The day of the Messiah establishing his Kingdom, no? Jun 2 at 19:11
  • The greater context is John 7, which is all about whether Jesus is the Messiah. "Who are you?" is asked at 8:25, in response to Jesus saying "I am he." "Who?" the Jews respond. As a reader, isn't the answer obvious? Jun 2 at 19:14
  • Obvious? I am reminded of this principle. I guess we'll just have to wait and see which one of us is right, and which one is being mislead by "obvious" scripture...
    – Matthew
    Jun 2 at 21:09
  • Sure, maybe it's not as obvious as I think - I make lots of mistakes. But I think it's obvious because the reader is privy to the answer about Jesus' identity which exists basically the breadth of the Gospel of John, and is stated in John's summary near the end of the Gospel. I am he. Who? "These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name." John 20:31 Jun 2 at 23:31
  • Go back to 8:24. "unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins" Now look at 20:31 "by believing [that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God] you may have life" Jun 2 at 23:35
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Jesus' arguments escalate and culminate in violent reaction in 8:58

Throughout the entire chapter, Jesus says ego eimi in ever more unambiguous ways, in the face of angrier opposition. When He says it unambiguously, only then is he violently attacked.

From the Jews' point of view: In 8:24, there is confusion about what Jesus is claiming, including but not limited to His use of ego eimi. So the reaction is to ask for clarification (8:25). 8:27 states this explicitly; they didn't realise that Jesus was talking about the Father.

8:28 has Jesus using his title of the Son of Man, explicitly mentioning the Father, and again using ego eimi.

Finally, the claim to have existed before Abraham in 8:58 is so obviously a claim to deity as to provoke violent opposition.

It's a perfectly ordinary progression from debate, to argument, to heated controversy that we often observe when someone clarifies their stance and it turns out to be more radical than initially thought. See any politics forum!

From our point of view: In terms of hermeneutic, we work backwards: 8:58 and its immediate context stands alone as a claim of deity; there's no other way to interpret claiming to have existed before Abraham, let alone using a theologically loaded term for the third time (people notice repetitions and there's an implication of equal intent that comes with it).

8:28 could possibly stand alone as a claim to deity with just its immediate context, but is interpreted in light of 8:58.

8:24 is supported by the other two usages and the triadic repetition, but wouldn't have stood alone.

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