by Ed Gallagher
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”John 8:58
The Gospel of John uses the phrase “I am” more than any other writing in the New Testament. Half of the 48 New Testament appearances of this phrase are found in this Gospel. Almost every time, it is Jesus who speaks these words (single exception: 9:9, the blind man). It seems, then, that this phrase is a distinctive and important part of this Gospel’s presentation of the identity of Jesus.
The two words “I am” correspond in Greek to ego eimi (pronunciation: eh-go ay-mee). These words appear on the lips of Jesus 23x in John’s Gospel. The most important occurrences fall into two categories: with predicates (i.e., predicated instances) and without (i.e., non-predicated = absolute). As you’ll recall from grammar school days, the predicate is the part of the sentence that comes after the verb (or, better, everything but the subject). So, the predicated instances (having a predicate) of “I am” in this Gospel have something after the “am,” such as “I am … the bread of life,” etc. There are seven of these predicated “I am” statements. Distinct from these instances are the absolute occurrences of “I am”—absolute in the sense that it stands alone, without a predicate. In the absolute occurrences, there is nothing after the “am”: “Before Abraham was, I am.” There are nine of these absolute “I am” statements.
Old Testament Background
The most well-known instance of the phrase “I am” in Israel’s Scriptures is during the incident of the burning bush, when God revealed his name to Moses as “I Am” (Exod 3:14). In Hebrew, the words “I am” correspond to a single word, ehyeh. God tells Moses in this verse, “This is what you are to say to the Israelites: Ehyeh has sent me to you.” This is actually not the common name for God in the Old Testament; he is usually called Yahweh (in English: Lᴏʀᴅ) rather than Ehyeh, and even in the next verse (Exod 3:15), God says, “Say this to the Israelites: Yahweh, the God of your fathers … has sent me to you. This is my name forever….” The words Yahweh and Ehyeh are two different forms of the same Hebrew word, hayah, which means “to be,” “to exist.” The word Yahweh means “he is” or “he causes to exist.”
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX, about 250 BC), the word Ehyeh in Exodus 3:14 became in Greek Ego eimi, the same expression we find so prominently on the lips of Jesus in the Gospel of John. These two Greek words also appear significantly in the Greek translation of Isaiah several times.
…so that you may know and believe and understand that Ego eimi.LXX Isaiah 43:10
Ego eimi, ego eimi the one who blots out your acts of lawlessness.LXX Isaiah 43:25 (cf. 48:12; 52:6, in LXX Isaiah, i.e., Esaias))
Absolute “I Am” Statements in John’s Gospel
The nine absolute “I am” statements in John are found at 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8. English translations do not always render the Greek ego eimi as simply “I am” in these verses. For instance, at 6:20, some translations say “It is I,” or, at 8:24, “I am he.” Nevertheless, the Greek of each of these verses has ego eimi. Therefore, a reader of the Greek text might naturally hear these verses as echoes of the words spoken by God in the Old Testament when he identified himself, particularly in Exodus and Isaiah. Such an echo would signify that Jesus is claiming the divine name for himself, identifying himself with the God revealed in the Old Testament as “I am” (Ego eimi, or Ehyeh). A reader of John’s Gospel is especially prepared to hear this echo because the Gospel has already made the audacious claim that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh…” (1:1, 14). Apparently Jesus’ audience in John 8 heard the echo of Exodus 3 or Isaiah, because they thought he was blaspheming and tried to stone him (8:59).
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.John 8:58–59
Predicated “I Am” Statements in John’s Gospel
Most of these predicated “I am” statements also have an Old Testament background.
- Bread of life (6:35, 48) or (living) bread that came down from heaven (6:41, 51). Jesus makes explicit the Old Testament background to the bread statement: the manna given to the people in Exodus 16. The crowd quotes (John 6:31) Exodus 16:4 (cf. Ps 78:24). Jesus is better bread than is manna because he grants eternal life (John 6:49–51).
- Light of the world (8:12; cf. 9:5, though this latter verse does not use ego eimi). Jesus is called “light” first in the Johannine prologue (1:4–9), where the Gospel compels us to think about “In the beginning” in Genesis 1. There, light shone at God’s command (Gen 1:3) and without the sun (created later, Gen 1:14–18). John tells us that this light illuminating the world came from the Word (cf. Ps 119:105).
- Gate (10:7, 9). I am not sure if there is an Old Testament background here.
- Good Shepherd (10:11, 14). Ezekiel promises a future shepherd, a king in the likeness of David (34:23; 37:24). God will also be Israel’s shepherd (Ezek 34:11–16; Jer 31:10).
- Resurrection and the life (11:25). God created humans by breathing into them the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Ezekiel has a vision of God breathing life (spirit/breath) into skeletons, raising them from the dead (Ezek 37:1–14). Jesus is the source of this resurrection life.
- Way, the truth, and the life (14:6).
- I just mentioned Old Testament background for “life.”
- The concept of the “way” of the Lord is so ubiquitous in the Old Testament that it’s difficult to pinpoint any one particular passage that people might of thought about when they heard Jesus call himself the Way. Deuteronomy 30:16 was perhaps a famous passage, but the word “way” is also very prominent in the Proverbs. (The same Greek word Jesus uses, hodos, appears 94x in LXX Proverbs.)
- Truth is again a concept and term found throughout the Old Testament, so there might not be any one particular passage serving as the background to Jesus’ statement. As an example, Psalm 25:5 (which is numbered 24:5 in the LXX) says: “Guide me to your truth,” and later in verse 10: “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.”
- (True) vine (15:1, 5). Several times in the Old Testament Israel is called a vine (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1). Jesus fulfills the function of Israel, as the son of God (cf. Exod 4:22), as the servant of the Lord (Isa 41:8), as the true (faithful) vine.
Each of these sayings reveals deep truths about the nature and character of Jesus.
All of the Gospels primarily want their readers to learn the true identity of Jesus. One significant way in which the Gospel of John accomplishes this goal is by showing Jesus explicitly identifying himself as the “I am,” a phrase connected both to the God of Israel (Exod 3:14) and to several important Old Testament images.
Questions for Discussion
Several times in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the simple statement “I am,” though English translation might not always render the phrase precisely (6:20; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5, 8). Many scholars want to connect these statements to Exodus 3:14. Do you think there is a connection?
Why do you think the crowd wanted to kill Jesus at John 8:59?
There are also several passages—seven, to be precise—in which Jesus says, “I am…” something, whether “bread” (6:35) or “light” (8:12) or a “gate” (10:7) or a “shepherd” (10:11) or “the resurrection” (11:25) or the “way/truth/life” (14:6) or a “vine” (15:1). When Jesus says these things, do his listeners understand what he is talking about?
What does Jesus mean by calling himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5)? How does this idea connect to Matthew 5:14? How does this idea connect to other uses of the word “light” in John’s Gospel? (See 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 11:9–10; 12:35–36, 46.)
How does Ezekiel 34:23–24 help us to understand what Jesus means by calling himself the good shepherd?