How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

“Before Abraham was, I am”; and before John was the Apocalypse of Abraham

Generative AI summary:

The text explores the controversy surrounding Jesus’ statement about Abraham in John 8:48-58. It suggests that Jesus’ use of the phrase “Before Abraham was, I am” may not be claiming divinity, but rather divine authority for his mission, drawing parallels to the Apocalypse of Abraham. The Apocalypse of Abraham, likely written in Hebrew after AD 70, provides context for understanding the idea of an existence before Abraham rejoiced at seeing Jesus’ day.

Read time: 9 minutes

Jesus says in John 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Raymond Brown says that ‘No clearer implication of divinity is found in the Gospel tradition.’1 This has been much debated, and I’m not here especially interested in the immediate christological meaning. It’s the background to the statement that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” that I want to look at and what this might tell us about John’s reasons for putting these words into Jesus’ mouth.

The controversy about Abraham in John 8:48-58)

The Jews accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon. Jesus denies this and points to God as the one who will vindicate him. He then says that the person who keeps his word will not “see death for the age” (Jn. 8:51*). The Jews express surprise because even Abraham and the prophets died. “Who do you think you are?” they ask.

Again, Jesus refuses to justify or glorify himself; he will be glorified in due course by God, whom the Jews claim to worship but have not known in the way that Jesus has known him.

Now we get to the crucial statement about Abraham:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he might see my day, and he saw and rejoiced. Then the Jews said to him, “You have not yet fifty years, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58*)

The absolute “I am” is usually explained by reference to the burning bush theophany (Ex. 3:14) or certain passages in Greek Isaiah: “I, God, am first, and for the things that are coming, I am” (Is. 41:4; cf. 43:10; 46:4). But I’m now wondering if a rather more obscure text may shed some light on John’s language here.

I discussed James McGrath’s argument that in some Jewish writings of the period an angel is given the divine name “in order to be empowered for his mission.” The specific example considered comes from the Apocalypse of Abraham, where God instructs the angel:

Go, laoel of the same name, through the mediation of my ineffable name, consecrate this man for me and strengthen him against his trembling. (Apoc. Ab. 10:3)

The name “Iaoel” combines the two divine names “Yah” and “El.” Presumably he has the “same name” as God, but it is for the specific mediatory purpose of consecrating and fortifying Abraham.

The argument, therefore, is that when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he is not claiming to be God, which hardly makes sense in the context, but to have received divine authority for his mission. McGrath says: “This was a way that, in this period of Jewish history, God was believed to honor and empower his agents, and it is a continuation and development of this idea that is found in John.”2

But the real challenge here is to explain the immediate context: an existence before Abraham rejoiced that he would see Jesus’ day. There is no biblical basis for this, but I think that the Apocalypse of Abraham may have a more important lesson for us than the use of a divine self-reference.

The Apocalypse is only available to us in Old Slavonic but is likely to have been written in Hebrew. It was composed after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and before the mid-second century. There is a substantial Christian interpolation in 29:1-13, which Rubinkiewicz thinks dates to the time of translation into Slavonic.[fn]R. Rubinkiewicz, “Apocalypse of Abraham,” OTP, 683.[/fn]

The story of Abraham on the Apocalypse

While still at home in Ur, Abraham has come to doubt the reality of the Chaldean gods. These opening chapters are quite entertaining. He hears a voice saying, “You are searching for the God of gods, the Creator, in the understanding of your heart. I am he” (Apoc. Ab. 8:3). He is told to leave the house of his father Terah, who is an idol maker, and the house is struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

The voice speaks again: “Behold, it is I. Fear not, for I am Before-the-World and Mighty, the God who created previously, before the light of the age” 9:3). Abraham is told to “make me a pure sacrifice. And in this sacrifice I will place the ages.” Hidden things will be revealed, and Abraham is told, “you will see great things which you have not seen, because you desired to search for me” (9:6). He will see “the things which were made by the ages and by my word, and affirmed, created, and renewed” (9:9), and he will hear will about the judgment that will come upon people who have done evil.

Abraham looks around to see where this voice came from, but there is “no breath of man,” and he falls to the ground terrified. Face to the ground, he hears the instructions given by the voice of God to an angel: “Go, laoel of the same name, through the mediation of my ineffable name, consecrate this man for me and strengthen him against his trembling” (10:3).

The angel, in human form, then helps Abraham to his feet and explains who he is: “I am Iaoel and I was called so by him who causes those with me on the seventh expanse, on the firmament, to shake, a power through the medium of his ineffable name in me” (10:8). Again, he has the divine name because he has been given divine power. He has now been sent to bless Abraham and the land which has been prepared for him. Therefore, Abraham should stand up and “be very joyful and rejoice,” because a great honour has been prepared for him by the “Eternal One” (10:15).

