Before Abraham was, I am .
Christians argue that this verse states that Jesus said he was the “I am” (i.e., the Yahweh of the Old Testament), so he must be God. That argument is not correct. Saying “I am” does not make a person God. The man born blind that Jesus healed was not claiming to be God, and he said “I am the man,” and the Greek reads exactly like Jesus’ statement, i.e., “I am.” The fact that the exact same phrase is translated two different ways, one as “I am” and the other as “I am the man,” is one reason it is so hard for the average Christian to get the truth from just reading the Bible as it has been translated into English. Most Bible translators are Trinitarian, and their bias appears in various places in their translation, this being a common one. Paul also used the same phrase of himself when he said that he wished all men were as “I am.” (Acts 26:29). Thus, we conclude that saying “I am” did not make Paul, the man born blind or Christ into God. C. K. Barrett writes:
Ego eimi [“I am”] does not identify Jesus with God, but it does draw attention to him in the strongest possible terms. “I am the one—the one you must look at, and listen to, if you would know God.”
The phrase “I am” occurs many other times in the New Testament, and is often translated as “I am he” or some equivalent (“I am he”—Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8; John 13:19; 18:5, 6 and 8. “It is I”—Matt. 14:27; Mark 6:50; John 6:20. “I am the one I claim to be” —John 8:24 and 28.). It is obvious that these translations are quite correct, and it is interesting that the phrase is translated as “I am” only in John 8:58. If the phrase in John 8:58 were translated “I am he” or “I am the one,” like all the others, it would be easier to see that Christ [‘Eesa alayhissalaam] was speaking of himself as the Messiah (Maseeh) of God (as indeed he was), spoken of throughout the Old Testament.
The argument is made that because Jesus was “before” Abraham, Jesus must have been God. There is no question that Jesus figuratively “existed” in Abraham’s time. However, he did not actually physically exist as a person; rather he “existed” in the plan of God. A careful reading of the context of the verse shows that Jesus was speaking of “existing” in God’s foreknowledge.
Here is another example where a Prophet existed in the knowledge even before he was born, yet he was not at all Divine, Jeremiah 1:5 – Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart, I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) said: “I was a Prophet when Adam was between water and clay”
Yet, no Muslim claims that the Prophet was divine, the meaning has it in it that even when Nabi Adam or Abraham (alayhimussalaam) were present, Jesus (‘Eesa alayhissalaam) and Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) were Decreed to be the Messiah and the Last Prophet in Allah’s plan respectively. Attaching ‘Divinity’ to such statements shall be absurd and meaningless.
To say that Jesus is “before” him is not to lift him out of the ranks of humanity and mount him to god-hood but to assert his unconditional precedence. To take such statements at the level of “flesh” so as to infer, as “the Jews” do that, at less than fifty, Jesus is claiming to have lived on this earth before Abraham (8:52 and 57), is to be as crass as Nicodemus who understands rebirth as an old man entering his mother’s womb a second time (3:4).
In order for the Christian Trinitarian argument that Jesus’ “I am” statement in John 8:58 makes him God, his statement must be equivalent with God’s “I am” statement in Exodus 3:14. However, the two statements are very different. While the Greek phrase in John does mean “I am,” the Hebrew phrase in Exodus actually means “to be” or “to become.” In other words God is saying, “I will be what I will be.” Thus the “I am” in Exodus is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew text, so the fact that Jesus said “I am” did not make him God.
Trinitarians claim that the Jews picked up stones to stone Jesus because he was claiming to be God (John 8:59), but that is an assumption. There is a different explanation that is supported by better evidence: the Jews picked up stones to kill Jesus because they understood he was claiming to be the Messiah. At Jesus’ trial, the High Priest asked, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ” (Matt. 26:63). First of all, we should notice that no one at the trial asked Jesus if he were God. However, if they thought he had been claiming to be God, that would have certainly been a question they would have asked but such is never recorded anywhere.
