An examination of John 8:56-59 and Exodus 3:13-14

Is Jesus Almighty God because he said, “Before Abraham was, I am.”?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

In this article, we will be exploring John 8 verses 56-59 and Exodus 3, verses 13-14.

Once again, we come to one of the Johannine literature, the Gospel According to John*, to see whether Trinitarians have a good case in using it to deify Jesus and put him on the same pedestal as the Father. Specifically, we shall be looking at a saying that is attributed to Jesus, which supposedly according to Trinitarian interpretation proves Jesus’ Godhood namely, John 8:58, which says,”Before Abraham was, I am.” In order to get a better picture of what is going on in John 8:58, we should examine its immediate context which begins from verse 56 up to the last verse of the chapter, verse 59.

56. 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.

(John 8:56-59; English Standard Version)

For the Trinitarian, this is a great proof text of Jesus’ eternal pre-existence and divinity. Typically, the Trinitarian focuses on verses 57, 58 and 59 whilst ignoring the entire context of the passage and most importantly, verse 56, which basically clarifies verse 58. What is even more amazing is that Trinitarians typically side with the opponents of Jesus and in this case, they would agree with their feedback to what Jesus was saying to them. They will agree with verse 57, which to them means that Jesus was claiming pre-existence and they would wholeheartedly agree with verse 59, because that to them is indicative of Jesus claiming divinity and so the verse says that the audience picked up stones to stone him for blasphemy. Well, the only real problem with the Trinitarians siding with Jesus’ enemy’s understanding (or lack thereof) is that in the same chapter, just several verses before this key section, Jesus declares them to be the children of Satan, who are absolute liars: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” (John 8:44) And the truth of Jesus’ declaration or dismissal of their value as witnesses is writ large in verses 56 and 57. So, let’s have a look at these two verses again, but more carefully this time.

56. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

In this verse, Jesus claims that Abraham was happy that he would have the chance to see the day of Jesus and he did indeed see it and was contented. Now, look at the reply of the false witnesses.

57. So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

The audience claims in answer to what Jesus says that he is still so young, yet he is claiming to have seen Abraham. Wait a minute, who was it that saw something? Was it Jesus or Abraham? Jesus said Abraham was seeing His day. He did not say that he saw Abraham. The seeing was done by Abraham and not by Jesus, but the false witnesses claimed the complete opposite, therefore, as Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Now that we have established that this group of evil doers are liars, how can we put any stock in their response to Jesus in verse 59, where they picked up stones to stone him? It is impossible that Jesus is claiming to be divine or Almighty God, who pre-existed his current existence in John 8, when he clearly identifies himself as just a human being several verses before, “but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.” (John 8:40) The words are rather clear: Jesus defines himself as “anthropon hos ten aletheian hymin lelaleeka” (a man who has spoken the truth) and he received the truth not from himself but “en ekousa para tou theou” (that I heard from God). So, what did Jesus mean by “Before Abraham was, I am”? If he truly said it, then it should be interpreted in light of verse 56. Abraham, as God’s elect one, foresaw Jesus’ ministry and so, “Before Abraham was, I am”, that is, Jesus’ ministry had already been foretold and planned even before Abraham and this may indicate that he is claiming superiority over Abraham in verse 56, which to the Jews would be blasphemous indeed, if Jesus wasn’t who he claimed to be, i.e., God’s messenger, and so, thinking that Jesus was a false pretender to prophethood, they picked up stones to stone him. Verse 59 then does not indicate that they thought Jesus was claiming to be Almighty God as Trinitarians inaccurately interpret, but that in context, they did not accept Jesus as a superior person to their father and patriarch, Abraham.

