dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Fourth Gospel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fourth Gospel. Show all posts

Sunday 17 April 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (1): "The Lord has sent me and his Spirit" (Isaiah 48:16)

This is the first part of a series of posts in which I hope to explore the Christological significance of certain passages in Isaiah.1 Early Christians drew extensively on the Jewish Scriptures to form their understanding of the person and mission of Jesus Christ, and few books influenced them more in this respect than Isaiah. Some of this influence is attested through direct quotations of Isaiah in the New Testament. For example, all four Gospels quote from Isaiah 40:3 to explicate John the Baptist's role in the divine purpose.2 However, the New Testament (NT) does not contain a verse-by-verse commentary on the Old Testament (OT); indeed, the NT only provides us with an Christological interpretation for a relatively small number of OT texts.

Should we conclude that only those OT texts that are explicitly quoted in the NT are legitimate Messianic texts? Or when we read that Jesus "interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures" (Luke 24:27) and that Apollos "powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus" (Acts 18:28), should we suppose that these Scriptures are strictly those cited elsewhere in the NT? Of course not. The OT, when read with the light of Christ, is saturated with Christological significance, and explicit NT quotations only scratch the surface of this.

In this article, we will examine Isaiah 48:16, an OT text that is never quoted in the NT but that (it will be argued) has enormous Christological significance. But before we turn to this passage, we need to ask a question: how can we know that an OT text is Messianic if the NT doesn't say it is? Are we not then merely imposing our own subjective opinions onto the text? Well, not quite. There are at least three lines of evidence by which such a claim can be evaluated objectively

These are: (i) mysterious or enigmatic features in the text; (ii) literary or conceptual echoes of the text in the NT; (iii) the witness of early Christian writers. First, the text may contain enigmas that point the reader toward some deeper significance. An NT example of this phenomenon can be seen in Acts 8:26ff. The Ethiopian eunuch is puzzled about the identity of the Servant figure as he reads Isaiah 53. The mysterious character of the text becomes an opening for the Spirit, speaking through Philip, to reveal the text's Christological significance. Second, even if a text is not explicitly quoted in the NT, there may be allusions or faint echoes that suggest that it had influenced the NT writer's ideas about Christ. Third, early post-apostolic Christian literature testify to how the early Church interpreted OT texts, and in some instances these writers are likely reporting traditional interpretations handed down to them from previous generations of believers. Thus, the temporal and linguistic proximity of these writers to the NT make their witness far more weighty than your or my private opinion.

One last thing needs to be said before we turn to Isaiah 48:16. To assert that a particular OT passage has a Messianic application is not to assert that this is its only meaning. Au contraire, there are arguably very few texts in the Jewish Scriptures that refer at the grammatical-historical level of meaning to the eschatological Messiah—and arguably none that refer to Jesus of Nazareth!3 Rather, Christological meaning, if present, operates as sensus plenior—a subtler spiritual, moral, or eschatological sense that may have been lost on the human author but was intended by the Divine Author. This distinction between grammatical-historical and theological interpretation must be borne in mind or misunderstandings are inevitable.4 One cannot accept the NT as Sacred Scripture and yet insist that the grammatical-historical sense is the only valid meaning of the text, because this is not how the NT writers interpret the OT.5

Isaiah 48:16 occurs in the middle of an oracle in which Yahweh addresses Israel concerning the people's disobedience and his divine mercy and redemptive purpose. It is clear that Yahweh is speaking in the first person:
12 Listen to me, O Jacob, 
      and Israel, whom I called:
     I am He; I am the first,
     and I am the last. 
13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
    and my right hand spread out the heavens; 
    when I summon them, 
    they stand at attention.6
The first-person address continues in v. 15: "I, even I, have spoken and called him..." and again v. 17 opens with "Thus says Yahweh..." But in v. 16 we have this:
Draw near to me, hear this!
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there.
And now the Lord Yahweh has sent me and his spirit.
Considering only the first three lines, there is nothing to suggest that the speaker is other than Yahweh, who has been speaking throughout this oracle. Yahweh has been making calls to "Hear" and "See" throughout the oracle (vv. 1, 6, 12, 14). Yahweh emphasises throughout this and other oracles in Isaiah 40-55 that he has existed and declared things from the beginning (vv. 3, 5, 12-14),7 and has not spoken in secret (45:19). Yet the speaker of the last line is obviously distinct from Yahweh, as he says he has been sent by Yahweh.

