dianoigo blog

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Reversals of Fortune, and the Eternal Banquet

100-Word Summary

The afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is much debated. Is it merely incidental to the story, or a description of what the afterlife is really like, or not like? To answer these questions, this article examines how the scene squares with the rest of the Gospel of Luke. The finding is that the parable's afterlife scene is very much at home in Luke, both in its use of a reversal of fortunes motif and in its implicit reference to an eschatological banquet. Thus the scene does form part of Luke's eschatological teaching.

A Much-Debated Afterlife Scene

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31 (hover to read),1 is one of the most fascinating, but also most disputed, parables of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. The story depicts a scene from the afterlife, and there are three main views on what the story teaches about the afterlife. The first view is that the story conveys an accurate idea of what happens after death. The second view is that the story's message is entirely a moral one, about the use of money and obedience to God's Word; the afterlife scene is just a setting for this message. Thus, the parable teaches nothing about life after death, just as the Parable of the Sower teaches nothing about agriculture. The third view is that the parable parodies popular ideas about the afterlife from Jesus' day and is thus intended to subvert belief in the kind of afterlife depicted in the story. Observe that these three interpretations are as different as they could possibly be! Jesus is either telling us what the afterlife is like, or what it is not like, or is telling us nothing about the afterlife. We will refer to these three interpretations of the parable's afterlife scene as the face value view, the parody view, and the incidental view, respectively.

Before trying to decide between these three alternatives, a couple of preliminary observations. (i) The parody view must shoulder the heaviest burden of proof. Luke certainly does not say that the afterlife story is a parody, intended to subvert popular ideas. At least on the surface, the story makes sense when taken at face value. Occam's Razor dictates that this simplest solution is most likely the right one. The parody interpretation is the most complicated, requiring us to see a subtle irony in Luke's construction that has escaped most readers, ancient and modern. In my estimation, the evidence advanced in support of the parody view is very flimsy indeed.2 (ii) The parody view is antithetical to both of the other two views, whereas the first two views lie on a continuum. Obviously the face value view and the parody view contradict each other. The parody view also contradicts the incidental view, because it is implausible that the parable's primary purpose is to convey a moral message about the use of wealth and obedience to the law and prophets, and yet at the same time to use subtle irony to subvert certain ideas about the nature of the afterlife. By contrast, the face value view and the incidental view are not contradictory. If present moral obligations have eternal consequences, then there is a fundamental consistency between a moral message and an afterlife scene. The difference is mainly a matter of emphasis.3

How then are we to judge between the three interpretations? The answer lies in content and context. Historical context is important: an understanding of ancient Jewish ideas about the afterlife would enable us to receive the parable's afterlife imagery as its original hearers and readers would have received it. As I have written previously, Outi Lehtipuu has done a lot of this historical legwork for us in her book, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After a thorough survey of Second Temple Jewish literature, Lehtipuu concludes that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."4 In this article, however, I want to consider another level of context: the Lukan literary context. If it can be shown that the afterlife scene in this parable is consistent with wider Lukan teaching, the logical conclusion will be that Luke wants his readers to take the parable's afterlife imagery seriously. There are two major themes or motifs from the Gospel of Luke that are reflected in the afterlife scene in this parable. One is the reversal of fortunes motif and the other is the eschatological5 banquet or eternal banquet motif.

Reversal of Fortunes in the Gospel of Luke

A major theme in Luke is that of reversal of fortunes.6 People's fates in this life will be reversed in the next. Perhaps the most succinct statements of this idea are in Luke 13:30 ("For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last") and Luke 17:33 ("Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it"; cf. 9:24). However, the classic Lukan statement of the reversal of fortunes is found in Luke 6:20-26, the Lukan version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain:
20 And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. 21 Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
This passage differs from the more famous Matthaean Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) in three significant ways. First, and most obviously, Matthew's text has only beatitudes (blessings), whereas Luke's also has woes that are the exact opposite of the corresponding beatitudes. Second, Luke's criteria for blessedness are physical (e.g., poor, hungry), while Matthew overtly spiritualises the criteria (e.g., poor in spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness). Third, in Luke's case the relationship between the present state and future result is primarily that of reversal: the hungry will be filled (and vice versa), the weeping will laugh (and vice versa); in Matthew the reversal pattern is less obvious.7 Thus, a distinctive feature of Luke's moral and eschatological teaching is that those who enjoy the good life now will later have their fortunes reversed, and vice versa.8 If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find numerous examples of this motif;9 but nowhere is it put more vividly on display than in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The rich man is the quintessential addressee of the Four Woes of Luke 6:24-26. He was rich, wore expensive clothing, and "dined sumptuously every day." This statement implies the other three attributes: the rich man is "filled," "laughs," and "all speak well of him." Here I would refer the reader to my previous article which gave background on dining in the Roman world. The Roman banquet was indeed an opulent affair, as firsthand accounts such as those of Horace and Plutarch illustrate. There was course after course of fine food, wine aplenty, laughter and entertainment. The host was honoured and flattered by his guests and could expect an invitation to the next fine banquet (cf. Luke 14:12). The parable implies that the rich man moved in a social circle where he hosted or was hosted at such banquets daily. In the afterlife, however, the reversal of his fortune is complete. He who had it all has lost it all. His sensual pleasure has been traded for fiery torment, and he who banqueted daily now pleads, unsuccessfully, for a single drop of water!

Lazarus is, by contrast, the quintessential addressee of the Four Beatitudes of Luke 6:20-23. He is poor, lying homeless at the rich man's door. He is hungry, longing to eat scraps from the rich man's table (like a dog; cf. Matt. 15:26-27). He is despised and excluded; the only attention he gets is from dogs (an unclean animal) that come and lick his sores. It goes without saying that he is miserable to the point of weeping. Yet, when he dies, he is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom (the meaning of this expression will be discussed below). Luke has Abraham explicitly justify the afterlife situation of the two men in terms of a reversal of fortunes: "My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented" (Luke 16:25). It is evident, then, that the afterlife scene in this parable is a vivid illustration of the reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. The afterlife scene thus accurately reflects Lukan ideas about individual eschatology; consequently it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the parable's meaning, much less viewed as an afterlife concept that Luke seeks to discredit.

The Eternal Banquet in the Gospel of Luke

All four canonical Gospels show interest in banquets and dining—both in the narratives and in the teachings of Jesus—but above all Luke. Jesus is a frequent guest at banquets in Luke. Levi the tax collector throws him a "great banquet" (Luke 5:29-30). He is invited to dine with a Pharisee named Simon (7:37-50), and later with another unnamed Pharisee (11:37-54), and still later with yet another (14:1-24). In the Roman world, as today, dining was not just about the food, but the socialising. To share table fellowship with someone was understood as accepting them socially; hence the offence Jesus caused by dining with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-32). As discussed in the previous article, the dining room setup was not of sitting in chairs around a large table, but reclining on three couches (a triclinium) around a small table.10 Strict rules of social hierarchy determined the reclining positions on the couches, with positions near the host being the most coveted. This social dynamic is often apparent in Luke. At the Sabbath-day banquet of Luke 14:1-24, Jesus notices how the other guests "were choosing the places of honour" and uses this as the occasion for a parable about humility (one that reflects the reversal of fortunes motif; Luke 14:7-11). Jesus' denunciation of the scribes mentions their love of places of honour at banquets (Luke 20:46). At the Passover meal (Last Supper) of Luke 22, an argument about social precedence breaks out among the apostles, which Jesus again uses as a teaching moment (Luke 22:24-27).

A banquet is one of the most prominent images used in Luke to describe the afterlife rewards of the blessed. The image comes up in parables, such as that of Luke 12:36-37 (which depicts a master waiting tables on his slaves—a stunning reversal of social custom), 14:16-23 (the Parable of the Great Feast), 15:1-31 (the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son).11 It is also present in more literal sayings, such as Luke 13:28-29,12 Luke 14:12-15,13 and Luke 22:16, 18, 30.14 Finally, anticipations of the eternal banquet can also be seen in Jesus' remarks about his eating and drinking as bridegroom (Luke 5:34; 7:34), in the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:11-17), in the Last Supper (particularly the institution of the Eucharist, Luke 22:14-20; cf. 24:30-35).

What does all of the above have to do with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? The answer is that we should probably see in the phrase "the bosom of Abraham" (to which Lazarus is carried by angels) an allusion to the place of honour at the eternal banquet. Because of the way diners reclined diagonally on the triclinium couches, the head of the person to one's right was adjacent to one's chest, and so that person could be said to be "in his bosom" (en tois kolpois autou).15 The same expression is used to describe the position of the Beloved Disciple relative to Jesus at the Last Supper in John 13:23-25. Notice also that Luke has earlier described the kingdom of God in terms of a banquet where people recline at table in the presence of Abraham, within sight of those who previously banqueted but are now excluded (13:28-29).16  Moreover, in view of the reversal of fortunes motif, Lazarus being escorted by angels to the place of honour at the eternal banquet is a fitting reversal of his earlier predicament of lying among dogs longing for table scraps.

A possible objection is that the rich man sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom; how could he see inside a dining room from a great distance? A plausible answer is that the eternal banquet takes place outdoors. Dunbabin notes that first-century stone triclinia and tables are preserved in Pompeii in gardens and in half-enclosed rooms.17 In this respect it is noteworthy that Luke elsewhere describes the setting of the eschatological kingdom as "Paradise," a word meaning garden (Luke 23:43).18 Biblical scholars have probably been correct, therefore, in regarding the phrase "in the bosom of Abraham" in Luke 16:22, 24 as a reference to a place of honour at the eternal banquet.19


In this article, we have sought to situate the afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in relation to wider Lukan ideas about people's ultimate destiny. We have seen that in two important respects, the parable's afterlife scene exemplifies Luke's eschatology. First, this scene is the Gospel's most vivid depiction of the prominent reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. Second, the scene depicts Lazarus' reward in terms of a place of honour at a banquet hosted by Abraham, which the excluded rich man watches from afar. This places the scene in continuity with the banquet image that dominates this Gospel's concept of what the consummated kingdom of God will be like. The parallel between Luke 16:22-24 and 13:24-30 is particularly striking.

Given the cohesion between the parable's afterlife scene and wider Lukan eschatology, it is implausible to regard the afterlife scene as irrelevant to the meaning of the parable as intended by Luke. Yes, the parable's primary purpose is to warn of the dangers of wealth and the culpability of those who have the law and the prophets, but the afterlife consequences are an essential part of that warning. It is still less plausible to regard Luke as trying to subvert the afterlife concept used in the story. Is the parable providing us with a literal snapshot of exactly what the afterlife will be like? No. All biblical language about the transcendent only gestures toward what is admittedly beyond our ability to comprehend.20 However, the afterlife scene in the parable, including its indication that personal existence continues after death,21 is an indispensable part of divine revelation concerning "the last things." It is not an outlier that can be set aside.

