Thursday, March 10, 2005

RB17255 - Rob #31: (Exegeting and translating John 8:58) 

RB17255 [Thu Mar 10, 2005 12:43 am] (Rob #31: Exegeting and translating John 8:58)

In this post I will reply to your post #21, in which you were replying to my post #18 on the subject of exegeting and translating John 8:58. You wrote:

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.

Jason, at the end of my post #18 I explained very clearly what the "translational significance" was to the exegetical observations I made in that post. There was no need to "ferret out" what that significance was.

Translators cannot ignore interpretive issues. However, they can make translational choices that avoid coming down in a heavy-handed way on one particular interpretive reading of the text. You fault those few versions that translate John 8:58 with 'I AM" because you see this as promoting a particular interpretation of Jesus' words that is at the very least open to serious dispute (especially any direct connection to Exodus 3:14). By the same token, those versions that translate EIMI in John 8:58 with a form of the past tense must be recognized as promoting a particular interpretation of Jesus' words that is at the very least open to question, namely, that Jesus' statement means nothing more than that he was older than Abraham. The traditional translation, found in the KJV, the Douay-Rheims, the ASV and NASB, the NEB and the REB, the ESV and the NIV, and the RSV and the NRSV, to name only the more significant English versions, avoids both extremes. It neither forces an association with Exodus 3:14 nor casts Jesus' statement as simply a claim to be older than Abraham. The conventional translation of EGW EIMI as "I am" is therefore the least obtrusively interpretive English rendering on the market.

You wrote:

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.

Yes and No. Yes, the words EGW EIMI and their equivalent in other languages in and of themselves have perfectly ordinary uses, and it is common enough that we should certainly not view each and every occurrence of these two words together as a divine pronouncement. But I have never, ever suggested otherwise. It is the way these words are used in the sayings of Jesus reported in the Gospels, especially John, that warrants interpreting them as divine self-revelations. As you yourself note, it is what Jesus says about himself using these words that is significant, making each of these statements part of "his overall self-revelation." In putting the matter in this way, you have stumbled into one of the reasons why we should translate
EGW EIMI in John 8:58 as "I am" rather than "I was" or "I have been": the rendering "I am" preserves the association between John 8:58 and these other self-revelatory statements and makes the revelatory function of the saying in 8:58 explicit. And it does this without pushing a particular theological interpretation of the statement.

I had referred to the three EGW EIMI sentences of Jesus in the space of eleven verses in John 8 (vv. 18, 24, 28) as a "series of EGW EIMI sayings of varying forms." You replied that "the idea of a series here is weak" because the first statement is explicitly copulative while the second and third are implicitly so. In other words, my statement that there is a series of EGW EIMI sayings of varying forms is weak because the EGW EIMI sayings have varying forms. Well, I'm convinced!

I wrote:

"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.'"

You replied:

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.

I did not say that EIMI in John 8:24 was "semantically absolute" in the sense you are using. You're simply not tracking with my argument here. All I said was that it is absolute, that is, predicateless, with no predicate that can be supplied from the context. The listeners' question, "Who are you?" (v. 25) shows that they heard Jesus' EIMI as "am" with a predicate expected but not supplied or implied.

Regarding John 8:28, I wrote:

"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)."

You replied:

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.

But of course! I am showing that my translation of verse 58 coheres with the passage as a whole. That is certainly part of what a translation is supposed to do.

You wrote:

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.

I never claimed or implied "that every use of EIMI connects it to every other." I claimed that Jesus' EGW EIMI sayings in John are self-revelatory statements that should be compared with one another, and specifically that the predicateless EGW EIMI saying of 8:58 should be associated with the predicateless EGW EIMI sayings of 8:24, 28.

I wrote:

"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."

You replied:

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.

I have already refuted this objection. The EGW EIMI sayings of Jesus in verses 24, 28, and 58 of John 8 are all in the same context; they are all predicateless; they are all statements in which Jesus is revealing his mysterious identity; and they all allude to Isaianic EGW EIMI sayings of
similar form.

You wrote:

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.

This is a straw-man objection, nothing more. Had I claimed that the words EGW EIMI are always veiled claims to deity irrespective of context, you would have a point. But since I have been very clear in rejecting that misunderstanding, your repeated use of this straw-man objection succeeds only in showing how far you are from having come to grips with my argument.

The man healed of blindness speaking in John 9:9 does not say EGW EIMI in any sort of context that might even plausibly be construed as anything more than it is: an affirmation that he is indeed the one whom Jesus had healed.

