Purpose and Meaning of "Ego Eimi"
in the Gospel of John in Reference
to the Deity of Christ
by James R. White
The Gospel of John has come under great fire in recent centuries for its incredibly high Christology. On this basis alone certain form-critics have rejected the book as having any historical authenticity whatsoever, assuming (without foundation) that such a high Christology could only have evolved after quite some time of "theological formulation" and hence placing its writing well into the second century. Fortunately, not all scholars share the same unfounded presuppositions.
The person of Christ as presented in John's Gospel is indeed of an exceptionally high character - John asserts that Jesus is "the Word become flesh" (John 1:14). He says that this Word is eternal, has always been "with" God (pros ton theon) and indeed shares the very being of God (John 1:1). John describes Jesus as the unique God (monogenes theos) in John 1:18. He portrays Jesus saying that He is the way, the truth, and the life - that man's very life and salvation is dependent upon his relationship with Him (a claim nothing short of blasphemy for a mere created being!), and the Gospel climaxes in Thomas' confession of Jesus as his "Lord and God".
Though the evidences of the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ are numerous in this book, one set of these evidences has always fascinated theologians. Jesus utilizes the specific phrase ego eimi of Himself frequently in John's Gospel, and a number of times He does so in a pregnant way, not providing any immediately identifiable predicate. John's recording of these sayings is also significant, as he provides rather obvious settings for these sayings, emphasizing their importance. Is there a significance to this phrase? What is it's purpose and meaning? Does this phrase present yet another aspect of the Deity of Christ? This shall be the topic of the following investigation.
Usage of ego eimi in the Gospel of John
The specific phrase ego eimi occurs 24 times in the Gospel of John. Seventeen of these times it is followed by a clear predicate. 1 Some of these instances would be John 6:35, "I am the living bread" (ego eimi ho artos tes zoes) or John 10:11, "I am the good shepherd" (ego eimi ho poimen ho kalos). 3 times the usage does not fall into a clear category -- these would be 4:26, 6:20, and 9:9. In 4:26 Jesus says to the woman at the well, "I am, the one speaking to you" (ego eimi, ho lalon soi) which is strangely reminiscent of the LXX rendering of Isaiah 52:6 (ego eimi autos ho lalon). In 6:20 it seems to be a rather straight-forward self-identification to the frightened disciples in the boat. 2 And in 9:9 we find the man who had been healed of his blindness insisting that he was indeed the man of whom they spoke. This last instance is similar to the sayings as Jesus utters them, in that the phrase comes at the end of the clause and looks elsewhere for its predicate.
Given the above usages, we are left with 7 usages that have been described as "absolute". 3 These would be John 8:24, 8:28, 8:58, 13:19, 18:5, 18:6, and 18:8. It is these seven passages that make up the bulk of the discussion concerning the use of ego eimi by John. For the sake of accurate examination, the transliterations of these phrases are provided below:
John uses this phrase of Jesus more than any other writer. The phrase does occur in Mark 14:62-64 as well, however. It is to be noted that in the above list, the phrase itself comes at the end of the clause in each instance. This will have significance when the Septuagint background of John's usage is examined.
The main verses that will undergo examination here are 8:24, 8:58, 13:19, and 18:5-6. In the author's translation these passages read as follows:
Translation of ego eimi
Before the exact meaning or significance of ego eimi in John's gospel can be adequately addressed, the proper translation of the phrase must be determined. There are a very small number of translations that avoid a direct translation of the present indicative ego eimi. Moffat renders it, "I have existed before Abraham was born!" The Twentieth Century New Testament has, "before Abraham existed I was." Kleist and Lilly have "I am here -- and I was before Abraham!" C. B. Williams gives "I existed before Abraham was born." Schonfield renders the last clause "I existed before Abraham was born." And the spiritist Johannes Greber (who claimed to get his translation through a spirit medium!) has, "I am older than Abraham." The Jehovah's Witnesses' own translation, the New World Translation, renders ego eimi as "I have been".