  • 1 19 “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. 20 And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. 22 When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ 25 Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. 26 Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ 27 He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’” (NABRE)
  • 2 The most common argument concerns the rich man's request that Lazarus be sent to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue due to his fiery torment. This detail is said to be absurd, since the amount of water that can be borne on a fingertip could never cool the tongue of one who is tormented by fire. However, the description is not intended to render the story ridiculous; it is hyperbole, emphasising the extent of the rich man's predicament in that even such a meagre request is denied. This ties in with the Lukan reversal of fortunes motif to be discussed below.
  • 3 Hence, in my previous article on this parable, I referred to four views, the fourth being essentially a compromise between the face value and incidental views: the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked, but its afterlife scene cannot be pressed too far as a precise, literal description of that fate.
  • 4 The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 299. My previous article on this parable refers to other academic literature representing various viewpoints on the parable's interpretation.
  • 5 The word "eschatology" comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning "last," and is a technical term for Christian doctrine pertaining to the last things, including the afterlife.
  • 6 This theme also occurs in Matthew and Mark, too, but our focus here is on Luke since it is only Luke who gives us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
  • 7 Matthew does have some reversal, e.g., those that mourn will be comforted.
  • 8 Luke's negative view of wealth is, it must be noted, more nuanced than simply condemning the rich per se. For instance, the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) is "to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions," and that a bad end awaits "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." Similarly, after recounting the story of the rich young man who declined to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23), Luke records Jesus' saying, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). This elicits the audience's question, "Then who can be saved?" to which Jesus responds, "What is impossible for humans is possible for God." Thus, Luke does not write off the rich, but he does make it clear that their standing before God is precarious.
  • 9 The earliest instance in the Gospel occurs in Mary's Magnificat prayer in Luke 1:53: "The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
  • 10 Luke never explicitly mentions triclinia or dining couches (Mark probably does, in 7:4), but this dining setting and style is implied by the use of verbs meaning "to recline," such as anakeimai (Luke 22:27), katakeimai (Luke 5:29; 7:37), anapiptō (Luke 11:37; 14:10; 17:7; 22:14), anaklinō (Luke 12:37; 13:29), and kataklinō (Luke 7:36; 9:14-15; 14:8; 24:30). The last two words verbalise the word klinē, meaning "couch" or "bed."
  • 11 The first two parables end with the finder calling together friends and neighbours to rejoice with her/him, a probable reference to a banquet; the third explicitly results in the father declaring, "Let us celebrate with a feast".
  • 12 "And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God."
  • 13 "Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”" The implication here is that you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous by being invited into the eternal banquet. One of the guests correctly makes this inference and says, "Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God" (v. 15).
  • 14 "for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God... for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes... I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
  • 15 This expression is used in the Septuagint more generically of any intimate embrace, such as that between a husband and wife (Gen. 16:5; Deut. 13:7(13:6), 28:54, 28:56, 2 Kgdms 12:8, Sir. 9:1), or between a parent and child (Ruth 4:16; 3 Kgdms 3:20, 17:19; cf. 2 Kgdms 12:3). The expression is used in this latter sense to describe the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in John 1:18. Since Abraham is a patriarchal figure and is explicitly addressed as "Father Abraham" by the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), it is possible that "in Abraham's bosom" has this sense of parent/child intimacy. However, this does not conflict with the notion that Lazarus is in this intimate position next to Abraham at the eternal banquet.
  • 16 This passage is itself a good example of the reversal of fortunes motif, since it envisions people who have previously dined with the Lord (and thus consider themselves entitled to a place at the eternal banquet) thrown out into a place of "wailing" while others enter into the banquet. The pericope ends with the reversal saying par excellence, "For, behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
  • 17 Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38.
  • 18 We should probably see in this an allusion to the Garden of Eden; cf. Rev. 2:7.
  • 19 "Lazarus, who hungered in earthly life, now rests on 'Abraham's bosom' in the afterlife. Clearly this is a reference to a banquet scene in which the banqueters recline and thus rest on the bosom of the diner to their left. Lazarus is said to be on the bosom of Abraham in order to indicate that he is to the right of the host, Abraham, and therefore in a position of honor. The image is that of a sumptuous banquet, a potent image for the joys of heaven. The rich man, meanwhile, in a true reversal of situations, begs for a single drop of water" (Dennis E. Smith, "Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke," Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987]: 625-26). Similarly, "[B]eing in Abraham’s bosom should be taken as a metaphor that plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31. In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position. The metaphor being in Abraham’s bosom includes both the components 'place of honor' and 'banquet.' This makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable." (Alexey Somov and Vitaly Voinov, "'Abraham's Bosom' (Luke 16:22-23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79 [2017]: 633).
  • 20 Paul stresses that no eye has seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9) and that "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror" (1 Cor. 13:12).
  • 21 This idea is also implicit elsewhere in Luke-Acts, such as in Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59 (of reward after death) and Luke 12:4-5 and Acts 1:25 (of punishment after death).

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Place Settings at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John

In John 13:1-30, we have the Fourth Gospel's account of the Last Supper. The account differs differs significantly from those in the Synoptic Gospels—for instance, the words of institution of the Eucharist do not appear, and it may not be understood as a Passover meal. Nevertheless, the level of detail concerning the events at the meal are consistent with the writer's claim to present eyewitness testimony (cf. John 19:35).

When we picture the Last Supper, many of us imagine a scene inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, with Jesus and the apostles seated on one side of a long table.

A masterpiece, to be sure, but anachronistic in its depiction of the dining arrangements. In the early days of the Roman Empire, the typical dining room layout was as pictured below.

Figure 1: Plan of a Roman Triclinium1

Each of the rectangles is a large couch (Latin: lectus), arranged as three sides of a square. On each couch, diners (represented above by arrows) would recline on their left elbow at an angle to the table (Latin: mensa) in the centre, to which food and drink were brought by servers. (For a depiction of a triclinium with men reclining on it, see here.) The three-couch setup (Latin: triclinium) typically accommodated nine diners. At the Last Supper, there were apparently thirteen (Jesus and the Twelve).2 Dalby notes that 'More than nine diners could squeeze in, especially if some were sitting rather than reclining.'3 Thus, it is plausible that all thirteen men could have fit onto a triclinium, though space would have been limited.4 Four participants in the meal are named explicitly: Jesus himself, the Beloved Disciple (BD),5 Judas Iscariot, and Simon Peter.

Dunbabin informs us that the three couches 'were designated summus, medius, and imus (highest, middle, lowest), the three places on each couch numbered in turn, and strict rules of precedence dictated the positions of the guests'.6 According to first-century Roman custom, the host reclined at position 1 on the lectus imus (toward upper left in the diagram), while the highest-ranking or most honoured guest reclined at position 3 on the lectus medius (top left in the diagram), adjacent to the host.7 This position was referred to as locus consularis (the Consul's place). The Roman philosopher Plutarch gives a detailed account of dining conventions in the Table Talk portion of his Moralia.8 He describes arbitrating a disagreement between his brother, who allowed guests to seat themselves, and his father, who believed that the host should seat the guests to ensure that hierarchical order is strictly preserved. He also speculates on the reasons why the third position on the middle couch had become the most honoured.9

How were the participants in the Last Supper (as described by the Gospel of John) arranged around the table? We have no information on the location of anyone but the four explicitly named participants: Jesus, BD, Judas, and Peter. Scholars have proposed various configurations of these individuals around the table, and there is no universal consensus for anyone's position. Some scholars have followed Whiteley's argument that BD was the host of the meal and Jesus the guest of honour,10 while others have Jesus as the host and one of the other three as the guest of honour.11 While certainty is not possible, I think the most likely scenario is that Jesus was in the host's position, Judas in the guest of honour's position, BD to Jesus' right, and Peter to Judas' left, as depicted below.12

Figure 2: Proposed Positioning of Participants at the Last Supper in John 13

The evidence for positioning the men is as follows. First, BD was reclining 'in Jesus' bosom' or 'in Jesus' lap,' a position from which he could lean back against Jesus' chest (John 13:23-25). Dunbabin explains that diners on a triclinium 'lie diagonally across the couches, almost in the lap of their neighbour.'13 The typical diagonal positioning requires that BD reclined to the right of Jesus (notice at lectus imus in the diagram how the head of the person in position 2 would be adjacent to the chest of the person in position 1). This rules out Whiteley's hypothesis that BD was the host and Jesus the guest of honour, because then Jesus would have had no one to his right, 'in his bosom.' Plutarch states that the position below the host (i.e., position 2 on lectus imus) typically 'belongs either to his wife or his children'.14 Thus, it is a logical location for the disciple described as 'beloved' by Jesus. Thus, we can be fairly certain of the positions of Jesus (host) and BD (to his right).

It has sometimes been assumed that Peter reclined in the position of the guest of honour, as the highest ranking of the Twelve. This makes sense in principle, but it does not accord with the statement that Peter 'nodded to' BD to find out from Jesus who the betrayer was. If Peter was in the locus consularis position, he would have been closer to Jesus than to BD. It is absurd to envision Peter leaning around Jesus to make eye contact with BD in order to induce BD to ask Jesus a question.15 Thus, Peter could have been anywhere on lectus medius (apart from position 3) or on lectus summus.16 It has been argued that since Jesus' ethic inverted the roles of master and servant (as per John 13:4-17 and Luke 22:24-27), there was probably no hierarchical arrangement at the Last Supper.17 This is possible, but unlikely. Jesus does not dispute that he is in fact the Master (John 13:13), so the servant ethic is not about eliminating hierarchical order. Jesus' saying in Luke 14:7-11 presumes knowledge of hierarchical positioning at a banquet, and in Luke 22:24 an argument breaks out at table at the Last Supper over which apostle is greatest—a topic possibly precipitated by concern with their positions around the table. In John 21 (as well in sayings in other Gospels, such as Matthew 16:17-19) Jesus seems to give special authority to Peter, and so it is plausible that his location at the table reflected this. Position 2 on lectus medius is one of the positions of honour mentioned by Plutarch other than the locus consularis, and he notes that the Persians held it to be the most honoured position.18 From this position Peter could easily have attracted BD's attention and signaled him with a nod. He would not have been too far from Jesus, but any private conversation with Jesus would have been overheard by the guest in the corner between them.