Who then is the speaker? Even according to the grammatical-historical sense, this question has proven puzzling for biblical scholars; there is no consensus as to its answer. John N. Oswalt summarises the problem and the scholarly positions:
The first three cola of the verse are clear enough, as has just been explained; but the last two constitute a problem that, in turn, raises problems about the first three. The difficulty is in identifying the speaker. It clearly cannot be God, yet there is no indication of a change. Does this mean that the speaker in the first part of the verse is, despite initial impressions, not God? Four basic positions have been taken. (1) The subject of the entire verse is the prophet... (2) the subject of the first three cola is God, and the subject of the last bicolon is the prophet... (3) the subject of the last bicolon is the Messiah... (4) the last bicolon is disarranged from some other place, either accidentally or on purpose...8
According to Claus Westermann, "Editors are unanimous" that the words of v. 16c ("But now, the Lord Yahweh has sent me and his spirit") "cannot possibly be explained in their present context"; he concludes that this fragment is a late addition to the text.9

The Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of Isaiah, which dates to perhaps the second century B.C.,10 follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) closely.11 A translation of the Septuagint Greek is:
Draw near to me, and hear these things! 
From the beginning I have not spoken in secret; 
when it happened I was there, 
and now the Lord has sent me and his spirit.12
The Septuagint text proves that, if the last line of Isaiah 48:16 MT is due to a textual disturbance, this disturbance was established by the second century B.C. and was thus almost certainly part of the Scriptures as known to Jesus and the earliest Christians. If it is a corruption, it is a canonical corruption and thus its significance for Christian theology cannot be dismissed.

One question that arises from the last line of Isaiah 48:16 is whether the Spirit is the subject or object: is it "the Lord and his Spirit sent me" or "the Lord sent me and his Spirit"? It happens that the syntax is ambiguous in both the Hebrew and the Greek, but as Oswalt notes, "While the former is grammatically possible, it is unlikely, both syntactically and theologically. See 11:2; 32:15; 44:3; 59:21; 61:1, where in all cases the Spirit is the one sent."13

Thus, to summarise, both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Isaiah 48:16, as they were known at the time of Jesus, contain an enigmatic line in the midst of speech by God where an unidentified speaker said that he and the Spirit have been sent by the Lord.

We have already mentioned that Isaiah 48:16 is never quoted directly in the NT. However, in this section I will argue that echoes of Isaiah 48:16 can be heard in the Gospel of John, and that these echoes indicate that this Evangelist interpreted the unidentified speaker—not only of the last line but of the entire verse—to be the preexistent Logos, the divine Son.

We will observe that there are echoes in John of all four lines of Isaiah 48:16.

Draw near to me and hear these things.

Just as the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 calls on Israel to "Draw near to me" (pros me in LXX), so Jesus in John calls on people to "come to me" (pros me, John 5:40; 6:35, 37, 44, 45, 65; 7:37). Likewise, just as the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 calls on Israel to "Hear this,"14 so in John it is by "hearing" Jesus that people may have eternal life (John 5:24, 25; 10:3, 16, 27; 18:37). Now someone may object that there is no striking parallel here since coming near to and hearing are generic, commonplace ideas. But let us go on.

From the beginning I have not spoken in secret.

