Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 3 – John 8:58)

This is the third installment of my attempts to interact with Bart Ehrman’s newest contribution to christology. I will now turn to the third chapter which addresses whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, in any sense. Before we get started, I should say that my own interpretation of whether or not Jesus claimed to (or even be) Yahweh is in line with scholars like James D.G. Dunn, John A.T. Robinson, Anthony Buzzard, Dale Tuggy, and James McGrath. These scholars, I feel, persuasively argue that there is no literal preexistence of Jesus in the New Testament.

gospel-of-johnThis puts me in an interesting position because Ehrman seems to be arguing against the Evangelical position which sees literal preexistence and claims of Jesus being “God” in all four Gospel accounts. Ehrman sees a low christology in the Synoptics but sees Jesus claiming to be God in the Fourth Gospel. I peronally don’t think Jesus claimed to be Yahweh in any of the four Gospels. Jesus is presented, I argue, as the human Messiah who is God’s authoritative agent.

On page 124 Ehrman discusses his view of John 8:58, which is rendered by most translations as, “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Ehrman argues the typical Evangelical reading of this passage by pointing to Exodus 3:14 where Yahweh says (according to Ehrman) that His name is “I am.” Ehrman goes on to say that Jesus’ “Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying” (p. 124). But is this really the best reading of the evidence?

I want to object on three important points in Ehrman’s argument. First, I think that his connection with Exodus 3:14 does not hold up to closer scrutiny. Second, I do not think Jesus (in John 8:58) is claiming to take upon himself the name offered in Exodus 3:14. Lastly, I don’t think that the Fourth Gospel portrays the Jewish opponents as truly understanding what Jesus is saying to them. I will take up these objections in order.

1. In Exodus chapter three there is a dialogue with Moses and God. God commissions Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (3:10). Moses responds to God by asking about his own worthiness to accomplish such a task (3:11). God answers Moses by saying, “Certainly I will be with you” (3:12). The Hebrew text has the verb hiya in the imperfect (אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה). Moses asks about the name of God in 3:13. God responds in 3:14 by taking the promise from 3:12 (“I will be with you”) and makes this His name for Moses, “I will be who I will be” (Hebrew: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה). God continues by saying that Moses is to tell the Israelites that “I will be” has sent him. Most modern English translations translate the verb “to be” in the present tense. The Hebrew, however, is the same as was given in the promise found in 3:12, in the imperfect tense. In short, God is not making His name out to be “I am,” but rather, “I will be,” as a tie in with the promises to deliver His people from bondage.

The LXX translator(s) of Exodus rendered the imperfect forms of hiya with the present tense ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (“I am the one who is”). However, at the point in 3:14 where God gives his name to Moses, the LXX does not have ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) but rather ὁ ὤν (“the one who is”).

This is absolutely significant. Jesus said in John 8:58 that before Abraham was, ἐγώ εἰμι. God’s name in Exodus 3:14 LXX is not ἐγώ εἰμι, but ὁ ὤν. C.K. Barret, in his commentary on John, says that “there is no allusion here to Exod. 3.14” (The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. 352) In short, Jesus is not quoting Exodus 3:14 as Ehrman claims.

 

2. Now we need to turn our attention to the words of Jesus. He indeed says the words ἐγώ εἰμι in 8:58. The question comes down to what he meant by these words. An important grammatical point must be mentioned. When the verb “to be” is used without a predicate, one must be supplied. Therefore, a better translation for 8:58 would make Jesus saying, “Before Abraham was, I am he.” Jesus is claiming to be someone specific, but if not the name of God in Exodus 3:14, then who? The very first time ἐγώ εἰμι is introduced on the lips of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is located in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:7-26). The conversation moves in lots of different directions but eventually gets to the identity of Jesus. In John 4:25 the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming, the one who is called Christ.” The next verse offers Jesus’ response, “The one speaking to you, I am he.” The Greek here is ἐγώ εἰμι. What does ἐγώ εἰμι mean here? It means that Jesus is the Messiah to whom the Samaritan woman is referring (it would be very strange for Jesus to answer her statement by claiming to be God).

