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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

JB15318-Jas #1:John 8:58 (Translation Issues) 

(15318) Jason BeDuhn [Wed Aug 4, 2004 1:07 pm] (John 8:58) [Jason #1]

Dear Readers,

This is my first message for a dialogue with Rob Bowman on John 8:58.

In my book, Truth in Translation, I have argued that most English Bibles have incomplete translations of John 8:58. They read in this verse like interlinears, failing to render the sense of the passage into normal English grammar and syntax. First, they usually give a rote rendering of the grammatical tense of the main verb, ignoring its modification by an adverbial clause. Second, they place the main clause after the adverbial clause, rather than before it, violating standard English syntax. Both errors are found in the KJV, NRSV, NASB, NIV, NAB, TEV (Good News), and Amplified Bible. The second error only is found in the New World translation. Of the versions surveyed in my book, only the Living Bible provides what can be considered a completed translation in normal English syntax. Since the same sort of defective translation is not found in these Bibles in other passages of similar construction in the Greek, there is reason to suppose that this verse has been impacted by bias in the translators. That bias is most likely to be the mistaken notion found in popular theological discussion that Jesus employs “I am” as some sort of theological declaration, echoing the epiphany of God in Exodus 3:14 (the NAB, TEV, and AB tip their hand to this idea by capitalizing ‘I Am’). This theological notion is ill-informed, and distorts the obvious, contextual use of language found in the verse. Although it is challenging to get the full nuance of the original Greek into an English sentence, the closest rendering would be something like “I have been (since) before Abraham came to be.” You will find the full argument in my book.

My position is on how best to translate, and in this way convey the meaning of, John 8:58. I have not pursued the Christological or theological implications of what Jesus says here in my published work. I am a historian, not a theologian. I can talk about the range of possible meaning in the original Greek sentence, as well as the history of how the passage has been read and understood by later generations. But if the Greek itself does not limit the meaning to the point of agreeing with only one of the historical interpretations at the expense of the others, I object to claims that it does.

It was suggested to Rob and I that we read each other’s published work on this verse and engage in a dialogue on the subject. Now that I have briefly stated my position, I wish to comment on Rob’s approach to the same passage, as found in his book Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John.

Different purposes

Rob and I have written on John 8:58 for different purposes. I have written to explore accuracy and bias in TRANSLATION. Rob states that he is concerned with INTERPRETATION (12, 17). These are distinct, if connected, subjects. But let’s define our terms. To me, translation precedes interpretation in the sense I take Rob to mean. He refers to the JW and Trinitarian interpretations of this verse, and elaborates that they concern the difference between a limited or an eternal pre-existence of Christ. This sort of doctrinal interpretation depends on translation in a way that translation does not depend on doctrinal interpretation. You can (and I would argue you should) translate the Greek of this or any other verse of the NT without reliance on a preconceived doctrine of either limited or eternal preexistence of Christ. But you cannot come to either of those doctrinal positions in a Bible-based belief system without relying on the meaning of individually translated passages. Even if you are just reading the original Greek and arguing about its meaning, the fact that you think and write your arguments in English mean that a translation is involved. You cannot make sound doctrine on the basis of bad translation. The inaccuracy of the translation would invalidate any doctrine built upon it. That is why I say that translation precedes interpretation. One can also use the word “interpretation” simply to refer to getting at the meaning of a passage, within its linguistic, literary, and cultural context. In this sense, interpretation is an intrinsic part of translation. Only in this sense would I agree with Rob when he says “translation should reflect interpretation and be guided by it” (90). But as I read through Rob’s argument I find it has to do with interpretation in the first sense, that is, how this passage is to be fit into larger Christological and theological doctrines. In that meaning of interpretation, I cannot agree with Rob about interpretation dictating translation. I do not think it is the Evangelical position that our human-elaborated theological systems have a right to dictate to the Bible what it can or cannot say. That would be erecting an institutional or personal authority over the Bible that the Protestant movement was precisely aimed at rejecting.

Common ground

Rob and I agree that the connection of John 8:58 to Exodus 3:14 is a dead end. Rob notes correctly that the early church fathers did not see this connection, for the simple reason that their Bibles did not have the close match of phrasing found in most modern English Bibles. I have said myself on numerous occasions what Rob says in his book: “Jesus certainly does not say, in so many words, ‘I am the “I AM,”’ nor does he quote Exodus 3:14 in its entirety and apply it to himself. The words egō eimi in John 8:58 do not function as a title of Christ” (124). Rob holds out the possibility that Jesus is somehow alluding to Exodus, but there really is nothing to support this. He cites the fact, which JWs have pointed out in arguing this point, that in the Greek Old Testament in Exodus 3:14 the words egō eimi are not a name or title of God, but the ordinary first person pronoun and be-verb leading up to the identification God makes of himself there: ho ōn, “the being,” or “the existent one.” Rob’s criticism that this observation “is not quite telling the whole truth, however” because the words egō eimi appear in the verse (124-125) totally misses the point, and comes across as a bit silly. If John meant his readers to recognize in Jesus’ words a citation of Exodus 3:14, he left out the crucial words that distinguish this passage from any other sentence involving a first person pronoun and be-verb. But overall Rob and I agree that taking Jesus’ words as a direct quote of Exodus is misguided, and that any assertion of identity Jesus is making in John 8:58 works more “indirectly” (129) than explicitly.

