Thursday, June 02, 2005

RB17936 - Rob #38: A review of the debate 

(RB17936) [Thu Jun 2, 2005 6:16 am] (Rob #38: A review of the debate)

In this post, I offer a review of our debate, despite your judgment that doing so is unnecessary and "would be simply an exercise in trying to control the reading of what has gone before." Not only are closing statements conventional elements of a debate, but in a debate that has gone
on for ten months and nearly 500 pages some sort of summation is virtually a necessity. I make no apology for the fact that this review will reflect my own viewpoint, though I have endeavored to represent your arguments fairly.


1. Jason BeDuhn's Position

Your position, articulated earlier in your book _Truth in Translation_ and elaborated in your posts in this debate, is that the conventional English translation of John 8:58 is definitely, flat-out wrong and indeed evidence of theological bias on the part of the translators. You based this assessment primarily on two factors.

  1. You allege that the conventional translation fails to represent the Greek text adequately in its use of the present-tense verb EIMI as a 'present of past action in progress' (PPA). Such a usage of the present tense should, you argued, be rendered into English using a form of the past tense, such as "I have been," rather than the conventional rendering "I am."
  2. You allege that the conventional translation is grammatically poor English in three respects: the tenses of the two verbs are not properly coordinated (since, you argue, it is ungrammatical to say "Before such-and-such *happened*, I *am*"), the word "am" in modern English is not used to express existence, and the clauses are in the wrong order (that is, you argue that the dependent clause should follow the main verb). You argued that the above two factors, taken together, constitute evidence of theological bias because the same translators do not make these errors in other places.
  3. You also made note of the use of all capitals in a few translations (i.e., "I AM"), reflecting the view that Jesus' words echoed the words of God in Exodus 3:14, as further evidence or confirmation of such theological bias.

2. Rob Bowman's Position

My position, articulated earlier in my book _Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John_ and elaborated in my posts in this debate, is that the conventional English translation of John 8:58 is at least an acceptable, legitimate translation and is not the result of theological
bias. I acknowledged that renderings in such versions as the Living Bible ("I was in existence before Abraham was ever born!"), which do not take a formal-equivalency approach to translation, may be legitimate because they make readability a higher priority than precisely or fully expressing the original meaning. However, I argued that in a formal-equivalency translation the conventional rendering "I am" (KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, etc.) is superior to that found, for example, in the New World Translation (NWT, "I have been"). I based this assessment on a cumulative argument consisting of five major considerations: the conventional translation

  1. is the most literal ("am" is the customary rendering of the present-tense EIMI),
  2. more faithfully expresses the pointed contrast in Jesus' statement between Abraham's coming into being (GENESQAI) and Jesus' own unbounded existence (EIMI),
  3. retains the "I am" wording found in other EGW EIMI sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John,
  4. accommodates the ambiguity of the original as to whether EGW EIMI means "I am [existing]" or "I am [he]," and
  5. enables the reader to notice the association or allusion in this and other Johannine EGW EIMI sayings to the "I am" sayings of God in Isaiah.

The view that you espouse is of relatively recent vintage (roughly a century old). It is still distinctly in the minority in biblical scholarship. Moreover, it is the more dogmatic claim: you claim that the conventional translation is definitely wrong and clearly biased, so that even so renowned a Greek scholar as A. T. Robertson is "foolish" for supporting that translation, whereas I claim only that the conventional translation is better than the rendering you favor. For these reasons, I assigned the burden of proof to you.

I also addressed the three criticisms you made of the conventional translation:

  1. In response to your argument concerning EIMI as a PPA, I argued that this is far from certain, that if it is a PPA it is an unusual sort, and that a PPA need not always be translated using a form of the past tense.
  2. In response to your argument that the conventional translation is ungrammatical English, I pointed to other examples of such renderings of biblical texts, showed that the translation you favor shares some of the same 'defects,' and presented arguments backed up from English dictionaries and other reference works to show that your criteria for grammatical propriety were unfounded.
  3. In response to your criticism of those translations that have "I AM" or similar capitalization, I noted that this is not the case with most English versions (including the KJV), so these orthographic variations cannot count as evidence of theological bias in the conventional rendering of John 8:58.

Since a case can be made for the superiority of the conventional rendering and your objections to it are answerable, I conclude that your position falls short of meeting its burden of proof.


Our debate focused on three issues pertaining to the translation of John 8:58: the grammar of the Greek sentence; the order of clauses in the English
translation; and whether EIMI should be translated "am" or "have been."

1. The grammar of the Greek sentence PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI EGW EIMI

a. Is EIMI a PPA? The function of the PRIN clause

Various aspects of the grammar of John 8:58 dominated our debate. You argued that EIMI in this sentence is a straightforward and unambiguous example of the PPA, meaning that EIMI is qualified by the dependent clause so as to denote existence from some time before Abraham's coming into being forward to the time of Jesus' speaking. In support you argued that the dependent clause functioned in the same way as other noncontroversial examples of the past-time temporal markers of the PPA.