Flash forward to the eighth chapter of John. In 8:28 Jesus says, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he (ἐγώ εἰμι) and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak these things just as the Father taught me.” What does ἐγώ εἰμι mean in 8:28? It clearly refers to the Son of Man, a messianic title.

So in 8:58, it seems that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah with his usage of the words ἐγώ εἰμι. Yet Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah from a time prior to Abraham. What might he mean with such words? It was common in Judaism to speak of the things important in God’s plan for the world to preexist in His mind. The New Testament itself testifies to this feature. Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20) just as Christian were foreknown (1 Peter 1:2). The Lamb was crucified, in God’s plan, from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Jesus was handed over and betrayed according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). The first century CE Jewish works which scholars have titled the Prayer of Joseph and the Testament of Moses both speak rather casually about the preexistence of such important figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Moses (P.Jos 1:2; T.Mos 1:14). None of these examples depict literal preexistence, but rather notional preexistence. This is a critical difference. The human Messiah, who was indeed born (John 1:14; 3:16, 18; 18:37), was the preordained agent of God’s redemptive purposes.

 

3. Do the Jews, in fact, understand what Jesus is saying? One of the most obvious themes in John’s Gospel is the motif of ‘misunderstanding.’ The flow of the arguments typically go like this:

a. Jesus says something provocative

b. His audience takes his words literally

c. Jesus meant his statements figuratively

This motif is readily admitted by scholars. Warren Carter, in his book John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist describes this motif nicely:

words with multiple levels of meaning, what we call polyvalent language, are numerous instances of misunderstanding. (p. 114)

The late Raymond Brown, in his Introduction to the Gospel of John, lists 8:56-58 and warns about the nature of these characteristic misunderstandings:

In any case, whether John narrates the misunderstandings of outsiders or the nonunderstanding of the disciples, readers of the Gospel can find themselves confused by Jesus. (p. 288-9)

To this end, I contend, is what Ehrman has fallen prey. He has taken the literal line of Jesus which basically agrees with the interpretation of the Jews. If the reader finds that their interpretation is the same thing that the Jews concluded, they perhaps need to look again. In short, I don’t think that the Jews understood what Jesus was saying. In fact, the Gospel repeatedly remarks at how they misunderstand his words.

I look forward to an interview with Dr. Dale Tuggy and Ehrman which will take place later today where the issue of the Fourth Gospel will surely come up.

 

 

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17 thoughts on “Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 3 – John 8:58)

  1. Interesting post. How do you take John 17:5? That sounds more like literal preexistence and less like notional preexistence.

    1. I first look down at 17:22, where the same glory which has been given to Jesus has already been given to the disciples. This clearly has not happened literally. Much more likely is Jesus speaking with the prophetic perfect, just as we see in Gen 15:18 (“I have already given the land”); 28:4 (“God has already given the land to Abraham”); 35:11 (“God has already given the land to Ab and Isaac”). The same language is presented to by Jesus (Matt 6:1, “you have your reward already”) and Paul (2 Cor. 5:1, “we have our resurrection bodies a;ready, but in heaven”).

      Hope that helps clarify my position. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. D.B.

      Why literal rather than notional????

      We KNOW Jesus was foreknown – Why? Because Peter flat out told us so! 1Pet1:20… Why would there be an issue with a formal, didactic statement such as this. Jn17:5 is simply an example EXACTLY as we are ELECT from the foundation of the world (Eph1:4). I am pretty sure you were not there…:-)

  2. Hi Dustin,

    I’m enjoying your review, and agree that Ehrman misses the mark at a number of points (e.g. John 10:30), though I’m in agreement with this view that the belief that Jesus is God himself is a late development.

    I disagree with you about John 8:58, however, for grammatical and contextual reasons. Kenneth L. McKay seems to be right on the mark, IMO, in noting that the words prin abraam genesthai ego eimi should be rendered into English this way (i.e. it’s a PPA):

    “I have been in existence since before Abraham was born.”