This leaves the position of Judas. In John 13:26, Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one to whom he will hand the morsel after dipping it. He then hands it to Jesus. Although it is not impossible that Jesus rose from the table with the morsel and took it to Judas at another couch, this is unlikely. Such a move would have been very conspicuous, whereas Jesus' signal to BD was clearly intended to be subtle. It is most likely, therefore, that Judas was within reach of Jesus' position. With BD to his right and Peter (perhaps) in position 2 on lectus medius, the only remaining position within Jesus' reach is position 3 on lectus medius, the locus consularis. But why should Judas recline in the position of the most honoured guest? Two possible reasons may be suggested. First, the Gospel of John is emphatic that the events of Jesus' betrayal and Passion fulfill the biblical prophets (John 15:25; 17:12; 18:9; 19:24; 19:28; 19:36). In John 13:18, Jesus alludes to his betrayer as fulfilling a scriptural quotation from Psalm 41:10, which states, 'Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me' (NABRE). There is irony in Jesus' pointing out his betrayer by handing him a morsel (an act of kindness and friendship); the irony of Jesus' betrayer being among his closest followers would have been heightened by Jesus placing his betrayer in the position of highest honour at the meal. Second, when Plutarch speculates on why the third position on the middle couch came to be the most honourable place (chosen by highest officials), one of the reasons he gives is that
this place seemed to have peculiar advantages for the transaction of business'... there the space made at the corner where the line of couches turns between the second and third enables secretary, servant, bodyguard, or messenger reporting conditions at camp to approach the consul, speak with him, and learn his will without any of the guests annoying the consul or being annoyed by him.19
Thus, the locus consularis position was conducive to discretion, a requirement of those who might need to engage in important business during the meal. This aligns with Judas' status as treasurer of the group (John 12:6; 13:29). Indeed, when he left the meal, the others assumed that Jesus had sent him on some financial errand.

There is no way to be absolutely certain of the positions of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. We can place Jesus and the Beloved Disciple with very high probability in positions 1 and 2 on lectus imus. Judas was probably within reach of Jesus' position, and Peter was not in the place of highest honour, but was somewhere else on lectus medius or on lectus summus whence he could motion to BD. It is thus highly plausible that Simon Peter was in the middle position on lectus medius and that Judas Iscariot was in the position of highest honour, which was in fact 'in the bosom of' Simon Peter.

  • 1 This diagram is my own, but adapted from W. Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 279. Similar diagrams can be found in Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43; Gil P. Klein, 'Torah in Triclinia: The Rabbinic Banquet and the Significance of Architecture', Jewish Quarterly Review 102 (2012): 333.
  • 2 John 13 refers to those at the supper merely as 'the disciples' without giving their number. Luke 22:11-14 describes those at the meal both as 'the disciples' and 'the apostles'; Matthew 26:17-20 and Mark 14:14-17 as 'the disciples' and 'the Twelve'. The Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptic Gospels that there was a group of close disciples known as 'the Twelve' (John 6:67-71; 20:24), but never provides a complete list of their names. By comparing John 6:70 ('Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?') with 13:21 ('one of you will betray me'), we can surmise that the same 'you' are referred to, i.e., the Twelve.
  • 3 Andrew Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves,' in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (ed. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau; West Sussex: Wiley, 2015): 199.
  • 4 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Fourth Gospel gives no details on the venue for the meal. Mark (14:15) and Luke (22:12) describe the venue as a large upper room that is furnished; the furniture presumably refers to the triclinium, table, cushions, etc.
  • 5 The Beloved Disciple is the main source of much of the narrative of the Gospel of John. He is traditionally identified with John the son of Zebedee, but since the Gospel never names him, we will just call him BD.
  • 6 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39.
  • 7 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39-40; Fowler, Social Life, 279; Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves', 199.
  • 8 Table Talk I.2-3, in Moralia, Volume VIII, 615c-19a. For text and translation, see Paul. A. Clement and Herbert B. Hoffleit (trans.) Plutarch’s Moralia (16 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1969), vol. 8.
  • 9 For other ancient primary sources that describe a Roman banquet, the reader may refer to Satire VIII in Horace's second book of Satires and to the Dinner of Trimalchio (chapters 27-78 of Petronius' Satyricon, Volume II), which date from the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E. respectively. Aristophanes' play The Wasps (lines 1122-1264), though much earlier, gives a humorous account of a son dressing his father for a banquet and trying in vain to teach him the etiquette.
  • 10 D.E.H. Whiteley, 'Was John written by a Sadducee?' Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.25.3 (ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995), 2481–2505. I was not able to access this work but its argument is described in detail by Brian J. Capper, '‘With the Oldest Monks...’: Light from Essene History on the Career of the Beloved Disciple?', Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1998): 1-55. Those convinced by Whiteley's argument, besides Capper, include Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 15 n. 15.
  • 11 E.g., Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 72-73 n. 65.; Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostles? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 5-6 n. 17.
  • 12 This seems to be close to Raymond Brown's view, apart from his less precise placement of Peter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions I am not currently able to access Brown's commentary in the library, so I am relying on a second-hand description of his comments by Henry J. Shea, 'The Beloved Disciple and the Spiritual Exercises,' in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesus 49 (2017): 6.
  • 13 Roman Banquet, 40.
  • 14 Moralia, Vol. 8, 619d; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47.
  • 15 So Capper, 'Light from Essene History', 14-15; Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John, 73 n. 65.
  • 16 We should also note the sequence of events in John 13:5-6: Jesus 'began to wash the disciples' feet' and then 'came to Peter.' This suggests that Peter was not the first disciple whose feet Jesus washed, which he would have been if he were in the locus consularis position and Jesus moved around the triclinium in a clockwise fashion.
  • 17 So Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2:606.
  • 18 Moralia, Volume VIII, 617d, 619b.
  • 19 Moralia, Vol. VIII, 619de; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47, 49.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Review of 'Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife' by Bart D. Ehrman

I learned recently through social media of Bart Ehrman's essay in Time Magazine entitled What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell. The provocative headline and claims within had the intended effect: they induced me to buy Ehrman's new book (on which the Time essay is based), Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. For readers unfamiliar with Ehrman, he is one of the world's leading New Testament scholars, specialising in textual criticism (efforts to reconstruct the original Greek text using analytical methods). He is also a former Evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic, and through his many popular-level books (and some public debates with leading Christian scholars), has emerged as a leading spokesperson for contemporary post-Christian critics of the historical and theological claims of classical Christianity.

Ehrman has had several previous bestsellers, such as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God, and in all likelihood Heaven and Hell will follow suit. The book follows a template similar to his previous works: it makes a few provocative and controversial claims, but in fact about 80% of the content represents an introduction some area of biblical and historical scholarship. That is, Ehrman expends most of his ink not defending his headline-grabbing theses, but describing uncontroversial findings of modern scholarship. Thus, Misquoting Jesus is an introduction to textual criticism, How Jesus Became God to historical Christology, and Heaven and Hell to historical 'individual eschatology'—beliefs about the afterlife. Ehrman's writing style is accessible, engaging, and cheeky. He manages simultaneously to entertain and inform the reader, which is probably what has made him so successful in writing popular books.

With that said, I can recommend at least 80% of the content of Heaven and Hell, apart from a few attempts at humour that overstep my threshold of good taste. My opinion of the other 20%, in which Ehrman defends his own controversial interpretations of the biblical and historical record, requires more nuance.

Overview of the Book

Heaven and Hell's most distinctive thesis is that belief in a literal heaven and hell—places of reward and punishment to which people go after death—does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity'; 'cannot be found in the Old Testament and they are not what Jesus himself taught' (p. 14). These ideas, so central to classical and contemporary Christian theology, are post-Jesus innovations.

The book consists of fourteen chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to some of the more fanciful descriptions of the afterlife in early non-canonical Christian literature. Having seen in these works the seeds of 'belief in a literal heaven and hell' as espoused by most contemporary Christians, Ehrman proposes to go back and see where these ideas came from. He thus embarks on a journey through the ancient history of ideas about death and afterlife. Chapter 2 takes us all the way back to the Ancient Near East (the Epic of Gilgamesh). Chapters 3 and 4 look at Greek thought from Homer down into the Christian era. Chapters 5 and 6 consider the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 7 summarises developments in Jewish thought between the Hebrew Bible and the time of Jesus. Chapter 8 looks at the beliefs of historical Jesus, insofar as they can be reconstructed (primarily from Mark and Matthew). Chapter 9 looks at Paul the Apostle, and chapter 10 delves into the later Gospels (Luke, John, and certain noncanonical gospels), which he regards as preserving post-Jesus Christian developments. Chapter 11 analyses the Book of Revelation, and chapters 12 to 14 study Christian beliefs about the afterlife in the patristic period, up to the time of Augustine (early fifth century C.E.) My appraisal below will focus largely on the biblical literature, i.e. on chapters 5 to 10.

Appraisal of Ehrman's Historical Claims

Hebrew Bible

I found Ehrman's treatment of the Hebrew Bible to be both satisfactory and uncontroversial. With most modern scholars, he maintains that the Hebrew Bible does not, for the most part—on a purely historical reading as opposed to Christian theological interpretation—witness to any belief in an afterlife. He thinks that Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is largely synonymous with the grave, denoting 'a complete diminution of life, to the point of virtual nonexistence' (p. 80). Death marks the end of all that can be called life, with a few curious exceptions such as Samuel (recalled by the witch of Endor), Enoch, and Elijah. The Hebrew prophets, in oracles such as Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37, use language of resurrection to metaphorically predict a restoration of Israel's national fortunes. Such language eventually inspired the notion of individual resurrection to eternal life, an idea attested in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Daniel (the last book of the Hebrew Bible in terms of date of composition).