Allegedly many of these translations are viewing the phrase as what Robertson calls a "progressive present". Robertson writes,
There are many instances in historical narrative or conversation where the Greek will use a present tense verb that is best rendered in English by the perfect. John 15:27 would be a good example: "because you have been with me from the beginning." The verb, este, is in the present tense, but the context makes it clear that it is in reference to both the past and the present, or, as Moulton said above, it "gathers up past and present time into one phrase." Robertson correctly notes that this is a common idiom in the New Testament, though he also adds the fact that, in his opinion, John 8:58 is "absolute" and should be rendered as such (which he always does in his works 5). It should also be noted that it is the deficiency of the English that is to blame for the rendering - to place weight on the meaning of the English perfect tense when rendering the Greek present in this way would be in error.
So why should John 8:58 not be rendered in this way? Why do so few translations follow this path? Because to so translate is to miss the entire context and content of what is being said! The vast majority of translators see, as many commentators do, that there is a clear differentiation being made here between the derivative existence of Abraham and the eternal existence of the Lord Christ. That this is understood by the translators of our modern editions can be seen from a look at the translations that render this phrase either as "I am" or "I Am" or "I AM":
This writer is not aware of a single version, produced by a team or group of scholars, that renders ego eimi at John 8:58 in a perfect tense. Even those who do not see here a reference to the Deity of Christ (such as Barrett 6) do not change the translation to something else. Rather, many scholars rightly point out the same contrasting of verbs as seen in the prologue of John (between the aorist ginomai and the imperfect en) as well as the same kind of differentiation found in the LXX rendering of Psalm 90:2. 7 They also recognize that the response of the Jews would be rather strong if this was simply a claim of bald pre-existence. The oft-repeated charge of blasphemy as found in John makes this clear. Rather, the usage of a term used of God Himself (as will be shown later) would be sufficient to bring the response of verse 59.
The phrase was so understood by the early church as well. Irenaeus showed familiarity with it as "I am" 8 as did Origen 9 and Novatian. 10 Chrysostom wrote, "As the Father used this expression, "I Am," so also doth Christ; for it signifieth continuous Being, irrespective of time. On which account the expression seemed to them to be blasphemous." 11 The context of this passage is far too strong to allow this to be rendered as a simple historical narrative, resulting in the conversion of the present indicative into a perfect tense. Alford added,
Old Testament Background of ego eimi
An extensive discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this paper. 13 Suffice it to say that the position taken by this writer reflects a consensus opinion of many scholars, that being that the closest and most logical connection between John's usage of ego eimi and the Old Testament is to be found in the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew phrase ani hu in the writings (primarily) of Isaiah. 14 It is true that many go directly to Exodus 3:14 for the background, but it is felt that unless one first establishes the connection with the direct quotation of ego eimi in the Septuagint, the connection with Exodus 3:14 will be somewhat tenuous.
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew phrase ani hu as ego eimi in Isaiah 41:4, 43:10 and 46:4. In each of these instances the phrase ani hu appears at the end of the clause, and is so rendered (or punctuated) in the LXX (just as in these seven examples in John). The phrase ego eimi appears as the translation of a few other phrases in Isaiah as well that are significant to this discussion. It translates the Hebrew anoki anoki hu as ego eimi in 43:25 and 51:12. Once (52:6) ani hu is translated as ego eimi autos (basically an even more emphasized form). And once (45:18) we find ego eimi kurios for ani Yahweh! This last passage is provocative in that it is in the context of creation, an act ascribed to Jesus by John (John 1:3) and other New Testament writers (Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:2-3).
The usage of ani hu by Isaiah is as a euphemism for the very name of God Himself. Some see a connection between ani hu and Yahweh as both referring to being. 15 That it carried great weight with the Jews is seen in 8:59 and their reaction to the Lord's usage of the phrase. If one wishes to say that Jesus was not speaking Greek, but Aramaic, the difficulty is not removed, for the identification would have been just that much clearer!
