A Response to...
An Essay by Jay Hess: “What was Jesus’ Claim in John 8:56-58?”
Contributed by Patrick Navas
In his article What was Jesus’ claim in John 8:56-58?, Jay Hess argues that Jesus’ words to the Jews at John 8:58 (‘Before Abraham came to be I am’ or ‘I have been’) meant that Jesus was claiming to be “God” in the traditional, Trinitarian sense; only a very unusual, non-traditional line of reasoning is used by Hess to make his case. Significantly, Hess acknowledges that “the most popular” connection Trinitarians attempt to make between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14 (‘I am who I am’ KJV) is weak, characterizing it as “the least persuasive” connection, a point that non-Trinitarians have made for quite some time; although we have pointed out that the connection is not simply weak but entirely non-existent. The other, lesser-known connection Trinitarians have attempted to make is between Jesus’ words at John 8:58 and the “I am he (ani hu)” phrases used by God primarily in the book of Isaiah.
The first Trinitarian argument based on the alleged connection between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14 Hess effectively demonstrates to be a false one. But Hess attempts to give some degree of credence to the connection between John 8:58 and the “I am he” statements in the book of Isaiah.
Unfortunately, Hess errors in the very outset of his argument when he wrongly claims: “In the Hebrew OT there is a phrase that is only used of God, Ani Hu…This phrase was never used for anyone else.”
Hess is wrong. The book of Chronicles tells us that after king David sinned against God, David acknowledged: “It is I [ani hu] who have sinned and done great evil” (1 Chronicles 21:17).
This demonstrates that the Hebrew phrase “ani hu” functions in the same basic way as the Greek ego eimi (which was used in the Septuagint as a translation of the Hebrew ani hu); namely, as a quite ordinary method of self-identification. That is, both phrases (ego eimi and ani hu) normally carry the sense, “It is I,” or “it is me,” or “I am the one,” or “I am he, with the identity in question made clear by the immediate, surrounding context. For the man who had been cured by Jesus from blindness, for example, “I am he (ego eimi)” referred to the fact that he was indeed the blind man who had just been healed by Jesus (John 9:9).
Neither the Hebrew ani hu nor the Greek ego eimi carry extraordinary, theological significance. They are, in fact, ordinary expressions used by a speaker to identify himself as someone or something. The phrase itself never stands alone but always means what it means within the surrounding set of circumstances. For David in 1 Chronicles 21:17, ani hu simply meant “It is I…” or “I am the one…”—that is, “It is I who have sinned…” or “I am the one who has sinned...”
In order to properly understand the significance of the ani hu/ego eimi expression in Isaiah 41:4, for instance (whether it is taken as ‘I am he’ or ‘I am the same’), we must keep in mind that previous to the “I am he” statement, two questions were asked by the God of Israel: “Who raised up the righteous one from the east?” and “Who has planned and done it, calling forth the generations from the beginning?” Immediately following the second question, the God of Israel proceeds with the answer: “I Yahweh am the first and the last; I am he,” or, “I am the one” (NET; New Century Version has ‘I, the Lord, am the one’).
Here, ani hu/ego eimi functions simply, and plainly, as a means of self-identification; the predicate “he” referring clearly to “Yahweh, the one calling forth the generations from the beginning." Contrary to the argument at times made by Trinitarians, the phrase “I am he” (ani hu) is not another way of expressing the divine name (or the significance of the name) itself. The phrase simply functions, in this particular case, as an emphatic answer to the question asked by Yahweh himself. He is the one who “raised up the righteous one from the east.” He is the one “who has planned and done it, calling forth the generations from the beginning.”
The same basic point could be made of all the “ani hu” texts cited by Jay Hess (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 46:4; 52:6). In Deuteronomy, for example, Yahweh says, “I, even I, am he [ani hu], and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal…”
This particular use of ani hu is, likewise, an emphatic means of self-identification, meaning, “It is I,” or “I am he,” or “I am the one”—that is, I am the “he” or the “one” self-described in the context. In other words, “I am he,” that is, ‘the one who has no rival god besides me,’ ‘the one who kills and makes alive,’ ‘the one who wounds and heals.’ ‘I am the one who does these things…”
Hess and other Trinitarians are wrong for suggesting that ani hu functions as some kind of substitute-name for God. Just like in the case of the attempted John 8:58-Exodus 3:14 connection, the John 8:58/I am he (ani hu) of Isaiah connection is contrived and false, a point I develop in some detail in my book Divine Truth or Human Tradition.