Subsequent Jewish Literature

Ehrman describes subsequent developments in early Jewish thought as attested in other literature from the Second Temple period. He notes that some texts witness to belief in rewards and punishment immediately after death, others witness to belief in resurrection at the end of time, and sometimes both ideas occur together in the same text. He correctly notes the diversity of Second Temple Jewish ideas, though of course he cannot do justice to the topic in a short chapter.1

What is odd about Ehrman's description of these texts is that it contradicts his own central thesis that belief in a literal heaven and hell does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity.' For instance, writing about 1 Enoch 22 (from the Book of the Watchers), Ehrman describes how 'the souls of those who have died are held until the Day of Judgment' in different hollows within a high mountain (p. 102). One hollow holds the righteous as they await the resurrection. A second 'holds the souls of sinners who did not receive their punishments on earth; these are being tormented in their temporary dwelling place in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, when they will be assigned to eternal torment.' This sounds a lot like later Christian ideas, as Ehrman acknowledges: 'In comparison with later texts such as the Christian Apocalypse of Peter, these destinies are rather vague and lacking in graphic specificity. But the basic ideas are here' (p. 103, emphasis mine). If Ehrman recognises that the Book of the Watchers—which predates Christianity by two centuries or more—contains the basic ideas of postmortem rewards and punishments and eternal torment that the terms 'heaven' and 'hell' convey, how can he maintain the thesis that these ideas do not 'go back to' earliest Christianity?2

The Historical Jesus 

As is fitting for a historical study, Ehrman is interested in the historical Jesus as opposed to the canonical Jesus. He reconstructs the beliefs of Jesus from that subset of Gospel sayings that, by standard critical methods, he considers to be historically reliable. For him, this largely entails using sayings from Mark and Matthew, and not from Luke and John. There are relatively few sayings that he discusses even from Mark and Matthew,3 but from those he does discuss, he paints the following picture:
Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom. (p. 130)
a close reading of Jesus's words shows that in fact he had no idea of eternal torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they will be annihilated, never allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God's glorious kingdom. (p. 132)
I will comment on three of Ehrman's key arguments. First, in Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus declares that
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NRSV)
Ehrman observes that the passages says nothing about torment, and asks, 'What will happen to [those on the outside]?' His answer: 'Jesus doesn't say. Do they simply end up dying, and that is the end of their story?' (p. 131) This question and answer presuppose that being thrown into the outer darkness is a prelude to punishment and not the punishment itself. However, the passage in no way suggests this. A more natural reading is that being thrown into the outer darkness is the punishment. Note the antithetical parallelism: some are rewarded by being welcomed into the kingdom; others are punished by being thrown out of the kingdom, into another 'place' characterised by darkness and weeping.4 Ehrman emphasises that this passage makes no mention of eternal fire, but other Matthaean texts about the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth do make this connection.5

Second, Ehrman quotes several passages that use the Greek verb apollumi or noun apoleia (particularly Matt. 7:13-14 and 10:28) and infers from them the notion of 'annihilation,' reduction to non-existence. He translates Matthew 10:28b as, 'fear the one who can annihilate both the soul and body in Gehenna', adding, 'It is important to note that Jesus here does not merely say that God will 'kill' a person's soul: he will "annihilate" (or "exterminate") it. After that it will not exist' (p. 135). Now, in Ehrman's 2003 translation of the Apostolic Fathers,6 when the verb apollumi is used in the active voice of the ultimate fate of humans, he consistently translates it 'destroy.'7 Why now has Ehrman departed from his own precedents, and from the practice of most English translations and lexical authorities, by translating apollumi by 'annihilate' rather than 'destroy'? One searches in vain for a lexical argument, or even (since this is a popular-level book) a footnote referencing an argument he has made elsewhere. He simply asserts without argument that apollumi and apoleia convey the specific idea of annihilation, of reduction to non-existence, rather than the more general idea of destruction.8

Third, Ehrman discusses at some length the 'sheep and goats' saying of Matthew 25:31-46. He argues that the 'eternal punishment' spoken of there is simply death, since it is contrasted with 'eternal life.' As for 'eternal fire,' he reasons that 'it is the fire that is eternal, not the sinner in the fire. The fires never go out' (p. 140). Yet, in a footnote, he acknowledges that the text says the fire was prepared for the devil and demons 'who, since they cannot die, will indeed burn forever.' On what basis does he make this sharp distinction between the nature of 'eternal fire' punishment for humans vs. superhumans, when the text makes no such distinction?

Finally, it is worth noting that, despite generally finding Matthew to be a reliable source of historical Jesus sayings, Ehrman says nothing about the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), which ends with the protagonist being 'handed...over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt' (NRSV), followed immediately by Jesus' warning, 'So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' Thus, Jesus here appears to depict eschatological punishment in terms of torture of indefinite duration. A noteworthy omission, to say the least! For further commentary on eschatological punishment in the Synoptic Gospels, see here.

The Apostle Paul

I find little to disagree with in Ehrman's treatment of Paul. He offers a good overview of Paul's teaching on resurrection, and also rightly acknowledges Paul's belief in a disembodied intermediate state, as attested in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:20-24. He thinks Paul understood the fate of the wicked to be annihilation, and there is little—at least in those letters of Paul that are universally accepted as authentic—that would suggest otherwise.9

The Later Gospels

Ehrman finds the view of the afterlife presented in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (widely assigned to the same author) to be strikingly different from that of Jesus himself. In particular, 'unlike the historical Jesus himself, Luke maintains that eternity begins immediately at a person's death. Like Paul, but even more emphatically, Luke thinks that when believers in Jesus die, they go straight to heaven' (p. 160). He bases this on such texts as Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59, and I think his interpretation is sound.

Ehrman spends a couple of pages on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which he considers to be 'the only place' in the Bible where the notion of eternal punishment for the wicked is suggested (p. 167). He does not think this story is attributable to the historical Jesus (I find his argument unconvincing),10 and he thinks the message of the parable is more about how people should live in the present than what will happen after death. I agree that this is the parable's emphasis, but I think it's a both/and, not an either/or. Outi Lehtipuu's monograph on the parable has shown convincingly that the story was believable within the parameters of its cultural world, and so there is no reason to think the afterlife imagery was not meant to be taken seriously.11 The clincher is the striking similarity between the afterlife imagery in this parable and that in Luke 13:27-30.12

Ehrman argues that the 'realised eschatology' of the Gospel of John, in which eternal life is already attainable in this life, and the wrath of God already abides on the disobedient in this life, represents a de-apocalypticising development of the message of the historical Jesus. I think this claim is basically accurate, though it is important to acknowledge—as Ehrman does—that references to eschatological resurrection are still present.

Other Early Christian Literature

For the sake of brevity, I won't discuss Ehrman's treatment of the Book of Revelation or of early patristic literature. He maintains that Revelation teaches a heavenly intermediate state only for a few martyrs, and teaches the annihilation of the wicked; I think he has overlooked the important evidence of Revelation 22:15.13

Ehrman spends his final three chapters on early patristic literature, and the various theological ideas that emerged concerning the nature of resurrection (resurrection of the flesh vs. of the spirit), the possibility of purgatory, universal salvation, etc. Attempts to systematise what would become established as orthodox Christian eschatology can be found in Tertullian in the early third century and in Augustine two centuries later. The fundamental teaching here is of immediate postmortem rewards and punishments, followed eventually by the resurrection, which ushers in embodied eternal life for some and eternal torment for others. After describing what became the orthodox view, Ehrman states, 'Some observers might consider the views to be a kind of natural development of what the "founders of Christianity" thought, or even as inevitable' (p. 201). He then insists that they were not inevitable, since other competing views existed that did not finally carry the day. However, he does not address the question of whether the orthodox view is a natural development from ideas of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers. This is the Catholic Church's claim (made most famously by Cardinal Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine): that the systematisation of doctrine in the patristic era is but the natural growth and development of the seeds contained in divine revelation.

Ehrman's Theological Message

In the preface, Ehrman insists that he has no theological axe to grind: 'In this book I will not be urging you either to believe or to disbelieve in the existence of heaven and hell' (p. 14). However, he still arrives at the existential inference that 'even if we do have something to hope for after we have passed from the realm of temporary consciousness, we have absolutely nothing to fear' (p. 18). He elaborates in the afterword at the end: we may have something to hope for because a beatific afterlife is at least possible (though he is inclined to think death is the end of existence). We have absolutely nothing to fear because hell can be ruled out on rational grounds; eternal torment would imply that God is 'some kind of transcendent sadist' (p. 235). It would be disproportionate to subject people to 'indescribable torments, not for the length of time they committed their "offenses," but for trillions of years—and that only as the beginning'.

I would make three brief points in reply to Ehrman's rationalistic critique of the doctrine of hell. First, as with transcendent rewards, no one alive knows exactly what transcendent punishment will be like. The biblical language of light, gardens, food and drink, banqueting, peace, life is all analogical, as is that of darkness, fire, banishment, torment, destruction, death. All such language is attempting to describe, 'in a glass, darkly,' the unknown quantities beyond our world in terms of the known quantities within our world. Without knowing exactly what eschatological punishment might be like, we are not well positioned to rule on whether it is just or disproportionate. Second, our lack of knowledge extends not only to the nature of the punishment but to its duration. The expression 'trillions of years' assumes that, for those in the transcendent realms, time passes and is experienced just as now on earth. Why should that be true? Heaven and hell are not material objects making trips around the sun. Many philosophers regard eternity as somehow beyond time rather than simply an unending, linear interval of time. Third, I have always found it curious that people simply assume that annihilation is a merciful and moderate alternative to eternal punishment. Ehrman describes annihilation in almost pleasant terms, like a very deep sleep. Non-existence is in some ways a more horrifying prospect than unending punishment. Besides, if annihilation is the eschatological equivalent of capital punishment, then hell is the eschatological equivalent of life imprisonment without parole. In the human domain, which of those is considered the more severe penalty? To be sure, hell is not a pleasant idea. Those who affirm this doctrine do so with sorrow but with firmness because they have received it from the Church, which (they maintain) received it from the apostles, who (they maintain) received it from the Lord.

Pros and Cons

As stated in the beginning, one great pro of Ehrman's book is that he succeeds in telling the history of ideas about the afterlife in a way that is concise and accessible yet informative and engaging. A second major positive, specifically for a Christian audience, is that he has called out the modern Church for having lost sight of the resurrection and placed all the emphasis on what is really only the interim state: going to heaven after death. For instance, Ehrman quotes from Justin Martyr (died c. 165 C.E.), who wrote that those should not be considered real Christians who assert 'that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the moment of their death' (Dialogue with Trypho 80.4).14 Ehrman 'wonders how many twenty-first century Christians would escape this charge' (p. 197). Hopefully, those who recite the Creed thoughtfully do escape it, since they 'look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.' However, how many either conflate resurrection with what happens to the soul at death, or are ignorant of resurrection altogether? Ehrman's critique is a welcome and much-needed one.

The cons, for me, lie in questionable exegesis at certain points (particularly the Matthaean texts about eschatological punishment), as well as a tendency to overstate the significance of differences between Jesus and the New Testament writers, among the New Testament writers, and between the New Testament writers and subsequent proto-orthodox theologians. Yes, there is diversity, but it follows a natural developmental trajectory that converges on orthodoxy.

