My assumption has always been that we have a “higher” christology in the Gospel of John than we do in the Synoptic Gospels, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. I argued last week that when Jesus is accused by the Jews of making himself equal to God or making himself God (Jn. 5:17-18; 10:33), his response, in effect, is, “No, I am the Son of Man, authorised by God to speak and act on his behalf”, which is more or less the claim made about him in the Synoptic Gospels. But what about the saying “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8:58? Isn’t that a barely disguised assertion of divine identity?
“I am” as the name of God
In his book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context James McGrath notes the absolute “I am” statement in John 8:58. Not “I am the good shepherd” or “I am the light of the world”. Just “I am”.
This looks like an appropriation of the name “YHWH” as it was revealed to Moses: “I am the one who is” (egō eimi ho ōn). We would then have to assume that Jesus is “claiming to be none other than the God revealed in the Jewish Scriptures”—except that, as C.K. Barrett has pointed out, it is intolerable to think that John has Jesus say, “I am Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and as such I do exactly what I am told” (61).
Here’s the problem: a few verses earlier Jesus said, “then you will know that I am (egō eimi) and that I do nothing by myself, but as the Father taught me, such things I speak” (Jn. 8:28, my translation). This absolute “I am” statement is directly interpreted by Jesus himself to mean that he speaks and acts as an agent sent by God, not as God incarnate.
McGrath maintains that there are instances in Jewish writings of the period where an agent of YHWH, such as an angel, is given the divine name “in order to be empowered for his mission”. The example he provides is from the Apocalypse of Abraham, which dates from sometime between AD 70 and 150: Abraham’s heavenly guide is called Yahoel, which combines the two names for God “Yah” and “El”. Abraham hears God say to the angel: “Go, Yahoel of the same name, through the mediation of my ineffable name, consecrate this man for me and strengthen him against his trembling” (Apoc. Abr. 10:3; cf. 10:8). The angel consecrates Abraham by means of the divine name which has been given to him to bear as his own name.
Later Jesus will pray for his disciples: “Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). So if “I am” is the name of Israel’s God, it has been given to Jesus as the supreme agent of God at this juncture in Israel’s history in order that he might carry out his mission. It means, in effect, that Jesus has been given the authority of God to act in this exceptional and controversial manner on God’s behalf.
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” (62).
The argument is a little different in Philippians 2:9-11, where Jesus is given “the name which is above every name” not in order to reveal YHWH to Israel but to rule over the nations.
I am the light of the world
This does not, however, explain the temporal statement: “Before Abraham was, I am.” McGrath doesn’t discuss this. Jesus does not merely claim to have been given the name of God; he has had that name—in some sense—from a time before Abraham.
To understand this, I think we first need to consider the whole “light of the world” discourse in John 8:12-9:41. The passage can be read as a reflection on the significance of Jesus in the light of the servant motif in Isaiah 40-55 and in Isaiah 43:8-13 LXX in particular:
And I have brought forth a blind people, and their eyes are likewise blind, and they are deaf, though they have ears! All the nations have gathered together, and rulers will be gathered from among them. Who will declare these things? Or who will declare to you the things that were from the beginning? Let them bring their witnesses, and let them be justified and speak truths. Be my witnesses; I too am a witness (kagō martus), says the Lord God, and the servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am (egō eimi).
Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be any after me. I am God, and besides me there is none who saves. I declared and saved; I reproached, and there was no stranger among you. You are my witnesses; I too am a witness (kagō martus), says the Lord God. Even from the beginning there is also no one who rescues from my hands; I will do it, and who will turn it back? (Is. 43:8–13; cf. 41:4; 45:18)
These seem to me to be the main points of correspondence:
- Israel is YHWH’s servant, “the offspring of Abraam, whom I have loved” (Is. 41:8 LXX). The righteous in Israel are told to “Look to Abraam your father and to Sarah who bore you; because he was but one, then I called him and blessed him and loved him and multiplied him” (Is. 51:2). Jesus says that the Jews are children not of Abraham but of the devil (Jn. 8:39-44).
- YHWH’s servant, Israel, is given “as a light to nations, to open the eyes of the blind”; he will bring “from the prison house those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:6–7; cf. 49:6 LXX). The deliverance of blind and captive Israel will reveal to the nations the power and mercy of Israel’s God. Jesus asserts that he is the light of the world, sent by the Father. Those who follow him “will not walk in darkness” (Jn. 8:12). When he goes on to heal a man blind from birth, he says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9:4–5).
- YHWH seeks witnesses to the fact that he has “brought forth a blind people, and their eyes are likewise blind, and they are deaf, though they have ears”: “Be my witnesses; I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am (egō eimi)” (Is. 43:8-10 LXX). In this discourse Jesus says, “I am (egō eimi) the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me” (Jn. 8:18).
- YHWH and his servant bear witness together to the fact that “I am”. “Before me there was no other god, nor shall there be any after me” (Is. 43:10). The Father and Jesus bear witness to Jesus’ claim “I am the light of the world”; and Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58).
