Before Abraham was, I am. (KJV)
1. Trinitarians argue that this verse states that Jesus said he was the “I am” (i.e., the Yahweh of the Old Testament), so he must be God. That argument is not correct. Saying “I am” does not make a person God, in fact it was a common way for someone to identify themselves. For example, only ten verses after Jesus said, egō eimi (“I am”) in John 8:58, the man who had been born blind identified himself by saying exactly what Jesus said; egō eimi (“I am” John 9:9). The fact that the exact same phrase is translated two different ways, one as “I am” and the other as “I am the man,” is one reason it is so hard for the average Christian to get the truth from just reading the Bible as it has been translated into English. Most Bible translators are Trinitarian, and their bias appears in various places in their translation, this being a common one. Paul also used the same phrase of himself when he said that he wished all men were as “I am” (Acts 26:29). Thus, we conclude that saying “I am” did not make Paul, the man born blind or Christ into God. C. K. Barrett writes:
Ego eimi [“I am”] does not identify Jesus with God, but it does draw attention to him in the strongest possible terms. “I am the one—the one you must look at, and listen to, if you would know God.” 
2. The phrase “I am” occurs many other times in the New Testament and is used as an identifying phrase. For example, Jesus taught that people would come in his name, saying egō eimi (“I am he”) and will deceive many (Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8; HCSB; ESV; NAB; NET; NIV), he meant that many false Messiahs would come claiming to be the true Messiah. More examples of Jesus using egō eimi include: John 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8; Jesus identifying himself to the apostles on the boat: Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50; and John 6:20; and Jesus identifying himself to the Jews, saying egō eimi, translated “I am the one I claim to be” (NIV84, John 8:24, 28).
It is obvious that these translations are quite correct, and it is interesting that the phrase is translated as “I am” only in John 8:58. If the phrase in John 8:58 were translated “I am he” or “I am the one,” like all the others, it would be easier to see that Christ was speaking of himself as the Messiah of God (as indeed he was), spoken of throughout the Old Testament.
At the Last Supper, the disciples were trying to find out who would deny the Christ. They said, literally, “Not I am, Lord” (Matt. 26:22, 25). No one would suggest that the disciples were trying to deny that they were God because they were using the phrase “Not I am.” The point is this: “I am” was a common way of designating oneself, and it did not mean you were claiming to be God.
3. In order for the Trinitarian argument to be true, that Jesus’ “I am” statement in John 8:58 makes him God, his statement must be equivalent with God’s “I am” statement in Exodus 3:14. Let us look at the two verses in parallel in the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament:
Exod. 3:14: And God said to Moses: “I am (εγω ειμι) the one who is (ο ων).” … ‘You are to tell the children of Israel this: “The one who is (ο ων) has sent me to you.’”
John 8:58: Before Abraham was, I am (εγω ειμι, “egō eimi”)
Trinitarians will look at Jesus’ phrase “egō eimi” and conclude that he is claiming the same name that God gives for himself in Exodus 3:14. However, this is faulty logic for multiple reasons. First, Jesus does not quote the full title. Jesus does not say, “Before Abraham was, I am who I am.” He only says part of the phrase. Secondly, he says the wrong part of the phrase if this was his goal. If you notice above, God shortens his divine name in the second half of Exodus 3:14 and says to tell them: “The one who is (ο ων) has sent me to you.’” The translators of the Septuagint do not use “egō eimi” here, instead they use ο ων (“ho on”). Thus, if John being quite familiar with the Septuagint (he quotes it in John 2:17), had meant to communicate that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, at the very least would have used “ο ων,” instead, he uses “egō eimi.” In summary, here in John 8:58, Jesus does not use the complete divine title in Exodus 3:14a, nor the partial divine title in Exodus 3:14b, but instead uses “egō eimi” which was a common expression in Greek to identify oneself as the person being talked about, i.e. “I am he” or “I am the one” (Matt. 14:27; Mark 13:6; etc.).
4. The argument is made that because Jesus was “before” Abraham, Jesus must have been God. There is no question that Jesus figuratively “existed” in Abraham’s time. However, he did not actually physically exist as a person; rather he “existed” in the mind of God as God’s plan for the redemption of man. A careful reading of the context of the verse shows that Jesus was speaking of “existing” in God’s foreknowledge. Verse 56 is accurately translated in the King James Version, which says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” This verse says that Abraham “saw” the Day of Christ, which is normally considered by theologians to be the day when Christ conquers the earth and sets up his kingdom. That would fit with what the book of Hebrews says about Abraham: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Abraham looked for a city that is still future, yet the Bible says Abraham “saw” it. In what sense could Abraham have seen something that was future? Abraham “saw” the Day of Christ because God told him it was coming, and Abraham “saw” it by faith. Although Abraham saw the Day of Christ by faith, that day existed in the mind of God long before Abraham. Thus, in the context of God’s plan existing from the beginning, Christ certainly was “before” Abraham. Christ was the plan of God for man’s redemption long before Abraham lived.
It is almost certain that the Jews misunderstood Jesus here. They clearly misunderstood him a few verses earlier saying, “You are yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham” (John 8:57)? They do not understand how Abraham could have seen Jesus’ day, if Jesus didn’t physically exist then. So, after Jesus’ bold statement here in John 8:58, it is very likely they misunderstood him to be saying that he physically existed before Abraham, because this is what they were thinking prior to his response and then they picked up stones to stone him. Trinitarians will use the Jews reaction to say that Jesus must have been claiming to be God. However, this is a very dangerous line of reasoning, because not only were the Jews some of the greatest enemies of Jesus, who put him to death, but they often misunderstood Jesus’ words all throughout the book of John (John 3:4; 6:41-42; etc.), and in the immediate context (John 8:27, 43, 52). So, using the Jews reaction to mean that they understood what Jesus was saying is dangerous.
John 8:12 and John 8:28 enlighten Jesus’ use of “egō eimi” in John 8:58. In John 8:12, which introduces this whole dialogue in chapter 8, Jesus says, “I am (egō eimi) the light of the world.” See, Jesus is not trying to say “I am God,” but rather “I am the light of the world.” This is what Jesus means by using egō eimi. In John 8:28 Jesus says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am (egō eimi).” That he is what? What has he claimed to be in context? The light of the world. In John 8:58 Jesus is claiming to be the light of the world that has existed in God’s plan long before Abraham (Gen. 3:15), and that Abraham could see (John 8:56), not physically, but by faith (Heb. 11:10).
Buzzard, pp. 93-97
Dana, Letter 21, pp. 169-171
Morgridge, pp. 120-21
Norton, pp. 242-246
Snedeker, pp. 416-418
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1. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St John (Westminster Press, London, 1978), p. 342. Back to top
2. J. A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John (Meyer Stone Pub., Oak Park, IL, 1985), p. 384. Back to top