  • 1 For my own discussion of eschatological punishment in the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Jewish literature, focusing mainly on 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, see Part 1 of my review of Edward Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 2 Perhaps Ehrman would justify his thesis by noting that 1 Enoch's geography of the afterlife—various hollows in the same high mountain—is very different from the cosmic picture of heaven above and hell beneath that later emerged in Christianity. However, the fundamental issue is not the precise 'where' of transcendent abodes, but the 'that' of righteous and wicked going to separate abodes after death.
  • 3 Those he does discuss are Matt. 3:10; 5:22, 29-30; 7:13-14; 8:10-12; 13:36-43, 47-50; 25:31-46; Mark 9:42, 47-48; 12:18-27
  • 4 No noun meaning 'place' occurs in the Greek, but the adverb ekei ('there'; 'in that place') implies a specific location.
  • 5 The formula, 'In that place (ekei) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' occurs in Matthew six times. In three of them, the place is called 'the outer darkness,' in one, 'with the hypocrites,' and in two, 'the fiery furnace' (Matt. 13:42, 50). The fiery furnace, for Matthew, is obviously synonymous 'fiery Gehenna' (5:22; 18:9), which in turn is synonymous with 'the eternal fire' (18:8; 25:41).
  • 6 Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 e.g., in 1 Clement 57.7,  Barnabas 12.5; 20.2, Hermas, Mandates 2.1, 12.6.3, Similitudes 8.6.6, 8.8.5, 9.23.4, 9.26.3.
  • 8 I have not myself undertaken a close lexical study of apollumi. However, it appears that when used in the active voice, it can take meanings akin to 'lose,' 'kill,' 'destroy,' 'ruin.' It certainly does not intrinsically convey the cessation of all existence, just as 'destroy' does not in English. For instance, if we say that Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, we are not suggesting that Hiroshima ceased to exist, but that it was devastated, ruined.
  • 9 Ehrman considers only those letters that are universally accepted as authentically Pauline, so we do not get to hear his views on 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, which is the most detailed passage about eschatological punishment in the Pauline corpus. For my own brief discussion of Paul's views, see here.
  • 10 Ehrman thinks that the ending of the story is a 'dead giveaway' that it was not told by Jesus (p. 165). He reasons that Abraham telling the rich man that his brothers would not believe even if someone were raised from the dead alludes to Jesus' own resurrection, and thus postdates it. However, this argument only demonstrates that the ending of the story has been edited or shaped in light of Jesus' resurrection. It is possible that the original story ended with v. 26, or that the whole story dates back to Jesus but that the language of 'rising from the dead' in v. 31 reflects post-Easter editing.
  • 11 Outi Lehtipuu, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007). I have discussed the matter previously here and here.
  • 12 The afterlife scene in the parable has the rich man in a place of torment where he can see Abraham attending a banquet. That Lazarus was 'in Abraham's bosom' refers to reclining with his head on Abraham's breast, 'a position dictated by ancient banqueting practice' (BDAG 556-57). In Luke 13:27-30, a place is described (using the adverb ekei) of weeping and gnashing of teeth, from which people will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, where they will 'recline at table.'
  • 13 For my take on eschatological punishment in Revelation, see here, in Part 2 of my review of Edward W. Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 14 For my comments on this text and Justin's individual eschatology more widely, see here and here.

Monday, 27 April 2020

'Believe that I Am': Encountering John's Christ in the Light of Isaiah (Part 3)

100-Word Summary

The seven 'I am' (egō eimi) sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John are shown to contain striking allusions to deutero-Isaiah, implying that to understand their meaning we must see them as echoes of God's egō eimi sayings in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 40-55. Proceeding with this line of interpretation, we reach the conclusion that John presents Jesus as the God of Israel. Jesus' identification with God is not exhausted by his function as God's agent, since his 'I am' sayings are primarily about himself. Instead, they reflect his ontological status as the pre-existent divine Word and Son.

1. Introduction
2. ʾanî hûʾ and egō eimi in deutero-Isaiah  
3. The Meaning of egō eimi in Greek
4. The Seven egō eimi Sayings of Jesus in John
 4.1. John 8:24: 'If you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins'
 4.2. John 8:28: 'When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am'
 4.3. John 8:58: 'Before Abraham came into being, I am'
 4.4. John 13:19: 'so that when it happens you may believe that I am'
 4.5. John 6:20: 'I am; do not be afraid'
 4.6. John 4:26: 'I am—the one who is speaking with you'
 4.7. John 18:5-8: 'When he said to them, "I am," they turned away and fell to the ground'
5. Christological Implications  

In the first article in this series, we provided a brief introduction to the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of John, and gave a very brief overview of the close literary relationship between them. In the second article, we went into much more detail about specific allusions to Isaiah in John, focusing primarily on a discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in John 8:12-30. One of our key findings was that Jesus' language in this passage is saturated with allusions to Isaiah 43 in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek version of the Old Testament). In particular, the lines 'For if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins' (John 8:24) and 'When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am' (John 8:28) were seen to be allusions to Isaiah 43:10 LXX ('so that you may know and believe and understand that I am'). In this article we are going to more closely study the intriguing expression 'I am' (Greek: egō eimi) as used by Jesus in the Gospel of John. The insight we bring from the previous study is that, in order to understand what egō eimi means in John, we must first understand what it means in Isaiah LXX.

Attempts to interpret the 'I am' (egō eimi) sayings in John, particularly in the context of theological debates over Jesus' deity, often focus on the question of whether the expression alludes to the Divine Name as explained to Moses in Exodus 3:14. This approach can easily become bogged down in the difficult question of what the Divine Name (in Hebrew, ʾęheyęh ʾašęr ʾęheyęh) means. In deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), however, we have a Hebrew expression that corresponds more exactly to egō eimi, that indeed is translated as egō eimi in the Septuagint. Moreover, we have already shown in Part 2 that at least one of the egō eimi sayings in John alludes to one of the egō eimi sayings in deutero-Isaiah. Thus, we may bracket out the issue of the Divine Name and and focus on what is known.

The expression 'I am he' is used by God nine times in the Hebrew Bible:1 once in Deuteronomy and eight times in deutero-Isaiah (Deut. 32:39;2 Isa. 41:4;3 43:10,4 13,5 25;6 46:4;7 48:12;8 51:12;9 52:610).11 In seven of these instances the Hebrew text is ʾanî hûʾ (literally, 'I he,' with the verb 'am' implied). The other two instances have the more emphatic ʾânōkî ʾânōkî hûʾ ('I, I [am] he'; these are Isa. 43:25 and 51:12).12 The significance of the phrase in deutero-Isaiah, which always has God as its speaker, is summarised by Catrin H. Williams:
Deutero-Isaiah, who may have been inspired by the self-proclamation that brings the Song of Moses to its climax [Deut. 32:39], presents אני הוא as a succinct expression of Yahweh's uncontested claim to exclusive divinity. His unique capacity to predict and control events, having fulfilled his promises in the past (41:4; 43:10), serves as a guarantee to Israel that Yahweh will continue to support and deliver his people (43:13; 46:4), for he is the eternally active God, ראשון and אחרון a(41:4; 44:6; 48:1), the Creator of all things (48:13).13
The expression is used interchangeably with 'I am God' and 'I am YHWH' (see, e.g., Isa. 43:10-15); it is just as definitive a declaration of God's unique deity that separates him from all other reality. The Septuagint renders ʾanî hûʾ into Greek as egō eimi and ʾânōkî ʾânōkî hûʾ into Greek as the double egō eimi egō eimi. There are nine occurrences in the Septuagint of God's self-declaration egō eimi without a predicate.14 These are Deut. 32:39,15 Isa. 41:4,16 43:10,17 43:25,18 45:18-19 (twice),19 46:4 (twice),20 and 51:12.21 (The list does not correspond exactly to the list of Hebrew ʾanî hûʾ/ʾânōkî ʾânōkî hûʾ passages above.)22 In Isaiah 47:8, 10 LXX, God twice accuses the daughter of Babylon of saying in her heart, 'I am (egō eimi), and there is no other,' and declares that destruction shall befall her.23 The implication is that for anyone other than God to make such a declaration would be blasphemous. 'I am' (egō eimi) in these passages thus clearly functions as a 'theophanic formula,'24 a claim to absolute uniqueness that only God can make.25

It is important to note that the Greek phrase egō eimi has an mundane meaning in ordinary human conversation. It can function as a simple affirmation about oneself ('I am') or as a way of identifying oneself as a particular person under consideration ('I am he'; 'it is I'), which we will refer to as a 'self-identificatory affirmation' (SIA). In the Septuagint, this usage can be seen for instance in 1 Kingdoms (1 Samuel) 9:18-19. Saul approaches Samuel (whom he does not know) and says, 'Tell, now, which is the house of the seer?' To which Samuel replies, 'I am he' (egō eimi).26 This ordinary SIA sense also occurs in the New Testament, including in John. After Jesus heals a blind beggar, others dispute whether the man before them is really the one who used to sit and beg. The man says, 'I am' (egō eimi, John 9:9). A number of other such occurrences can be found in the Synoptic Gospels, usually on the lips of Jesus or with reference to Messianic claims.27

A key question, therefore, as we come to Jesus' use of egō eimi in John, is whether he is using it in the ordinary SIA sense, to identify himself as some person under consideration (e.g., the Messiah, or Jesus of Nazareth), or whether he is using it in the loftier sense of deutero-Isaiah, thus making a claim to deity, to be the one Lord God who created the world, who is eternal, and who will redeem Israel. The contention here is that in some of the passages a double meaning is present, and both meanings are in play. We saw in Part 1 that John is fond of double meanings, and we saw in Part 2 that Jesus' egō eimi saying in John 8:24 clearly alludes to God's egō eimi saying in Isa. 43:10 LXX (whereas the Pharisees miss the double meaning and, thinking Jesus means 'I am he' in the SIA sense, ask, 'Who are you?')

In what follows, we will examine the individual egō eimi sayings in John. We will argue that not only those in John 8:24, 28 but also several others contain echoes of deutero-Isaiah that allow us to recognise them as veiled divine claims.

These two sayings will be discussed only briefly, since they were dealt with in Part 2. We found there that Jesus' discourse in John 8:12-30 contains numerous conceptual parallels with and allusions to deutero-Isaiah LXX. These include:
  • Having light vs. walking in darkness (John 8:12 vs. Isa. 9:2, 50:10 LXX)
  • God and his Servant as two witnesses (John 8:16-18 vs. Isa. 43:10 LXX)
  • Contrast between those who belong to earth and the transcendent one (John 8:23 vs. Isa. 41:24; 55:9)28
  • The expression, 'in your sins' (John 8:24; Isa. 43:24 LXX)
  • The expression, 'believe that I am' (John 8:24; Isa. 43:10 LXX)
  • The expression, 'at/from the beginning the one who speaks' (John 8:25; Isa. 43:9, 45:19, 48:16 LXX)
  • The reference to entering into judgment (John 8:26; Isa. 43:26 LXX)
Thus it is clear that the 'I am' saying of John 8:24 is rooted in an Isaianic background and above all in Isa. 43:10 LXX. Thus Jesus is claiming for himself precisely what God is claiming for himself with the 'I am' sayings of deutero-Isaiah: he is making the claim that 'I am God, and besides me there is none who saves' (Isa. 43:11 LXX). For that reason, to fail to believe in him is to forfeit salvation.29

 4.2. John 8:28: 'When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am'

This saying falls within the same discourse as 8:24, and thus what we have already said above about the Isaianic background to this passage applies here. Moreover, in Part 2, we discussed the rich double meaning of the term 'lifted up' in John (crucified/exalted), which is also rooted in deutero-Isaiah. Thus the 'I am' saying of John 8:28 is also best understood in terms of this Isaianic background. Indeed, 'then you will realize that I am' repeats the idea of v. 24 (which was expressed negatively), and both echo Isa. 43:10 LXX with two of the three Greek verbs used there: 'so that you may know [John 8:28] and believe [John 8:24] and understand that I am.' What is new in John 8:28 is the paradoxical notion that it is above all through his death, his 'lifting up,' that Jesus' deity is recognizable.