    Notice how such a rendering makes perfect sense in light of what the Jews inferred from Jesus’ words, as expressed in verse 57:

    “You are not yet 50 years old…and you have seen Abraham!”

    Saying “I am he” with the meaning “I’m the Messiah that Abraham saw prophetically or in vision” doesn’t answer the question “How could you have seen Abraham?”

    Do you accept the reading of verse 57 that is favored in most Bibles, or do you reject it and favor of the alternative (i.e. Has Abraham seen you?).

    -Sean

    1. I again note, along the lines of those scholars quoted above, that the Jews misunderstand Jesus. Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see his day (not Jesus, but his day). The Jews misunderstand him and think that he is talking about himself. The dialogue in ch. 8 of John is constantly flowing. It seems that Jesus takes their objection and moves along with it. Perhaps Jesus isn’t directly answering them because they clearly are not listening to what he previously said.

      I don’t think that McKay’s translation is fair. The Greek is not complicated. Ego eimi without a predicate requires something, and many translations regularly make ego eimi as “I am he.”

      Jesus elsewhere in John (18:37) says that he was begotten, using the perfect passive of genao, implying that God begat Jesus. To be begotten means to come into existence, i.e., Jesus didn’t exist prior to that moment in history in any literal way.

      Hope that helps clarify my position. Thanks for the interaction.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think the non-preexistence interpretation works well, in context, though. It would certainly be ironic for Jesus to utter words that weren’t meant as a direct response, but which constitute a perfectly intelligible direct response when translated properly. (I know you disagree, but it seems pretty clear that John 8:58 is an example of a PPA, i.e. as a Present of Past Action Still in Progress.) That’s just a bit too coincidental, IMO;-)

        I certainly agree with you that EGO EIMI is not a divine name, and that attempts to connect those words uttered by Jesus to Ex are sorely misguided and ill-conceived.

        ~Sean

  3. @Bobby Garringer: People are motivated to come up with all sorts of arguments for all sorts of theological beliefs, but the question is: Which arguments are compelling? I’ve researched the “I am sayings” in John and the notion that John 8:58 echoes YHWH’s words at Ex 3:14 is really just too much of a stretch and, IMO, has literally nothing to recommend it. I certainly don’t see that Barrett stands corrected on that point.

    As K. L. McKay observed in A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, the EP (Extension from Past) idiom occurs in Greek when a present tense verb is “used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications.” (p. 41) This is exactly what we find at John 8:58, namely, the present tense EGO EIMI is used with an expression of past time (PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI).

    You might enjoy the article by McKay, “‘I am’ in John’s Gospel”, which can be purchased here:

    http://ext.sagepub.com/content/107/10/302.extract

    The rendering of John 8:58 offered by McKay fits so perfectly in context that for me the matter is settled. The counter arguments I’ve seen seem clearly motivated by a desire to shore up a preferred theology, not by grammar, context, co-text, etc.

    ~Sean

    1. Sean:

      Earlier, I referred to Anthony Rogers’ article, “The Old Testament and Jewish Background for the “I AM” Sayings of the Logos – the Lord Jesus Christ: A Word that Bridges the Gap”
      http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/rogers/i_am_sayings.html#fn_31

      May Dustin forgive the inclusion of the following review of that article on his website, but I think Rogers and the scholars he quotes are on the right track; and what they have written should be considered carefully.
      __________________________________

      To get the impact of Roger’s article, at least three things, about his understanding of the material he discusses, must be kept in mind:

      1) “Ego eimi” sayings in John’s Gospel are the “I am” sayings of Jesus that lack a predicate (John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, and 58; 13:19, 18:5, 6, and 8).
      2) The significant parts of the Jewish Targums that seem to equate Yahweh and – the Word – of Yahweh, and that attribute “I am” statements to the latter, include: Genesis 17:1; 26:24; Exodus 3:4 – 6; 6:2 – 3; Deuteronomy 32:39 and Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 13; 46:4, and 52:6.
      3) Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel are subject to the Word Theology that he had announced in his prologue.

