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Bible translation and John 8:58

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Question#1:   Dear Dr. Luginbill, I'm in an argument with a [member of an anti-Trinitarian sect] over John 8:58. He says "I have been" is a perfectly good rendering (instead of "before Abraham was born, I AM"). He points out that in John 15:27, Jesus says, "because you have been my witnesses from the beginning" and the "you have" is by itself in Greek, at the end, the way "I Am" is in John 8:58. Plus, it is usually rendered "you have been," when it is really "you are." I know there is no perfect tense of the verb "to be" in Greek. So this person wants to know what is so bad about "I have been" in John 8:58. I and others have pointed out that Jesus was identifying Himself, and in 15:27, He is not; He is not identifying anybody in 15:27. Also, this person says C.T. Williams, Moffatt, and Goodspeed render John 8:58 as "I existed before Abraham was born" or a version thereof. Some other authorities suggest that the NASB rendering of "I Am'' in John 8:58 is just as jarring in Greek as in English, where one would expect a past or a perfect tense in either language. But the past tense seems untenable, to me. I mean, what were they thinking of? Most translations I have seen have "I Am", not "have been," or "existed." What are your thoughts on this? Thanks for your help. As ever, your sister in Christ.

Response #1:   Good to hear from you! Greek does have a perfect tense, but the verb "to be" is, as you say, defective (grammatically speaking, that is). It does, however, have an imperfect which was an option here. Also, there was certainly no reason for our Lord to restrict Himself to the verb "to be". The verb gignomai is a very close synonym of the verb "to be", for example, and that is the verb our Lord uses for Abraham. However, gignomai it is not the verb which the LXX uses to translate Exodus 3:14 (there we have the verb "to be"). Using gignomai often gives the indication of "becoming" whereas with eimi the main idea is "being".

To expand the translation and emphasize the two verbs here at John 8:58 we might render the verse, "Before Abraham came into being (= becoming in the past), I am (= timeless being)". Incidentally, the verb gignomai does have a perfect tense, so that if our Lord had wanted to say what your correspondent claims He was saying, He could very well have said "gegona" (= "I have been, have become, have come into being", etc.). That way, Jesus would have been clearly and deliberately contrasting only the two time frames by using the same verb for Himself and for Abraham. This our Lord does not do. By pointedly using 1) the verb "to be" instead of the verb "to become" which He has just used for Abraham, and 2) by using the present tense to stress timelessness, Jesus is clearly laying claim to the divine formula of Exodus 3:14, and placing Himself categorically above Abraham, the father of the entire Jewish race. If this statement had not been highly controversial in the eyes of His contemporaries, they would not have immediately sought to stone Him (as we know they did from the following verse).

Translation is always a tricky business. Sometimes people muddy the waters when they are trying to make things more clear (which may explain some of the questionable translations you came across). It becomes an even trickier business when people try to put more weight on a translation than it will bear (translations are only an attempt to explain what is in the original, after all, and are never a substitute for it). Whatever the translation of this verse, some things are certainly clear enough:

    1) Jesus is making a contrast between Himself and Abraham;

    2) Jesus is claiming a measure of superiority over Abraham;

    3) whether "am" (what we actually have"), or "was", or "have been" be used, in any case Jesus is presenting His nature as timeless in contrast to the time-bound nature of Abraham, and His existence as predating that of Abraham.

A good translation should make this last point even more clear by 1) pointing out that Abraham had to "come into being" (gignomai) while Christ did not (i.e., the use of eimi tells us that He "always has been"), and that 2) the ego eimi is the formula for the tetragrammaton or divine name of Exodus 3:14.

The bottom line is that this verse is unquestionably a claim of divinity, and it is clear from the context that Jesus' contemporaries understood it as such (given their enraged reaction).

Please see also the following links:

Jesus is God

Jesus is God and Man

Bible Basics 4A: Christology

Hope this helps,

Yours in our timeless Lord Jesus Christ,

Bob L.

Question#2: 

Hello again Dr. Luginbill, I passed on what you said about ego eimi, and the other verb used at John 8:58. Of course, this person discounts it. What he had to say sounds ludicrous to me, but what do you think?