To summarize the point: In every case where God says “I am he” (ani hu) in the book of Isaiah, the “he” always refers to what was already clearly stated in the context. It never functions as some kind of substitute, stand-alone name or “euphemism” for God’s name as many Trinitarians have tried to argue. Ani hu literally means “I [am] he,” and is a verifiable method of self-identification, having no relationship to Jesus’ words at John 8:58 in the sense that Jesus was somehow claiming to be the God who uttered the words ani hu/ego eimi in the book of Isaiah.
Although Hess sees the “ani hu” argument for the “Deity of Christ” as “more reasonable” than the Exodus 3:15 connection—which is, in fact, just as faulty as the attempted Exodus 3:15/John 8:58 connection—Hess believes that the “the most likely” connection can be made between John 8:58 and Genesis 18 as evidence that Jesus was claiming to be “God,” incidentally, an argument that few, if any, Trinitarian apologists have ever made. It is, perhaps, one of the more novel, convoluted, and fanciful connections I have seen a Trinitarian attempt to make in an effort to substantiate the “Deity of Christ.” Hess’s argument is, in fact, so complex that it is somewhat difficult to follow and reiterate.
As far as I can understand it, Hess’s argument is as follows: (1) In John chapter 8, When Jesus told the Jews: “Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad”, Jesus meant, not just that Abraham joyfully saw, or looked forward to, the Messiah’s day, but that Jesus actually saw Abraham “face-to-face” in a pre-incarnate form and that the Jews correctly understood Jesus’ true meaning as evidenced by their response: “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abrahram?” (2) By this, Jesus meant that he and Abraham “saw” each other personally in a “face-to-face” encounter in Genesis chapter 17/18. (3) According to Hess, the “day” Abraham “saw” and rejoiced over was actually the “day” of the birth of his Son Isaac: “In Genesis 17 God appeared to Abraham and promised that his wife would bear a son. To this Abraham laughed. God further stated this birth would happen in the coming year. Certainly a day to look forward to with joy, the day when his promised son would be born. So, essentially, Abraham looked forward to the day of the birth of his promised Son Isaac.” (4) When God reappeared to Abraham the following year as promised for the birth of Isaac, this was the “day” Jesus spoke of that Abraham looked forward to with joy, the day when Abraham actually “saw” God (whom Hess identifies as Jesus) and God, or Jesus, according to Hess, saw Abraham “face-to-face.” (5) Hence, when Jesus said “before Abraham was born I am” or “I have been” in response to the question “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?,” he was affirming that he was Yahweh, the very one who appeared to Abraham on the day of Isaac’s birth.
Analyzing Hess’s Argument
There are severe problems and weakness at every stage of the interpretive formula Hess attempts to advance. The first problem is that Hess essentially turns Jesus’ statement at John 8:56 “Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad” into “I (Jesus) saw Abraham ‘face-to-face’ as a ‘physical presence’ in Abraham’s lifetime.”
That is, not only does Hess add the meaning (not uttered by Jesus) that Jesus himself saw Abraham (when all Jesus said was that Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ ‘day’ and was ‘glad’ when he ‘saw it’), Hess adds the very specific qualification not uttered by Jesus that Jesus himself saw Abraham “face-to-face” in a personal encounter, as if that sense could naturally, logically, or necessarily be derived from Jesus’ words: “Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Contrary to Hess, when Jesus said that the Jewish patriarch “Abraham rejoiced to see [his] day; he saw it and was glad,” Jesus could have simply meant (as Bible commentator Albert Barnes points out below) that Abraham “saw” the Messiah’s day in the sense that, in light of God’s promise, Abraham “saw” with the eyes of faith, or simply “discerned” and looked forward to, the advent of the Messianic day and rejoiced over that prospect. Jesus certainly did not say that Abraham saw Jesus (or that he saw Abraham ‘face-to-face’), but that Abraham saw Jesus’ day and rejoiced over it. This was an attitude in stark contrast to the Jews who were persecuting the very one God spoke about in promise to Abraham their father. In other words, Abraham rejoiced to see the day/arrival of the Messiah. The Jews who were the literal, physical descendants of Abraham, on the other hand, were in the very ‘day’ and presence of the Messiah, yet were trying to persecute the very Messiah who represented the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise!