The speaker of Isaiah 48:16 declares that he has spoken from the beginning and not in secret (ouk ap' archēs en kryphē elalēsa). At his trial, according to John, Jesus tells the high priest that "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret (kai en kryptō elalēsa ouden)" (John 18:20). Moreover, Jesus in John is one who has spoken from the beginning: he is the Word who was in the beginning (John 1:1), and when asked, "Who are you?" he gives the enigmatic reply, "What I have told you from the beginning" (John 8:25).15 Jesus also tells his disciples that he did not tell them something from the beginning (John 16:4), which implies that he did tell them other things.

When it happened I was there.

The speaker of Isaiah 48:16 declares, "At the time when it happened (or, came into existence), there I was."16 This statement very closely parallels the language about the Logos in John 1:1-3, though it is only apparent from the Greek. In Isaiah 48:16 LXX, the line is hēnika egeneto, ekei ēmēn. The verb egeneto is an aorist of ginomai, which has a broad range of meaning including "come into existence" and "happen."17 Notably, egeneto is used frequently in Genesis 1 LXX to describe the happenings of the creation story.

The verb ēmēn, meanwhile, is an imperfect of eimi, meaning "be." Now here is the fascinating bit: just as in Isaiah 48:16 the aorist egeneto is juxtaposed with an imperfect of eimi, so also in John 1:1-3. Here we read that the Word "was" (ēn, third-person imperfect of eimi) in the beginning with God and that all things "came to be" (egeneto) through him. The shift in verb and tense implies a contrast: while everything else came into existence or happened, the Word simply was. The same contrast is found in Isaiah 48:16: when it came into existence or happened, there I was. The imperfect probably has a durative sense in both cases: things happened, but the Logos/I was there throughout.18

There are other Johannine texts similar to this line from Isaiah 48:16 in John 1:15, 30,19 John 8:58,20 and John 17:5,21 all of which contrast Jesus' primeval and continuous existence with the coming into being of some finite reality.

And now the Lord has sent me and his Spirit.

The theme of Jesus as the one sent by the Father is mentioned many times in the Gospel of John, and significantly, Jesus draws a parallel between the Father's sending of him and the sending of the Holy Spirit:
...the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me... the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24, 26) 

But now I am going to him who sent me... Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:5, 7)
Isaiah 48:16 is, in fact, the only text in the entire OT that speaks of God sending two figures, one of whom is his Spirit. The order is also striking. In other texts, God sends his Spirit upon people, who then prophesy;22 but here the speaker is sent before the Spirit, just as the Son is in John.

To summarise, then, all four lines of Isaiah 48:16 are closely paralleled in the Fourth Gospel's depiction of Jesus. He is the one who calls people to come to him and hear him. He is the one who has not spoken in secret from the beginning. He is the one who "was" there when things "came to be." He is the one who is sent before God's Spirit. It is not a stretch to say that Isaiah 48:16 functions as a program statement for John's Christology, and has influenced John's view that Christ is both God and distinct from God (John 1:1, 18).

The earliest extant quotations from Isaiah 48:16 in Christian literature are found in the writings of Origen. In his work Contra Celsum, the great Alexandrian exegete writes:
Since, however, it is a Jew who raises difficulties in the story of the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of a dove to Jesus, I would say to him: My good man, who is the speaker in Isaiah that says 'And now the Lord sent me and his spirit'? In this text although it is doubtful whether it means that the Father and the Holy Spirit sent Jesus or that the Father sent Christ and the Holy Spirit, it is the second interpretation which is right. After the Saviour had been sent, then the Holy Spirit was sent, in order that the prophet's saying might be fulfilled (1.46).23 
In a briefer comment in his Commentary on Matthew (13.32), Origen follows the same interpretation (the Father sent the Son and the Spirit). In his Commentary on John, however, he takes the opposite view on the "doubtful" issue mentioned above:
How is the Spirit honored, as it were, above the Christ in some Scriptures? In Isaias, Christ admits that he has not been sent by the Father alone, but also by the Holy Spirit (for he says, 'And now the Lord has sent me, and his Spirit')... And if our Lord says, according to Isaias, that he has been sent by the Father and the Spirit, it is possible even there to allege of the Spirit which sent the Christ, that he does not excel him in nature, but that the Savior was made less than him because of the plan of the incarnation of the Son of God which was taking place. (2.79, 81)24
For Origen, therefore, it is clear that the speaker of Isaiah 48:16 is Christ. A few decades later, the same interpretation is attested in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, who comments on the passage both in his Eclogae Propheticae ("Prophetic Extracts") and in his Proof of the Gospel, both of which are ante-Nicene works.25 Some of Eusebius' statements sound very Arian, and he would in fact defend Arius during the Arian controversy but ultimately accepted the creedal formula and anathemas of the Council of Nicaea.26