      Rogers’ case amounts to reasons he gives for recognizing a threefold background to Jesus’ “I am” sayings in “the 3 great sources of Scriptural knowledge in the first century” [the Hebrew Masoretic Text (the MT), the Greek Septuagint (the LXX), and the Aramaic Targums (the TARG)].

      He presents scholarly evidence that John:
       was familiar with the MT
       often quoted the LXX
       seems to relate his Word Theology to specific statements in the TARG.

      “I am” (ani hu) sayings of Yahweh in the MT:
       become “ego eimi” sayings in the LXX
       are connected with self-revelations of the Word (Memra) in the TARG
       are, by adaptation, connected with self-revelations of the Word (Logos) in John.

      Targum readings of the Law and the Prophets – that extend the wording of the original Hebrew text – were embedded in regular services of the synagogues. So Rogers argues that such readings as the following were in John’s mind when he wrote John 8:58 in which Jesus (the Word) claimed to have been present – before – Abraham existed:

       “When Abram was 99 years old, the Word of the Lord was revealed to Abram, and he said to him, ‘I am he, the God of heaven…’” (Gen 17:1).
       “And the [Word of the] Lord was revealed to him that night and he said ‘[I] am he, the God of Abraham your father…’” (Gen 26:24).
       “The Word of the Lord called to him from the midst of the thorn bush… and he said, ‘I am he, the God of your father, the God of Abraham…’” (Ex 3:4 – 6).
       “And the [Word of the] Lord spoke with Moses and said to him, ‘I am he, the Lord. And I was revealed in my Word to Abraham…’” (Ex 6:2 – 3).

      Of course, Rogers’ evidence and discussion are much more complete – and more convincing – than this summary, but the above should convey why he believes John’s Gospel expresses an understanding of the pre-existence of Jesus as Yahweh, the God of Israel.

      1. Hi Bobby: When I see such arguments I can’t help but recall what Margaret Davies said in response to Raymond Brown vis a vis connecting Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John to YHWH’s “I am” sayings in Isa as a means of identifying Jesus as YHWH, i.e. that such a connection is “…merely fanciful, an attempt to find later Catholic christological doctrine in the Fourth Gospel.” (Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel), p. 85

        I may put something on my own blog about this in the future, but right now I have almost no free time.

        ~Sean

  4. Ego Eimi in John 8:58 is simple: Jesus (Not as the Human being) but as the Logos Always IS (there is NO Was, No Will Be) with the Eternal God: Father, LOGOS, HS).
    Ego Eimi is in the absolute tense when Jesus claims to be God (His eternal existence as the Logos) vis a vis the physical existence of Abraham. Jesus (again not the logos made flesh in John 1:14) but the Eternal Logos is always: EGO EIMI (Not God Was, NOT God Will be but GOD IS….)
    His audience clearly understood HIS words/claim and picked up stones to Kill Him because to them that was unholy blasphemy. (John 8:59)
    Caiaphas the high priest also clearly understood the God claim Jesus made when Caiaphas asked HIM are you the ONE?
    Jesus replied: Ego Eimi (Mark 14:62)
    Why would Caiaphas say: Blasphemy, worthy of death! ?
    Matthew 26:65-66
    Being the Messiah was not blasphemy worthy of death.
    In addition, Jesus added two other prophecies that He applied to HIMSELF
    in Matthew 26:64 (Son of Man at the right hand of the Power (Dan 7:13) and coming in the clouds of heaven) Daniel 7:13 …these 2 Messianic prophecies gave Jesus God Status as far as the High Priest Caiaphas was concerned…
    Psalm 109:1 Be Not Silent Oh God…Jesus spoke to Caiaphas when asked to speak in the name of God
    Jesus did claim God status and Jesus never denied: I AM NOT GOD

    1. Rachel – With respect, this is total hooey – and absolutely contrary to the text, the grammar, the context and the Messianic and Apostolic mind. Please try working WITH the text – starting with Ex3:14 IN THE SEPTUAGINT – which is the text that John used – which Dustin provided above.

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