John 8:58, my Grammar, and my character
Sat, 11 Jan 1997 18:26:29 -0500 (EST)

To the b-greek list:

Two or three kind individuals have alerted me to the discussion going on in
this list re. my treatment of John 8:58, since they knew that I was not on
the list. I thank you for informing me of the discussion. I will respond to
this very briefly, as other duties keep me from giving anything like a
full-blown response. I am sure that this response will not satisfy everyone.
So be it. I simply cannot be drawn into discussion every time my character
is maligned (which seems to be increasingly the case these days!). This
statement is not meant to be rude. Rather, I find that often when a hot
button is pushed on these lists, much heat gets generated without
corresponding light. My temperament is such that I would probably contribute
more to the former than to the latter. I would rather deal with the issues
by looking at dead books and face-to-face dialogue. Such media are--at least
for me--more issue-oriented and prone toward civility.

If I understand the gist of the argument, three verses have been brought up
as involving historical presents that did not fit the contours of what I
described in the grammar. What I said in the grammar was that the historical
present in the NT was always third person and that EIMI was not on the list
(cf. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New
Testament [Zondervan, 1996], 526-32, for the complete discussion of the
historical present; only snippets of this section surfaced in this list,
leaving many folks at a disadvantage to see the context and the supporting
data for my claims). Further, one must understand that as long as my grammar
is (over 800 pages), I have never been charged with succinctness. There's
probably a lot of fat in it. (Certainly there is a lot of pedagogical 'fat'
that does not add to the content, just to its digestion.) Hence, I could not
explore all the possibilities of every category or every crux interpretum
that one might have wished. For an intermediate grammar, it's already big

Now, I have gone to some lengths in the introductory material of the grammar
("The Approach of This Book," pp. 1-11) to note my method. It seems that the
following two points are most pertinent to the present discussion. (1) "Any
significant statements as to the semantics of a given construction must be
based on a large number of examples" (p. 1). (2) In a subsection titled
"Probability vs. Possibility," I said: "Unlike the hard sciences, a
falsifiable hypothesis in the humanities is difficult to demonstrate because
of the vacillations in the levels of ambiguity in the data examined . . . .
In particular, many of the so-called undisputed examples may well be
disputed by some; conversely, some of what we consider disputed examples may
be patently undisputed to others. But in literature and linguistics
statistical probabilities are not ultimately to be measured in decimal
points, but in patterns and composite pictures. Rather than creating
reproducible results in a test tube, our objective is, first, to detect any
linguistic patterns in the surviving literature and, second, to apply such
patterns to exegetically problematic texts.
"To require that a particular morpho-syntactical construction always fit
the straitjacket of a particular semantic force before any exegetical
conclusions can be drawn is to treat the vagaries of human behavior as though
they followed the laws of physics." (pp. 9-10)

How is this relevant? First, the historical presents in the NT amount to
more than 400 clear examples. That seems to me to be a sufficient database
from which to derive some probabilities. A nice list (and the one I
initially depended on twenty years ago, when I began work in this area) can
be found in Hawkins' Horae Synopticae. Hawkins gives all the hp's in the
Gospels and Acts. His point has to do with the synoptic problem, not John
8:58. He has no ax to grind in this matter. What is significant about what
Hawkins listed is the following: (1) all the verbs were in the third person;
(2) EIMI was not on the list. From working with this list, as well as noting
some of the other secondary literature and doing independent work in the NT,
I found that these features were a constant. I have not looked in any great
detail in the LXX for historical presents. This leads to my second point.

Second, in concord with the second principle extracted from the grammar
(quoted above), I am very happy to entertain the possibility of first person
verbs in ancient Greek being used as historical presents. Indeed, I am a
fallible human being with increasingly bad eyesight and short attention span:
I may well have missed one or two in the NT. But I do not believe that such
would overturn the general contours of the historical present for the NT that
I have detected. Now, if EIMI as a first person verb were clearly used as a
historical present in John, that would certainly open wide the possibility of
such in John 8:58. But if such are not forthcoming, then one would be
hard-pressed to see this in such a highly disputed text.

I do not think that any have been produced in the recent email missives.
Specifically, three texts have been mentioned as containing historical
presents: John 14:9; Gen 31:38, 41. For ease of consultation, here's a
simple translation of these texts:

Gen 31:38 "I have been (EIMI) with you these twenty years"
Gen 31:41 "I have been (EIMI) in your house these twenty years"
John 14:9 "Have I been (EIMI) with you so long and yet you don't know me?"