But what about the phrase ‘ego eimi” or “I am”? Is that not the name of God that we see in Exodus 3:14? Is Jesus not claiming to be God by saying “I am”? To most human beings, the phrase “I am” (first person pronoun and to be verb) simply means “I am”. This tautology means that “I am” in common human interaction is used as an affirmative, e.g., “Are you a student?” He answered, “I am.” It may also begin an affirmative sentence such as “I am a student.” In neither of these cases do such statements involve claims to divinity. But why do Trinitarians think that when Jesus says, “I am” in John 8:58, he is making a supernatural claim that means he is God Almighty? The reason for that is because of texts like Exodus 3:14, which is typically translated thus:

“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.”

And the above is preceded by the following:

“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?”

In a nutshell, Exodus 3:14 is in answer to Moses’ query “What is God’s name?”. So, most Christian interpreters will say that the name of God is “I am” and so when Jesus says “I am” in John 8:58 he was in fact reminding the people of Israel of God’s name as revealed in Exodus 3:14. There are several problems with this Trinitarian interpretation as we shall see. Firstly, if by simply saying “I am”, one is claiming to be Almighty God, then the blind man in John 9:9 must have done exactly that: “Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am.”” One would be hard pressed to locate a translation that ends with “I am” in John 9:9. That translation is by my own hand based on the original Greek, but most translations either add the third person singular pronoun “he” or some even add the words “the man” to “I am”. And so, most translations would have the blind man say either “I am he” or I am the man”, neither of which is reflected in the Greek text. The original text reads, “ekeinos elegen oti ‘ego eimi” which means, “he kept saying, “I am”. Why then do the translators choose to add non-existent words to the blind man’s answer? One can only speculate, but it seems that they do not wish readers to associate this text with Jesus’ supposed unique declaration of divinity in John 8:58. Once we recognise that “Ego Eimi” in John is used by non-deities like the blind man, the Trinitarian interpretation of John 8:58 is weakened considerably and so, to avoid this, it may be that these translators pull wool of readers’ eyes by adding non-existent words to a simple answer that the man gives, which corresponds exactly to the phrase Jesus uses.

The second problem with the Trinitarian take on the verse is that if Jesus had wanted to connect himself to Exodus 3:14, then one should expect him to say it in such a way as to leave no doubt that he is referencing it. For example, instead of saying Abraham, he should have said, “Before Moses was, I am.”, because the incident in Exodus 3 has nothing to do with Abraham who died centuries before. The protagonist of Exodus 3 is Moses and Moses is speaking to God in the text in question and so, if Jesus had wanted to reference it, he should have mentioned Moses. And I do not think it is a simplistic point to argue that “Before Abraham was, I am” is nowhere close to what Exodus 3:14 as we have seen above says. Thus, one would have to stretch one’s imagination to see the connection between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14.

The third problem is that the text of Exodus 3:14 as it stands in most Christian versions of the Bible has been inaccurately translated. This is a bold claim to make, for unless one has good evidence to bear, then one may be deemed a sycophant of conspiracy theorists. I am afraid that we do have good evidence to prove this claim. The verse in question read as follows:

“vayomer ‘elohim ‘el moshe ‘eheye ‘asher ‘eheye; vayomer, koch tamar libne yisrael ‘eheye shelahany alekem”

The key words that are supposedly connected to John 8:58 are “‘eheye ‘asher ‘eheye” and “‘eheye” again towards the end of the verse. Typically, Christian produced Bibles render “‘eheye ‘asher ‘eheye” as “I am that/who I am” (The JPS is one Jewish translation that concurs with Christian translations of the verse). What we should really be looking at is the word ‘eheye’ which is supposed to mean “I am”. ‘Eheye’ is a verb and in Hebrew we do not have ‘to be’ verbs and so immediately, the translation that uses the ‘to be’ verb becomes suspect. The Jewish scholar Simi Peters corrects those translations that render ‘eheye’ as “I am” by clarifying the grammatical feature of the verb: “Whichever root meaning one would wish to assign it, eheye is a first person future conjugation of either h-y-h or h-v-h and, translated accurately, has to mean either, “I will be” or “I will be broken.” [1] And so, from Peters, we learn that the verb is in the future tense and so it should be translated as “I will be”, rather than “I am”. Likewise, the scholar Azila Talit Reisenberger explains, “‘Eheye asher ‘eheye, which corrected translates as: “I will be whoever I will be” (Ex. 3:14). In all English translations that I have read to date the verse is translated as: “I AM WHO I AM”. This can NOT be a correct and loyal translation, as the Hebrew language does not have the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense — it appears only in past and future tenses.” [2] Despite the prevalence of “I am who/that I am” in English translations, Reisenberger is not afraid to relegate them into the box of errors and confidently show that the text actually says “I will be whoever I will be”.

