Wednesday, October 27, 2004

JB15835-Jas #21: John 8:58 

(15835) Jason BeDuhn[Wed Oct 27, 2004 12:30 am](John 8:58 -- Jason #21)

Rob, in your post 18 you review the broader literary context of John 8:58, making an argument for your interpretation of the significance of Jesus' statement in that verse. From the start of this exchange, I have said that I take a position on the accurate translation of the verse, and that accurate translation is open to more than one possible application to interpretive, theological conclusions. So all I can do is ferret out any possible translational significance to your remarks here.

You say:
"John 8:58 is the climactic statement of Jesus in a long passage in which the overarching question is "Who does Jesus think he is?" The passage begins with one of Jesus' many EGW EIMI sayings in the Gospel of John, using a noun phrase complement:

"I am the light of the world" (8:12)."

My reply is this:
Jesus reveals himself throughout the Gospel. This necessarily involves him declaring and explaining that he is various literal and metaphorical things to people and to the cosmos. It is a convenience to cluster these under the rubric "I am" sayings, because that it their common element. It is not however their significant element; the latter is what it is Jesus says he is in each case, and combining all of these things (light, shepherd, gate, etc.) into a picture of his overall self-revelation. But the use of "I am" is perfectly ordinary, because it is a very common expression, in any language.

You say:

"Between this statement (audacious enough, though not understood by Jesus' opponents) and the climactic statement in 8:58 there are a series of EGW EIMI sayings of varying forms:

"I am the one testifying for myself, and the Father who sent me testifies for me" (8:18). "Unless you believe that I am [he], you will die in your sins" (8:24). "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [he]" (8:28)."

My reply is this:
The idea of a series here is weak. The first statement is an explicit copulative use of EIMI, in which Jesus says he is the one who testifies for his own veracity. The second and third statements are implicit copulative uses of EIMI, with the context providing, first, no help in identifying the implied predicate complement, thus prompting a question for Jesus to be clearer, and then a contextual identification of the implied predicate complement as the "Son of Man." In none of these sentences does EIMI stand semantically absolute. EIMI cannot be absolute when functioning as a copula.

You continue:

"As many scholars have noted, the response of Jesus' opponents to the first saying in which EIMI is absolute (v. 24) implies that they were looking for a predicate: "Who are you?" (v. 25). In other words, to Jesus' "I am" they were responding, "You are-who?" This conclusion is correct whether we translate EGW EIMI here "I am" or "I am he." "

No, this is not correct. The audience understands there to be an implicit "he" predicate complement in this sentence, which is formally absolute, but not semantically absolute. If it was the latter, they would not ask "Who are you," but might say, "Yes, we can see that you exist; so what?" Which might lead into Jesus saying something about his `transtemporal' existence. But that's not the direction the exchange takes.

You continue:

"Jesus' next EGW EIMI saying (v. 28) is also ambiguous. It can be taken to mean simply that Jesus' hearers will find out that he is the Son of Man."

Yes, that is its most evident meaning in the syntax of the sentence.

You add:
"However, Jesus' language here and in verse 24 unmistakably alludes to the words of God in Isaiah 43:10, indicating that in some way Jesus is making a veiled claim to deity. His hearers do not get it yet, but they do after his final EGW EIMI saying in the passage:

"Before Abraham came into being, I am" (8:58).
The allusions here to other Isaianic sayings of God (especially Is. 41:4; 46:4) as well as to the Psalmist's confession to the Lord of his eternal deity (which in the LXX climaxes in another predicate absolute, "You are") evidently did not escape his hearers, who sought to stone him, presumably (given this context) for blasphemy (v. 59)."

This is all interpretation, not translation. Let me just point out, however, that blasphemy is not explicitly mentioned in v.59. You see, you are interpreting. Besides that, your series is broken because here EIMI functions existentially (though still not absolutely), not as a copula. Because EIMI is such a workhorse in the Greek language (just as the verb to be is in English) it has many uses, and it is simply naive to think that every use of EIMI connects it to every other.

You say:

"The best translation of John 8:58 will not only be as faithful to the grammar of the sentence but will also be faithful to the interconnections the statement makes with earlier statements in the passage and to its allusions to the Isaianic EGW EIMI texts.
This presumes a significance to "I am" rather than to what Jesus actually says he is. It lumps together "I am"s used in quite different ways, different contexts, different meanings. Moreover, as I already pointed out in my book, it ignores the VERY NEXT "I am" in this series you are constructing, that of the blind man in John 9 (only 10 verses from John 8:58, compared to 30 verses away for the last of your series). So I guess the blind man is also "making a veiled claim to deity." That's a fascinating theology you are proposing. My point should be obvious: it is not the EGW EIMI that gives any of these statements significance. EGW EIMI is just about the most common thing people say. The significance in every single one of the "I am" sayings in John is what it is that Jesus says he is. The principle of making lexical connections transparent in translation is a good one for key technical terms of the text, but is impossible to apply to commonplace words, like EIMI, that have too many distinct usages to be always translated the same way, particularly if it means ignoring proper tense significance.

You go on:

"In this regard, one crucial question, posed but not definitively answered in my previous post, is whether we should construe EIMI in John 8:58 as existential or copulative. I think we should consider the possibility that John intends his readers to see both. There have been numerous studies lately showing that John's Gospel is full of double entendres and deliberate ambiguities. A few examples are John 1:5b (which may be construed "the darkness did not comprehend" the light or "the darkness did not overpower" the light), John 3:3 (You must be "born again" or "born from above"), and John 12:32 (where "lifted up from the earth" can refer to Jesus' execution on the cross or to his exaltation to heaven). In all of these texts, the best interpretation is that the ambiguity is intentional."

First of all, this is not a defense of the traditional translation. Second, it is about interpretation, not translations. Third, it would in no way get you out of a PPA reading of the main verb, and a corresponding rendering in English. You cannot say "I AM king of America before the revolution." You have to say "I WAS king of America before the revolution." If it is a claim to still be king ,even after the revolution, then it can only be expressed either in the latter way or as "I have been king since before the revolution." You continue to imagine that there are special exceptions to English grammar and syntax when applied theologically. There is not. Sometimes people write ungrammatical English sentences to make a point, to pose as "paradox" as you put it, that they then go on to explain in normal English grammar. But that's not what is happening in the Greek of John, and it shouldn't happen in its English translation either.

You continue:
"As it turns out, the Isaianic EGW EIMI texts to which John 8:58 alludes also have a similar ambiguity. "To all futurity, I am" (Is. 41:4), can be taken to mean, "I exist forever" or "For all time, I am he," that is, I am always the one who determines what will be. Likewise, "until you have grown old, I am" can mean "I exist even after you have grown old" or "even when you have grown old, I am he," that is, I am still the one who cares for you. The best way to translate these texts is in such a way that the reader can see either or both connotation; and the best way to do that is probably with the simple (if inelegant by modern English standards) rendering, "I am."

Similarly, I think the traditional English rendering of John 8:58 is about the best we can do: "Before Abraham came into being, I am." This rendering is not idiomatically smooth English, but it is intelligible enough. It expresses quite accurately the contrast between GENESQAI ("came into being") and EIMI ("am"). The word "am" can be understood existentially or as a mysteriously unpredicated copula-which will make sense when one becomes familiar with the statement's Old Testament background."

This is just a matter of refusing to translate, of refusing to come down on either side of what the statement might mean. It ends up not conveying either meaning clearly, and certainly not the copulative meaning in any way. This was my original point about the traditional translation in my book, and it seems we have come full circle. You have now lined up a series of unrelated and even contradictory positions on why the traditional translation should stand. You have failed to construct a coherent position, but simply marshaled any and all possible arguments that might give reason for keeping the traditional translation. This is exactly what I said apologists do, and though you considered that description of apologetic method "insulting and maligning," your latest series of four posts goes much further than any previous ones in showing precisely what I meant. You have argued: the verb is absolute and completely independent of the temporal clause; the temporal clause is the most important factor in determining the meaning of the verb; the verb is existential; the verb is copulative; the verb is both. These are just the broadest of your many claims and arguments. At every step I have shown how your conclusions are unjustified, how you have misconstrued texts both ancient and modern, how you have slipped from one meaning of a term to another , how your arguments inadvertently work against your own position. Nothing remains of your original set of arguments that has not been fundamentally refuted. Now I am speaking here only of translational issues, of course. Therefore, concession should come rather painlessly to you. I have maintained all along that your interpretation is defensible as a possible integration of Jesus' statement in John 8:58 into a broader Christology or theology. The interpretive debate is one you can go on with on clearer ground once the accurate translation I have argued for is accepted, which it is time for you to do.

In your post 1, you attacked the NW translation of John 8:58 as a paraphrase, and not literal as that version purports to be. I rejected this in my post 2 as simply untrue, detailing point-by-point its literal character. I had already in my book, which you had read, demonstrated how all of the major translations render the verbal tense of an expression such as is found in John 8:58 in the way the NW does, in multiple cases (I cited John 14:9 and 15:27 as sufficient to prove this point), except when it comes to John 8:58. This shows that they, and not the NW, are departing from their normal practice in this case. Literal translation does not mean ignoring the significance of Greek syntax for a proper rendering of the verbal tense, and it does not mean following Greek word order in a rote fashion in a way that violates English norms. Although you charged the NW translators with anti-Trinitarian bias in their translation of John 8:58, I pointed out that it is impossible to conclude bias from an accurate translation; it is only when a translation is an inaccurate representation of the original Greek that one has grounds to delve into motives. Moreover, as I stated in my very first post, their translation is not anti-Trinitarian, since it does not artificially introduce language of the beginnings of Jesus' existence, a subject which simply goes unreferenced in this verse. You would have more grounds for charging any one of your preferred translations with anti-Trinitarian bias for their literal translations of Matthew 2:1; John 18:37; or Acts 13:33, in each of which there is an explicit remark about Jesus having been (past tense) begotten (the verb GENNAW). So your charge against the NW is unfair and unjustified.

Even though the NW translation of this verse can be improved upon by adhering to normal English word order, it is still more accurate than most translations in its proper rendering of the tense value of the verb within the syntactical relationships of the sentence. I have demonstrated this repeatedly in reference to the testimony of the grammars, in connection with closely parallel sentences from the Greek Bible, and by refutation of contrary arguments. I don't think it is necessary to review these arguments again here. The bottom line is that the syntactical connection between the dependent and main clauses must be maintained for the main verb to have any past or `transtemporal' meaning. Once that connection is recognized, the construction of the dependent clause provides an indication of a specific past event to which the verbal action has a relation of antecedence. The use of a present form of the main verb (rather than an aorist or imperfect) then supplies the sense of duration of the verbal action from that past antecedent time up to the time of speaking. This is a past progressive form of expression, perfectly ordinary and acceptable in Koine Greek, and is most accurately rendered by English "I have been," or "I have existed," or "I have been in existence."

I consider my argument on this issue basically complete. You have provided excellent material for consideration in this debate that has helped me clarify and refine my position at a level I did not attempt in my book, which was deliberately kept to more basic terms. Much of what was implicit there has become explicit in our exchange over the last three months. Please take your time reviewing my points and determining the appropriate response. I have rushed my responses so that you will have ample time to consider them while I am off doing other things. I will check back in in December to see where things stand.

Best wishes,
Jason B.

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