"Eh? There is no 'contrast' between the past time expression and the present eimi for they are part of the same idiom!!! It a way of writing quite common in NT Greek"

It seems to me this person is burying his head in the proverbial sand, refusing to see the obvious. Is it a common NT idiom - combining a past participle of some kind, with a present tense of a similar, but different verb? If so, I've never heard of it. I told this person that if Jesus had wanted to say he was simply older than Abraham, then He would have used the same verb that He did when describing when Abraham came into existence. But instead He said "I Am" which means absolute existence. That's what you wrote, but he thinks you are biased by your trinitarianism. I know that one can't convince these people; that is the Holy Spirit's job. But we can at least present the truth. Anyway, what are your thoughts on this? Thanks! Take care, and God bless you.

Response #2: 

In addition to being doctrinaire about his/her theology (a mind-set for which we must allow even if we disagree), this person is also being dogmatically ignorant about Greek. The way this response is phrased betrays a basic lack of understanding of linguistic principles in general and of Greek in particular.

Really, it doesn't get much more basic than this. The present tense of the Greek verb "to be" in the first person singular is eimi, whereas the same first person singular in the imperfect tense (the only past tense of this irregular verb) is e or alternatively en (both forms with eta, not epsilon). Nothing could be clearer to either a native speaker or a later student of the language, whether the focus is fifth century or later Greek (not much difference at all between the two in any case, regardless of all the hype to the contrary). The form eimi means "I am", whereas the form e/en means "I was", and that is pretty much that.

As always in translation we must take context into account, but tense is always significant, and can never be ignored. Rather than "ludicrous", the adjective I would choose to describe this short riposte you include is "incomprehensible". If this person is suggesting that tense means nothing in Greek (especially in the indicative mood as we have it here), then we have entered some parallel universe about which I know nothing.

It seems clear that if we are allowed to pretend that "I am" is the same as "I was", then at such a point is there really any practical purpose to be served in continuing to exegete the scriptures at all? Why not instead just make up our own writings and call them divine? That way we can ignore all the unpleasantness of being called to account for egregious violations of basic principles of language, hermeneutics, and translation.

Of course the answer to this rhetorical question is obvious. Common to all cults is the desire to wrap themselves in the authority of God and His Word without at the same time having to be at all responsible to Him or His Word. In this way, they can both attract and enslave many who would otherwise never come into their orbit (the Bible has a cachet even when it is really only being used for nefarious ends), while at the same time maintaining complete independence of doctrine to fit any and all circumstances and teachings they choose to develop. The one drawback for them is that they are occasionally called upon to defend their outrageous claims in order to present to the world and to their less committed members a facade of legitimacy. In such instances, especially when the gap between truth and lie (or in this case, since the point is at its root a secular one, between reality and fantasy) is so large, retreating into their own concocted modes of expression is also a common place: (i.e., his/her statement: "they are part of the same idiom!!! It a way of writing quite common in NT Greek")!!! Such things, especially to the non-specialist, may seem to be reasonable and conversant with the principles involved, whereas in truth they are just smoke and mirrors. When in doubt, obfuscate. Or, to put it another way, the lie is the first and the last refuge of evil (Jn.8:44). Q.E.D.

Hope this helps,

Yours in Him who is the only truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

Question#3: 

Hi Dr. Luginbill--Thanks for your response. I take it, then, that these expressions in John 8:58 are not some well-known Greek idiom as this person is claiming. Also, he showed some other translations of the NT, most of which I have never even heard of, that have "I have been" or "I am and I was" or something similar. C.B. Williams, who mentored Dr. Julius Mantey, has "I have been" here, but elsewhere, in his translation of the Bible, he clearly indicates, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is God. This person who flouted Williams' "I have been" said that his New Testament translation was "rather good," but didn't bother, apparently, looking at the rest of the Bible he translated (where the issue of Jesus divinity is made clear). I also said no translation is perfect. Even my favorite, the NASB, has "existed" at Phil. 2:6, when it is really present tense, and should be "existing" or "being" from what I discerned, in my own research. A web site I ran across, that critiques various Bible translations, noted this error. Anyway, thanks again. Take care and God bless.

