John 8:58 and <prin>

From: Ron Henzel (
Date: Fri Aug 16 1996 - 12:33:46 EDT


Your responses to me have been welcome and stimulating! You've done
a fine job of forcing me to think through my position more
thoroughly. I only wish I had more time to meditate on them, for
they truly are worthwhile!

You quoted me as saying:

>> This construction begins with <prin>, which is known as a
"subordinating adverbial particle." Subordinating adverbial
particles denote the beginning of dependent clauses. Therefore, the
clause, "Before Abraham was" is a dependent clause and not a
coordinate clause of "I am." Therefore, "Before Abraham was" cannot
possibly modify the meaning of "I am." On the contrary: "Before
Abraham was" is GRAMMATICALLY DEPENDENT on "I am."

The net result of this is that due to the presence of the
subordinating adverbial particle, <eimi> in John 8:58 canNOT POSSIBLY
be a use of the "perfective present," as A.T. Robertson also points
out. Therefore, it is improper to translate it "I have been."<<

And then you wrote:

> I see the point but the conclusion does not follow from the statement.

As Ross Perot would say, "I'm all ears!"

> While what is said about the *grammatical* dependency is true, the
> subordinating adverbial particle PRIN does create a *temporal*
> dependency in the main clause. The PRIN marks the verb in the main
> clause as antecedent from the dependent clause. For example, in the
> statement:

> "Before a cock crows, you will disown me,"

You've really done a lot of work on the NT use of <prin>, but I think
this verse you quoted demonstrates my point precisely. The
<prin> clause ("before a cock crows"), because it is a dependent
clause, doe not modify the actual translation of the Greek verb tense
in the independent clause ("you will disown me.") The independent
clause is still translated as a future.

In fact, the temporal modification is precisely the other way around:
"you will disown me" is future, and IT modifies the sense of "before
a cock crows" by placing THAT event into the future as well.
Therefore, the temporal aspect of "before a cock crows" is modified
by "you will disown me," not the other way around. This is the way a
normal Koine listener would have heard it.

What Mitchell wants to argue is that the <prin> clause in John 8:58
can modify the actual translation of <ego eimi> on grammatical
grounds alone. I think I have adequately demonstrated that it

> the main clause "you will disown me" occurs temporally before (PRIN)
> the dependent clause "a cock crows." The 'disowning' comes first, then
> the 'crowing.'

Yes -- but this is ALWAYS the case, otherwise the MEANING of <prin>
("before") is totally frustrated. So what you are saying is simply
axiomatic. So what we are talking about now is something that is
true by lexical necessity, but NOT by grammtical necessity. If one
thing happens, exists, or is somehow true "BEFORE" another thing,
there is automatic temporal priority.

Applying this to John 8:58, the <prin> clause definitely causes the
listener to place the timing of <ego eimi> as prior to when "Abraham
was." Certainly Jesus was at the very least claiming pre-existence!
But it would not have influenced the basic meaning of the words <ego
eimi> to the Koine hearers. In other words, they would have heard "I
am," (present tense) and not "I have been" (a crude rendering of the
perfective present), as the most natural sense of <ego eimi>.
And since the translation of <ego eimi> should reflect the most
natural sense the words had in their original context, I believe the
rendering should be "I am."

This is not to say that this particular use of <ego eimi> was in
common currency in the first century. It was obviously an odd
expression, and I believe designed for shock-value. Jesus was
definitely claiming pre-existence, but he was also claiming more.
He was claiming absolute existence from eternity past to
eternity future. Some have referred to this as "the eternal
present." The translation "I have been" does not convey this meaning
as does "I am."

Now if we apply the identical grammatical logic to "Before the
cock crows you will disown me" that Mitchell attempts to apply to
"Before Abraham was, I am," we would supposedly have to modify the
temporal aspect of "you will disown me" to reflect the verb tense
found in "before the cock crows." What would that produce? "Before
the cock crows you HAVE disowned me"? "Before the cock crows you ARE
disowning me?" Do you see what I'm saying?

> The grammatical use of the "perfective present" is a *temporal*
> modification and not a *grammatical* one.

Personally, I don't think you're making a valid distinction here. As
I understand it, the "perfective present" is a temporal modification
conditioned by grammatical construction. I.e., it does not occur
unless certain grammatical conditions exist. I don't think you can
make such a stark conceptual distinction. It is temporal as
indicated by the grammar.

> Therefore, it would be grammatically allowable to translate the
> main clause verb in its temporal context.

I believe that my exegesis does precisely that: it translates the
main clause verb in its temporal context. There's no way that the
listeners could have understood Christ as saying that His existence
came AFTER Abraham's, or BEGAN with Abraham's, etc., by His use of "I
am." It was clear in the context. He was speaking of eternal
existence, which OBVIOUSLY pre-dated Abraham!

But my exegesis also avoids the error of making the translation of
the tense of <eimi> dependent upon the temporal aspect of the
dependent clause. That would be an indefensible translation
procedure in Koine.

> I have listed at the bottom of this post all instances of PRIN
> occurring in the N.T. The specific verses that parallel the John 8:58
> construction are prin + aorist infinitive.

And I truly do appreciate the work you've gone through to include
these. I've looked over a few of them, and the ones I've examined
parallel (or simply repeat) your example above of "Before the cock
crows you will disown me," and therefore I would explain them in the
same fashion.

I wish I had more time to reason further along this issue, but my
real job beckons me. If I can get to the remainder of your message
before next week, I will. But I've gotten myself behind with all
this emailing!

sola (scriptura + gratia + fide) = solus Christus,

-- Ron Henzel

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