John 8:58 & NWT

Ron Henzel (
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 08:23:54 CST6CDT

This message is directed at Mitchell Andrews' message regarding John
8:58 and supposed parallels to the New World Translation of "I have
been" for "ego eimi."

Mr. Andrews, I think that your list of parallels totally misses the
point. First of all, the ones you cite are all well-known, widely
acknowledged idiomatic uses of the present active indicative. The
fact that there are such idiomatic usages does not prove that John
8:58 is one of them.

The first thing I noticed is that it could be seen right on the
surface that the majority of the instances you cited are NOT
instances of the verb "eimi," (lexical form of the Greek verb "to
be"). Although I haven't had time to check (I just got back from
vacation and have a ton of email to answer!) it's possible that NONE
of your "parallels" are in fact parallels, because they may not be
instances of the verb "eimi." (I look forward to checking them out,
however!) They would be therefore disqualified from consideration
due to my next point:

There is one extremely important manner in which the "ego eimi" of
John 8:58 differs from all the "parallels" you cited: it posesses no
predicate. "I am" -- what? Even if you have one or two instances of
"eimi" in your list of "parallels," they all have predicates. John
8:58 does not, and this is a very unusual form of expression in Koine
Greek. It goes beyond idiom, and calls for some explanation.

The explanation that most RECOGNIZED translators have chosen (the New
World Translation is NOT recognized by true Greek scholars) is that
John 8:58 finds its true parallel in the LXX rendering of Exodus
3:14, "ego eimi ho on," which is in fact a rather "dynamic
equivalent" translation of the Hebrew "ahyeh asher ahyeh." But I'm
sure that you're aware of this, because it's all well-documented in
various annotated editions of the NWT. A better translation of the
Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 would have dropped the "ho on," leaving some
form of repetition of "ego eimi," bringing out more suitably the
force of the Hebrew.

The only explanation, therefore, that has historically satisfied
NT translators is that the words of Jesus in John 8:58 are a direct
reference back to Exodus 3:14, and that Jesus was claiming to be
one-and-the-same as the Jehovah-God who spoke to Moses through the
burning bush. Jesus did not supply a mere quote of the LXX
translation of John 8:58, but supplied his own, which was equally
clear to his opponents, well-educated in Hebrew as they were, or they
would not have tried to stone him.

If Jesus was merely claiming pre-existence, that would not have
constituted blasphemy. Therefore, he would not have been eligible
for stoning. The fact that those pharisaic Jews who overheard him
picked up the stones as quickly as they did indicates they believed
that they had a solid legal case for stoning under the Torah. Such a
legal case could NOT have been based on a Jesus who merely said, "I
have been!"

The NWT translators have created an interpretive nightmare by
distorting the force of the present active indicative. By trying to
get the verse to fit their theology, they have rendered the story in
which it is contained completely unintelligible in its historical
context. The Jews would NOT have stoned somebody for claiming mere
pre-existence. If THAT was the case, they had more than enough
grounds in verses 56-57:

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

57 "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you
have seen Abraham!"

Notice that we read of no picking-up-of-stones-to-stone-Him in this
verse. To the Jews, claims of pre-existence were greeted with
incredulity, not outrage. To them, they made Jesus a candidate for
the first century equivalent of the looney-bin, not a candidate for
the penalty of blasphemy. It wasn't until Jesus made a clear
reference to Exodus 3:14 that he became such a candidate:

58 "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born,
I am [ego eimi]!"

59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid
himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

So not only does the NWT rendering of John 8:58 stretch Koine grammar
to the point of snapping, but it also makes nonsense of the account
in John 8:12-59.

The only reason the NWT has for altering John 8:58, therefore is to
support their own theological position. The fact is that because of
their anti-trinitarian bias -- NOT for legitimate grammatical reasons
-- the NWT translators chose the rendering that they did. In the
end, they actually deliberately flaunted NT Greek grammar, even if it
meant doing violence to the John 8 narrative.

-- Ron Henzel