There seems to be a direct connection between the Septuagint and Jesus' usage of ego eimi. In Isaiah 43:10 we read, "that you may know, and believe, and understand, that I am He" (personal translation). In the LXX this is rendered thus: hina gnote kai pisteusete kai sunete hoti ego eimi. In John 13:19, Jesus says to the disciples, "from now on I tell you before it comes to pass in order that when it does happen, you may believe that I am." (personal translation). In Greek the last phrase is hina pisteusete hotan genetai hoti ego eimi. When one removes the extraneous words (such as hotan genetai which connects the last clause to the first) and compares these two passages, this is the result:
Even if one were to theorize that Jesus Himself did not attempt to make such an obvious connection between Himself and Yahweh (which would be difficult enough to do!) one must answer the question of why John, being obviously familiar with the LXX, would so intentionally insert this kind of parallelism.
Another parallel between the usage of ego eimi in John 13:19 and its usage in Isaiah has to do with the fact that in 13:19 Jesus is telling them the future - one of the very challenges to the false gods thrown down by Yahweh in the passages from Isaiah under consideration (the so-called "trial of the false gods) This connection is direct in Isaiah 41:4, "Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, -- with the first of them and with the last - I am He." Here the "calling forth" of the generations - time itself - is part of the usage of ani hu. The same is true in John 13:19. In the same chapter of the book of Isaiah references above, in verse 22 we read, "Bring in your idols, to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come ..." That this reference to knowledge of the future would appear in the same section that uses ani hu as the name for God, and that this would be introduced by the Lord Himself in the same context in John 13:19, is significant indeed.
Hence, though some would easily dismiss the ani hu/ego eimi connection, 16 or ignore it altogether, 17 the data seems strong that this connection is intended by John himself by his usage.
Johannine Usage of ego eimi - Interpretation
It is not hard to understand why there have been many who have not wished to make the connection that John makes between Jesus and Yahweh. One cannot make this identification outside of a trinitarian understanding of the Gospel itself, as one can certainly not identify Jesus as the Father in John's Gospel, hence, if Jesus is identified as ego eimi in the sense of the Old Testament ani hu, then one is left with two persons sharing the one nature that is God, and this, when it encounters John's discussion of the Holy Spirit, becomes the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity! Indeed, many of the denials of the rather clear usage of ego eimi in John 8:24, 8:58, 13:19 and 18:5-6 find their origin in preconceived theologies 18 that are nearly unitarian, subordinationist, or so enamored with naturalistic rationalism as to be antisuper-natural. An interpreter who is unwilling to dismiss the words of Scripture as simply "tradition" (and hence non-authoritative) or to interpret Scripture in contradiction with itself (as in a violation of strict monotheism in the positing of a being who is quasi-god, mighty, but not "almighty") will be hard pressed to avoid the obvious conclusions of John's presentation. Lest one should find it hard to believe that John would identify the carpenter from Galilee as Yahweh Himself, it might be pointed out that he did just that in John 12:39-41 by quoting from Isaiah's temple vision of Yahweh in Isaiah 6 and then concluding by saying, "These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory and he spoke about Him." The only "Him" in the context is Jesus; hence, for John, Isaiah, when he saw Yahweh on His throne, was in reality seeing the Lord Jesus. John 1:18 says as much as well.
It is self-evident that such a far-reaching and in reality astounding claim as is made by the Lord Jesus in John 8:24, 58 is hard to accept outside of the highest estimation of His person. Indeed, Augustine wrote,
But can the usage of ego eimi withstand that much weight? Though being a "scholar" does not guarantee infallibility in judgment, it should at least provide assurance of factual understanding. Given this, the scholars seem to feel that it can.