Translation issues
Rob acknowledges that “several twentieth-century biblical translators and scholars have rendered eimi with some form of the English past tense,” while noting that they held to an interpretation of the verse that involved eternal preexistence (90). I have no problem with that. The Greek of John 8:58 does not preclude fitting what Jesus says in this one sentence into a larger Christology that includes eternal preexistence. The verse does not provide this idea in itself; you would have to derive it from some more explicit statement elsewhere. The fact is that eimi should be rendered with some form of the English past tense, because of its modification by the adverbial clause “before Abraham came to be.” This holds true whether one goes on to interpret the passage within an eternal or limited preexistence understanding of Christ. In fact, Greek present tense verbs are best translated in their context with English past tense forms quite regularly in the NT, and this includes the Greek be-verb. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the Greek and English present tense it their respective standard usage.

Rob provides a good discussion of the argument that the narrow grammatical tense of the isolated verb eimi must be qualified by its larger grammatical context, and be recognized as a Greek idiom sometimes called the “present of past action still in progress” (PPA) (103-104). Rob defines this well as “an idiomatic use of the present tense to speak of a state of action which was occurring in the past and has continued to occur up to the time of the speaker” (104). I mention in my book that Smyth’s Greek Grammar calls this the “progressive perfect.” I cite two examples of this usage from John 14:9 and 15:27, where most translations properly translate eimi in its context as “have been,” just as I propose for 8:58. Rob lists several more examples of PPAs from other NT passages. He takes two of these that are “usually . . . rendered in English as present tenses” as evidence that PPAs can be translated as presents. He asserts that 1 John 2:9 and 2 Peter 3:4 are not just usually but “properly” translated using the present tense (105-106). I must disagree. 1 John 2:9 should be translated “The one who says he is in the light yet hates his brother has been (estin) in the darkness so far.” This is because the apparent present form is modified by the adverbial clause heōs arti(“until now” or “so far”). The commonly found translations that rotely give the present “is” here are awkward in English. Likewise, the normal English way to render 2 Peter 3:4 would be “For since the ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation,” rather than “everything remains as it was.” In both cases, the present tense rendering is inferior English in the larger context of the sentence. But Rob does not rest much on this point, because he wants to argue that John 8:58 is not really a PPA at all (105, 110-111).

Looking at the list of generally recognized PPAs in the NT, he suggests that “all of these expressions refer to a period of time beginning at some point (whether specified or not) in the past and continuing up to the time of the speaker,” but this is not the case with John 8:58 (109-110). Now what he asserts here is true of many of the verses on the list, particularly those that employ apo in the modifying phrase or clause. But it is not true of several of the verses he is looking at, including Luke 2:48, Luke 15:29, John 5:6, John 14:9, 2 Corinthians 12:19, and 1 John 2:9. Grammatically speaking, none of these passages contain an expression that alludes to a beginning point in time. They are all durative expressions that leave the beginning of the action out of consideration. Logically, the reader might introduce the notion that the durative action referred to must have had a beginning in time that remains unspecified in the passage itself. But one could do the same in John 8:58. It may be so, but it goes beyond what the words themselves provide in either case. The interpretive argument has nothing to do with determining whether or not John 8:58 belongs to the grammatical category of the PPA.

Rob makes much of the difference that in John 8:58 the action of the main verb occurs “before” rather than “from” or “until.” But this simply comes from the fact that the NT happens to be a limited body of literature in which the preposition “before” (prin) turns up only a few times. Here Rob makes the mistake of saying that “before” sets the end of the action of the main verb: “the expression does not refer to a period of time beginning at Abraham’s birth, but rather ending then. In other words, prin Abraam genesthai does not point forward from Abraham’s birth up to the time of Jesus’ speaking, but instead points backward from Abraham’s birth to the more distant past” (110). What Rob says here would be true if the main verb of the sentence was in a past tense, which is precisely why John did not employ a past tense verb here. To do so would imply that Jesus had a past life at some period before Abraham was born, and by mplication would be some sort of reincarnated being. The use of the PPA precisely avoids this misunderstanding by providing a continuing sense the main verb: Jesus has remained in existence from before Abraham up to the time he is speaking. So when Rob argues elsewhere (115) that John could have used an imperfect here, that would have meant something quite different than what a PPA means and John apparently wanted to say. Rob continues: “a clause beginning with prin cannot specify ‘duration’ up to the present, since it refers to a period prior to the past event specified in the clause” (110). This needs to be qualified. It is true enough about the meaning internal to the prin clause itself, ignoring the information carried by the main clause. But what one finds in the main clause can change it. For example, when the main verb is negated, prin actually has the reverse meaning, of some action that did or must precede the main verb, and so marking the beginning rather than the end of the main verb’s action (“Do not go out to play BEFORE you have washed the dishes”). Even in affirmative sentences, it is not prin that “refers to a period prior to the past event specified in the clause” as Rob asserts; it the main verb of the sentence that refers to that. So Rob’s conclusion that the prin clause in 8:58 “does not fit the requirements of a clause indicating the duration of a PPA verb” (110) has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the main verb eimi is a PPA verb. A PPA verb does not even need such a modifying clause, for example in Luke 2:48 listed by Rob, or John 2:9 not included in his list (and there are many others).

