John 8:58: a fresh and naive probe

Carl W. Conrad (
Sat, 17 Aug 1996 05:40:43 -0500

It seems to me that a vast amount of effort has been expended upon this
text while bringing to bear upon it a vast number of grammatical
authorities and a considerable variety of theological assumptions. Perhaps
it's naive to want to look at the text all by itself, but that's what I
want to try to do.

I want to suggest an approach to John 8:58 based solely upon the text and
its possible meaning in linguistic and philosophical terms, drawing upon
myself, I suspect, the hot breath of linguists and philosophers resentful
of illegitimate encroachment upon their territorial domain. My conclusion
does come down exactly where most interpreters have come down in construing
the sense of this passage, but it is not based upon any necessarily
implicit allusion to Exodus 3:14 (That may, or may not, be related, but I
don't think that the sense of John 8:58 is to be derived FROM one's
understanding of Exodus 3:14).

Would it help, perhaps (without citing all the previous discussion of this
passage), to suggest that a simpler way of understanding PRIN ABRAAM
GENESQAI in relation to EGW EIMI is to view PRIN as a preposition governing
a substantive constituted by the subject-accusative + infinitive
construction, (TON) ABRAAM GENESQAI? What we have then is the equivalent of
a noun phrase, "the birth of Abraham" functioning as the object of the
preposition "before."

This prepositional phrase modifies the main verb EIMI as an adverb: "I am
"Prior to what?"
"Prior to the birth of Abraham."

And as to the notion that EGW EIMI is incomplete without a predicate word,
or that the phrase is meaningful only if EGW is understood as a predicate
nominative ("It is I"--the archaic phrasing of contemporary Eng. "It's
me"), that ignores the existential sense of EINAI, the sense that is very
important in philosophical Greek and that permitted Parmenides, as I noted
a few days ago, to insist that time and motions are illusory because ESTI
means "there IS a reality that had no beginning and that will have no end."

Given this existential sense of EINAI, one may transpose the sense of the
verb EIMI used in conjunction with the preposition + substantive thus:

"I am (exist) prior to Abraham's birth" = "I antedate Abraham's birth."

That is to say: this IS a declaration of the speaker's timeless existence;
listeners to that declaration can draw what inferences they will from it.
The narrator of John 8 says that Jesus' hearers immediately undertook to
stone him.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR