Monday, October 18, 2004

RB15780-Rob #18: Exegeting and translating 

(15780) Robert Bowman[Mon Oct 18, 2004 7:13 am](Rob #18: Exegeting and translating John 8:58)


In this concluding short post, I wish to offer some final comments about the exegesis and translation of John 8:58.

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).

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).

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." 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. 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).

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. 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.

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.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge that I have not addressed every point from your posts as fully as might be desirable. I have admitted to some minor mistakes (not enough, in your estimation) and I have tried to approach the subject in more than one way in order to make the reasons for my position as clear as possible. I am confident there is still room for improvement, and I am open to corrections, large or small. I do hope, in all this, that our discussion will have shed some light on the subject.

I look forward to whatever response you feel you have the time and inclination to make, as well as the discussion that we will have with those who have been waiting for several months for our one-on-one exchange to reach a conclusion.

In Christ's service,

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Center for Biblical Apologetics
Online: http://www.biblicalapologetics.net

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