No English-language translation of the Eclogae Propheticae has yet been published, but—with some assistance from Dr. Logan Williams, for which I am most grateful—I have attempted a translation of the relevant passage below:
‘Draw near to me, and hear these things: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret; when it came to be, I was there. And now the Lord, the Lord has sent me and his spirit.’27 Seeing as the person who is speaking these things is one, now who else might be the Lord ‘who created heaven and established it, and made the earth firm,’28 who says, ‘I am the first, and I am forever,’29 and sets things in order, according to all those having interpreted the divine Scripture, ‘and now the Lord God has sent me, and his spirit,’ or [might it be] the sacred Word of God, the first God named after the uncreated beginning of all created things, about whom also it is written elsewhere, ‘he sent his word and healed them,’30 for he is the one ‘through whom all things came into being,’31 even ‘things in heaven and things on earth, whether visible or invisible,’32 whom also the Lord God the Father sent—and with him also the Holy Spirit—so that he will steward the salvation of men? 
But it may be that what is stated is adapted toward the Jews, teaching that the other is the Lord who crafted all things with the God of all, by whom he confesses to having been sent, saying, ‘And now the Lord has sent me,’ and it may be he by whom the Father commanded nature, [saying] ‘Let there be light,’33 at the creation of the world, and ‘Let there be some things and other things,’ and, ‘Let us make man according to our image,’34 for this also in Psalms is inscribed, ‘He spoke and they came into being, he commanded and they were created.’35 For it is evident that the one commanding and saying something commands and orders another besides himself. Indeed really, to examine each word of the passage does not belong to the present undertaking. (Eclogae Propheticae 4.23)36
Eusebius later offers a similar interpretation in his Proof of the Gospel,37 and still later in his Commentary on Isaiah (which post-dates the Council of Nicaea).38

Thus, both extant Christian interpretations of Isaiah 48:16 from the ante-Nicene period hold that the speaker of this scriptural text is Christ, the pre-existent Word. One might object that two witnesses does not constitute overwhelming evidence. Perhaps not, but on the other hand there is zero evidence for any non-Christological interpretation of this text in the early Church.