In all three EIMI is used. Yet, in none of them is this verb a historical
present, despite the protestations to the contrary. At this juncture I will
quote from another grammar for the sake of those who might question my
integrity. I do not say this to be unkind. Rather, I think that some might
see that my very definition of the historical present is so shaped that it
excludes such texts. But listen to a far better authority on the Greek verb
than I (though I am fool enough to disagree with him on some things elsewhere
in my grammar!). In K. L. McKay's A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament
Greek: An Aspectual Approach (Peter Lang, 1994), the author says this about
historical presents: "In narrative referring to past events the present tense
is sometimes found . . . This is a stylistic variant used by some writers to
enliven the more significant parts of their narrative" (p. 42).

The salient features of the historical present noted by McKay that are
pertinent to our discussion are: (1) narrative, (2) past, and (3) event. All
of the examples in the NT fit this, from what I can tell. EIMI would hardly
fit the third qualification. But, just for the sake of argument, let's
suppose that that's not an essential ingredient. (Understand that I am not
arguing prescriptively, but descriptively; it just so happens that all the
CLEARLY tagged historical presents seem to fit these three criteria). After
all, grammars tend to speak of verbs as describing actions rather than states
even when they mean to include both. It's kind of a grammatical short-hand
(note, for example, the description in the next paragraph!). Still, the
problem with John 8:58; 14:9 (and Gen 31:38, 41) is that it they are not
narrative. They are all direct discourse. But let's suppose that the first
criterion is also negotiable. Hence, we are left with one key feature: past.
This is the feature that was noted in these three texts as proving me wrong.
But even here, the 'pastness' of EIMI is radically different from the
'pastness' of other historical presents. In each of the EIMI texts, the
pastness continues on into the present. Not so with historical presents.
This looks altogether like a different animal. Indeed, it is. It is, in
McKay's words, an "Extension from Past" present (p. 41). (Others call it by
different names.) His definition is as follows: "When used with an
expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications (but
not in past narrative . . .), the present tense signals an activity begun in
the past and continuing to the present time . . ." (p. 41). Incidentally, he
lists John 14:9 in this category. For other references, see my grammar, pp.
519-20 (I give the category the subtitle "Present of Past Action Still in

Now, I could end the discussion here. I think I have at least demonstrated
that these texts do not involve EIMI as a historical present. But I need to
add a couple more points: McKay also lists John 8:58 as an extension from
past present. At this point I disagree with him. In a footnote on p. 531, I
said: "More nuanced is the view that EIMI is a present tense extending from
the past (so McKay, New Syntax, 42). However, John 8:58 lacks sufficient
parallels to be convincing." To be specific, (1) John 8:58 is the only text
in the NT in which PRIN + inifinitive is followed by a present indicative.
In the LXX, we also have Prov 18:13 ("whoever answers a word before he hears
it [PRIN AKOUSAI], it is [ESTIN] folly to him and a disgrace"). (2) Further,
one of my master's students, Jeanie Brookes (now working on her doctorate in
New Testament at Cambridge University), wrote a term paper on the problem of
EIMI in John 8:58 ("The Use of EGW EIMI in John 8:58" [Advanced Greek
Grammar, Dallas Seminary, 1991]), noting some difficulties with taking it as
an extending-from-past present. She worked in the LXX extensively and found
key dissimilarities between John 8:58 and the extending-from-past presents in
the LXX. In addition to the two Genesis references, she also found Judges
16:17 ("because I have been [EIMI] a Nazarite of God from my mother's womb").
She notes, inter alia, that "There are three occurrences in the LXX of EGW
EIMI which may be translated as 'I have been,' but each one has an adverbial
phrase [attached to the present indicative] denoting duration, and so they
are not identical to John 8:58" (p. 32).

