Friday, June 12, 2015

Before Abraham was, I...what, exactly?

John 8:58 has come up so many times recently in various discussions, that I decided to upload my view here, briefly stated, so that I can stop typing it out and just provide the link in the future.

Here's the argument in a nutshell:

The Greek at John 8:58 fits an idiom described by grammarian Kenneth McKay as the "Extension from Past", which occurs when a present tense verb is "used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications." (A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek: An Aspectual Approach), p. 41, 42

Based on this understanding of the Greek, McKay offers this superlative English equivalent of what Jesus meant:

"I have been in existence since before Abraham was born."

If we accept McKay's observation that verse 58 is an example of the Extension from Past idiom (and there's no reason why we shouldn't), then Jesus' response (a) makes perfect sense and constitutes an exquisite response in light of the question posed, and (b) would have constituted a stoning offense if untrue. Notice how the pieces fall in place under McKay's view:

Verse 56 - Jesus: "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Verse 57 - Opponents: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham?”

Verse 58 - Jesus: "The truth is, I have been in existence since before Abraham was born!"

Jesus' opponents inferred from his statement in verse 56 that Jesus had personally observed (first hand) Abraham rejoice over seeing his day. For Jesus to say the equivalent of "I am God's name-bearing agent" (which is a paraphrase of what James McGrath and at least one other scholar argue that Jesus meant by EGO EIMI) as a response would be to utter a non sequitur. On the other hand, if we recognize the Greek idiom at work in the text and translate it the way we almost certainly would were it not for Church tradition, then Jesus' response fits perfectly, even exquisitely in context.

One apologist (Bowman, if memory serves) attempted to dismiss this view by saying something to the effect of, "Claiming to be really, really old wasn't a stoning offense." While that may be true generally speaking, offering such as a response to McKay's argument is really rather silly. Jesus' opponents wanted to stone him, not because a claim to be old was blasphemous, but because his claim to have been in existence since before Abraham was born could only have been viewed as a preposterous lie by them, and for Jesus to present himself as God's living, breathing power of attorney and then proceed to utter a lie while fulfilling his commission as God's agent would make God a liar, because as God's agent, his words were God's words, legally. Now THAT would be construed as blasphemous, especially by those who already sought his death!

McKay's understanding of the Greek isn't new, and sometimes when translators have broken away from committees and the unavoidable pressures such bodies sometimes exert out of allegiance to Church tradition, then they've offered renderings that attempt to capture the idiom.

Note a few examples:

Edgar J. Goodspeed rendered vs 58, "I tell you, I existed before Abraham was born."

James Moffatt similarly offered, "I have existed before Abraham was born."

Catholic James A. Kleist, S.J. offered, "I am here -- and I was before Abraham!" (In the footnote he claims that the utterance intimates eternity, but that's not a necessary implication of the Greek).

Charles B. Williams, whose translation was called "...the best translation of the New Testament in English", in part because it surpassed "...all other translators of the New Testament in bringing out the tense significance of the Greek verbs" (J. R. Mantey, comments on dust jacket), offered this rendering, "I most solemnly say to you, I existed before Abraham was born."

In their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Louw and Nida offer, "before Abraham came into existence, I existed."

All of these are fine attempts to capture the sense of the Greek, yet only McKay's rendering truly does it justice, as only his rendering "...expresses a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues...", as George Benedict Winer put it [1], or "...which indicates the continuance of an action during the past and up to the moment of speaking...[which action is]...conceived as still in progress..." as Nigel Turner put it [2].

As William Loader asked, "Need ...[the words "I am" at 8:58] mean more than the stupendous claim: I am in existence since before Abraham?" No, they needn't mean *more* but they certainly mean that he WAS in existence since before Abraham was born.

One Unitarian has suggested that since GENESQAI is typically used in the NT in reference to things that had not happened yet in the historical sequence of the story, we should render John 8:58 something like this:

Modern Unitarian: 

"Before Abraham comes to be [in the resurrection], I am [the Messiah]."

Abner Kneeland offered a similar rendering:

"Before Abraham is to be, (manifested understood), I am manifested."

For Abner Kneeland's argument, see: ... se&f=false 

Both of these renderings obviously import elements that are nowhere articulated in the text, and end up placing a non sequitur on Jesus' lips.  We know that GENESQAI must be past tense at John 8:58, because (1) of the context in which the word appears, and (2) because translations based on understanding it to have future tense are (a) non sequiturs, (b) borderline gibberish, and, most importantly, (c) they form responses that would not have had the ability to incite the hostile reaction of Jesus' opponents.


[1] A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, Seventh Edition, p. 267
[2] A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. III, Syntax, p. 62
[3] The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: Structure and Issues, p. 48

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