We have seen that there are three lines of evidence supporting a Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 48:16: (i) the enigmatic character of this text in the original Hebrew; (ii) the echoes of this text in the Gospel of John; and (iii) the testimony of two early Church Fathers, namely Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea. If we accept that Christ is the speaker in the sensus plenior of this passage, what are the Christological implications? Firstly, the text implies Christ's pre-existence, not only because he is able to speak through the words of an OT prophet who prophesied long before his birth, but also because he expressly declares that he has been speaking from the beginning—meaning, in the Isaianic context, the beginning of creation. Secondly, the text implies Christ's divinity, because—apart from the last line about being sent—the speaker of this text claims prerogatives that deutero-Isaiah elsewhere says are exclusively God's. Thirdly, Christ does not make himself God in a Sabellian sense (as though he is the Father himself), but distinguishes himself from God and his Spirit. Just as the Gospel of John says, he is God but also sent by God. In fact, what we have here is an explicit mention of all three Trinitarian persons together, in the Old Testament!
  • 1 See my previous article on Isaiah in John for some background on the Book of Isaiah and "deutero-Isaiah" in particular.
  • 2 Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23.
  • 3 By grammatical-historical meaning, I mean the sense that the human author of the text intended to convey to his contemporary readers.
  • 4 See the Introduction to my article on Genesis 1:26 for a case in point.
  • 5 For two obvious examples, see Matthew's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 and Paul's interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10.
  • 6 Bible quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated, with the exception that "LORD" is substituted with Yahweh for linguistic clarity.
  • 7 Cf. similar statements in Isaiah 40:21, 41:4, 41:26-27, 43:10-13, 45:18-19, 45:21, 46:9-10.
  • 8 The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 278. Oswalt's own view is that the oddity results from "the close identity between God and the prophet"; the prophet switches temporarily from speaking Yahweh's words to speaking in his own person.
  • 9 Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1969), 202-203.
  • 10 Rodrigo F. De Sousa observes that the translator understands "Tarshish" in Isaiah 23 to refer to Carthage. This may indicate that the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 146 B.C. was regarded as a fulfilment of this prophecy, in which case the translation must be no earlier than 146 ("Isaiah," in The Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint, ed. Alison Salvesen and Michael Timothy Law [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021], 249).
  • 11 One difference is that, while אדני and יהוה are each usually rendered by kyrios in the Septuagint, אדני יהוה is here translated with a single kyrios rather than κύριος κύριος. Interestingly, the Greek text known to Eusebius of Caesarea (discussed below) does have a double kyrios, and Eusebius sees great theological significance in this, as highlighting the superiority of the Father's Lordship to the Word's: "And yet though the Word of God is Himself proclaimed divine by the word ‘Lord,’ He still calls One Higher and Greater His Father and Lord, using with beautiful reverence the word Lord twice in speaking of Him, so as to differentiate His title. For He says here, ‘The Lord, the Lord has sent me,’ as if the Almighty God were in a special sense first and true Lord both of His Only-begotten Word and of all begotten things after Him, in relation to which the Word of God has received dominion and power from the Father, as His true and Only-begotten Son, and therefore Himself holds the title of Lord in a secondary sense" (Proof of the Gospel 5.6, trans. W. J. Ferrar, The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea [2 vols.; London: SPCK, 1920], 1:251).
  • 12 Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 861-62. The Greek text is as follows: προσαγάγετε πρός με καὶ ἀκούσατε ταῦτα· οὐκ ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς ἐν κρυφῇ ἐλάλησα· ἡνίκα ἐγένετο, ἐκεῖ ἤμην, καὶ νῦν κύριος ἀπέσταλκέ με καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ. (Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983], vol. 14.)
  • 13 Book of Isaiah, 274 n. 61.
  • 14 In the MT the verb is שמע, used famously in Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema.
  • 15 This translation occurs in a footnote in the NRSV; the main translation is, "Why do I speak to you at all?" The Greek of Jesus' reply, tēn archēn ho ti kai lalō humin, is notoriously difficult; see my comments here, where I argued that "What I told you at the beginning" is a plausible translation.
  • 16 The adverb hēnika has the sense "at the time when" (BDAG 439).
  • 17 Here, it translates a form of היה, the Hebrew verb meaning "be" (but which, like ginomai, can also mean "happen"). Incidentally, the divine name Yahweh is etymologically related to the verb היה, as is evident from Exodus 3:14.