‘The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’ says:

“I will be who/what I will be…is preferable because the verb hayah [to be] has a more dynamic sense of being — not pure existence, but becoming, happening, being present — and because the historical and theological context of these early chapters of Exodus shows that God is revealing to Moses, and subsequently to the whole people, not the inner nature of His being [or existence], but his active, redemptive intentions on their behalf. He ‘will be’ to them ‘what His deeds will show Him ‘to be.’ [3]

“…the imperfect ‘eheye is more accurately translated ‘I will be what I will be,’ a Semitic idiom meaning, ‘I will be all that is necessary as the occasion will arise,’ a familiar OT idea. (cf Is 7:4,9; Ps 23).”[4]

And so, The Stone Edition of the Chumash is one translation that captures the correct meaning of the text:

“Hashem answered Moses, “I Shall Be As I Shall Be.” And He said, “So shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I Shall Be has sent me to you..'” [5]

At this juncture, to maintain academic honesty and fairness, we should state that even though most English translations render the verse as “I am what/that/who I am”, the English Standard Version in its footnote informs its readers that “I will be what I will be” is an acceptable alternative reading. [6] Having said that, we should point out that “I am” cannot be conflated with “I will be” as they carry different meanings, and so, the reasonable reader has to make a decision as to which reading to accept by evaluating the strength of evidence given in support of either translation.

The fact that ‘eheye’ should be rendered in the future tense is exposed by none other than those English translations that translate it as “I am” in Exodus 3:14. Just two verses prior to the verse that we have been looking at, we have the following:

“He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”” (Exodus 3:12; English Standard Version)

Notice that the verse uses “I will be”, which is what God says to Moses. If we checked the original Hebrew, the word that is translated as “I will be” in Exodus 3:12, just two verses before Exodus 3:14, is undoubtedly ‘eheye’, the exact same verb used in verse 14. All of the English translations unanimously translate it as “I will be” (in the future tense) except for Young’s Literal Translation, which consistently renders it as “I am”. We shall leave aside Young’s Literal Translation as a sore thumb living in the fringe and focus on the evident inconsistency in translation seen in all those English translations. Here perhaps, is a similar example to what we saw in John 9:9 earlier — the game of pulling wool over unwary readers’ eyes. Even though Robert Young’s translation of ‘eheye’ as “I am” is inaccurate, the other English translations should learn from his work the honest concept of consistency in translation. As Young consistently translates ‘eheye’ as “I am” in both verses 12 and 14, the other English translations should consistently translate ‘eheye’ as “I will be” in the two verses, since they begin with “I will be” for ‘eheye’ in verse 12. This simple point is put forward by the English Biblical scholar and expert in Hebrew Samuel Rolles Driver as noted by the scholar Robert Wilkinson, who himself subscribes to “I will be” as the choice translation for ‘eheye’:

“S. R. Driver also has a helpful note in defence of (the tense of) the translation “I will be” in his The Book of Exodus: Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge, 1953), pp. 40-41. He sees the tense not as indicating essence, but as the active manifestation of God’s existence to his people. The tense of Exodus 3:12, “Certainly I will be with thee…” surely must provide a contextual prompt for the future tense. Moreover, Driver here follows traditional Jewish exegetes, as we shall see subsequently. Rashi (1040-1105 A.D.) similarly paraphrases “I will be with them in this affliction what I will be with them in the subjugation of their future captives,” a translation which points rather to the revelation of God by his presence with his people in suffering, than it does to ontological questions.” [7]