Rob goes on to maintain that eimi in John 8:58 is a “predicate absolute” (111). He bases himself on A. T.Robertson, whose remark that eimi in the verse as “really absolute,” that is, without a complement in the sentence, is one of the rare foolish assertions Robertson makes. If this were the case, then what does one do with the prin clause? This is the problem with most translations of this passage. If “I am”stands by itself as some absolute statement by Jesus, then “before Abraham came to be” is not a part of the same sentence. But it is not a complete sentence in itself, so it must be part of the “I am” sentence and, of course, it forms part of the predicate of that sentence, as the adverbial clause modifying the “am.” Thus it is simply false to call eimi in any sense a predicate absolute. I really can’t imagine anything more obvious on the page of the text in front of us than that.

Rob raises the additional point that egō eimi must be translated as “I am” to avoid obscuring other passages where Jesus employs the same phrase and it is properly translated as “I am” (111-112). I agree that one should try to bring out in a translation significant connections of expression visible in the Greek. The question here, then, is whether “I am” is such a significant expression. Most of the time when Jesus speaks of himself with the present tense be-verb, there is a predicate noun with which he wishes to identify himself (“I am the light,” “I am the good shepherd,” etc.). This is just normal use of the first person pronoun and be-verb to make an identification, and the significance is to be found entirely in the predicate noun that gives the identification. Rob is interested not in these passages, but where Jesus says “I am” absolutely, without any other explicit content to the predicate. There are several examples of this in John, of which John 8:58 is not one, however. As I have pointed out, John 8:58 is not a case of “I am” used absolutely, for it quite clearly has an adverbial clause in the predicate. So there seems little point in comparing it to sentences where the main verb has no explicit predicate complement. But even if we go to the trouble of looking at these false parallels, we can see that in every case there is a grammatically implied predicate pronoun. In passages such as John 8:24, and 28 (cited by Rob, who mistakenly includes 8:12 in his list), Jesus is responding to people looking for someone by saying “I am (he).” Notice the response of people to his first statement, “Who are you?” This shows that they understand him to be identifying himself with someone, just who is not immediately clear to them. They would not ask this question if they understood his statement to be “I exist.” In answering, Jesus clearly says that he is the Son of Man, for “when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he,” not “then you will know that I exist.” In the other superficially absolute uses of “I am” Rob cites from Sanders and Mastin, we see the same usage. In each and every case there is an implied predicate pronoun “I am he” or “It is I.” This is just standard Greek. And as I point out in my book, other people in the Bible make use of it, such as the blind man in John 9. If it is a divine proclamation or an assertion of eternal preexistence for Jesus, then it would have to be for the blind man as well. So one must be careful about putting too much significance into what turns out to be very ordinary expressions.

Rob and I agree that “By itself, of course, the word eimi does not connote eternal preexistence” (114), and I further agree with him that there is a contrast implied between the eimi used of Jesus and the genesthai used of Abraham. Jesus’ preexistence and continued existence trump Abraham on both sides. This is quite clear from the literary context of the gospel. The authority of the ancestors is largely dismissed on the grounds of their own limitation and mortality compared to Jesus’ claim to intimate connection to the divine. But I cannot agree that this contrast is so specific as to definitively connote eternality. It could have that implication, but it does not necessarily do so. While it is true, as Rob says, that Jesus could have used the same verb of himself that he uses of Abraham to say simply that he came into existence at some time prior to Abraham, all one can say is that this was not something Jesus was interested in discussing at this point. He is not talking at all about his origins in John 8:58, but only about his superiority to Abraham in the dual terms of priority and survival. That suits his immediate purpose. It may frustrate us that he wasn’t more explicit about things we are interested in. But we can’t pretend he addressed these things in John 8:58 when he did not.

Finally, let me provide two comparative examples from Greek literature outside of the Bible to show how the present tense Greek be-verb often has a past meaning when complemented by an adverbial prin clause, just as it is in John 8:58:



There are of course dozens of examples of the formally present tense be-verb used as a PPA with or without a prin clause. But let me leave my remarks here and open the dialogue with Rob. My position on translation is that eimi should be translated with an expression conveying present continuance of past existence such as “have been.” My position on interpretation is that the verse does not provide enough specificity for us to claim that the passage asserts either a limited or eternal preexistence of Christ. It precludes neither interpretation, and the context of the larger gospel is not sufficiently explicit on this question to settle it. I look forward to your comments, Rob.

Best wishes,
Jason B.



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