  • 18 The Greek imperfect conveys the incompleteness of the action, and often indicates duration over time. For instance, in Job 29:5 LXX, Job reminisces about former days "when I was (ēmēn) very much a person of substance and my children were around me" (NETS).
  • 19 Here, John the Baptist—who is first introduced in the Gospel with the verb egeneto in 1:6 (literally, "there came into existence a man")—says that the one coming after him has surpassed him, because "he was (ēn, imperfect) before me."
  • 20 Here, Jesus declares, "Before Abraham was (genesthai, aorist infinitive), I am (eimi, present tense)." I have commented in more detail on this text here.
  • 21 Here, Jesus petitions the Father to glorify him "with the glory that I had (eichon, imperfect) in your presence before the world existed (einai, present infinitive)."
  • 22 See, e.g., Num. 11:29; 3 Kgdms 10:6; 2 Chr. 20:14-15; Isa. 59:21.
  • 23 Trans. Henry Chadwick, Contra Celsum: Translated with an Introduction and Notes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 42.
  • 24 Trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Books 1-10 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 114-15.
  • 25 According to Aaron P. Johnson, the former work (which is the surviving part of Eusebius' General Elementary Introduction) was written before Eusebius became Bishop of Caesarea in 313, while the Proof of the Gospel was written during the period 314-324 ("Narrating the Council: Eusebius on Nicaea," in The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea, ed. Young Kim [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021], 203). W. J. Ferrar dates the Proof of the Gospel to 314-318, reasoning that some of theological language is too "unguarded" to have been written after the Arian controversy erupted c. 319 (The Proof of the Gospel, 1:xiii).
  • 26 Eusebius has sometimes been accused of selling out on his theological convictions at the Council of Nicaea, but Johnson ("Narrating the Council") argues that the Council's language was in fact compatible with Eusebius' theology.
  • 27 Isaiah 48:16. Eusebius actually quotes Isaiah 48:12-16 but for sake of brevity my translation begins from v. 16.
  • 28 Isaiah 42:5.
  • 29 Isaiah 48:12.
  • 30 Psalm 106:20 LXX.
  • 31 Cf. John 1:3, 10.
  • 32 Colossians 1:16.
  • 33 Genesis 1:3.
  • 34 Genesis 1:26.
  • 35 Psalm 32:9; 148:5 LXX.
  • 36 Greek text in Thomas Gaisford, Eusebii Pamphili, Episcopi Caesariensis: Eclogae Propheticae [Oxonii: E Typographeo Academico, 1842], 205-206.
  • 37 "See now how He that says, ‘I am the first, and I am the last. He that established the earth and the heaven,’ clearly confesses that He was sent by ‘the Lord, the Lord,’ calling the Father Lord twice, and you will have undeniable evidence of what we seek. And He says that He is first among beings begotten in all reverence since He allots Being, original, unbegotten, and beyond the first, to the Father. For the customary meaning of first in the sense of ‘first of a greater number,’ superior in honour and order, would not be applicable to the Father. For the Almighty God of course is not the first of created things, since the idea of Him does not admit of a beginning. He must be beyond and above the first, as Himself generating and establishing the First, and the Divine Word alone is to be called the First of all begotten things. So if we ask with reference to the words, ‘He spake and they were made, he commanded and they were created,’ to which of the begotten beings He gave the command to create, we see now clearly that it was given to Him, Who said, ‘My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand has made the heaven strong’: Who also confesses that He was sent by One greater than Himself, when He says: ‘Now the Lord, the Lord has sent me, and his Spirit.’ And it must be the Word of God Who said also, ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made firm,’ if we compare the Psalm. And yet though the Word of God is Himself proclaimed divine by the word ‘Lord,’ He still calls One Higher and Greater His Father and Lord, using with beautiful reverence the word Lord twice in speaking of Him, so as to differentiate His title. For He says here, ‘The Lord, the Lord has sent me,’ as if the Almighty God were in a special sense first and true Lord both of His Only-begotten Word and of all begotten things after Him, in relation to which the Word of God has received dominion and power from the Father, as His true and Only-begotten Son, and therefore Himself holds the title of Lord in a secondary sense" (Proof of the Gospel 5.6.1-7, trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 1:250-51); "You have here the Lord sent and the Lord sending, that is to say the Father and God of the Universe, entitled Lord twice as was usual" (Proof of the Gospel 6.22, trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 2:43-44).
  • 38 Eusebius indicates that it is "the Word" who is speaking in this passage, and comments, "For when the Father planned these things, I was with him, and now the Lord himself, who is God over all, sent me his Spirit of holiness in order that I might accomplish once and for all the things that he has ordained." (Eusebius, Commentary on Isaiah 305-306, trans. Jonathan J. Armstrong, Eusebius of Caesarea: Commentary on Isaiah [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013], 239).