According to Driver’s view, the future verb ‘eheye’ in both Exodus 3:12 and 3:14 does not convey an ontological conception or description of God and this is in line with Rashi’s view. No doubt Onkelos, another notable Rabbinical exegete, interprets Exodus 3:14 as revealing God’s ‘shem’ (name) [8], but we feel that Rashi and Driver are more justified in their interpretation. If ‘eheye’ is truly the name of God, then Exodus 4:15, which says, “You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do.” wouldn’t make much sense. The context is the appointment of Aaron as Moses’ spokesperson by God and so God says that “I will be with your mouth…I will teach you what you are to do.” It has nothing to do with God’s identity. It has everything to do with putting someone in charge by God’s decree and His instructions as to how things will be. And if it was really God’s name, then a human being has no business using it for himself, but the verb is used numerous times for and by human beings throughout the Old Testament (cf. Judges 11:9; Ruth 2:13; 2 Samuel 7:14).

In the foregoing discussion and careful examination of John 8:56-59 and Exodus 3:12-14, we have seen that the Trinitarian interpretation in hopes of deifying Jesus is founded upon translated texts that are reeked with inconsistencies. We have also meticulously examined the contexts of those texts and have come to the conclusion that they do not in any way propel a Trinitarian view. And finally, upon careful consideration of the John and Exodus texts, we do not feel that the Trinitarian has a leg to stand on when they attempt to connect the two. There is no basis or even an allusion in John 8 to support that Trinitarian connection. And the final nail in the coffin of the Trinitarian interpretation of Exodus 3:14 is hammered down by Christian translations themselves as they translate ‘eheye’ correctly in the future tense as “I will be” in Exodus 3:12.

Notes:

* In trying to prove Jesus’ divinity, Trinitarians have a tendency to begin with John, then to Paul and possibly after those two, they may go to the Synoptics. But as Prof. (Dr.) Sir Anthony Buzzard points out, an honest evaluation of the material in one’s question to determine the historical Jesus should not begin with the last of the four gospels but the first three should be looked at first, then one may proceed to John. The reason why Trinitarians are psychologically drawn to the Johannine gospel is because of its rather high christology, which in many instances, seem to them to place him on equal footing with God Almighty. The first three gospels with Mark being the first have a comparatively lower Christology and seem to have a knack at affirming and emphasising the humanity of Jesus and Trinitarians prefer to speak of his divinity instead of his actual humanity that everyone agrees to.

[1] Peters, S. (2004). Learning to Read Midrash. USA : Urim Publications. p. 168

[2] Reisenberger, A. T. (2009). Translating Spirituality into Words. In Miranda Pillay, Sarojini Nadar & Clint Le Bruyns (Eds.), Ragbag Theologies: Essays in Honour of Denise M Ackerman: A Feminist THeologian of Praxis. South Africa: Sun Press. p. 90

[3] Wright, C. J. H. (1982). Names of God. In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Everett F. Harrison, Roland K. Harrison et. al. (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two. p. 507

[4] Ibid. p. 1254

[5] Scherman, N. ( 2000). Genesis. In Nosson Scherman & Meir Zlotowitz (Eds.), The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. New York Mesorah Publications, ltd. p. 305

[6] Anon. (2003). The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. USA: Good News Publishers. p. 46

[7] Wilkinson, R. J. (2015). Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. p. 2 fn. 6

[8] Scherman, N. Op. Cit.

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One Response to “An examination of John 8:56-59 and Exodus 3:13-14”

  1. Shaad says:

    “In trying to prove Jesus’ divinity, Trinitarians have a tendency to begin with John, then to Paul and possibly after those two, they may go to the Synoptics.”

    I thought i was the only one who noticed that lol…

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