Leon Morris has written,
Warfield has written concerning this,
The great expositor J.C. Ryle noted,
Luther, like Augustine before him, wrote in no uncertain terms:
A.T. Robertson certainly did not see any linguistic problems here:
And finally, William Hendrickson put it rather bluntly:
This writer feels that there is no way that John could have been any more obvious in his intention to invest in ego eimi a significance far beyond the simple function of identification that it can, and does at times, perform. In 8:58 the Jews pick up stones to stone Jesus. The other two times this occurs are right on the heels of claims to deity as well - first in John 5 where Jesus has just claimed equality with the Father both by calling God His own Father in very special terms as well as claiming the same right to work on the Sabbath as the Jews understood to be God's in upholding the universe; secondly in John 10 after Jesus claims that He and the Father are one in their role of bringing salvation to God's elect -- His "sheep". In both instances John spells it out clearly that these claims were understood to be claims to equality with God - can 8:58 then be different?
In John 13:19 the introduction of the phrase in correlation with the revelation of future events just as is found in Isaiah, even to the point of nearly quoting the LXX rendering, is far too specific to be overlooked. And in 18:5-6, John repeats the phrase in verse six to make sure that the reader understands the reason for the soldiers' falling backwards. And why would the soldiers fall backwards if not for the awesomeness of the words of Jesus? Some of the naturalistic explanations brought forward for this incident are so ludicrous as to be absurd. John's meaning cannot be mistaken.
If each of these instances were examined solely in a vacuum, separated from the others, without any thought of the entire book of John, one might see how their collective significance could be missed. But this is not the way of scholarly interpretation. These statements are not made in a vacuum - they are placed in a book that is rich with meaning and purpose. It has been well said that John intends the entire Gospel to be read through the "interpretive window" of the Prologue of 1:1-18. Given the teachings of that passage, can one seriously doubt the meaning of ego eimi in the above examined passages? It would seem not.
It could fairly be admitted that an immediate and unqualified jump from the ego eimi of John 8:58 to Exodus 3:14 is unwise. The connection that is much more properly traced is the one given here, that of ego eimi/ani hu as found in Isaiah. The connection between Isaiah and Exodus 3:14 is so obvious as to be undeniable.
We have seen that John uses ego eimi in more than one way - the majority of the time providing a predicate. Even these are astounding in their majesty in regards to the person of Christ. Here Jesus is said to be the way, the truth, and the life; the light of the world; the bread of life; and the good shepherd, each of which it should be noted, has parallels to statements made by Yahweh in the Old Testament. But the bulk of this paper has been devoted to those passages where the phrase is used in a specific sense - in an "absolute" sense.
Upon examining these we have seen that they find their origin and background in the book of Isaiah's usage of the Hebrew term ani hu and its translation as ego eimi in the LXX. We have seen the close parallel between Isaiah 43:10 and John 13:19, both in form as well as thought content.
We have also seen how the context of the passages themselves - the setting and teaching of the entire book of John - makes the identification of ego eimi and its resultant presentation of the deity of Christ inevitable. We have seen how John purposefully emphasizes these phrases, helping us to grasp their significance.
In closing, we might do well to look, then, with this understanding in mind, at Jesus' words at John 8:24: "unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins." Jesus here gives us the content and object of saving faith - faith, real faith is that which comes to the real Jesus. A faith that demands a change in Jesus before a commitment is made is not real faith at all. The Jews standing about Him during this conversation most assuredly would not have denied that He was a man - but that was not sufficient for faith. Some had just recently proclaimed Him as Messiah - but that was not sufficient for faith. Some might hail Him as a prophet or a miracle worker, blessed by God - but that was not sufficient for faith. Some today say He was a great moral teacher and philosopher - but that is not sufficient for faith. Some call Him "a god" or a great angel - but that is not sufficient for faith. No, Jesus Himself laid down the line - unless one believes Him for whom He says He is - the ego eimi - one will die in one's sins. There is no salvation in a false Christ. If we are to be united with Christ to have eternal life, then we must be united with the true Christ, not a false representation. It is out of love that Christ uttered John 8:24. We would do well to heed His words.
1. These are: John 6:35, 6:41, 6:51, 8:12,
8:18, 10:7, 10:9, 10:11, 10:14, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1, 15:5.