The Christians claim that Jesus
uses the Divine Name “Yahweh” that God gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14 as referring to himself in this oft-repeated verse. Let’s examine this claim more closely. The New Jerusalem Bible has translated this phrase “I am that I am” from“Ehe’ye asher ehe’ye” (Hebrew) as “I am He who is: Ego eimi, Ho on” (Greek). The commentary of this verse states that this rendering of the original Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 is exactly how the seventy translators of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) (i.e. A Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed by seventy Greek-speaking Hebrew scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, 250 BCE) understood the meaning to be, and these were highly educated Greek-speaking Hebrew scholars. Essentially God is telling Moses that “He who is” or He that can never die has sent him unto Pharaoh.
The Divine attribute is the phrase “Ho on” (He who is), yet Jesus in John 8:58 simply says, “Before Abraham was, ego emi.” He does not claim the divine attribute used in the Septuagint which educated Jews at the time of Jesus would have been aware of. Again, we have Christian word games being played here. The words in English are the same, namely “I am.” The Greek of John, however, is different than the Greek of Exodus 3:14. Let’s look at the entire passage:
“Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God: Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw [it], and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.” – John 8:52-59.
So what does Jesus mean by “Before Abraham was, I am,” and why do the Jews pick up stones? Jesus is simply claiming his legitimacy in a very clever way. The Jews were so proud that they were the progeny of Abraham, so he (Jesus) hits them where it hurts most. He basically says, “Before Abraham was born into this earthly existence, I was in the knowledge and Will of God. When we all existed before the creation of the physical universe in spiritual form, Abraham longed to see my day, the day of the Messiah.” Jesus is saying that since God knew him and made him Christ before the creation of Abraham, he (Jesus) is just as legitimate as Abraham. God tells the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, [and] I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations”(Jeremiah 1:5). This is precisely what Jesus meant when he said:“And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Is it unusual for a Prophet to speak like this? Did any other prophets prove their “bona-fides” by suggesting their pre-existence in the Will and infinite knowledge of God? The best of creation, the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace and blessings) once said, “I am the seal the of the Prophets when Adam was in clay.” Surely this makes Muhammad more worthy of being a god-incarnate since Adam predates Abraham chronologically. Alas, the fundamentalist Christian’s programmed mind can only see in black and white.
Even the Baptist cousin of Jesus warns the Jews: “And think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). Your Christian friend may explode, “Then why do the Pharisees pick up stones?” The answer is because Jesus is claiming to be genuinely sent from God and His anointed. We are told in the Book of Deuteronomy 18:20 that false prophets must be killed. Turn the tables on your Christian buddy and ask him, “If the Jews truly believed that Jesus claimed to be God, then why don’t they use these ‘claims’ as evidenceagainst him in the religious High Court of the Sanhedrin?” We are told in Mark 14:55: “And the chief priests and the whole council gathered together to find evidence that would warrant a death sentence, but failed to find any” (Revised English Bible). They couldn’t even get two witnesses to agree with each other! Having no reason to kill Jesus, the Jews pulled a “180” and changed their charge from blasphemy, a religious crime, to sedition or treason, a political crime. Why? Because they knew that Pilate, the Roman Procurator, would have little mercy on enemies of the state. After Pilate tells the hoards of Jews shouting for Jesus’ execution that he finds no fault in Jesus, the Jews very cleverly answer, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). Therefore, Pilate had little choice but to hand him over to be crucified.
The Christian will at this point be obstinate. He will cry, “No! They killed him because he claimed to be God, not just a prophet!” Answer this by simply asking him if any of the previous Hebrew prophets ever claimed to be God. He will say no. Then inquire as to why they were killed by the Jews? Jesus lashes out against his people: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [thou] that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under [her] wings, and ye would not”(Matthew 23:37). Is it surprising that the Jews are constantly picking up stones against Jesus when many of the previous prophets were stoned, and they never claimed to be God?
Josh McDowell says in his book More than a Carpenter whose cover boasts over 10,000,000 copies printed worldwide (emphasis mine): “An analysis of Christ’s testimony shows that he claimed to be 1) the Son of the Blessed One (God); 2) The One who would sit at the right hand of power, and 3) the Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven. Each of the affirmations is distinctively messianic.” I agree. They were claims to be the Christ, not God.