So the Jesus who says “Before Abraham was, I am” is identified, albeit somewhat loosely and without much sense of the prophetic-narrative framework, with the Isaianic servant, who will be a light to the nations. But the phrase “light of the world” also, of course, refers us back to the opening of John’s Gospel.
The true light was coming into the world
In the Prologue the light that has come into the world is equated with the word or wisdom of God, which “became flesh and dwelt among us”. This appears to play on a quite well established Wisdom trope, which we find stated positively in Ben Sirach and negatively in the Similitudes of Enoch:
Then the creator of all commanded me, and he who created me put down my tent and said, ‘Encamp (kataskēnōson) in Jacob, and in Israel let your inheritance be.’ Before the age, from the beginning, he created me, and until the age I will never fail. In a holy tent I ministered before him, and thus in Sion I was firmly set. In a beloved city as well he put me down, and in Jerusalem was my authority. And I took root among a glorified people, in the portion of the Lord is my inheritance. (Sir. 24:8–12)
Wisdom found no place where she might dwell; Then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place: Wisdom returned to her place, And took her seat among the angels. (1 En. 42:1–2)
So it may be said that the Wisdom or Word of God should have found a place in Israel and in Jerusalem as the light of the world but was unable to do so. Israel failed in its mission. John’s claim is that the personified Wisdom of God has now become flesh in Jesus as the light of the world and not in Israel—indeed, his own people rejected the true light when it sought to live among them (Jn. 1:11).
So now Jesus is the true Isaianic servant, embodying the light of the world, which is the Wisdom and Word of the creator God, who does the works of the Father, who says what he has been taught by the Father (Jn. 8:28; cf. 8:26), who opens the eyes of the blind, rescues people from darkness, and is the source of the life of the age to come.
According to the Jewish Wisdom trope, the Word took the initiative, becoming flesh. But according to Jesus’ teaching, it is because he has been taught by the Father that he can legitimately claim to be the light of the world and is, therefore, the Wisdom and Word of God. He bears witness to himself, admittedly, but this testimony is backed up by the marvellous works that he does, such as opening the eyes of the blind man, which constitute the witness of the Father.
“I am” not as the name of God
In addition to the absolute “I am” statements that find we in John 8:24, 28, 58 there are two other types of “I am” statement in the Gospel.
- There are normal predicative statements, which say something about the first person speaker: “I am the bread of life…, which comes down from heaven” (6:35, 41, 48, 51); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the one bearing witness about myself” (8:18); “I am from above… I am not from this world” (8:23, 24); “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6); “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5).
- There are “I am he” type statements, which serve to identify the speaker: “I am, the one speaking to you” (4:25); “I am; do not be afraid” (6:19); Jesus asks Judas and the soldiers whom they seek and responds, “I am” (18:5, 6, 8). The usage is found in the Synoptic Gospels: when the disciples think they have seen a ghost, Jesus reassures them: “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27). It also seems fairly common in the Septuagint. For example, Gideon asks an angel of the Lord to wait while he gets something to sacrifice, and the angel says, “I am (egō eimi); I will stay seated until you return” (Jdg. 6:17–18; cf. Ruth 4:4; 2 Sam. 11:5; 13:28; 20:17; 2 Kgs. 4:13 LXX).
God is revealed to Moses as “I am the one who is” for the first time at the burning bush. So we should perhaps assume that when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am”, this is not so much a reference to the revealed identity of YHWH as a more general affirmation of personal significance, in keeping with the second usage, in the context of the complex chain of symbolic identifications that underpins the “light of the world” discourse. He is the obedient servant, taught by the Father; he is the light of the world, which is the true light rejected by Israel, which is the Wisdom of God, which is the Word of God.
The divine “I am” statements of Isaiah 40-55 are arguably of the same type—less a reference to Exodus 3:14 than an affirmation of divine significance in the particular context. For example: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am (egō eimi)” (Is. 41:4; cf. 43:10; 43:25; 46:4; 51:12).
This has been a difficult line of enquiry. I’ll try to draw some basic conclusions, and we’ll see where it leaves us:
- The “Before Abraham was, I am” saying is part of John’s searing indictment of the Jews, who have failed to fulfil their calling to be the servant of YHWH, a light to the nations.
- Instead, Jesus is the authentic servant of YHWH, the light of the world, because he has been taught by the Father and does the works of the Father, with the authority of the Father. The works that he does are from God and therefore bear witness to the truth of the claims that he makes about himself.
- McGrath may be right to suggest that “I am” is the name which God gave to Jesus as the agent of his purposes. But I think that “I am” may function primarily as an affirmation of personal significance within the particular context of the “light of the world” discourse.
- John’s semi-fictitious Jesus declares, “Before Abraham was, I am”, because Isaiah’s “light to the nations” has been reconceived as the light which is the pre-existing Wisdom or Word of God, which became flesh and dwelt among the Jews.