The problem, of course, is that the data are minimal in either direction. No
exact parallels with John 8:58; three other verses on the other side. We can
expand on the parallels, however. According to Buist M. Fanning, the
extending-from-past present (EFPP) "always includes an adverbial phrase or
other time-indication with the present verb to signal the past-time meaning"
(Verbal Aspect [Oxford, 1990], 217). He notes, too (218), that the issue
here is one of translation, not sense: such present tenses translate easily
enough into German and hence this may account for Blass-Debrunner-Rehkopf's
omission of this category! Now all this is to say that even though the data
are minimal for the EFPP, in the least all such examples--at least in the
NT--involve some sort of adverbial modifier. And the more precise parallels
involving EGW EIMI in the LXX also involve adverbial modifiers. John 8:58,
therefore, seems to be without a sufficient parallel in biblical Greek. To
call it EFPP when it does not fit the contours that are always present with
other EFPP instances in biblical Greek looks like petitio principii.

To be sure, I suspect that someone could find in the extant literature a few
parallels to John 8:58--that is, in which there is no adverbial phrase
attached to EIMI and yet the verb is truly an EFPP. These, indeed, ought to
be brought forth. But even if such examples were produced, I doubt that they
would sufficiently impact our understanding of EGW EIMI in John 8:58. The
reason for this is not some mystical view about the language of the NT, as
though it were a 'Holy Ghost Greek.' There is nothing special about the canon
of scripture when it comes to linguistics. Rather, I am arguing on the level
of style and the use of the OT in the NT. Stylistically, the Fourth Gospel
seems to go out of its way to make EGW EIMI a Messianic title of sorts. The
author even--according to Brown, Morris, et al.--distinguishes between
GINOMAI and EIMI in his prologue along the lines of created being vs.
eternally existing one. These commentators are not saying that such is
inherent in the two words of course! But they are saying that the author of
the Fourth Gospel (can we call him John for brevity's sake?) employs them in
such a way to highlight such a distinction. One has to admit a certain
plausibility of this: John 1:1 "In the beginning was (EIMI, 3rd singular,
imperfect) the Word . . ."; 1:6 "there came (EGENETO) a man . . . John"; 1:14
"the Word became (EGENETO) flesh . . ." Please understand: I'm not saying
that I buy this argument altogether. But in the least one needs to note that
a particular author has the right to employ repetition of the same word for
thematic considerations. On to EGW EIMI in John.

More consistent than any other author is John in his use of EGW EIMI as a
Messianic title for Jesus. It is used in John's Gospel two dozen times, only
one of which is on other than Jesus' lips (9:9). This usage in John comes
from somewhere. But where?

I won't take the time to develop the point here. Suffice it to say that a
large body of literature (both grammatical and exegetical) has been generated
on this verse. I think it prudent that those who have arguments with various
positions read what has gone before. The absolute use of EGW EIMI in John
along the lines of Isaiah's ANI HU (harking back to Exod 3:14) is supported
by several scholars on a variety of bases. Among them are A. T. Robertson,
R. M. Bowman, R. L. Shive, Raymond Brown, Rudolf Schnackenburg, C. R.
Gianotti, J. C. Coetzee, L. Morris, C. K. Barrett, P. B. Harner, et al.
Harner, incidentally, noted a massive lacuna in other Hellenistic literature
(such as Hermetica, Philo, the Sybilline Oracles, and NT apocrypha) to the
effect that there is "no clear, unambiguous use of the phrase 'I am' in an
absolute sense. In comparison to the Gospel of John, the phrase is
noticeable by its absence" (Harner, The 'I AM' of the Fourth Gospel
[Fortress, p. 28]).

I do not list these names as though they constituted some sort of argument.
Rather, I list them because too often discussions over the Internet resemble
blind men trying to describe an elephant to one another. Each argues from
his limited perspective, ignores the body of literature that is available,
and contends for his view by fiat or even ad hominem diatribe. I cannot
speak to how b-greek normally operates, but I can say that its occasional
forays into discussions of my grammar too often seem to be of this ilk.

Thank you for your patience with this altogether-too-long document (I warned
you that I do not have the gift of brevity!). And please understand why I
will hardly jump at every opportunity to defend my views on this list. My
time, at least, is spent more profitably laboring elsewhere.

In conclusion, I trust that my explanation is satisfactory enough to show
that in THIS issue at least I did not try to deceive. On the other hand, I
will be the first to admit that my character is hardly above approach. You
want evidence? I sold my son a car that was older than he is for $1000! It
has given him nothing but trouble, and he still hasn't forgiven me for the
problems he bought.

Respectfully submitted to the list,

Daniel B. Wallace