John 8:58 And The Trinity

Four Reasons Why Trinitarians Wrongly Interpret John 8:58

Introduction:

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John 8:58 is a Trinitarian proof text used to teach that Jesus is God (absolute sense). The common argument is that Jesus is claiming to be “I am” (Yahweh) of Exodus 3:14.

1. If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, this contradicts the doctrine of the Trinity and makes Jesus and Yahweh the same person.

The Trinitarian book, The Trinity, describes an important Trinitarian element:

The Persons are distinct: The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father” (Rose Publishing, 2013, location 48, Kindle edition).

In the book, What is the Trinity, late Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul describes required distinctions between persons: “We say the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but we don’t say that the Father is the Son, the Son is the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit is the Father” (2011, 51).

In the book, What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity, Stuart Olyott wrote a chapter on the requirement to separate members of the Trinity. He writes, “The purpose of this chapter is to emphasize the point which has just been made. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father” (55).

Because it’s heresy that Jesus and the Father are the same person (modalism, sabellianism, and oneness, etc.), the Trinity is correct that Jesus is not the Father. Therefore, Jesus didn’t claim to be Yahweh in John 8:58.

Because Trinitarianism needs Biblical accreditation, they take back the biblical teaching that they embrace. So, on one breath, Jesus is not the Father, but on another, Jesus is the Father. But the Bible doesn’t state facts that are subsequently taken back —false doctrine does.

In His acclaimed Study Bible, popular Trinitarian theologian John MacArthur writes for this verse (John 8:58), “Here Jesus declared Himself to be Yahweh, i.e., the Lord of the OT” (note for John 8:58, MacArthur Study Bible, 1997). John MacArthur is not alone, most Trinitarians use this verse to teach that Jesus claimed directly or indirectly to be Yahweh Himself.

The popular ESV Study Bible provides the same Trinitarian drumbeat:  “Jesus is thus claiming not only to be eternal but also to be the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush” (ESV Study Bible, note for John 8:58 (2008).

Because it’s hypocritical to make Jesus the same person as His Father, some Trinitarian scholars try to circumvent this contradiction. They need Jesus to be God (ultimate sense), so they state this indirectly. Here is an example: “This is not bad grammar but an allusion to the divine name ‘I am’ of Yahweh, God of Israel (Ex 3:14)” (Apologetics Study Bible, 2007, note for John 8:58). This commentary (apparently) makes Jesus imposterous by having Him allude (“an allusion”) He is Yahweh without being Yahweh.

Jesus distinguished Himself often from His Father, whom He exalted as greater (John 10:29; 14:28). When the Rich Young Ruler credited Jesus with being a great teacher, Jesus was quick to transfer this praise to His Father: “18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18, ESV). Jesus called the Father “God alone” because He is worthy of exaltation as the only God. Jesus never took glory from the Father. So when the Apologetic’s Study Bible suggests that Jesus alluded to being Yahweh Himself, it contradicts the Bible.

Here is another careful commentary that tries to navigate around the contradiction: “The confrontation climax. I am! Jesus could say ‘I was’ to claim that he existed merely before Abraham, but he is claiming to exist eternally as God” (NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 2015, note for John 8:58). By assigning the title “God” to Jesus, this careful commentary avoids an explicit statement that Jesus is claiming to be Yahweh. However, the basis for this commentary is the “I am” statement of Jesus, where He allegedly claimed to be Yahweh (Exodus 3:14).

Conclusion: If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, He not only violated the doctrine of the Trinity, but more significantly, Jesus and Yahweh are interchangeable as the same person. If Jesus hinted at being Yahweh without being Yahweh, He was dishonest. Jesus was 100% truthful, 100% of the time.

2. The phrase, “I am” was common in everyday Koine Greek with no allusion to the “I am” of Exodus 3:14.

Most respected Trinitarian scholars are in agreement that the everyday language spoken by Jesus was Aramaic. With this understanding, Jesus didn’t say, “I am” in Koine Greek as found in New Testament manuscripts and the Septuagint.

The phrase “I am” (same as Exodus 3:14) is found in 47 verses in the Greek New Testament. It is found 5 times in Matthew (14:27, 22:32, 24:5, 26:22, 25), 3 times in Mark (6:50, 13:6, 14:62), 4 times in Luke (1:19, 21:8, 22:70, 24:30), 24 times in John (4:26, 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51, 8:12, 18, 24, 28, 58, 9:9, 10:7, 9, 11, 14, 11:25, 13:19, 14:6, 15:1, 5, 18:5, 6, 8), 7 times in Acts (9:5, 10:21, 18:10, 22:3, 8, 26:15, 29), and 4 times in Revelation (1:8, 17, 2:23, 22:16). Based on New Testament use, this expression in Koine Greek was common in the first century without any connection to Exodus 3:14.