I argued that EIMI in this sentence, if it is a PPA at all, is a highly unusual one. In my view the dependent clause, an infinitive of antecedent time (PRIN + aorist infinitive), clearly qualifies the main verb (EIMI) to denote existence antecedent to the event specified in the dependent clause
(Abraham's birth), rather than denoting existence since some time prior to that event and continuing to the time of speaking. This understanding of the infinitive of antecedent time was documented from recent Greek grammars (Young, Wallace) and confirmed by an exhaustive analysis of the 112 occurrences of the construction in biblical Greek. Because Jesus is speaking centuries after Abraham, though, the statement connotes existence both before and after Abraham. Grammatically, this usage is either a highly unusual type of PPA (broadly defined) or something akin to a universal (non-proverbial) gnomic present (as defined by Wallace), expressing a state that is always or perpetually so.

b. Old Testament grammatical parallels

The only texts in biblical Greek that are grammatically parallel in some respects (a present tense main verb qualified by an aorist infinitive dependent clause beginning with PRIN or PRO) are three verses in the Septuagint (LXX), all three of which you argued are also examples of the
PPA. I argued that one of these certainly cannot be a PPA (Prov. 8:23-25, where GENNAi cannot denote begetting continuing from the past to the present), one is debatable (Jer. 1:5), and one clearly denotes unbounded existence and not merely existence from the past to the present (Ps. 89:2 LXX). All three of these texts speak of God, specifically of his wisdom (Prov. 8), his knowledge (Jer. 1:5), and his existence (Ps. 89:2 LXX). Semantically Psalm 89:2 LXX is closest to John 8:58 (it also has the contrast between becoming, GENHQHNAI, and being, EI) and so supports understanding EIMI in John 8:58 as connoting boundless existence.

c. EIMI as 'absolute'

Another grammatical feature that Psalm 89:2 LXX has in common with John 8:58 is that the present-tense be-verb is 'absolute,' meaning that there is no subject or adjectival complement expressed (and none evident or clearly implied in the context). In both texts an adverbial clause precedes the main clause, but the main clause includes no 'predicate' to complement the verb (i.e., no subject complement, no locative prepositional phrase, or the like). We disagreed on the meaning of the term 'absolute.' You argued that if EIMI in John 8:58 were absolute this would mean that the main clause EGW EIMI was standing alone as a complete sentence, which would leave the dependent clause PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI hanging. I used the term in the same way as the many biblical scholars who have described EIMI as absolute, as explained above: EIMI has no subject complement or other such expression completing or complementing the verb. This is evidently what Robertson meant when he said that EIMI in John 8:58 is absolute. I also cited Charles Kahn, a scholar whose interests lie outside the New Testament, and who uses a similar definition in his major treatise on the be-verb in ancient Greek. All of the major scholarly studies in recent decades on Jesus' EGW EIMI sayings, including those by Brown, Harner, Ball, and Williams, make the same point about EIMI. The dependent clause, I argued, is probably to be categorized as an adjunct rather than a complement (obligatory or optional), but in any case it is not a 'predicate' in the sense of a subject complement or similar grammatical unit. This is significant, because, as I explained in my book 16 years ago, the absolute EIMI does not denote "an action or ongoing event, nor even an ongoing specific condition," such as are described by PPA verbs. Known examples of the PPA using EIMI or another form of that verb always use it as a linking verb, or copula, to describe an ongoing action or specific condition. The only known candidate for a PPA using the absolute EIMI is Psalm 89:2 LXX (implicitly identified as such by Winer), and this example supports the conventional understanding of John 8:58 as a divine affirmation of unbounded existence.

2. Whether the clauses are improperly ordered in the conventional English translation of John 8:58

You argued that 'preposing' the dependent clause "before Abraham came into being" in front of the main clause (whether translated "I am" or "I have been") is blatantly ungrammatical. You argued that in English the be-verb must be followed by some sort of complement (with certain exceptions of no relevance to John 8:58), and in John 8:58 that complement must be the clause "before Abraham came into being."

In response, I gave examples from both older and contemporary English writers of sentences in which the be-verb stands at the very end of the sentence. I showed that the be-verb cannot have this last position (formally) when it functions as a linking verb or copula, but that it can
have this last position when it functions existentially, that is, when it expresses a state of being or existing ("I think, therefore I am"; "Pooh just is"). You tried to relegate this usage to archaic English, but my "Pooh" example shows otherwise. Furthermore, in my last post I also cited
_The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language_ (2000) and the _Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary_ in support of this usage as legitimate in modern English. Both of these works under 'be' have another usage that they do identify as archaic, but not this usage. I also showed that the dependent clause "before Abraham came into being" in English is not the obligatory complement that must follow the English be-verb (when used as a copula) but is an adverbial that can stand before or after the verb. The element that cannot appear before the be-verb is the obligatory complement, the predicate that is linked or copulated to the subject by the be-verb. Thus, in the sentence, "Before the Lord named me Job, I was Jobab" (Testament of Job 2:1), the dependent clause "before the Lord named me Job" (which is grammatically identical in function to "before Abraham came into being" in John 8:58) is perfectly fine where it is. What would make that sentence ungrammatical would be to put "Job," the subject complement, before the verb, as in "Before the Lord named me Job, Jobab I was" (what has been called "Yoda English").

