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.
This 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.