Jesus Claimed No Past Eternity
by Don Sena
There are four places in John’s gospel account where Jesus ends a sentence (or sentence clause) with the use of the verb "to be" in the first-person singular of the present tense. This verb is actually the common verb “to be” of NT Greek and, as such, occurs in its numerous conjugated forms throughout the NT. It nowhere implies divinity or preexistence.
Yet, many English-language versions persist in rendering each of the four clause-final occurrences in all-capitals, as if to imply an equivalence to the Hebrew tetragrammation YHWH. The ultimate inference to be made is that Jesus existed eternally as the timelessly self-existent YAHWEH.
The reality is that we who speak English often terminate sentence (or a clause), simply uttering "I am," to assert that "I am just as I have said I am," or "I am just who I said all along I am." Jesus had reason of his own -- at least four times, as recorded by John -- to terminate simply by saying : "I am," or "ego eimi," in the Greek NT. His intention in doing so, as he himself explains, is to affirm that he is just who he has repeatedly claimed to be. On each such occasion, he is quoted using the common verb "to be" in the "koine" (or New Testament) Greek, inflected in the first person singular of the present tense of the indicative mood as "ego eimi."
On numerous occasions, however, Jesus identifies himself explicitly as God's Son and Messiah, using precisely the same "I am" ("ego eimi" ) in the Greek text. If it calls those men 'gods' to whom God's word was addressed – and Scripture cannot lose its force -- do you claim that I blasphemed when, as he whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, I said, 'I am God's Son' ?" (Jn 10: 35, 36).
Other NT figures also had occasion to use the same “I am”: “I too am a man who knows the meaning of an order, having soldiers under my command. …” (Lk 7: 8).
Specifically, the six forms of the present-tense indicative of "to be " in NT Greek are :
1st eimi esmen
2nd ei este
3rd esti eisi(n)
"I am" is rendered simply as : "ego eimi," pronounced like a single word with stress on the ‘o’ of "ego." Not only is "ego eimi" (or, simple “eimi,” minus the pronoun) to be found with various NT figures as subjects, but all the much more so is the same verb in all its various persons, numbers, tenses and moods employed to link all manner of subjects with their NT contexts.
Of the four occurrences of a sentence-ending (or clause-ending) "I am," the favorite among those who insist that Jesus existed eternally seems clearly to be that of Jn 8: 58 :"I solemnly declare it : before Abraham came to be, I am."
The common assumption is that he identifies himself as the one whose name is I AM (WHO AM). In reality, he never claims preexistence or deity at any time. His elliptical "I am" in both this and three other verses emphasizes that he was just who he had been saying he was at the time and who he had been destined to be from long before Abraham.
In John 8 are found two of the other three instances of a concluding "I am" by Jesus. In Jn 8: 24 - 28, Jesus tells the Pharisees: "That is why I said you would die in your sins. You will surely die in your sins unless you come to believe that I am." "Who are you, then ?" they asked him. Jesus answered : "What I have been telling you from the beginning ... ."
In no uncertain terms, Jesus tells them: I am "what I have been telling you from the beginning ...." Here, in the first occurrence of a concluding I am, he explains just what he means by it.
He continues : "'... I could say much about you in condemnation, but no, I only tell the world what I have heard from him, the Truthful One who sent me.' They did not grasp that he was speaking to them of the Father. Jesus continued : 'When you lift up the Son of Man [on a wooden fixture], you will come to realize that I am and that I do nothing of myself. I say only what the Father has taught me.' "(Note that, had he been God in the flesh, he would not have been exclusively dependent on his Father’s teachings for everything he had to say, but would have known by virtue of his own deity and past eternity.) How would they realize he is the very one he has claimed to be?
"He began to teach them that the Son of Man had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and the scribes, be put to death and rise three days later" (Mk 8: 31). Jesus says he will be at least three-days dead. "At this, the Jews responded, 'What sign can you show us authorizing you to do these things ?' 'Destroy this temple' was Jesus's answer, 'and in three days I will raise it up.' They retorted, 'This temple took forty-six years to build, and you are going to raise it up in three days !' Actually, he was talking about the temple of his body. Only after Jesus had been raised from the dead did his disciples recall that he had said this, and come to believe the Scriptures and the word he had spoken" (Jn 2: 18 - 22). Accordingly, he will be no more than three-days dead.
