I am who I am…

February 9th, 2016
by Chris

There has been an interesting discussion on The Jesus Blog of the use in Mark 6:50 of the words “ego eimi” (in the Greek), meaning in a literal way “I am”. One might think that this is not a basis for much theological speculation, but this is a famous couplet which, in its use in John 8:58 is one of the relatively few places in scripture which people use to assert that Jesus claimed to be God (rather than that his followers claimed this). “Jesus said unto them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

(Note – my links are to an online Greek-English interlinear, and there’s a need to scroll down to the last page in both cases).

I’ve written about this before, but now the identification of the use of what is, let’s face it, just the words “I am” seems to be spreading well outside that instance, I think it’s worth another look.

The issue is, of course, that in Exodus 3:14, it is stated “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. And he said ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”‘”. In the Hebrew original, the phrase is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” (and “I am who I am” is only one of several potential translations suggested for it; “I am who I will be” is also a popular version, and in the link I give next, the translation is “I am the being”). The Greek version of this in the Septuagint uses the words “ego eimi”. Actually the phrase is “ego eimi ho on”, which would naturally translate “I am the being”. “Ego eimi” is not, for what its worth, susceptible of quite as many alternative translations into English as is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh”, but does capture some of the potential sense.

From this, theologians have long re-read John 8:58 as “before Abraham was, I am [I AM]”, making it a direct claim of identity with the God of Exodus. This has been particularly attractive due to the need to infer an extra verb (see the square brackets above). “Ego eimi” is used quite a lot of times in John; nowhere in the synoptics is there much language from Jesus stating what he is, but the Fourth Gospel has a particular agenda, made obvious by its preamble (John 1:1-18). It is THE wording used by proponents of Lewis’ trilemma, a tool of evangelism which I particularly hate.

Let me recapitulate my feelings about this passage. Firstly, if the natural meaning of the passage is indeed “I am God”, given that its context was in a discussion with scribes and pharisees, had Jesus said it, his life expectancy would have been measured in minutes rather than (as the gospel would have it) a year or two. At the most, therefore, the passage must have been seen as ambiguous by the writer; at the least, the extra verb to be inferred must have been “was” at the end, so it would read “before Abraham was, I AM [was]”; the inference to be drawn from that would then be that Jesus claimed particular knowledge granted to him by his God, who of course pre-existed Abraham and therefore knew the things in question.

In fact, however, I do not view the author of the Fourth Gospel as reporting Jesus’ actual lifetime words most of the time (and nor do a very substantial number of biblical scholars), I view him as reporting what he thinks Jesus might have (or ought to have) said in the circumstances reported. In the process, he is keen to show the priestly and scholarly elite countered and confounded by some clever wording and (in the case of the exchange with Nicodemus) ambiguous terminology. To use a phrase capable of multiple interpretations, one of which might indicate a high Christology but others of which might be entirely mundane, would be quite in keeping with the rest of his usage.

I do not in saying this, incidentally, suggest that the writer was fabricating in a deplorable way; I am quite confident, from the preamble, in identifying the author as a mystic with a striking similarity to the entirely Jewish Philo of Alexandria (much of whose thinking on the logos is recapitulated in precis in John 1) who is specifically a Jesus mystic. I see him as interpreting his mystical experience of God through the filter of identifying this as an experience specifically of Jesus (hence all the “I am” statements), and this is very much a cosmic Christ rather than a mundane Jesus. However, it is still not necessarily the case that the author saw Jesus as ontologically equivalent with the God of Abraham; he could have considered him as “principal agent” through whom God worked, or indeed as the material representation of that principal agent.

At the most, therefore, I see ego eimi here as being deliberately ambiguous wording.

What of the various scholars writing on or referred to in the Jesus Blog taking the use of ego eimi in Mark as indicating a far higher Christology than is normally associated with that gospel? I think that is a stretch, and a stretch too far. It is true that a recurring theme in Mark is that the apostles are completely missing the point of Jesus’ sayings and actions, but in expounding that, Mark is not using clever uses of ambiguous words, but parables and metaphors. It is a completely different technique.

The use of what is, on face value, merely the statement “I am” to designate godly status is one which would only potentially be valid if there were substantial other evidence that what was being set up in the wider context was a theophany, and while I was impressed by the argument that Jesus walking on the sea and stilling the waves does give that wider context, I think it falls short of establishing a sufficient probability. That way leads far too easily to seeing every use of ego eimi (and there are a LOT of those, many of which don’t refer to either God or Jesus) as theophanies.

We might even start seeing this as a theophany!

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In passing, eh’yeh asher eh’yey, I am that I am,  is perhaps the strangest thing identified as “the name of God”. It is echoed, however, in “He who is” (and “She who is” in Elizabeth Johnson’s book). I am not convinced that I can, in fact, see it as that – the usage in Exodus would, therefore, be a one-off, a singular usage not to be repeated and certainly not able to be echoed in John or Mark with that significance. I cannot, for instance, contemplate using it “to His face, if I was faced with Him in all His Glory”. It just doesn’t work as a name. As an avoidance of any naming in Exodus, however, yes…

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