Date: Wed Sep 02 1998 - 16:07:24 EDT
A SUMMARY OF THE ISSUES SURROUNDING EGW EIMI IN JOHN 8:58
The past couple of weeks on b-Greek we have discussed, among other things, the
question of whether or not EIMI in John 8:58 can properly be considered part
of the idiom known as the Present of Past Action Still in Progress (PPA
[Burton]) or the Extension from Past (McKay). This idiom occurs when a present
verb is used with an expression of past time. McKay explains: "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" (K. L. McKay, A New Syntax of
the Verb in New Testament Greek: An Aspectual Approach [New York: Lang, 1994],
p. 41). McKay gives Luke 13:7, 15:29; John 14:9; Acts 27:33; and John 8:58 as
examples of this particular idiom.
The main objection to this view, stated by Kyle Dillon, has been in reference
to a comparison between Greek and English verbs. This is a dangerous
comparison to make, and, in my view, cannot help but result in confusion in
this case. Thus, I would like to restore the focus of this thread to the
Greek text of John 8:58, and discuss its meaning, and consider its potential
relationship to the use of EGW EIMI in the LXX of Isaiah.
WHAT DOES THE GREEK TELL US?
Someone on the list recently commented that "most theological arguments that
begin `The Greek says...' are simply
wrong." To me this kind of observation is not well founded at all. But here I
intend to argue grammar, not theology, though a certain theology naturally
results from the grammar. Let's begin by considering undisputed examples of
In John 14:9 Jesus says to Philip, TOSOUTON CHRONON MEQ' hUMWN EIMI. Here
TOSOUTON CHRONON has a past reference and modifies the present EIMI. In
English, we would not translate, "I am with you so much time," but "I have
been with you for a long time." It is important to note that both Jesus and
Philip, the two direct participants in the discussion, know how long they have
been together. Thus, for us to expect anything more specific than TOSOUTON
CHRONON, in this context, is unnecessary. Why should Jesus be more specific
than he was? Also, we know from the context that there was a beginning to the
time they spent together.-John 1:43.
In John 15:27 Jesus said to his disciples, AP' ARCHS MET' EMOU ESTE. Here AP'
ARCHS modifies ESTE, providing a point from which the disciples shared Jesus'
company. The use of APO is appropriate since the participants in the
discussion, Jesus and the disciples, both knew when they first began to
associate with Jesus. But ARCH does not tell us when that happened, and if
someone held to a particular view of ARCH that demanded it refer to the ARCH
in, say, John 1:1, it could result in quite a creative view of Jesus'
relationship with his disciples! But, again, Jesus can make reference to a
particular point from which he has been with his disciples, without being
specific in terms of time or location, because he knows that they know what he
means by AP' ARCHS.
The same is true of other examples of the PPA. In Luke 13:7 the man in Jesus'
illustration and the vinedresser both know that for three years the man has
come looking for fruit, and even if the vinedresser did not have direct
knowledge of this fact (that is, he was not in the vineyard for the entire
three years, but came later) he would have had no problem relating to the
point of reference. In Luke 15:29, in Jesus' illustration of the prodigal son,
the son who stayed with his father laments TOSAUTA ETH DOULEUW SOI. Obviously,
both the son and his father know what period of servitude is meant by TOSAUTA
But when we come to John 8:58, the situation is not so simple, or is it? Jesus
refers to Abraham and says that Abraham rejoiced at the prospect of "seeing
his day." This does not sit well with the Jews, who object, PENTHKONTA ETH
OUPW hECHEIS KAI ABRAAM hEWRAKAS; Jesus responds emphatically, PRIN ABRAAM
GENESQAI EGW EIMI. There are two ways to understand this verse, that also
relate to the question Jesus is answering: 1) Jesus is claiming to have
existed before Abraham was born; or 2) he is claiming a title belonging to God
which would ipso facto identify him as God, and therefore explain how he has
Below we will (briefly) consider whether or not Jesus' use of EGW EIMI can be
viewed as the equivalent to a divine title/name. But here we should simply
note that the grammar of the passage contains the necessary past expression
and present verb to be considered a PPA. The only difference between this
verse and the other examples of the PPA we earlier considered, is the point of
reference; it is to a time unknown to both parties in the discussion. In other
words, how else could Jesus state the fact of his preexistence and make his
point that he has seen Abraham?
