John 8:58 (longish)

From: Mike Phillips (
Date: Fri Aug 09 1996 - 10:19:20 EDT

> From:, on 8/9/96 12:02 AM:
> Edward Hobbs writes on 8/8/96:
> > In the flood of discussion of John 8:58, several posts have stated
> > or implied something about the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 which is not
> > accurate. Hebrew YAHWEH (or, unreconstructed, YHWH) is not
> > translated into Greek as EGW EIMI.
> I don't know why (prions, neural noise, microstroke), but I think I
> started the confusion. Thx for the correction, Edward. And the same
> thx to Alan Repurk for noticing the LXX didn't jive with what I was saying.

        An easier reading of the text is possible, I think, without the
contortions. VV. 31-59 are the pericope in question, and v. 58 can't be read
with any balance without considering the argument going on, i.e., who Jesus is,
but who is the Father of Jesus and the Jews. Unfortunately, the conversation
devolves into sarcasm and ad hominim arguments on both sides: John's "Jews"
(note, that
according to v. 31, these are Jews who 'believed him') resort to an assault on
Jesus' illegitimacy, while Jesus responds that 'children do the work of their
Father.' Clearly, Jesus assaults "the(se) Jews" in context, questioning their
works (not their ancestry). His point is that his works are representative of
the Father, and who is that Father? Not Abraham, but I AM, i.e., PRIN ABRAAM
        Some relevant verses here (in narrative terms, which is how this needs
to be approached, rather than in a fashion which attempts to "Plug and Play"
Jesus' reported words into the Septuagint like a magic bullet) are v. 39., in
which (and I refer you to Raymond Brown's commentary) we have three different
textual witnesses:
        <quoting Brown>
        (a) real condition: "If you" Codex Vaticanus and P66 read
an imperative in the apodosis. (b) Contrary-to-fact condition: "If you would be doing." The Byzantine tradition supports this reading,
which implies that "the Jews" are not Abraham's children. This seems to
contradict v. 37. (c) Mixed condition, as we have translated it (If you"). This is supported by P75 and Codices Sinaiticus and Bezae. The
idea is the the Jews are really Abraham's children, but are denying it by their
        The confusion in the witnesses is best explained by assuming that (c)
was the original reading, and that (a) and (b) are attempts to iron out the
mixed conditio by making it consistent in both protasis and apodosis.
        <end quote, <book> The Gospel According to John</>, Raymond E. Brown,
pp. 356, 7>

        v. 42 "If God were your father, you would love me, for from God I cam
forth and am here. Not on my own have I come, but He sent me." Brown notes
that while theologians (not exegetes) have used this passage as a description
of teh internal life of the Trinity, <quote mode on> ... the aorist tense
indicates that the reference is rather to the mission of the son, i.e., the
Incarnation. "I came forth and I am here" is all one idea. This is confirmed
byt he same aorist use of EXERCHESTHAI in XVII 8, hwere the parallelism shows
that "came forth" refers to mission: "They have truly realized that I came
forth from you, and they have believed that you sent me." <end quote>

        v. 56. rejoiced... glad. <quoting Brown> There is considerable
versional and patristic evidence for reading "desired" in place of "rejoiced."
This may stem from the cross-influence of Matt. 13:17 (= Luke 10:24): "Many
prophets and just men have desired to see what you see." <end quote>

        The bottom line is that the Greek has been and is being held hostage to
theology in these particulars. This is not to say that John might not have
meant just what others claim, but it is to say that the Greek is not capable of
giving us the definitive answer to these questions, and theology becomes of
greater import in interpretation than exegesis. In terms of exegesis, and not
theology, I note that if this statement by Jesus is everything some have
claimed (which I do not believe for reasons of narrative context and exegesis,
yet, I admit to having a bias of my own which I cannot excise at will), then
why don't we see this same defining moment in Matt., Mark, or Luke? Or Paul?
Wouldn't you think such a centrally important text (if read as they would read
it) would echo and reverberate throughout the early Christian community in this
form, i.e., straight from the Septuagint in which many presume they were
steeped? Why isn't it? Note: I am asking specifically about the Greek
construction EGO EIMI referencing (supposedly / erroneously) Christ's
pre-existence and identity with I AM. If that's not the case (and I don't
believe it is) then perhaps something else is going on (as I've suggested in
the narrative) and it's time the truth were set free <g>.

        If anyone would care to address the theological implications of this
(ideal) story from John, I would recommend the <book> Jewish Law from Jesus to
the Mishnah</> by E.P. Sanders, particularly his sections pertaining to
blasphemy (the charge that Jesus supposedly was tried and convicted for) in the
first century and whether the accounts in the synoptics support this view (they
don't, if we are allowed to read them in the light of Judaism(s) and Jewish law
as practiced in the 1st century (and not as charicatured for us in the New
Testament Gospel Narratives). If John had anything of the synoptics to work
with, what John has done (my view) is taken the charge of blasphemy and
"written it larger than life." Hence, whether or not John is saying Jesus = I
AM, the witnesses of the rest of the gospels tend to suggest that we allow John
to have his day as a (single) voice which is not supported (in this particular
instance) by other early Christian testimonies -- specifically the gospels of
Matthew Mark and Luke.

        I apologize for my digressions, wherever you may find them, but I noted
that the original post contained many assertions that could not be addressed in
the Greek specifically, and I was at a lost as to how to respond. What I have
intended to do is to contextualize the response in order to illuminate the
questions which seemed to have been taken far too much for granted to this
point. Again, I don't hold this out as definitive -- your mileage may vary. I
just think John 8:58 is a far richer text if left to its context (a thematic
treatment of Abraham, works, models, and mission).

Mike Phillips

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging;
it is the skin of living thought and changes from day
to day as does the air around us. - Oliver Wendell Holmes

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