"Therefore the neighbors and those who previously had seen that he was blind said, 'Is this not [OUC ESTIN hOUTOS] he who sat and begged?' Some said, 'This is he' [hOUTOS ESTIN]. Others said, 'No, but he is [ESTIN] like him.' He said, 'I am he [EGW EIMI]'" (John 9:8-9).

The man's words EGW EIMI are clearly a response to the differing comments hOUTOS ESTIN and hOMOIOS AUTWi ESTIN. We have here a different speaker (the man born blind, not Jesus), speaking on a different occasion (John 9 is a separate pericope from John 8:12-59, so that the proximity in number of verses between 8:58 and 9:9 is not significant), clearly and explicitly answering a specific question (whether he was the man whom Jesus had healed), and not making any allusions to the divine EGW EIMI sayings in Isaiah or anywhere else in the Old Testament (unlike John 8:24, 28, 58). I am not the one who is ignoring context here.

You wrote:

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.

Although the latter sentence above is sheer overstatement, I agree that EGW EIMI in and of itself does not convey anything auspicious. As I keep pointing out, I have never said or suggested or implied otherwise. However, it is a mistake to reason from the fact that EGW EIMI can have ordinary uses to the conclusion that we should not see any thematic connections among Jesus' sayings that begin with these words. Careful studies of those sayings by numerous biblical scholars have demonstrated over and over again that there is abundant evidence showing that at least most, if not all, of Jesus' EGW EIMI sayings in John echo divine self-revelatory pronouncements in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah 40-66. You have apparently read little if any of these scholarly studies, since, as I documented in my previous post, you wildly misrepresented several of the most notable such works, specifically those by Raymond Brown, Philip B. Harner, and David Mark Ball (pp. 367-68). I have already pointed out the especially clear use of Isaiah 43:10 in Jesus' sayings in John 8:24, 28, which these and other scholars have noted and discussed.

You wrote:

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.

I have already addressed the matter of "proper tense significance" at length. Like most biblical scholars, I have focused on the EGW EIMI sayings of Jesus, especially those that are "absolute" or unpredicated (that is, that have no subject complement stated), because it is evident from the
contexts of these statements that most if not all of them have a revelatory significance beyond "it's me." This is reason enough in a formal equivalency version to translate EGW EIMI in John 8:58 as "I am" if at all possible, and of course, it is more than possible.

I had written:

"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."

You replied:

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.

I disagree on all three counts. Let me respond to your first and third points at once. The traditional translation of John 8:58, "I am," retains the ambiguity of the original (is this an existential affirmation or an identity claim?) in a way that "I was" or "I have been" does not. Yet if one reads "I am" existentially, one will come away *at least* with the same understanding that "I have been" would convey (that Jesus is saying that he had existed since a time antecedent to Abraham). Thus, my argument here contributes significantly to a defense of the traditional translation and does so over against a translation that construes EIMI as a straightforward instance of the PPA as usually defined. As to your second point, the recognition of a pattern of such deliberate ambiguity or double entendre in John is an exegetical datum of relevance to translating John. Thus the translator who is aware of this pattern will want to retain this ambiguity where possible. For example, "lifted up from the earth" retains the ambiguity in John 12:32 and is therefore preferable to a translation that decides for the reader which way to construe those words (e.g., the NLT rendering "when I am lifted up on the cross"). Regrettably, there seems to be no way to retain the double entendre in a contemporary English rendering of John 1:5 or 3:3 (although the ASV rendering of 1:5, "apprehended it not," comes as close as any).

You wrote:

You continue to imagine that there are special exceptions to English grammar and syntax when applied theologically.

No, although I do think that theological statements can sometimes strain grammar and syntax in any language. If my exegesis of John 8:58 implies that this is so in that text, so be it.

I wrote:

"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."

You replied:

This is just a matter of refusing to translate, of refusing to come down on either side of what the statement might mean.

As I have explained, this is sometimes what a good translation does, where the text exhibits a double entendre. I note with some interest and satisfaction that you have made absolutely no attempt to refute my claim that this linguistic phenomenon occurs frequently in John's Gospel and likely occurs in John 8:58.

You wrote:

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.

I disagree. You try to back up this claim with a couple of summary assertions:

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;

I never argued that the verb is "completely independent of the dependent temporal clause" in the sense of standing in no relationship to it; your argument here is a straw-man that I have thoroughly refuted. You continued by claiming that I had argued:

...the verb is existential; the verb is copulative; the verb is both.

I argued that the verb may be a double entendre, deliberately ambiguous so that it could be taken either way. You have not even tried to address this argument.

In my next post, I will respond to your post #22 and so conclude my replies to your series of posts from late October (your posts #17-22).

In Christ's service,

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

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