Abraham and the angel travel together to mount Horeb and set about making a complicated set of sacrifices. They are briefly interrupted by the appearance of Azazel in the form of an unclean bird, who is told by the angel, “Through you the all-evil spirit (is) a liar, and through you (are) wrath and trials on the generations of men who live impiously.” Moreover, God did not allow the dead bodies of the righteous to fall into his hands, so “through them the righteous life is affirmed and the destruction of ungodliness” (13:9-10). Abraham is the enemy of Azazel and of “those who follow you and who love what you wish” (13:13).

What Abraham eventually sees is the lighting of the fires of Gehenna (15:6) and the spectacular appearance of God, who shows forth “the age of the just” and makes “the light shine before the morning light upon your creation” (17:1-19).

A long sequence of further visions ensues, including the destruction of the temple by Rome:

In days to come you will not know them in advance, nor the future (men) you will see with your own eyes that they are of your seed. Look at the picture!” And I looked and I saw, and behold the picture swayed. And from its left side a crowd of heathens ran out and they captured the men, women, and children who were on its right side. And some they slaughtered and others they kept with them. Behold, I saw (them) running to them by way of four ascents and they burned the Temple with fire, and they plundered the holy things that were in it. (26:6-27:3)

This happened because the Jews had continually provoked God (27:7). Abraham wants to know how long the impious age of heathens will last, and he is assured that a judgment will come upon the world, leaving only righteous Jews (28:2; 29:14-19).

The parallels

There seem to me to be some quite marked correspondences between the Apocalypse of Abraham and Jesus’ speech in he temple in John 8:12-58.

1. The “I am” self-reference is prominent in the Apocalypse: God says, “I am he” and “I am Before-the-World and Mighty” (8:3; 9:3). God identifies himself as the one for whom Abraham is searching.

2. Jesus makes his statement about his precedence over Abraham in a passage that begins with the affirmation, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). In the Apocalypse, the light of God characterises the age of justice to come:

Showing forth the age of the just, you make the light shine before the morning light upon your creation from your face to spend the day on the earth, and in your heavenly dwelling place (there is) an inexhaustible light of an invincible dawning from the light of your face. (Apoc. Ab. 17:17-19)

3. Abraham is told emphatically to “be very joyful and rejoice” before he is shown the vision of what God has prepared for the end of the age (10:15). This is the key observation.

4. The sending of the angel in the Apocalypse (10:4, 6, 13) and the sending of Jesus in the Gospel (Jn. 8:18, 26, 29) are both stressed. At the end of the Apocalypse, a “chosen one” is sent, “having in him one measure of all my power, and he will summon my people, humiliated by the heathen” (Apoc. Ab. 31:1). This suggests agency rather than divine identity.

5. Abraham sees a future day of judgment, and we should perhaps understand Jesus’ assertion that Abraham would “see my day” along the same lines. Abraham rejoiced because he had been told that he would see in a vision the day when the Jews would be delivered from their enemies. In the Gospel, the Jews get hold of the wrong end of the stick, but that gives Jesus the opportunity to say, “before Abraham was, I am.”

6. The enmity between Jesus and the devil, who is father to the Jews, is paralleled by the enmity between Abraham and Azazel and his followers. In the main Jewish section of the Apocalypse, Azazel is associated with the pagans, so John has reworked this to fit his polemic against the Jews.

7. Azazel is a source lies, and Jesus says to the Jews: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. … When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).

In conclusion…

In conclusion, briefly, it is not the historical Jesus who says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” It is a Jesus who emerges out of an engagement with later Jewish-Christian, apocalyptic speculation. John is in critical dialogue with Jews who knew the Apocalypse of Abraham or some associated tradition. Rubinkiewicz says that there is “no direct relationship between the Apocalypse of Abraham and the New Testament” (685), but I think he may be wrong.

This explains what the standard accounts of the text cannot explain, which is why the “I am” claim is connected with Abraham who rejoices and sees Jesus’ day.

Quite what this all means for Johannine christology is hard to say. Is Jesus conceived as the counterpart to the angel who bears the divine name, a powerful agent of divine purpose, perhaps the one eventually sent with the power of God to deliver a people from pagan oppression? Or is closer to the Eternal One, who reveals himself as “I am” to Abraham? In any case, it rather suggests that what we have here is a rhetorical-theological construct rather than a window into the mind of the historical Jesus.

  • 1

    Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (1974), 367.

  • 2

    James, F .McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (2009), 62.