In the ESV, the phrase (“ἐγὼ εἰμί“) is interpreted “I am” (38 times), “it is I” (4 times), “is it I [?]” (2 times), and “I am he” (3 times). Similarly, in the English language, “I am” can be used or heard daily without any reference to Exodus 3:14.

Others in the New Testament (outside of Christ) used “I am” without claiming to be Yahweh (Exodus 3:14). The angel Gabriel used it (Luke 1:19), Peter used it (Acts 10:21), and Paul used it (Acts 22:3, 26:29).

Because none of the other “I am” statements in the New Testament reference Exodus 3:14 [1], such a use in John 8:58 should be questioned.

[1] Without bringing theology to the text, there no evidence of a direct link between any “I am” in the New Testament and Exodus 3:14. For example, when Jesus was brought before the council, the high priest asked if Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 14:61). Jesus affirmed that He was the Messiah (“I am”), but there is no evidence that Jesus claimed here to be the Yahweh of Exodus 3:14. The Old Testament does not teach that the Messiah would be Yahweh.

The Jews reserved so much reverence for the name “Yahweh” that they would not speak it. With this understanding, it’s unlikely that the Jews would have used the phrase, “I am” in everyday speech if it articulated the sacred name of Yahweh as found in Exodus 3:14.

3. The context and language indicate that Jesus spoke of pre-existing Abraham.

Some Trinitarian scholars have interpreted that Jesus was not claiming to be Yahweh (“I am;” Exodus 3:14), but was claiming to pre-exist Abraham. Before we explore this further, the previous context should be examined.

In verse 56, Jesus responds and says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.

Abraham lived over a 1000 years earlier and saw the day (time) they lived in. Abraham was “glad” that  Jesus (whom they hated) was their Messiah. This must of intensified their hatred of Jesus.

Verse 57 includes a question: “So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Because Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced ..to see my day,” the Jews probed Jesus’ pre-existence further. Not only were they challenging His authority, they sought a reason to kill him (John 5:18; 7:1, 19-20, 25; 8:37, 40). If Jesus claimed to pre-exist, it would be enough to stone him. In verse 57, Jesus is asked a question —in the important verse to follow, Jesus answered their challenge to His pre-existence.

58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” According to the most used Greek Lexicon of our day, the word “was” (“before Abraham was”) is best understood as “be born,” “be produced,” “be made,” “be created,” “be manufactured,” “be performed,” “arise,” “come about,” “develop,” “happen,” “turn out,” “take place,” “become,” or “someth” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition, 2000). So which word best fits the context? Because this Greek word (“γίνομαι”) deals primarily with the origination of life, the first choice (most commonly used) seems contextually preferred (“be born”).

Here is the same verse with this information, “58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was [was born], I am.” It is important to make this distinction because some modern translations (ESV, NKJV) contain ambiguity (“before Abraham was”) when the Greek indicates before Abraham’s birth as communicated in the NASB (“before Abraham was born”). Because Abraham was not yet born, it reinforces that Jesus is not making a connection between Abraham and the burning bush incident (Exodus 3).

Trinitarians have made much of, “I am” to support their doctrine. Because the same Greek phrase (“ego eimi;” “I am”) is present in Exodus 3:14, the Jews (allegedly) believed that Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh Himself, even though no man could be in Yahweh’s presence and live (Genesis 3:8-10; Exodus 33:20; John 1:18).

An examination of Exodus 3:14 uncovers a full title of Yahweh (“I am who I am”) that Jesus didn’t state. Had Jesus provided this specific title, the Jews would have know He was claiming to be Yahweh.

In 1923, Goodspeed’s American Translation was released. Even though Mr. Goodspeed was a Trinitarian [1], he believed this verse was best translated, “I tell you, I existed [“I was”] before Abraham was born!

[1] Based on research over the internet. 

Mr. Goodspeed (a Greek Grammar theologian) understood the “I am” statement of Jesus, to communicate pre-existence.  His translation removed the awkward grammar found in mainstream translations (“before Abraham was, I am”).