Yet, even if Jesus was implying that he literally saw Abraham in some kind of pre-human state (which he could have done apart from a personal encounter), Jesus said nothing remotely resembling “I saw Abraham face-to-face,” the actual meaning Hess wants to draw out of Jesus’ statement.
Additionally, Hess is right when he notes that, “Their question [‘You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?’] reveals much about how they perceived Jesus’ claim.” However, Hess fails to recognize that what the Jews perceived about Jesus’ claim does not necessarily tell us what Jesus himself meant. As Albert Barnes pointed out in his comments regarding the Jewish reaction to Jesus’ statement in John 8:56:
“Hast thou seen Abraham? It is remarkable, also, that they perverted [Jesus’] words. His affirmation was not that he had seen Abraham, but that Abraham had seen his day. The design of Jesus was to show that he was greater than Abraham, John 8:53. To do this, he says that Abraham, great as he was, earnestly desired to see his time, thus acknowledging his inferiority to the Messiah. The Jews perverted this, and affirmed that it was impossible that he and Abraham should have seen each other.”
Yet Hess makes the following claim:
“What day would the Jews imagine Jesus meant when he said “my day?” Examine the life of Abraham looking for a prophetic day associated with gladness and with the miraculous appearance of a person. The only matching account seems to be in Genesis 17:1, 15-22 and Genesis 18:1-14. In Genesis 17 God appeared to Abraham and promised that his wife would bear a son.
The problem is, in attempting to understand what Jesus meant by Abraham rejoicing to see “[his] day,” or in attempting to locate an OT text where this was portrayed as occurring in Abraham’s lifetime, we are not simply looking for “a prophetic day associated with gladness and with the miraculous appearance of a person” like Isaac. We are looking for an example of Abraham rejoicing over seeing the day of the Messiah, if indeed a specific example of this can actually be found in the book of Genesis, although one need not be found in order for the statement to hold true or for Jesus to have had knowledge of this.
What “day” better fits Jesus’ reference to a day that Abraham looked forward to with gladness, a day that he lived to see along with seeing a person whose ‘day’ it was?
Again, the problem is that Jesus specifically said that Abraham looked forward with gladness to see “his” day, not the day of the birth of Isaac.
Now reflect back on verse John 8:40 where Jesus said “you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” So what was it that Abraham did not do? Was his point that Abraham was not the kind of person who customarily killed people who spoke the truth? Not likely. From the above it would seem this was a specific reference to the event where he, Jesus, the Speaker in Genesis 17 and 18, told the truth to Abraham about the coming birth of Isaac and his return on that same day, his day. Did Abraham try to kill that Speaker of Truth at that time? No of course not. But the Jews were trying to kill Jesus who was speaking the truth to them - “this Abraham did not do.”
Unfortunately, Hess simply assumes (without evidence or clear scriptural teaching) that Jesus is the speaker in Genesis 17 and 18, yet Scripture never says anything to this effect. Jesus himself never makes this claim. And Hess seems to overlook the fact that the very statement he tries to use to add strength to his argument is the very one that discredits his entire case. As Hess points out, in John 8:40 Jesus said to his Jewish opponents: “But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God; Abraham did not do this.”
Is Jesus, in this case, identifying himself as the “God” of the Old Testament who appeared to Abraham? Or, is he identifying himself as “a man who told you the truth that [he] heard from God”?