This saying is the climax of the discourse and dialogues of John 8:12-59. Vv. 12-30 contain an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, and vv. 31-59 continue uninterrupted with an exchange between Jesus and 'those Jews who believed in him' (though they prove instead to be hostile), apparently in the same setting. The focus of the discussion shifts to paternity (his and theirs), and especially their relationship to the patriarch Abraham. Jesus claims in John 8:56, 'Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.' This remark parallels the Fourth Evangelist's editorial comment in John 12:41 (after quoting from Isaiah's throne vision in Isaiah 6), 'Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.' Since the comment refers to actually seeing Jesus (as the Lord high and lifted up in his temple), it is unlikely that in John 8:56, Jesus is referring merely to Abraham during his lifetime 'seeing' the Messiah with eyes of prophetic faith. A more direct communion between Abraham and Jesus is in view. Sensing this, 'the Jews' respond with incredulity: 'You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?' This produces the climactic claim: 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came into being, I am.'

The earlier 'I am' sayings in John 8:24, 28 had seemingly not been understood by Jesus' opponents. As already mentioned, the Pharisees' question 'Who are you?' in 8:25 shows that they understood egō eimi in its ordinary SIA sense ('I am he'; 'it is I'). However, the remark in 8:58 is unmistakable, and his opponents immediately seek to stone him. Challenged as to whether he might have seen Abraham, he has not only claimed to have pre-existed Abraham, but has done so using the egō eimi formula that God uses in deutero-Isaiah to declare his unique deity. Translations such as the KJV, ESV, and NRSV, which render the saying, 'Before Abraham was, I am,' fail to convey the full sense of the verb egeneto: 'came to be/came into being.' It is not just the 'when' of existence that is being contrasted here but the kind of existence. The status of a creature—even one as renowned as Father Abraham—who 'comes to be' is contrasted with the One who simply 'is.'

Like John 8:24 and 8:28, the 'I am' saying in John 8:58 closely parallels Isaiah 43:10 LXX. There, God declares, '...I am (egō eimi). Before me no other god came to be (egeneto), and none will be after me.' Here, too, God sets forth his unique deity by contrasting his absolute existence ('I am') with the 'coming to be' of other realities. Another such parallel is found in Isaiah 48:16 LXX, where a mysterious speaker who identifies himself as sent by the Lord and his spirit states, 'From the beginning I have not spoken in secret; when it happened (or 'came to be'; Greek: egeneto) I was there.' This passage has already been discussed in Part 2.30 In both John 1:1-3 and 8:58, as in both Isaiah 43:10 and 48:16 LXX, the time-transcending 'being' of deity (described using a present or imperfect tense of eimi is contrasted with the 'coming to be' in time of other reality (described using egeneto).

If we cast our net wider than deutero-Isaiah, we can find other verbal and conceptual parallels to John 8:58 in the Septuagint. The most striking of these is in Psalm 89:2 LXX (90:2 Eng), where the psalmist addresses the Lord, 'Before mountains were brought forth and the earth and the world were formed, and from everlasting to everlasting you are.' The Greek for 'you are,' su ei, is the second-person equivalent of egō eimi. Thus we have the same pattern as John 8:58: before some created reality (in this case mountains, earth, world) came to be (aorist tense of ginomai), the Lord is. The inclusion of the words 'from everlasting to everlasting' convey explicitly what is implicit in the egō eimi sayings: that the quality of existence referred to as 'I am/you are' is eternal. Further Septuagint parallels to John 8:58 can be found. They cannot detain us here,31 but the parallels we have seen in deutero-Isaiah and Psalm 89 compel us to conclude that in John 8:58, Jesus' provocative declaration amounts to a claim of deity and eternal pre-existence.

In John 13:18-19, after making reference to his betrayer with a scripture quotation, Jesus declares to his disciples, 'From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I am.' The form of this 'I am' saying is very similar to that of John 8:24 (but this time worded positively) and even closer to that of Isaiah 43:10 LXX in Greek.32 One of the characteristics by which God's unique deity may be known, according to deutero-Isaiah, is his ability to declare events before they happen.33 It is just this characteristic that Jesus claims here will enable his disciples 'to believe that I am.' Hence, the deutero-Isaianic background of this egō eimi is clear.

We now move backward in the Gospel to egō eimi sayings prior to the discourse in John 8. John 6:16-21 describes the episode of Jesus walking on the sea during a storm, and includes the only one of John's egō eimi sayings that to be paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels (see Matt. 14:27; Mark 6:49). Upon seeing Jesus (and presumably not recognising him), the disciples became afraid. Jesus then declares, 'It is I. Do not be afraid' (egō eimi, mē phobeisthe). John differs from the Synoptic accounts on what happens next. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus gets into the boat (in Matthew's case, only after Peter walks on water), the wind dies down, and the disciples are amazed. In John, 'They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.'

It is clear that in John 6:20, as in the Synoptic parallels, egō eimi carries its ordinary sense as a way of identifying oneself (an SIA). Jesus is saying, 'It's me, Jesus.' The question is whether this is all he is saying. In Matthew and Mark, that may be the case.34 In John, however, we know (based on the foregoing analysis) that Jesus is going to say egō eimi with a higher, more profound meaning at least four subsequent times, and this raises at least the possibility that such a meaning is intended here. This possibility exists even though (a) it may well have escaped readers/hearers on their first time through the Gospel (since they would encounter it before John 8), and (b) we know almost for certain that the Fourth Evangelist did not construct this egō eimi saying, but took it from the tradition.35 What will help us to move from guesswork to insight about the meaning of egō eimi in John 6:20 is to read the passage in light of its Old Testament, and particularly Isaianic, background.

One of the characteristics of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible is his power over the sea. The event that demonstrates this par excellence is his parting of the Red Sea and defeat of the Egyptian army (Exodus 14). Readers of the 'walking on the water' narrative (in Matthew, Mark, and John) have long seen in Jesus' walking on the sea a narrative allusion to this power of Yahweh. An oft-quoted passage in this respect is Job 9:8 LXX, which says of the Lord that he 'walks on the sea as on dry ground,' using language very close to that of the Gospels.36 God's power over the sea also features in deutero-Isaiah. In Isaiah 43:16 (alluding to the Exodus), the prophet writes that the Lord 'provides a way in the sea, a path in the mighty water,'37 which is precisely what Jesus does in this narrative: he not only provides a path for himself, but he miraculously conveys his tempest-tossed disciples to the other side, as God did for Israel at the Red Sea.38 No early Jewish reader with a sound knowledge of salvation-history could fail to be reminded of God's John 6:16-21 could fail to be reminded of the Exodus narrative and the subsequent scriptures that retell it in terms of God making a way in the sea.

A second feature of this egō eimi saying that should not escape our notice is contained in the words, 'Do not be afraid.' This comforting phrase occurs frequently in Scripture, but never (at least in the Septuagint) is it pronounced more frequently by God than in Isaiah, and especially deutero-Isaiah. God repeats this to his people in Isaiah 40:9,39 41:10,40 41:13-14,41 43:1,42 43:5,43 and 44:2.44 Of special interest is Isaiah 51:7-15, which reassures Israel that they need not be afraid precisely in the context of an 'I am' saying (51:12) and a reminder about the Exodus (51:9-10, 15).45 In fact, if we had to sum up the message of this oracle, we could not do much better than, 'I am; do not be afraid'!

Thus, when the saying of John 6:20 is read in the context of (a) the subsequent egō eimi sayings in John, (b) the wider parallel between Jesus' exploits over the sea in this narrative and God's exploits over the sea in the Old Testament, and (c) the prevalence of the instruction 'Do not be afraid' from God to his people in deutero-Isaiah, it is at highly plausible that John intends egō eimi here to convey the same secondary meaning that it has in chapter 8. That is, the meaning drawn from God's pronouncements of his exclusive deity in deutero-Isaiah LXX.

The saying of John 4:26 occurs in the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman says to Jesus, 'I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.' Jesus replies, 'I am he (egō eimi), the one who is speaking with you.' As with John 6:20, this is a saying in which, on its surface, egō eimi bears only the ordinary SIA sense that it has in John 9:9 when the healed blind man says it. The woman refers to the Messiah, and Jesus says, 'I am he,' meaning 'I am the Messiah'—a theologically profound statement, to be sure, but not a claim to the attributes of deity.

Is there any reason to see a double meaning here in which egō eimi means more than this, and bears the loftier sense that it has in deutero-Isaiah? That it clearly bears this sense in John 8 at least gives this interpretation prima facie plausibility. Perhaps we can go further than conjecture, however. The key attribute of the Messiah that is emphasised both in the woman's remark ('he will tell us everything') and in Jesus reply ('the one who is speaking with you') is speech. This emphasis relates to the Prologue of John (1:1-18), which identifies Christ as the pre-existent Word.46 Deutero-Isaiah repeatedly emphasises God's unique identity as the One who speaks with his people and declares the truth. We now want to consider the relevance of two particular texts from deutero-Isaiah LXX that closely parallel John 4:26.

