[b-greek] RE: Ego Hn?

From: Iver Larsen (iver_larsen@sil.org)
Date: Sun Aug 19 2001 - 03:45:15 EDT

> [Ghilardi]
> If I understand you rightly, Iver, you are saying that this verse merely
> makes a statement about the temporal succession of Jesus and Abraham,
> i.e., Jesus exists chronologically prior to Abraham.

No, I was not *merely* saying that, or at least not intending it.

> And I agree that it
> does mean at least that! But if the author had wished to express temporal
> succession and nothing more he would have written:
> or (much less probably):
> or if he merely wished to express, as you put it, << The perfect notion
> of being in the past and also being in the present... >>:

Choosing a different verb like this one would change the meaning and suggest
that Jesus came into being at a particular point in time. I don't think
Jesus would want to say that, but we cannot know what he might have said,
had he not said what he did.
> The fact that the author chose EIMI rather than EGENOMHN or GEGONA tells
> me that he wanted to express something more than mere temporal
> succession. I think he is expressing Jesus' COMPLETE temporal superiority
> over Abraham. In other words he is telling us that Jesus is eternally
> pre-existent, not merely that Jesus is older than Abraham. This
> understanding is confirmed in the author's use of EGO EIMI in 8:24, 28.
> hUMWN.

I wanted to avoid theological jargon and look at the text from a linguistic
and translation point of view. And I still want to do that, laying aside
theological presuppositions, but not ignoring the context.
For the semantic range of meaning of EIMI, I suggest everybody look it up in
BDAG. Not all occurrences of EGW EIMI express the same nuance of "to be", so
we cannot transfer the intended meaning in one place to another without
looking carefully at the context.

Let me quote section II.5 from BDAG that is relevant for 8:24,28, but not

"5. the formula egw eimi is oft. used in the gospels (corresp. to Hebr. aWh
 Dt 32:39; Is 43:10), in such a way that the predicate must be understood
fr. the context: Mt 14:27; Mk 6:50; 13:6; 14:62; Lk 22:70; J 4:26; 6:20;
8:24, 28; 13:19; 18:5f and oft.—In a question mhti egw eimi; surely it is
not I? Mt 26:22, 25.

So, in these two verses the meaning is "I am the one" (that I claim to be,
i.e. the Messiah). The 9:9 example that Wayne suggested is similar: "I am
the one" (that we are talking about). It is an identificational use of EIMI.
The NRSV supplied the predicate from the context in 9:9 by saying "I am the
man". In 8:24,28 the NRSV translates "unless you believe that I am he" or
"unless you believe that I am." Both of these, but especially the second
one, violate the rules of normal English (if I understand English correctly)
and are therefore poor translations. They do not communicate the intended
meaning as listed in the dictionary. I would prefer to say "I am the one" in
both cases. It is not clear what predicate he is referring to, but Jesus is
avoiding an outright identification of himself as the Messiah at this time
in front of these unbelieving Jewish leaders. The reader will understand who
"that one" is that Jesus is referring to. (Notice how Jesus was willing to
be much more direct about his Messianic identity with the blind man in
> If this is correct, then the appropriate translation would be:
> "Before Abraham came into existence, I AM"

This is where I disagree, not theologically, but linguistically. For this
ungrammatical English to be appropriate you will have to prove that the
Greek text was equally ungrammatical.

You mentioned 8:24,28 and then transferred that to 8:58. This is a dangerous
thing to do.
In 8:58 the EIMI is probably not used with an understood predicate, but
rather in the sense of "exist". It is in this verse and not the others that
I suggested a perfect sense being expressed by a verb that does not have a
perfect tense form. By a perfect sense I mean that Jesus is not only saying
that he exists at the time of speaking but that he had an existence even
before Abraham came into being. I tried to express this in English by

What many people are doing is to think in English and translate back into
Greek how the literal English would have been in Greek. An idiomatic
translation of the actual Greek text into English could be "I have been in
existence (long) before Abraham (was born)" (implying that I still exist.)
If Jesus had said EGW HMHN as some people would expect from a literal back
translation from English to Greek, it would have implied "I was in existence
before Abraham was born" (implying that I no longer exist.)

Different languages handle these "since A, I have been B" constructions
differently. For instance, in German one can say "Ich bin seit drei Jahren
in Berlin". A "theological", literal translation of this would be: "I am
since three years in Berlin." German uses the present tense in such
constructions, but English does not. A better English rendering would be: "I
have been in Berlin for three years (now)."

In summary, I do believe Jesus is stating that he was alive before Abraham
was born. Such a statement by any human being is either made by a lunatic,
or by someone who is claiming for himself a non-human existence. The
bystanders took that as an indirect statement from Jesus about him being not
only above Abraham, but above and different from ordinary human beings.

I doubt there is any allusion to Ex. 3:14 where the English says "I am has
sent me to you". In LXX this is translated as hO WN APESTALKEN ME PROS
hUMAS. So, the Greek phrase hO WN corresponds to the English I AM, and it is
this phrase (that is, the three letters O W N) that you find again and again
on icons within the Greek Orthodox Church as the name for the eternally
existing Messiah.

Iver Larsen

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