That is, of course, Jesus does not identify himself as the “God of the Old Testament” in John chapter 8 but as “a man” who told the truth that he “heard from God,” that is, the “God” of the Old Testament. Abraham did not act like this. He was a righteous man who responded to God in the obedience of faith. This particular group of Jews who claimed both Abraham and God as their fathers, however, were violently insulting, dishonoring, and persecuting the very one whom the God of Abraham sent to reveal the truth (John 8:13, 48-49, 52). That is why Jesus told them: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me” (John 8:42). They did not, however, love Jesus or recognized him as such.
Of course, if Jesus really was “God” and intended his Jewish audience to understand this, why would he clearly portray himself as a distinct figure from God who was delivering a message that he heard from him? What about this kind of language leads one to believe that Jesus was claiming to be “God” himself?
They presumed Jesus’ meant more than a unidirectional viewing (Abraham saw Jesus and his day) but imagined the reverse was also implied (Jesus saw Abraham), that is, Jesus appeared to be claiming to have met Abraham face-to-face. They had no reason to ask "have you seen Abraham . . . ?”
Once again, the problem is, even if Hess is correct, that Jesus was implying that he literally “saw” Abraham face-to-face (even though Jesus only said ‘Abraham rejoiced to see my day, he saw it and was glad’), what the Jews may have understood Jesus to mean doesn’t necessarily establish what Jesus actually meant. Jesus’ Jewish enemies, even his own disciples in fact, often misapprehended the true sense of his words.
…if they thought Jesus was only claiming a limited, one-way vision, with Abraham looking forward (possibly seeing a vision of the coming Messiah in Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18 without someone looking back. Otherwise they would have simply asked ‘When did Abraham see your day?’ Their statement “You are not yet fifty years old” establishes that they understood Jesus to be claiming a face-to-face meeting where Jesus was present in the ancient past, an impossibility due to Jesus' apparent age… There was no reason to argue this way if Jesus’ physical presence in Abraham's lifetime was not assumed.
Since Jesus spoke in such an authoritative and matter-of-fact way in regard to what Abraham “saw” (a man who lived about 2000 years before Jesus’ own day), his Jewish opponents understandably asked, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” But it is not necessary at all, as Hess suggests, that Jesus must have interacted with Abraham “face-to-face” in a “physical presence” in order for Jesus to have “seen” him (even though Jesus did not even say that he ‘saw’ Abraham), if such a meaning can even be derived from Jesus’ statement in John 8:56. And that is one of the major problems in Hess’s thesis. That is, Hess simply superimposes meanings and assumptions onto Jesus’ words that are not stated by Jesus himself or logically implied by any means. Then, from there, Hess proceeds to build his case from his unestablashed, unproven, and very improbable interpretive premise.
When Jesus said “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” he was claiming two things: First, Abraham had developed an anticipation for a future joyous day - a day somehow associated with Jesus. Second, there was a later time where Abraham saw that day and he met Jesus face-to-face and was glad.
As pointed out, it is one thing for Hess to suggest this as a possibility. But Hess is unjustified in presenting this “Jesus-had face-to-face-contact-with-Abraham” concept as the definite sense or clear implication of Jesus’ words. The most Hess could say is, “it appears this way” or “it may be this way based on such and such reasons.” But he does not do this. He simply presents a meaning as if it was a self-evident fact, unquestionable, and clearly stated or implied in the text. Yet Jesus says nothing about him personally meeting Abraham “face-to-face.”
Take a close look at the passages in Genesis 17 and 18. We see that the Speaker promised to return on the same joyous day of Isaac's birth. Who was this Speaker? In Genesis 17:1 the Speaker is identified as “Yahweh” (in Hebrew this is the Divine name of God) as well as "God" in verses 3,9,15,18,19,22 (compare Genesis 17:5 with Romans 4:17). He is repeatedly referred to as "Yahweh" in Genesis 18:1,13,14…
In Genesis 18, the “three men” who “were standing in front of [Abraham]” were, evidently, angels/messengers of God who appeared in the form of men (Genesis 18:2; Compare Genesis 19:1, 15; yet only two angels are spoken of in this text). Evidently, God spoke through one of these angels, even in the first person, or perhaps the angel simply spoke for God as God’s representative.