First, we have Isaiah 45:18-19 LXX: 'I am (egō eimi), and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret nor in a dark place of the earth; I did not say to the offspring of Iakob, "Seek a vain thing." I am (egō eimi), I am the Lord, speaking righteousness and declaring truth.' In this text, God twice expresses his deity using the expression egō eimi, while simultaneously emphasising his character as the one who speaks. We have already observed that the statement, 'I have not spoken in secret' is echoed by Jesus in John 18:20.47

Second, we have Isaiah 52:6-7 LXX, where God foretells Israel's redemption, saying, 'Therefore my people shall know my name in that day, because I myself am the one who speaks: I am here, like season upon the mountains, like the feet of one bringing glad tidings of a report of peace...' As noted earlier, Isaiah 52:6 MT is an ʾanî hûʾ saying. Isaiah 52:6 LXX does not contain an absolute egō eimi saying, because egō eimi has a predicate, 'the one who speaks.' Nevertheless, the Greek is very close to that of John 4:26. Isaiah 52:6 LXX includes the words egō eimi autos ho lalōn, while Jesus' saying in John 4:26 is, egō eimi ho lalōn soi. The only difference is that John lacks autos ('myself'), which is merely for emphasis, and adds soi ('to you'/'with you'), to indicate that he is currently speaking with the woman. The parallels between John 4:26 and these two texts from deutero-Isaiah are close enough that, in light of the wider use of egō eimi in John, it is quite likely that the Isaianic sense of the phrase is intended here as well.

The last of the egō eimi sayings in John occur at the moment of Jesus' arrest in John 18:5-8. At the approach of a band of soldiers and guards, Jesus goes forth and asks, 'Whom are you looking for?' The narrative proceeds:
5 They answered him, "Jesus the Nazorean." He said to them, "I am." Judas his betrayer was also with them. 6 When he said to them, 'I am,' they turned away and fell to the ground. 7 So he again asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They said, "Jesus the Nazorean." 8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am. So if you are looking for me, let these men go."
As with the egō eimi sayings in John 4:26 and 6:20, it is clear that the primary sense of the phrase is SIA: Jesus is saying, 'I am he' or 'it is I,' confirming that he is Jesus the Nazorean whom they seek. However, in addition to what we have seen in the six preceding egō eimi sayings in John, there are indications that a secondary, more profound meaning of egō eimi is in view here. The first indication is that the expression is repeated three times, placing special stress upon it. The second indication is the soldiers' reaction when he first says it: 'they turned away and fell to the ground.' The verb piptō ('fall down') is often used of an act of worship.48 Given the Fourth Evangelist's penchant for ironic actions by non-believers (cf., e.g,. John 11:49-51, 19:2-3; 19:19-22), this is surely more than just an interesting anecdote about the soldiers' surprise at Jesus' willingness to present himself for arrest. Rather, it is likely that the soldiers are ironically making the correct response to the full meaning of Jesus' self-declaration, egō eimi: they fall down in worship.

There is no verbal parallel to this saying in deutero-Isaiah. However, in light of the parallels already seen between Johannine egō eimi sayings and God's egō eimi sayings in Isaiah 45:18-19, John may see in this episode a provisional fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 45:23 LXX: 'to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God.' Hence, rather than seeing in this passage merely a proactive effort by Jesus to identify himself as Jesus to the authorities, we ought to see the threefold occurrence of egō eimi as 'an emphatic climax of the series' of egō eimi sayings in John.49

In this series of articles, we have argued that Jesus' three egō eimi sayings in John 8 (vv. 24, 28, 58) as well as those elsewhere in the Gospel (John 4:26; 6:20; 13:19; 18:5-8) are best understood as profound Christological declarations that allude to, and draw their ultimate meaning from, the use of egō eimi in the Septuagint version of deutero-Isaiah. Accordingly, we must conclude that John understood Jesus to identify himself as the divine Word who, together with the Father, is the one God of Israel.

The series has had only limited interaction with secondary scholarship, but most of the ideas presented here are not novel. As D. A. Carson remarks, 'the majority of interpreters today' understand the egō eimi sayings of John 8 to be rooted in those of Isaiah 40-55.50 Numerous scholars such as Richard Bauckham have made the same claim for the other egō eimi sayings in John. There is not, however, general agreement on the Christological implications of this connection. For instance, whereas Richard Bauckham asserts that the link between the Johannine egō eimi sayings and those of deutero-Isaiah mean that John's Jesus 'is unambiguously identifying himself with the one and only God, YHWH, the God of Israel' and not 'merely as an..."agent" or "emissary",'51 other scholars such as James F. McGrath see the Isaianic background as pointing to just such an 'agency' Christology. McGrath regards the egō eimi sayings as depicting Jesus as 'the bearer of the divine name,' as 'God's principal agent,' on whom was bestowed an authority equal to the sender.52