If Jesus had said APO THS GENETHS TOU ABRAAM EGW EIMI that would have implied
that he was a being who lived from the time of Abraham's birth forward, but
not necessarily prior to that birth. By saying PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI he
maintains the truth of his existence and still answers their question. But
there is really nothing more specific he could have said, since his existence
predates the Jews' knowledge of history. It is the same with the use of PRO in
Psalm 90:2 and Jeremiah 1:5. Since the past expression in all of these texts
goes beyond any date in history known by the person(s) spoken to, then all
that can be said in such instances is a vague reference prior to the time THAT
In other words, in Psalm 90:2 Moses and the Israelites know that the mountains
were created "in the beginning" (this is the farthest point of reference to
which they could relate, because it is spoken of in their scriptures-Gen. 1:1;
Prov. 8:22ff.), but beyond the beginning they cannot relate to anything
further, historically. In Jeremiah 1:5 we are simply told that God knew
Jeremiah before he was born, but we do not know how long prior to his birth
Jeremiah was foreordained by God. All we know is that God foreknew Jeremiah
before he was born. Anything else must be gathered from other scriptures, or
read into the text in light of one's presuppositions. It is similar in John
8:58. All we can say for a certainty, based on the grammar of the text, is
that Jesus existed from a time before Abraham's birth to the contextual
The best English translation might well be that given by McKay: "I have been
in existence since before Abraham was born." The use of "since" does not imply
a beginning, but a point of reference, and that is what the text provides.
Jesus claims to have existed from a time before Abraham's birth. That "time"
can be viewed as eternal, but it need not be. Like the other examples of the
PPA we discussed, context, immediate and larger, will have to tell us whether
or not Jesus' existence had a beginning. Also, again, to object to the meaning
of the Greek text on the basis of English grammar is an unfortunate error.
This is a GREEK idiom, and the Greek language does not have the same time-
based system of verbs that English has.
But what about the translation "I have been" which is found in the NWT and in
various editions of the NASB and other translations? Again, in this instance
we have a situation where, in Greek, we are told that Jesus exists from a time
before Abraham's birth to the present. Literal translations like NWT and NASB
try to follow the Greek text as closely as possible while communicating the
meaning of the text in English. It would have been too paraphrastic for either
translation to read, "I existed before Abraham was born, and I continue to
exist." But because that is what the text says it would have been correct.
Both the Greek present and imperfect tense forms have imperfective aspect, and
they both would have communicated essentially the same thing. With the present
there is what I consider a definite emphasis on the continuity of Jesus'
existence. Also, the imperfect appears to function in the PPA/Extension from
Past idiom only in narrative (See McKay, A New Syntax, pp. 44-45).
Viewed from this perspective, EIMI is a present verb modified by a past
expression, showing that Jesus' existence continues from a time before the
birth of Abraham, to the contextual present. The past reference is necessarily
vague, since those to whom Jesus is speaking cannot relate to a time beyond
"the beginning." But Abraham is used as the reference instead of "the
beginning" since Abraham is focus of the question at hand.
Now we have to ask, does the Johannine use of EGW EIMI have anything to do
with the use of the same expression in the LXX of Isaiah?
EGW EIMI IN THE LXX, IN JOHN AND IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
The answer to the question asked above this section is yes. If you examine the
predicateless use of EGO EIMI in the LXX and the NT, you will find that it is
almost always used of self-identification. The question is, is the "self"
identified the same in all cases?