There is another type of sentence ending with the be-verb, in which that verb has an implied predicate (subject complement), typically in response to a question of identity ("I am [he]"). You agreed that the main clause could stand last in the sentence only if that predicate was expressed ("Before Abraham came into being, I am he"). I replied that the predicate ("he") need not be expressed (giving examples) and that translating "I am" retains in English an ambiguity in the Greek as to whether EIMI expresses a state of being or a statement of identity.

3. Whether EIMI in John 8:58 should be translated "am" or "have been"

a. Translating "am" or "have been" and the PPA

You argued that EIMI in John 8:58 should be translated "have been" because it is a PPA, and PPAs should be translated using a form of the progressive past tense to express extension from the past to the present. In response, I argued that it is unlikely that EIMI should be classified as a PPA, at least in a narrow sense (see point #1 above), and that in any case a PPA need not always be translated using a form of the past tense.

b. Translating "am" with an existential meaning

You argued that "am" in modern English is normally not used to express existence, so that the conventional translation "I am" should really be replaced with "I exist" (or "existed," see point a. above). I pointed out that "have been" is just the present perfect tense of "am," so that if "am"
cannot be used existentially, neither can "have been." However, as explained earlier in this post, I also showed that "am" can indeed be used in modern English to express existence.

c. "I am" in John and in Old Testament sayings of God

I also argued that a translation of John 8:58, in addition to taking into account the grammar of the sentence, should also take into account its relation to other EGW EIMI sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John as well as the EGW EIMI sayings of God in Isaiah to which those Johannine sayings evidently allude. The translation "I am" is to be preferred because it enables the English reader to perceive these Johannine parallels and Isaianic allusions.

You had three main objections to the above argument. First, you argued that the grammatical form of the Johannine EGW EIMI sayings of Jesus varies, even in John 8, with some expressing predicates ("I am the light of the world," 8:12) and others implying a predicate ("I am he," 8:24, 28), while in John 8:58 EIMI is used existentially. I responded that these grammatical variations do not negate the connections among these sayings as profound self-revelatory statements of religious and even divine claims.

Second, you argued that drawing such connections with other EGW EIMI sayings is absurd in light of the formerly blind man's EGW EIMI saying in John 9:9. In response I reminded you that my argument is that Jesus' EGW EIMI sayings in John share thematic connections; John 9:9 has a different speaker on a different occasion answering a specific question unrelated to those themes and making no allusions to divine EGW EIMI sayings in the Old Testament.

Third, in reference to translating John 8:58 in light of the Isaianic EGW EIMI sayings, you objected that doing so confuses translation with interpretation. I replied by pointing out that in your own book _Truth in Translation_ you acknowledge that the Old Testament scriptures "form an essential context for understanding the expression of the New Testament," so that "the exact nuance of a phrase of argument in the New Testament may depend on this background knowledge" (xviii). Thus, considering the "background knowledge" of the divine EGW EIMI sayings in Isaiah is quite proper in considering how best to translate Jesus' EGW EIMI sayings, including John 8:58.

4. Conclusion: Whether the conventional translation is theologically biased

You attempt to make a case for theological bias in the conventional translation of John 8:58 by arguing that it is not only a bad rendering but that the same versions don't make the same mistakes when translating other verses. The first two errors that you claim these versions make in John 8:58 are misreading the Greek grammar (point #1 above) and grammatically flawed English (#2). I have shown that both of these criticisms are very much disputable. I have also shown, contrary to your argument for bias, that the same versions actually do sometimes render alleged PPA verbs in other texts using the English present tense (e.g., Ps. 89:2 LXX; 2 Pet. 3:4). I also showed that the NWT places the clauses in John 8:58 in the same order as the conventional versions, and that your explanation (the translators were unduly influenced by the conventional translation tradition) was implausible (they were, after all, abandoning that tradition in this very verse). The third error you charged to the traditional rendering was the imposition of a connection between John 8:58 and Old Testament sayings of God, specifically Exodus 3:14. The Exodus 3:14 connection is made explicit only in a very few contemporary versions; the simple "I am" rendering in the KJV, NASB, and many other versions cannot be accused of this error, if an error it be. In my view, though, one good reason for translating the text with "I am" is that the text's association with other "I am" sayings of God in the Old Testament, notably in Isaiah, will be more evident to the English reader. This is not evidence of theological bias, but of taking into account the religious and literary context of the saying, something you said in your book was important, as documented above. Thus, your entire set of arguments for religious or theological bias in the conventional rendering of John 8:58 fails.

Thank you for participating in this long and difficult debate.

In Christ's service,

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

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