What makes an 'agency' reading of the egō eimi sayings inadequate is that an agent's message is not about himself; he is a representative and spokesperson for another and his words, even when spoken in the first person, are primarily about the sender and not the agent.53 Thus, under an agency Christology, Jesus' egō eimi sayings would be statements by and about the Father, conveyed to humanity by his agent, Jesus, whose own characteristics would be of secondary importance. This does not fit the context of the egō eimi sayings, which are clearly about Jesus himself (although of course Jesus is sent by the Father and is indeed his spokesperson as the Word). In John 4:26, Jesus is identifying himself as the speaker who is the Messiah. In 6:20, Jesus is identifying himself as the one they saw walking on the water, displaying divine power over the sea. In 8:24 it is Jesus himself in whom the Pharisees must believe to avoid dying in their sins. In 8:28 it is Jesus himself who will be lifted up and who does nothing on his own. In 8:58 it is Jesus who identifies himself as existing before Abraham came to be, and it is consequently Jesus that his hearers want to stone. In 13:19 it is Jesus himself who is telling the disciples events before they happen. In 18:5-8 it is, of course, Jesus who identifies himself as Jesus the Nazorean. Thus, the 'I am' sayings serve primarily to communicate truths about Jesus, implying that their lofty ontological claims (seen in light of the Isaianic background) cannot be shifted from Jesus onto the Father. This is by no means to deny that Jesus is the Father's agent; it is to understand that the Father's choice of Jesus as his agent is not arbitrary but follows from the ontological reality of who Jesus is: the divine and pre-existent Word and Son.54 Thus, David M. Ball rightly states that
Jesus can only claim a phrase that was reserved for YHWH and apply it to himself because it is not only YHWH's Son but is in fact YHWH speaking... The connection between Jesus' use of "I am" and the Logos of the prologue again suggests that the Johannine church believed in an ontological identification of the historical person Jesus and the Jewish God.55
  • 1 Unless otherwise indicated, translations from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament follow the New American Bible, Revised Edition; translations from the Septuagint follow the New English Translation of the Septuagint.
  • 2 'See now that I, I alone, am he, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand no one can deliver.'
  • 3 'Who has performed these deeds? Who has called forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am the first, and at the last I am he.'
  • 4 'You are my witnesses—oracle of the Lord— my servant whom I have chosen To know and believe in me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, and after me there shall be none.'
  • 5 'yes, from eternity I am he; There is none who can deliver from my hand: I act and who can cancel it?'
  • 6 'It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.'
  • 7 'Even to your old age I am he, even when your hair is gray I will carry you; I have done this, and I will lift you up, I will carry you to safety.'
  • 8 'Listen to me, Jacob, Israel, whom I called! I, it is I who am the first, and am I the last.'
  • 9 'I, it is I who comfort you. Can you then fear mortals who die, human beings who are just grass, And forget the Lord, your maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of earth?'
  • 10 'Therefore my people shall know my name on that day, that it is I who speaks: Here I am!'
  • 11 The second-person equivalent ʾatâ hûʾ ('you are he') occurs in Psalm 102:28 MT (102:27 Eng.), in a passage that is applied to Christ by the author of Hebrews.
  • 12 Deut. 32:39 actually has ʾanî ʾanî hûʾ.
  • 13 Catrin H. Williams, I Am He: The Interpretation of ʾAnî Hûʾ in Jewish and Early Christian Literature (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 304. Similarly, Richard Bauckham writes concerning chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, 'Their proclamation of eschatological salvation is intimately linked to their emphatic assertion of the absolute uniqueness of the God of Israel, who in these chapters constantly asserts his unique deity in contrast with the idols of the nations who are no gods, and defines his uniqueness as that of the eternal Creator of all things and the unique sovereign Ruler of all history. His great act of eschatological salvation will demonstrate him to be the one and only God in the sight of all the nations, revealing his glory so that all the ends of earth will acknowledge him as God and turn to him for salvation. All this is summed up in the divine self-declaration "I am he"' ('Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John', in Contours of Christology in the New Testament [ed. Richard N. Longenecker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], 158).
  • 14 That is, in an absolute sense as opposed to linking to a noun such as 'the Lord' or 'God' or an adjective.
  • 15 'See, see that I am, and there is no god except me. I will kill, and I will make alive; I will strike, and I will heal.'
  • 16 'Who has wrought and done these things? The one calling her from the beginning of generations has called her. I, God, am first, and for the things that are coming, I am.'
  • 17 'Be my witnesses; I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am.'
  • 18 'I am, I am the one who blots out your acts of lawlessness, and I will not remember them at all.' Or, 'I am "I Am," the one who blots out your acts of lawlessness...
  • 19 18 Thus says the Lord, who made heaven—this is the God who displayed the earth and made it; he himself marked its limits; he did not make it to be empty but to be inhabited: I am, and there is no other. 19 I have not spoken in secret, nor in a dark place of the earth; I did not say to the offspring of Iakob, "Seek a vain thing." I am, I am the Lord, speaking righteousness and declaring truth.'
  • 20 'Until your old age, I am, and until you grow old, I am; I bear with you; I have made, and I will set free; I will take up and save you.'
  • 21 'I am, I am he who comforts you. Acknowledge of whom you were cautious; you were afraid because of a mortal man and a son of man, who have dried up like grass.
  • 22 The LXX of Isaiah 43:13 ('Even from the beginning there is also no one who rescues from my hands; I will do it, and who will turn it back?') and 48:12 ('Hear me, O Iakob, and Israel, whom I call: I am the first, and I am forever') do not correspond exactly to the MT and there is no Greek phrase corresponding to ʾanî hûʾ. Isaiah 52:6 LXX ('Therefore my people shall know my name in that day, because I myself am the one who speaks: I am here') does have egō eimi corresponding to the MT's ʾanî hûʾ, but strictly speaking it is not absolute. Isaiah 45:18 and 45:19 LXX have egō eimi where the MT does not have a corresponding absolute ʾanî hûʾ  (45:18 does have ʾanî yehwâ, 'I am Yahweh').
  • 23 In the MT, the daughter of Babylon does not say ʾanî hûʾ but merely ʾa. See a similar usage in Zeph. 2:15 LXX.
  • 24 G. H. Parke-Taylor, Yahweh: The Divine Name in the Bible (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1975), 73.
  • 25 Williams notes, 'The renderings principally favoured by the Septuagint (ἐγώ εἰμι) and the Vulgate (ego ipse) clearly seek to maintain the bipartite character of אני הוא in its role as a claim to uniqueness' (I Am He, 304).
  • 26 Similarly, 2 Kingdoms 2:20 LXX: 'And Abenner looked behind him and said, "Are you Asael himself?" And he answered, "I am" (egō eimi).'
  • 27 Jesus identifying himself in an epiphanic setting: Matt. 14:27, Mark 6:50, Luke 24:39. In this article we will leave open the question of whether these Synoptic sayings may already allude to the divine egō eimi formula of deutero-Isaiah. Jesus responds affirmatively to the question of whether he is the Messiah in Mark 14:62 with 'I am' (egō eimi) and in Luke 22:70 with 'You say that I am.' In the Olivet discourse, Jesus foretells of Messianic pretenders 'coming in my name' and saying, 'I am' (egō eimi, Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8; Matt. 24:5 has egō eimi ho Christos, 'I am the Messiah'). Finally, Acts 13:25 has John the Baptist confessing, 'I am not he' (ouk egō eimi).
  • 28 This parallel was not explored in Part 2. In John 8:23, Jesus tells the Pharisees, 'You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above. You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world.' This parallels Isaiah 41:24 LXX, where God enters into judgment with men and declares, 'Because whence are you and whence is your work? From the earth.' Similarly, Isaiah 55:9 LXX contrasts God's ways with men's ways using the analogy of heaven's distance from earth: 'But as heaven is far from the earth, so is my way far from your ways and your notions from my thought.'
  • 29 Of course, Jesus is not making an exclusive claim to deity that excludes the Father. As he consistently points out throughout this Gospel whenever making lofty claims about himself, he is not independent of the Father but is his beloved Son, who was sent by him, who obeys him, who does nothing without him (John 8:28-29).
  • 30 Briefly, it has strong resonances with the Word in John 1:1-3, since the speaker emphasises his 'speaking' function from the beginning, and contrasts an imperfect form of eimi ('be') with an aorist form of ginomai ('come to be' or 'become'). As was noted previously, the statement in Isaiah 48:16 that 'I have not spoken in secret' parallels Jesus' statement before the high priest in John 18:20.
  • 31 In the soliloquy of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-25 LXX, Wisdom describes herself as having been created, but 'as the beginning of his ways...before the present age...in the beginning...before he made the earth.' Significantly, while 'the Lord created me' (kurios ektisen me) uses an aorist verb, the subsequent statement 'before all the hills he begets me' is in present tense (genna me). In Job 38, the Lord speaks to Job through a whirlwind and contrasts at great length his own eternity and power with the puny existence of Job. In Psalm 109:3 LXX (110:3 Eng), one is addressed with the words, 'From the womb, before Morning-star, I brought you forth.' This psalm (esp. vv. 1, 4) played a very important role in earliest Christology, and Aquila H. I. Lee has argued in a monograph that v. 3 was pivotal in the development of a belief in the pre-existence of Christ in the pre-Pauline church (From Messiah to Preexistent Son: Jesus' Self-Consciousness and Early Christian Exegesis of Messianic Psalms [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005]). Finally, Sirach 42:21 says of God, 'since he is before the age and forever' (my translation); the Greek is close to that of, and may be dependent on, Psalm 89:2.
  • 32 Both texts have hina pisteusēte...hoti egō eimi. We noted in Part 2 that this is a special case of a very common Old Testament formula by which God foretells that when some future event happens, his people will or may know/believe that he is their God. John contains frequent adaptations of this formula, with Jesus being the object in most instances.
  • 33 'As for the things that were from the beginning, see, they have come; also new things, which I myself will declare, and before they sprang forth, they were made plain to you' (Isa. 42:9); 'Who is like me? Let him stand; let him call, and let him make ready for me, inasmuch as I have made man forever, and let them declare to you the things that are coming before they come' (Isa. 44:7); 'because I am God, and there is no other besides me, declaring the last things first, before they happen, and at once they came to pass' (Isa. 46:9-10); 'The former things I have moreover declared, and they went out from my mouth and came to be heard; suddenly I did them, and they came to pass... I declared to you the things of old; before they came upon you I made them to be heard by you; do not say, "The idols did them for me"' (Isa. 48:3, 5).
  • 34 I do not discount the possibility of a secondary, epiphanic meaning in Matthew and Mark, for the same Old Testament contextual reasons about to be discussed, but it is beyond the scope of this article to argue the point.
  • 35 This is assuming, with most scholars, that Mark predates John by at least a couple of decades. I am not implying that the Fourth Evangelist fabricated the other egō eimi sayings. However, if one takes the view that Jesus' discourses in John at least reflect significant editorial work by the author, one possible explanation for the egō eimi sayings is that John received some of them in his source material (certainly John 6:20, and possibly 4:26 and 18:5-8). Understanding egō eimi in these sayings to convey a double meaning (informed by his reading of deutero-Isaiah LXX), he then adapted other sayings of Jesus—which may or may not have already used egō eimi—to more clearly convey the double meaning. The result is the sayings in John 8:24, 28, 58 and 13:19. This is merely a conjecture; it is also entirely possible that the double meaning of egō eimi was well-developed already in the earliest stratum of the Signs source. Note the comment of James D. G. Dunn, who writes, 'Again, it is possible to see a Synoptic-type root for the weighty "I am" sayings – Mark 6:50, 13:6, 14:62; but again the indications are clear and strong that the weightier Johannine sayings are a development from the earlier tradition at best tangential to the earlier tradition. For the Markan ‘I am’ sayings are simply affirmative utterances (It’s me, I am he, Yes), as Matthew clearly indicates (Matt. 24:5; 26:64). But John has probably seen a potential link with the "I am" of Isa. 43:10 and exploited it accordingly (especially John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19). It is surely scarcely credible that a saying like John 8:58, or the other "I am" sayings (the bread of life, the light of the world, etc.) were part of the earliest Jesus-tradition, and yet nothing approaching them appears in the Synoptic Gospels. Why should they be so completely neglected if part of the authentic sayings of Jesus, and why should only John preserve them? The most obvious explanation once again is that in a relatively insignificant element of the earlier tradition John has found the inspiration to fashion an invaluable formula for expressing Christianity’s claims about Christ' (Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation [2nd edn; London: SCM Press, 1989], 30-31).
  • 36 Job 9:8 LXX has the Lord peripatōn...epi thalassēs, while John 6:19 has Jesus peripatounta epi tēs thalassēs.
  • 37 A similar thought is conveyed in Psalm 76:20 (77:20 Eng): 'In the sea was your way, and your paths in many waters, and your footprints will not be known.'
  • 38 God's power over the sea is also conveyed in Isaiah 50:2: 'Look, by my threat I will make the sea desolate'.
  • 39 'Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good tidings to Sion; lift up your voice with strength, you who bring good tidings to Ierousalem; lift it up; do not fear; say to the cities of Ioudas, "See, your God!"'
  • 40 'Do not fear, for I am with you; do not wander off, for I am your God who has strengthened you'
  • 41 'I am your God, who holds your right hand, who says to you, "Do not fear, O Iakob, O small Israel."'
  • 42 'But now says the Lord God, he who made you, O Iakob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine.'
  • 43 'Do not fear, because I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you'
  • 44 'Thus says the Lord God who made you and who formed you from the womb: You will still be helped; do not fear, O Iakob my servant and the beloved Israel whom I have chosen'
  • 45 7 Hear me, you who know judgment, my people, you in whose heart is my law; do not fear the reproach of men, and do not be dismayed by their contempt. 8 For just as a garment it will be devoured by time, and like wool it will be devoured by a moth, but my righteousness will be forever and my salvation for generations of generations. 9 Awake, awake, O Ierousalem; put on the strength of your arm! Awake, as at the beginning of a day, like a generation of long ago! Are you not 10 she who made desolate the sea, the water, the abundance of the deep, who made the depths of the sea a way of passage for those being delivered 11 and those who have been ransomed? For by the Lord they shall be returned and come to Sion with joy and everlasting gladness; for gladness and praise shall be upon their heads and joy shall take hold of them; pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away. 12 I am (egō eimi), I am he who comforts you. Acknowledge of whom you were cautious; you were afraid because of a mortal man and a son of man, who have dried up like grass. 13 And you have forgotten God who made you, who made heaven and laid the foundations of the earth. And always, all the days, you feared the face of the fury of the one who was oppressing you, for just as he planned to do away with you, and where now is the fury of the one who was oppressing you? 14 For when you are saved, he will not stand nor linger, 15 because I am your God, who stirs up the sea and makes its waves to sound—the Lord Sabaoth is my name.
  • 46 This emphasis on Jesus as speaker, reflecting his character as the Word, is also present in sayings such as John 3:34, 6:63, 9:37.
  • 47 As noted previously, this parallels not only Isaiah 45:19 LXX but also 48:16 LXX, where the speaker is the mysterious figure who has existed from the beginning and has been sent by the Lord and his spirit.
  • 48 E.g., Matt. 2:11; 4:9; 18:26, 29; Rev. 5:14; 19:4; 22:8; 17:6; 26:39; Luke 5:12; 17:16; John 11:32.
  • 49 Richard Bauckham, 'Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John', 155.
  • 50 The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 343-44.
  • 51 'Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John', 159.
  • 52 'When examined carefully, the Johannine ‘I am’ sayings do not appear to represent a direct assertion that Jesus is none other than the God of the Jewish Scriptures, so much as an allusive indication that he bears the divine name. Similar claims had been made for other figures in at least some Jewish circles, although nothing in the extant parallels is quite as extravagant as what we find in John. Nevertheless, when one considers the statement by the angel in Apoc. Abr. 10:8, ‘I am Yaoel’, in light of the application of the very same name to God in Apoc. Abr. 17:13, one can see how easily the statement of the angel could have been regarded by some as blasphemous, and misconstrued as a claim to be God himself. But this use of the divine name by the angel does not represent a claim to be the God of the Old Testament, but to be the special, unique agent of God. The figure who bears the name of God does so as part of his empowering and commissioning as God’s principal agent, and, as we have already seen, agency bestowed an equality of authority to, coupled with a complete submission to, the sender... [Thus it appears likely that] the Johannine "I am" represents something rather subtler and more carefully nuanced than this: it portrays Jesus as the bearer of the divine name, the agent upon whom God has bestowed his name.' (John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004], 105-106.)
  • 53 For instance, if we consider the message of the angel Yaoel to Abraham in Apocalypse of Abraham 10 (the text cited by McGrath in support of the kind of agency he sees in Jesus' 'I am' sayings), the message is primarily about God and not Yaoel.
  • 54 Probably the key Isaianic text on this point, as already discussed, is 48:16 LXX, where the pre-existent speaker describes himself as sent by the Lord and his spirit.
  • 55 David M. Ball, 'I Am' in John's Gospel: Literary Function, Background and Theological Implications (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996), 279.