In fact, scripturally speaking, we know that God operates and communicates in this way by comparing the accounts in Exodus 3 and Acts 7; namely, that God sends angels to appear before men and speak as his representatives. Exodus 3:2 says, “the angel of Yahweh appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Then the text says, “God called to him out of the bush,” (Ex. 3:4); And he said, “I am the God of your father.”
That is to say, according to Scripture, it was really an angel that appeared to Moses in the account of the burning bush. But the angel evidently spoke for God (in the first person, as if he were God), or God simply spoke through the angel. This is confirmed in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:30-33 where he said, “an angel appeared to [Moses] in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush.”
But the most outstanding reference is in Genesis 17:1 where the speaker is identified as “God Almighty.” Since Jesus claimed to have been alive before Abraham’s birth, he could not be claiming to be Isaac, he must have been claiming to be the Speaker who said he would return on a day the following year, that is, Yahweh, God, Judge of all the earth, God Almighty, the same one who appeared in Genesis 17, 18 and again in chapter 21 at the foretold day of Isaac's birth.
If Jesus claimed to have been alive before Abraham’s birth— ‘The truth is, I existed before Abraham was ever born,’ New Living Translation—these words say nothing about Jesus’ identity as “Isaac” or as “Yahweh.” They only tell us something extraordinary about Jesus’ age or existence, namely, that he ‘existed’ in some sense before the birth of Abraham (a man who lived about 2000 years ago from that time), period. Hess, unfortunately, presents us with a false dilemma. That is, Hess wants to make it seem like we only have two options in terms of understanding Jesus’ statement: (1) that Jesus was claiming to be Isaac, which cannot be true, or (2) that he was claiming to be “Yahweh.”
Since, in most peoples’ eyes, it is obvious that Jesus was not claiming to be Isaac, according to Hess, he must have been claiming to be “Yahweh.” Yet none of these options are even brought up in Jesus’ statement at John 8:58. In fact, assuming that the translation/sense is correct (which makes a great deal of sense grammatically and contextually), Jesus made a claim to have existed before the birth of Abraham (without identifying himself as ‘Isaac,’ ‘Yahweh,’ or anyone else), a man who lived almost 2000 years before Jesus of Nazareth’s time, nothing more and nothing less, but quite enough to provoke the violent reaction on the part of the Jews (John 8:59).
The day of Isaac's birth, although a special day for Isaac, it was also God Almighty’s day, the day He would fulfill his promise to Abraham and the day He would return. This was the day Jesus claimed as ‘my day’ and therefore he must have been claiming to be God Almighty. It was at that moment the Jews picked up stones to throw at Him.
The main problem in Hess’s statement is that he tries to define what Jesus meant by his “day” without scriptural warrant. Hess states, “This [the day of Isaac’s birth] was the day Jesus claimed as ‘my day’ and therefore he must have been claiming to be God.” But how does Hess know that this was the “day” Jesus had in mind if Jesus never made that identification? That is, once again, Hess simply makes unwarranted assertions and interpretations as if they were self-evident facts, then proceeds to make his argument based on what is actually an unfounded, unproven, and very unlikely premise.
Jesus was indeed claiming to be Yahweh, God Almighty, in the passage of John 8:40-58.
If Jesus was “indeed claiming to be Yahweh,” he could have simply said “I am Yahweh.” Or “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” or, even more specifically, “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I eternally existed as Yahweh.”
If Jesus was making such a claim, why does our understanding of such depend so much on someone going into such great detail “arguing” and “explaining” it? Why is it not just self-evident in the text, so that no one would have a reason to question it?
If Jesus said to his already hostile Jewish opponents: “The truth is, I have been in existence since before Abraham was born,” which is, in all likelihood, the true sense of the Greek expression in that context (as opposed to ungrammatical ‘I am’), it is quite sufficient to explain why the Jews responded in such an angry and violent way, since Abraham, the highly-honored forefather of their nation, lived nearly two-thousand-years prior to that time, yet Jesus appeared to be less than fifty years old.
 Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 46:4; 52:6
 In the Septuagint “ego eimi (‘I am he’)” appears to refer back to “theos (‘God’)” for the previous verse has “ego theos (‘I am God’).
—Commentary On Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1953 edition), p. 120.