I have written a book (see below for details) with a lengthy chapter
discussing this issue. I believe you will find that the use of EGW EIMI in the
LXX always has a predicate implied or directly stated, which predicate is
either "Lord" or "God" or some other equivalent expression. In the Fourth
Gospel, Jesus uses the expression primarily as a means of identifying himself
as the Messiah (John 4:26; 13:19), the messianic Son of man (John 8:24, 28),
as "Jesus" (John 18:1-6), and as a means of simple self-identification, "It is
I" (John 6:20). His use in John 8:58 also has strong messianic overtones, but
because it also appears to function as part of a Greek idiom that gathers the
past and present into a single expression, it is not certain whether we should
also understand "Christ" as an implied predicate. See my book, chapter 6,
pages 135-139, for details. John also uses the predicateless EGW EIMI with the
implied predicate, "the one born blind" in John 9:9.
Jonathan Robie asked about the doubling of EGW EIMI in the LXX of Isaiah, and
I believe Ben Crick pointed out that this has to do with emphasis. I agree.
This is a translation of the archaic ANOKI. The reason this doubling of ANOKI
should not be viewed as an equivalent to the divine name is because the divine
name would then have to be duplicated, not the verb. But ANOKI is translated,
not by KURIOS (or THEOS), but by EGW EIMI. However, the tetragrammaton is
translated in the LXX by KURIOS, not EGW EIMI. That is why the citation I gave
from Davies is significant, because it points out that Brown's observation
really begs the question, unless he can provide specific evidence supporting
his position. For observations of other scholars who recognize the emphasis in
the repetition of the ANI/ANOKI, see note 30 on pages 125 and 126 of my book.
Again, John uses the predicateless EGW EIMI for the man born blind (John 9:9),
knowing that the predicate is clearly implied in the context. John does the
same for Jesus. There is nothing inherently special or theological about EGW
EIMI, but the importance of the expression lies in the predicate that is
implied or expressly stated with it.
Similarly, the Synoptics use the predicateless EGW EIMI for Jesus as the
"Christ." There are many references on this point, and a good amount of
textual material to consider, so I suggest those interested take a look at
pages 145-149 of my book. Here I will simply recommend that you compare Mark
13:6 (Luke 21:8) with Matthew 24:5, and Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:70.
In John 8:58 EGW EIMI is used with an expression of past time, gathering the
past and present into a single expression, designed to emphasize Jesus'
existence before Abraham's birth, up to the time he spoke with the Jews. If a
predicate is to be supplied, the context and other uses of EGW EIMI in the
Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics suggest "Messiah" or "Son of man."
English grammar should not be used to understand the Greek idiom in this
passage (or any other for that matter). Examples of the PPA will exhibit
differences because of the speaker, those spoken to, and the subject under
discussion. The past reference may be specific or vague, depending on whether
or not those involved in the conversation share the same understanding of the
time frame being considered. In any event, the text may still appear vague to
us, as far as the time reference is concerned, and therefore we must search
the immediate and larger contexts for more specific information.
The LXX of Isaiah use EGW EIMI with and without and expressed predicate. But
in all of the examples the predicate is either "God" or "Lord" or some
equivalent expression. There is no example in the LXX where the predicateless
EGW EIMI implies "Messiah" or "Christ."
The duplication of EGW EIMI in some of the LXX passages relates to the
emphatic use of ANI/ANOKI. In no instance is the second ANI/ANOKI translated
by either "Lord" or "God," as if they were equivalent to the divine name.
EGW EIMI is used for identification purposes, and always involves a predicate
of some sort that is implied or directly stated in the context. In John 8:58
it may have a predicate also, but one thing is for sure, it is used together
with a past expression, highlighting the fact that Jesus existed before
Abraham, and that is how he saw him "rejoice" at the prospect of seeing his
day, the day of the Messiah.-Gen. 22:17-18; Gal. 3:16.
I you want more information you may
<A HREF="http://www.elihubooks.com/orders.htm">order my book here</A>
(http://www.elihubooks.com/orders.htm), or I can send you photocopies of the
chapter where I discuss these issues.
I mention this because it was suggested that if we have authored books on
particular topics that are being discussed, that we make it known where one
can obtain our published discussions.
--- B-Greek home page: http://sunsite.unc.edu/bgreek You are currently subscribed to b-greek as: [email@example.com] To unsubscribe, forward this message to leave-b-greek-329W@franklin.oit.unc.edu To subscribe, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org
This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:39:58 EDT