Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, September 15

ἐγώ εἰμι in John 18:5

The ἐγώ εἰμι sayings in the gospel of John are famous. The phrase occurs 21 times. Jesus says that "I am" the Bread of Life (6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51), the Light of the World (8:12), the Gate (10:7, 9), the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14), the Resurrection and the Life (11:25), the Way (14:6), and the True Vine (15:1, 5).

These are significant in that they are a reflection of the divine name in Exodus 3:14, where the God of the burning bush answers Moses' question about his name. In the LXX we read, Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, "I am who I am" (ESV).

This most clearly surfaces in John 8:55, "Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came to be, I am!'” (πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί).

But on the other side of the spectrum we see ἐγώ εἰμι used without any reference to God's name. When Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman he says, "I, the one speaking to you, am he (ἐγώ εἰμι)” (4:26). When Jesus comes walking on the water he says to the disciples, “It is I; do not be afraid (ἐγώ εἰμι· μὴ φοβεῖσθε)” (see also 8:18; 13:19). Even the man born blind can say, “I am the man (ἐγώ εἰμι)" (9:9). And yet given John's affection for deeper meanings, one wonders if Exodus 3:14 isn't floating in the back of his mind even in these passages.

And then there are the in-between verses, where it is not clear if Jesus is simply identifying himself, or if he is making a veiled reference to the Tetragrammaton. For example, "This is why I said to you that you would die in  your sins, for if you do not believe that I am he (ἐγώ εἰμι), 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; cf. 18:5, 6, 8).

This is a good example of how a phrase can have a range of meaning, just like words, and you need to be aware of its range. And you have to be aware of the personal tendencies of the writer.

So is Jesus referencing God's name in 18:5? I doubt it. There is nothing in the context that suggests this. But what about 8:24 and 28? My guess is, from the coming clear reference in v 55, that there is a veiled reference to Exodus 3.

But the point here is that phrases, like words, have a semantic range, and we need to know the range before we can interpret.

Comments

Bill, thanks for this; it helps a lot. I was close to the conclusion you gave for John 18:5. But, the content of John's story changed my mind. The moment when the soldiers come with Judas to arrest Jesus seem to be a pivotal moment in the story. Jesus makes the ἐγώ εἰμι confession in 18:5, and John tells us in 18:6 "When Jesus said to them, "ἐγώ εἰμι," they drew back and fell to the ground." The falling down at the confession of the "I am" must serve some purpose in the story. For me, it serves to highlight the importance of Jesus being Himself, and making that confession. Do you think the falling down of the soldiers changes the exegesis of the text? Does it make a stronger case for that particular ἐγώ εἰμι to be linked to Exodus 3:14?

I share Riley's thinking on this. The context of ἐγώ εἰμι indicates more than Jesus' simply identifying himself as "Jesus of Nazareth," doesn't it?

I agree that the unexpected response to Jesus' use of Ego Eimi requires that we understand Him to be using the Divine Name. Every other explanation I have seen strains reality. How else do we account for the step back and falling down of 18:6? Tim

I think we should make the distinction between translation and interpretation. If it is translated "I am" in John18:5, then it is open to be interpreted various ways. And we can be fine with that if/since we don't know. But if it is "I am He," then we are misleading away from a primary candidate of interpretation. Until we know at a high threshold why not err on the more literal. We shouldn't put forth as if we know what we don't know. And it's not even necessary. A Bible for 12-year-olds can be more literal than not and it does more good for the 12-year-old. Then we allow more room for the Holy Spirit to speak to the 12-year-old. It was God-breathed in the first place. Amen?

The real question to ask is, what language did Jesus really speak? I'm sure he spoke Greek, without an issue. However, I would suspect his primary language use was Hebrew (Aramaic written). So, What language did God speak to Moses? Well, it was more like " 'elohiym amar Mosheh ". So, in Exodus 3:14, the Hebrew word is hayah. which means, "I do exist, have existed, i am in being and a being". It is used for any and everything that is alive, even describes the serpent in Gen 3:1. So, why do we make a big deal out of ego eimi? it isn't really what Jesus said anyway!

So you don't think that a translation is able to accurately convey the meaning of the original?