Is Jesus The Great “I AM”?

 

Did Jesus claim to be God when arrested by answering the authorities, “ego eimi” (I am)? Those intent on finding evidence that Jesus is God seize upon the Greek words ego eimi, translated “I am” in English, and imagine a direct correspondence to the famous “I am” statements God gave Moses at the burning bush. Is such a leap from Greek words to Hebrew words and from one context to an entirely different one justified?

 

First, the words and context of the olive grove encounter. An entourage of Roman troops and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, intent upon finding and arresting Jesus, had been tipped off by Judas on where to find him. In the night darkness they came upon Jesus and his little band of disciples. Jesus stepped forth and asked them, “Who is it you want?” and they replied, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus, not wanting to endanger his disciples quickly responded, “I am he” (ego eimi) (Jn 18:3-8, NIV). There is no shadow of a hint in this account that Jesus is announcing he is God or that he was using code language for God, or that he was invoking the Exodus 3:14 “I am” amplification of the divine name, Yahweh. Jesus was simply using proper grammar to identify himself to those seeking him, “I am he.” The “he” is not necessary to be included in text as it implied by the use of the verb “to be,” which most translators readily acknowledge. Similarly, when Peter was being sought by some men sent from Cornelius, he met them and said, “I am (ego eimi) whom you seek” (Acts 10:21).

 

Frequently Jesus used the common words ego eimi in their normal usage to describe himself and his mission: “I am the bread of life”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the way”; “I am going away”; etc. Some, intent on finding any hint that Jesus is God, have played word games with Jesus’ normal, plain speech, ignored context, and invented references and meanings where none exist.

 

What has given license to this willing misunderstanding of Jesus’ use of ego eimi? It stems from the story in the Hebrew Scriptures of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. Moses is offering another objection to God’s calling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:13-15). God had already introduced himself in vs 6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” But Moses says to God, what if the Israelites want to know more about you than just that you are “the God of your fathers,“ and they ask me, “What is his name?” (vs 13).

 

In the ancient world Shakespeare’s question: “What’s in a name?” would have been taken very seriously. Names were important and a person’s self was expressed and contained in his name. Of Nabal (lit., “fool”) it was said sarcastically: “As his name is, so is he” (1Sam 25:25). Did the Israelites not know that the God of their fathers was called Yahweh? After all, the divine name Yahweh (YHWH, confusingly rendered LORD in most English translations) is common in the text from Genesis 4:26 onwards and may have been part of Israelite tradition. Regardless, God knew Moses saw the dangers and wanted further assurances he could offer an oppressed and frightened people.

 

God replied to Moses’ request with the complex and difficult to render: “I am who I am.” Few verses in the OT have been the subject of more heated controversy than this Hebrew expression. The abbreviated “I am” in vs 14 is simply shorthand for the complete Hebrew phrase.

 

Over the years there has emerged a general consensus among leading OT scholars that the phrase likely carries one or more of the following meanings: “I cause to be what comes into existence” (echoing the formula of Ex 33:19 “I create what I create” or more simply, “I am the Creator”; “The one who is”; “I cause to be”; “I am present.” These enigmatic three Hebrew words have been paraphrased by scholars: “I am here, really present, ready to help”; “I am truly he who exists and who will be dynamically present then and there in the situation to which I am sending you.”

 

What Moses believed the Israelites really needed to know was, “What does that name mean or signify in circumstances such as we are in?” The “I am that I am” statement by God was a powerful expression of his character, nature and essence and harkens back to his promise in vs 12, “I will be with you.” The “I am” expression was not a new name for Yahweh in fact not a name at all, but an affirmation of his immediate presence and power to carry out the deliverance he planned for his people Israel. It is a description of what God’s name means to his people—“I am with you.”

 

But God does give a specific answer to the question of his name and it appears in the next verse (vs 15): Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD [Heb. Yahweh], 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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.”

 

The divine name isn’t “I am,” but Yahweh. Jesus wasn’t appropriating a divine name, “I am”—which wasn’t a name—to claim he was the God who spoke to Moses. Peter said “the God of our fathers” is the one who raised Jesus from the grave and glorified him (Acts 3:13). Jesus prayed to his father, “I have manifested thy name” (John 17:6, 26). What Jesus did, wasn’t to claim to be Yahweh, but to carry out his mission to reveal the very character and purposes of God—all beautifully displayed in Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom of God.  –Mel Hershberger & Ken Westby

 

(References: The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol 2, article “Names of God”; The OT Library commentary on Exodus by Martin Noth; The OT Library commentary on Exodus by Brevard S. Childs; The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 2, Exodus.)

 

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Relative to the above discussion, the following comments from Noel Rude are added below. (Noel is a professional linguist and lives in the state of Oregon. His website is:  www.hebdomad.com.

 

 

PS: Your article, “Is Jesus The Great ‘I AM’?”, good article.  Here, forgive me for putting in my two cents.  Anyway, seven times in John Jesus identifies himself with γώ εμι and each time—except in John 8:58—the KJV translates as “It is I” or “I am he”:

 

1

John 4:26 — “Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he [γώ εμι].”

 

2

John 6:20 — “But he saith unto them, It is I [γώ εμι]; be not afraid.”

 

3

John 8:24 “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he [γώ εμι], ye shall die in your sins.”

 

4

John 8:28 — “Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he [γώ εμι], and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.”

 

5

John 8:58 “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am [γ εμί].”

 

6

John 13:19 “Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he [γώ εμι].”

 

7

John 18:5They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he [γώ εμι]. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.

 

Thus also the blind man who was healed and thence cast out of the synagogue identifies himself with γώ εμι (John 9:9): “Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he [γώ εμι].

 

One might ask why the verb is accented (γ εμί) only in John 8:58 whereas the pronoun alone is accented (γώ εμι) everywhere else.  First we should say that the accents are the work of the compilers of our texts.  The original Greek manuscripts have no accents and it is therefore scholars who have put the accent on the verb in John 8:58, perhaps to emphasize the contrast between γενέσθαι ‘to become’ and εμί ‘I am’ (if not to connect Exodus 3:14).

 

πρν βραμ γενέσθαι

Before Abraham came to be/will come to be

γ εμί

I am he.

 

Greek πρίν ‘before’ requires an infinitive whose tense must be supplied by context, as in Mark 14:30,

 

πρν ... φωνσαι ‘before [the cock] crow ...’


Note how the same infinitive
γενέσθαι (as in John 8:58) occurs in John 13:19 (with implied future tense): “Now I tell you before it come [πρ το γενέσθαι], that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he.”  In like manner let me suggest that the infinitive in John 8:58 derives its tense from εμί ‘I am’, meaning that our verse should be read something like, “before Abraham comes to be [is resurrected], I am [the messiah].”