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Appendix 2 - On John 8.58

Appendix 2

On John 8:58

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

In this verse it is evident that “I am” is in an emphatic position. Could “I am (emphatically) before Abraham” be an equivalent reading? There are two verses which correspond to it:

John 1:15

John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, be­cause he was before me.’”

Ἰωάννης μαρτυρεῖ περὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ κέκραγεν λέγων, Οὗτος ἦν ὃν εἶπον, Ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν, ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν.

These words of John (the Baptizer) are repeated verbatim in 1:30. The explan­ation as to why he (the Messiah Jesus) “ranks before me” is “because he was before (πρῶτος, prōtos) me”. Prōtos here can cer­tainly have reference to time, just as “before” (prin) does in Jn.8:58. John (like Abraham) was born before Jesus, so how could Jesus have been before him in time? This would seem to point to John’s perception of Jesus as the embodiment of the Logos/Memra, the Word of God. We can be certain that John, as a mono­theistic Jew, would never have thought or spoken of Jesus as God.

In any case, what John 1:15,30 certainly means is that the Baptizer acknowledges that Jesus is greater than he. Likewise, what is stated in John 8:58 means, at the least, that Jesus is greater even than Abraham, the father of na­tions and the “friend of God”. That this understanding is correct is con­firmed by the fact that Jn.8:58 is in answer to the question posed in Jn.8:53, “Are you greater than our father Abraham?”

It has often been pointed out that there is little similarity of substance between John and the Synoptic gospels, and many scholars doubt or reject the historical validity of John for that very reason, namely, that these gospels can­not readily be reconciled and both cannot be right. But if the basic mean­ing of John 8:58 is that, great though Abraham was, Jesus the Messiah is greater, then this can be readily reconciled with a good number of passages in the Synoptics where Jesus’ greatness in stressed: greater than the temple, Mt.12:6; greater than Jonah, Mt.12:41; Lk.11:32; greater than Solomon, Mt.12:42; Lk.11:31.


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