Of course, he had also privately spoken to the Pharisee Niccodemus, saying "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life with him" (Jn 3: 14, 15). In this way, they would "... realize that I am and that I do nothing of myself. I say only what the Father has taught me" (Jn 8: 28).
The remaining occurrence of a clause-ending "I AM" is found in Jn 13: 18 - 20 : "What I say is not said of all, for I know the kind of men I chose. My purpose here is the fulfillment of Scripture : He who partook of bread with me has raised his heel against me. I tell you this now, before it takes place, so that, when it takes place, you may believe that I am. I solemnly assure you, he who accepts anyone I send accept me and, in accepting me, accepts him who sent me."
When Jesus says "I tell you this now so that, when it takes place, you may believe that I am," he does so for the same reason he had earlier said (in Jn 8: 28) "When you lift up the Son of Man, you will come to realize that I am ... ." They would know that he is just who he says he is because of what he had already said of himself in Mt 12: 40 :
"Some of the scribes and Pharisees then spoke up, saying, 'Teacher, we want to see you work some signs.' He answered : 'An evil and unfaithful age is eager for a sign ! No sign will be given it but that of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man spend three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth.' "
It may be famously recalled that Jesus put the question of his identity directly to Peter: “Who do you say I am?” he asks, eliciting the answer:" You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God!" (Mt 16: 16).
Jesus , of course, comments that Peter's response had been divinely revealed to him and not humanly reasoned. Yet, if Jesus was, at that time, God turned human, Peter's answer (as actually given) somehow avoids the question of just who the Christ is and, instead, only says something that was technically true about him.
Indeed, if Jesus had been the supposed “Eternal Made Flesh,” a correct response could only have been of the form: “You are the Living God made flesh, having come to us now as Messiah!“ The answer as actually delivered by Peter would then have stood as the grossest understatement of all time.
Following his final clause-ending “I AM” utterance (Jn 13: 19), Jesus goes on to emphasize his actual relationship to the Father: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words are not spoken of myself; it is the Father who lives in me accomplishing his works. … He who does not love me does not keep my words. Yet the word you hear is not mine; it comes from the Father who sent me” (Jn 14: 10, 24).
Had Jesus actually been "God in the Flesh" he would not have still been dependent on the Father -- even near the end of his earthly life -- for everything he had to say, as in Jn 14: 24."God-Incarnate " would by that time have recalled who he was and had been for all eternity, and, at the very least, the basics of his own teachings. As it was, he never had any such recall.
Speaking in his native Aramaic, Jesus doubtlessly made numerous references to the one God YAHWEH. The nature of Greek orthography – its writing system – does not, however, accommodate a tetragram like YHWH. The ‘h’ occurs only as a syllable- initial and is indicated by a diacritic placed over the vowel it leads. Further, attempting a Greek transliteration of the vowel-pointed YAHWEH would be awkward (and somewhat incomplete) at best.
The name YAHWEH occurs somewhat implicitly in the Greek text through phrase and adjectival qualifiers that are built around the root for the noun referring to the third heaven. This “third heaven” (2 Cor 12: 1 – 6) is not the name of a place as traditionally supposed, but the state of timeless existence now occupied by God, the now-resurrected Christ and the angels who were created to be eternal. These qualifiers take the form “in the heavens,” “of the heavens” and “heavenly.” These constructions – with the exception of the last – typically do not appear in the English versions.
Accordingly, Jesus begins his sample prayer for the coming Kingdom by addressing the Father as “Our Father, who in the heavens [are] … ,” as recorded in Mt 6 of the NT Greek. Likewise, he comments on Peter’s inspired answer to the question on Jesus' actual identity by reference to “my heavenly Father” (Mt 16: 17). In each of these, as well as in other references to the Father, he alludes to (or addresses directly) his Father as the one eternal God, YAHWEH.