Other Trinitarian translations indicate that Jesus was only claiming to pre-exist Abraham. Both the 1963 and 1971 editions of the New American Standard Bible (NASB) include a footnote that Jesus may have claimed to pre-exist Abraham with an alternate reading, “I have been.”

To follow are two additional translations: “Truly, truly I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘I have existed before Abraham was born” (A New Translation, by Trinitarian James Moffatt, 1935). “Jesus answered, ‘The truth is, I existed before Abraham was ever born!’” (New Living Translation).

Here is a website that lists approximately 40 additional English translations where Jesus claimed to pre-exist Abraham [1]: http://trinitytruth.org/meaningofIamjohn858.html

[1] The credibility of each translation was not investigated. Such an extensive list will likely include some questionable translations.

The Coptic Translation of John 8:58

After the death of the Apostles, the early church continued to expand across the globe. As Christianity flourished under persecution, the books of the New Testament were translated into many dialects. One language widely spoken in Egypt during the 2nd-4rd century was Coptic.

There are five complete manuscripts of the Gospel of John in the Coptic language in existence [1]. They have been dated between the second to the fourth century [2]. Because of the antiquity of these translations, they likely originated before the conception of the doctrine of the Trinity [3].

[1] The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 62, Part 2, October, 2011, From ‘God’ (Yeos) To ‘God;’ A New Discussion and Proposal Regarding John 1:1c and the Sahidic Coptic Version of the New Testament.

[2] ibid

[3] The doctrine of the Trinity originated from the Roman Catholic Church. It began at the First Council of Nicaea (325). It was mostly refined and complete by the First Council of Constantinople (381).There are thousands of pages of Christian writings in existence from before this time period (Ante-Nicene Fathers) and the post-Nicene definition of the Trinity is not found: There is one (triune) God who eternally exists in three eternal persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each member is fully God, yet there is only one God.

In 1911, George Horner released the Sahidic Coptic New Testament in the English language. This translation renders the verse, “Said Jesus to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham became, I, I am being” (John 8:58). The early Coptic Christians interpreted that Jesus was saying (“I”), was in existence (“I am being”) “before Abraham became.”

Another notable translation is John 1:1, “1 In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and [a] God was the word.” For more information on this verse, please see, John 1:1 and the Trinity.

4. Trinitarians wrongly believe that stones were picked up because Jesus claimed to be Yahweh.

In the same chapter (by way of background), Jesus twice stated that they were seeking to kill Him: ”…yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (8:37b). “but now you seek to kill me…” (40a).

Since the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus, is the “pre-existent interpretation only” (did not claim to be Yahweh) sufficient for the Jews to stone Him? If so, the claim that the Jews attempted to stone Jesus for making Himself Yahweh is unsubstantiated.

John five provides two reasons why the Jews wanted to kill Jesus and it was not for claiming to be Yahweh. The first reason was “he [was] breaking the Sabbath” (John 5:18). Yet Jesus never broke the Sabbath.

The second reason was, “..he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18b). Not only were the Jews wrong that Jesus broke the Sabbath, they were also wrong that Jesus made Himself equal with God by “calling God His own Father.” Claiming to be a son is significantly different than also claiming to be the father of that son.

In Luke 4:23-27, Jesus confronted the religious crowd in the temple. Jesus said that the widow from Phoenician (1 Kings 17:9) and the lepers from Syria (2 Kings 5:1-14) were better than they. Subsequently, the angry Jews ran Jesus out of the synagogue and attempted to kill Him (Luke 4:29), but He escaped. This account demonstrates that Jesus didn’t need to claim to be Yahweh for the Jews to impose capital punishment.

In Acts 7:58, an angry mob stoned Stephen to death. Stephen didn’t claim to be Yahweh. In a similar fashion, Paul was stoned, but survived (Acts 14:19).

An examination of the Bible does not yield one reference where Jesus claimed to be the same person as His Father. Therefore, the Trinitarian interpretation of John 8:58 is out of sync with the entire Bible. There is evidence however, that Jesus pre-existed His physical birth (Proverbs 8:23-26; Micah 5:2; John 1:1, 3, 15, 30, 3:13, 31, 6:38, 42, 46, 6:62, 7:29, 8:38, 42, 58, 10:36, 13:3, 15:28, 17:5; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Ephesians 4:9; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 1:2; Colossians 1:16-17;  Jude 5). Therefore, the best interpretation of John 8:58 is that Jesus pre-existed Abraham. To go beyond this, is to impose theology on the text.

May God richly bless you as you follow His Son to His Father’s house!

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