Possible explanation of John 8:58

From: Robbert Veen (101742.2734@compuserve.com)
Date: Tue Aug 13 1996 - 21:43:04 EDT

Ronald M. Henzel wrote:

Now -- I do not intend to complain about the nature of your message
-- but if you can provide some sort of EXEGETICAL evidence of what
you are proposing, then I think that would be more appropriate to
this discussion group. Questions like whether the Apostle John was
CORRECT in what he wrote go far beyond the MEANING of what he wrote.

Yes, I guess you're right that we should distinguish the meaning from the
truth. If we could do that completely, there would be no necessity for us
to reveal our presuppositions, and the aim of the list would be a totally
neutral linguistic analysis. (Which for the most part it seems to be.)

 I was responding however to the statement, that the text can only signify
 Jesus' selfidentification with God, because the Jews tried to stone him
for it. That refers to a historic event, of which we know nothing apart
from John's own statement. This also seems to lie outside the scope of
exegesis. For if John took the words 'egoo eimi' to MEAN that Jesus
identified Himself with God, and tried to give foundation to that fact by
explaining the reaction of the jews, this would explain only how John
interpreted that saying, not what it would MEAN in a linguistic sense.
Neither Johns apparent interpretation, nor the historic event in which he
placed it, are exegetical arguments, are they? (Or did I misread the
postings I replied to?) The context of the saying, to put it differently,
makes us aware of how John intended it to be understood.

I'm saying that the words in itself, could be understood differently, when
looked at in a different context, the context in which historically Jesus
might very well have said something like that. Here I must admit, I must
introduce something like historic plausibility as a means to further my
understanding. And I'll concede that this takes me outside the field of
linguistic exegesis into theological interpretation. My point is, that the
posting I referred to did the same by allowing context and recorded event
to decide upon the meaning .Whereas in fact It would uncover nothing more
than John's way of interpreting a saying ascribed to Jesus.

So when you say later:
Well, now you've backed yourself into a corner -- because just a
short while later in John's Gospel Christ's self-proclaimed divinity
is PRECISELY why the scribes and Pharisees sought to stone him. John
chapter 10 (NIV):
aren't you then referring to John's interpretation of the saying as
expressive of Jesus' self-proclaimed divinity, rather than to the meaning
of the words themselves? And aren't you taking for granted that the
historic event in which the words are placed sheds light on the meaning,
and not on the intention of the author?

I would go even further. It seems to me, that all that linguistic analysis
can do, is give us the possibilities of the text. All that exegesis can do,
is give us the possible intention(s) of the author or text, taken as a
single unit. In the debate about the meaning of John 8:58, the issue was
about the way the exegesis of the text might give us a single theological
interpretation: Jesus' identified Himself with God or He did not. And if
so, to which text in Tenach was He referring? All your presuppostions (if
I guessed right, so please correct me here) about the revealed character
of the gospel of John, and the intrinsic unity of the text and its meaning
(to be used no doubt in further theological elucidation) are present in the
way you approached the issue yourself.

I'm not sure I'm making myself very clear here. Perhaps it is best to
narrow it down to a single question: is the meaning of a statement
identical to its use by a single author in a specific context? If you do
not presuppose verbal inspiration or literal inerrancy, wouldn't you have
to take into account the possibility that a specific phrase taken in itself
might have meanings, worthy of linguistic or historical consideration, that
would then prove to be outside or against the apparent intentions of the
author, but would be in perfect harmony with other historically known or
reconstructed contexts of discourse? In that case, prudent exegesis would
want to define the historic context of that statement as something that
exists beyond the context in which it was used in the text and then ask the
question what the relationship between this original meaning(s) and the
contextual meaning would be. (E.g. the clash between the Graeco-roman usage
of the I am formulae, and its apparent connection to the anie hu-formulae
in Tenach.) What would it mean to a first century jew to make or hear the
statement: I am before Abraham was born?

Why couldn't it originally mean:

'ehyey existed before Abraham was born (referring to the 'ehyey in Ex. 3:14
As 'ehyey sent Moses, so God sent Jesus)
I, [ the messiah], existed before Abraham was born (E.g. "From the
beginning of the Creation of the world king Messiah was born (so: before
Abraham - RAV), for He entered the mind of God before even the world was
created. Pes. R. 152b)

Why couldn't the context of interpretation be something like this:

If you ask me who I am, the only meaningful answer I can give you, is a
reference to the One who sent Me, since I will claim nothing for myself,
that is not given to Me from My Father etc.

In all of this, I can find no real problem with grammar (which is nothing
more than a description of actual usage, nothing else) , nor with the fact,
that John's text might lead to the conclusion that its author interpreted
these words to express the unity in essence or substance of God the father
with God the Son. An idea that is so foreign to the jewish mind, that it
would have been unintelligible to them. It wasn't blasphemy to call
yourself the Son of God because it meant identification with God, but
because it meant to call yourself the Messiah.

You wrote:
Nevertheless, even if my JW friend is right, it serves to reinforce
my point to you that the Jews at least THOUGHT Christ was claiming
divinity (I would say "Deity"), and that such a claim WAS a ground
for stoning

It would reinforce the idea that the writer of John thought this was a good
way to represent the jewish position, that blasphemy was essentially
identifying yourself with God, and that stoning was the sentence for that.
Blasphemy, at least in Tenach and Mishnah, seems to refer to someone who
actually uses the Divine Name. (Lev. 24:10ff, MSanhedrin 7:5: the
blasphemer is not culpable unless he pronounces the Name itself.) Now, if
John is right about the event of the jews wanting to stone Him for
blasphemy, Jesus must have used the Divine Name. In that case He would
have had to say: I am JHWH, (JHWH off course wouldn't be present in the
greek text) or, if egoo eimi is meant to be the translation of JHWH, he
might have said: before Abraham JHWH, which then became egoo eimi. The
saying, and the greek report or translation of that saying (if we have it
here) and the interpretation of that saying (by taking egoo differently,
not as part of a (mis) translation of the Divine Name) would be three
different things.

You rebuked me for transcending the field of exegesis into theology. Well,
I agree, that is not the right thing to do. But didn't you do that as
well, by using John's theology as the final measure for the meaning of the
words egoo eimi and using John's references to historic events as true to
reality and not part of his theology, excluding all other considerations?
And isn't this choice necessary if you start from the idea, that the very
text of John is divinely inspired?

Greetings from Holland,

Robbert A. Veen

As for the pre-existence of the Messiah.

I think in general - but I concede this is not a hard scientific principle
- that I consider the New Testament to be part of the first century jewish
literature. If there is a necessity to explain the meaning of the text as
something which does in no way harmonize with current jewish thought, I
will follow that line. But I have the tendency to look at such an outright
deviation form central jewish teaching from that era with some suspicion.
In this, i follow the mainstream of jewish interpreters of the NT, like
Shalom ben-Churin, Pinchas Lapide and others.

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