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  

Erratum: The author regrets that an earlier version of this article reported that the form of the verb ginomai in John 8:58 is egeneto (aorist indicative); it is in fact genesthai (aorist infinitive). The difference, however, has little bearing on the meaning in this case.

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 this comment refers to Isaiah's actually having seenJesus (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 genesthai: '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 an aorist form of ginomai).

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 infinitive 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 of John 6:16-21 with a sound knowledge of salvation-history 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.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 3)

In the last blog we continued our exploration of ‘ascending and descending’ language in the Gospel of John. We found that John 3:13, when considered in context and against the background of Proverbs 30:4, provides a strong statement of Christ’s personal preexistence.

In this, the last of a three-part series, we will consider yet another verse which uses ascending and descending language to teach us about Christ’s pre-existence: John 6:62. It reads in context thus:

“58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Here we find Jesus issuing a bold rebuke to those who were offended by his prior claims to have descended from heaven, and to have given his flesh to eat: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” We find again the common thread of the “Son of Man” which was also found in John 1:51 and 3:13, which is certainly worthy of further study.

But it is not too difficult to determine what Jesus question meant. The context is full of references to Christ having descended from heaven (John 6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58), so for Jesus to “ascend to where he was before” can only refer to his ascension back to heaven. The rhetorical question makes good sense in light of the historical record which declares that Jesus subsequently did ascend to heaven. Jesus’ subsequent ascent to heaven was undeniably literal (i.e. personal). So for him to use the language of “ascending to where he was before” requires that he had literally, personally, been in heaven before. This requires that he pre-existed. The argument is straightforward.

Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have produced innovative alternative interpretations of John 6:62. One is that Jesus was referring to an ascent to Jerusalem (i.e. an uphill walk). Support for this view is claimed in the use of the verb anabaino (to go up), which is used of going up to the feast in Jerusalem in John 7:8, 10, 14; and also is translated 'ascending' in John 6:62. However, this view makes no sense in the context. Jesus’ question, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if…” implies that he is about to make an even more provocative statement than those he had just made (about descending from heaven and giving his flesh to eat). Does “Then what if I were to go up to the feast at Jerusalem?” qualify as even more provocative? It does not.

Others have claimed that Jesus’ statement in John 6:62 referred to his resurrection, that is, “ascending” out of the grave back to the realm of the living. This, too, is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, the verb anabaino is nowhere else used in the sense of resurrection. For another, the verb is a present active participle here; Jesus is emphasizing the action in progress. What if you were to see the Son of man in the act of ascending to where he was before? This use of the verb makes little sense if it refers to a figurative, resurrection meaning; but it makes a lot of sense if it refers to his bodily ascension to heaven, which was witnessed in progress by some of the disciples who heard these words (see Acts 1:11).

In their commentary on John, Bernard and McNeile bring out the sense of this verse well:

“Here is suggested the pre-existence of the Son of Man, as before at 3:13...The meaning of vv. 62, 63 is best brought out if we take them in connexion with v. 58 (cf. v. 51), which had seemed to the hearers of Jesus to be hard of acceptance...that He was the Bread which came down from heaven...That One moving among men in the flesh had descended from heaven seemed incredible, but is it not still less credible that He should ascend to heaven?  Yet the former had happened (in the Incarnation); the latter will happen at the Ascension, and some of those present might be there to see it” (p. 111).