Response #3: 

That's right. There is no idiom which makes the present tense some other tense. It is true that tenses can be a tricky business in Greek; that is to say, tense stems not in the indicative (where aspect more than time-based tense is the case; for example, there is no time difference between a present subjunctive and an aorist subjunctive). But in the indicative like this, one always assumes the author knows what he is writing.

Yet I understand why so many translations have done gymnastics with this verse. After all, as I intimated in my last e-mail, what a translator ideally tries to do is to represent the whole truth of what is in the passage/work being translated. This is much more art than science, and, again ideally, requires the translator to have a complete and perfect understanding of what the original means before attempting to represent the original in another language. The problem in the Bible is that in addition to the difficulties of bringing ancient languages into English (where we are dealing with different "habits of thought" as C.W. Bowra said of Greek and Latin - certainly true of Hebrew too), in addition to textual considerations, and in addition to historico-cultural issues and the problems of translation generally, we also have the weighty question of the theology. Until one really understands what the "baptism of the Spirit" is, to choose but one of countless examples, one is not likely to translate with complete accuracy the passages which deal with that subject.

To my mind, one of the main reasons why modern translations of the Bible differ and/or are wrong in so many places is that the persons who translated them did not understand the Bible perfectly. Naturally, none of us do, but there are levels of goodness and badness in this. To be fair, I translate passages whenever I exegete, and have on more than one occasion changed my first efforts years later upon reflection and/or gaining a deeper knowledge of a particular passage, situation, or doctrinal point. We are circling in on truth (hopefully). What we most certainly are not doing is vetting some translation or body of doctrine that is 99 and 96/100% pure at the outset.

That brings me back to the various ways that John 8:58 is translated as you report them. One would have hoped that middle-of-the-road scholars would have understood the connection between "I am" and the tetragrammaton in Exodus 3:14, and therefore the importance of preserving the literal tense in a translation of this important verse, even though that might be grating to English ears. It would have been (and from the context was) grating to contemporary ears as well, and that was a large part of the point. But when the translators miss the point, one finds them assimilating the Greek to our English idiom in order to "make it flow".

Incidentally, the NASB passage you cite is apropos of all this. The Greek of Philippians 2:6 "existing" is a present participle, and the tense of circumstantial participles is always relative, that is, it hinges on the tense of the main verb (in Phil.2:6, hegesato - an aorist indicative). So that the NASB translation "although He existed" is not technically wrong - they are merely coordinating the participle in their translation and treating it as a main verb in an independent clause in order to give the participle emphasis (this is a very common technique when translating Greek, because of the great number of circumstantial participles, which, if all were translated qua participle would lead to a horribly stilted English style). The irony is that by doing it this way, the best way to bring out the idea of existence, they also open themselves up to having the sense misconstrued as to time.

Translating inevitably forces choices. Even when the person doing the translation makes good choices, even the best choices, there are times when the correctness level barely broaches 50-70%. This is why the Romans used to say translatores tradiutores: "all translators are traitors"; that is, the very act of translating betrays at least some of the sense, emphasis, flavor, and meaning of the original, and there is just no way around that. There is perhaps no better illustration of why Christians need, in addition to Bibles and the discipline to use them, Bible teachers and the patience to hear them. One can explain the particulars of Philippians 2:6 given the time and space to do so. One is hard-pressed to put all that is there into a simple and readable English translation without losing something of the original, and even occasionally misleading the reader, however unintentionally. This is a large part of the reason why I expand my translations even when it produces English that will never win any prizes (choosing clarity at the expense of euphony). Here is my version of that passage:

You too should have this attitude which Christ Jesus had. Since He already existed in the very form of God, equality with God was [certainly] not something He thought He had to grasp for. Yet in spite of this [co-equal divinity He already possessed], He deprived Himself of His status and took on the form of a slave, [and was] born in the likeness of men. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even [His] death on [the] cross [for us all].
Philippians 2:5-8

Thanks for all your good, hard work in defense of the truth.

In our Lord Jesus Christ,

Bob L.


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