Monday, October 02, 2017

Before Abraham was, I am

In the video, Ehrman asks Evans if he thinks Jesus actually uttered the “I am . . .” statements in John’s Gospel. Evans answered that most of them were probably not uttered as recorded and that John was probably of a genre different than the other Gospels...Now I realize some of my rather conservative brothers and sisters in Christ will experience some discomfort at Evan’s statement...It’s a matter of whether Jesus made those claims implicitly and John recast them in an explicit manner. In John, are we reading Jesus’ words or the message behind them? That’s the question. 

There are several basic problems with Licona's explanation:

i) A claim like Jn 8:58 is not a self-enclosed statement. Rather, what Jesus said in v58 grows directly out of the preceding exchange, while the reaction in v59 is in direct response to what he say in v58:

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (Jn 8:59).

The narrator can't simply take an originally implicit claim by Jesus, recast that as an explicit claim, without disrupting the flow of argument. In v58, Jesus is responding to what his enemies said, while, in v59, his enemies are responding to what he said. V58 is embedded in a dynamic exchange, where statement leads to another. Rejoinder and surrejoiners. The Abraham motif gives rise to v58. Jesus seizes on that comparison, then draws a pointed contrast between himself and Abraham. In v58, Jesus talks about himself in a way that deliberately invites comparisons with classic monotheistic statements in the OT (e.g. Exod 3:14; Isa 41:4; 43:10-11,25; 45:18-19,22; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6). His opponents are reacting to that specific formulation (or an Aramaic equivalent). 

ii) Although the Synoptics attest the deity of Christ, that's generally through allusive actions rather than mere statements. Statements in combination with illustrative actions. But in Jn 8:58, the Jews are incensed, not by something Jesus did, but by something he said. The statement in itself has that effect.

iii) Jn 8:58 is not an explicit claim to deity, but an implicit claim. A provocative statement designed to trigger associations with OT statements stressing the unique status of Yahweh–in contrast to heathen nonentities. To say that Jesus originally said something more oblique than v58 fails to explain the reaction in v59. V58 is an allusive statement that intentionally and inevitable evokes those OT texts. To claim that what Jesus original said was more muted leaves the comparison shrouded in obscurity. 


  1. Yes, I cannot understand how anyone could think of these entire scenes in John as "paraphrases" of anything in the synoptic gospels. At that point, the term "paraphrase" has lost its meaning. Seriously? Crafting entire scenes as settings for statements Jesus never made, but that are consistent with and expansions upon *completely different* sayings and actions in *completely different* settings, is "paraphrasing"?

    Part of what is so amusing is that it is Licona who is stating on behalf of "many scholars" the argument that Jesus *would not have* been as clear as he is in the gospels about his deity. (This, by the way, would impugn the historicity of "I and the Father are one" as well, even though it doesn't include the words "I am." Bart Ehrman expressly refers to "I and the Father are one," if I recall correctly, in the video with Evans.) But Evans apparently (in the e-mail that is circulating) wants to claim, and some people are desperate to believe, that Evans only meant that John paraphrases in some *ordinary* sense. As if Jesus said, "Before Abraham was living in Canaan, I am," and John left out "in Canaan," or something relatively harmless like that. But *that* notion of "paraphrase" (the normal one) is utterly incompatible with the argument Licona is making to allegedly show how reasonable Evans's position is! For that argument is quite clear that the statements in John are *too clear* for Jesus to have made them and that he would have made no claims to deity any clearer than the more implicit ones in the synoptics. It looks like Licona is doing Evans no favors if the goal is to obscure Evans's position in the eyes of the public!

    1. As you now, that's the classic liberal view of the Gospels. The Gospels are historicized doctrines. The church, decades later, fabricated backstories for later doctrinal developments and rituals.

    2. Yes, and Evans's reference to the "Johannine community" is highly relevant here.

      Licona evidently believes (and maybe Evans does too) that they can resist the slide into complete liberalism on this matter by hanging onto the historicity of the teaching of doctrine in the synoptics more strongly than they hang onto the scenes in John. Evans says that the historical bits in the synoptics are "more than just nuggets." But given the extent of "compositional devices" allowed, and the fact that these are attributed to the ancient world *generally*, why exempt the synoptics. Eventually, why not say that *all* of Jesus' claims to the prerogatives of deity are elaborations on something else he said in some other way, we know not when, we know not how, we know not what he actually did say?

      This reminds me of a scene in the Wind in the Willows where Toad is selling a horse. He says that it's "part thoroughbred" and then adds, "Not the parts you see, of course, the other parts." I really see no reason why this level of fictionalization should not eventually mean that all of Jesus' claims to deity were uttered or implied in some other parts of his teaching of which we have no reliable record--not the parts you see, of course, the other parts.

    3. What will Licona say to critics who claim all four Gospels are just-so stories in which the narrator concocts etiological fables to retroactively validate later theological developments?

    4. Presumably he'll say that *that* wasn't what he meant by compositional devices. But how would it look any different?

  2. Steve you wrote a great post about why there are differences between the Synoptics and John that argued (something like) the Synoptics focused on the public aspect of Christ's ministry, while John focused on more private and intimate aspects and that the latter could be explained by the fact that John was an eyewitness who was among the inner disciples of the Lord. I read the blog a few days ago while going through the archives. So, I don't know if it was a recent or old blogpost. But it made sense how the "I am" statements in John could be historical even though not recorded in the Synoptics. You should link to that post again (if it's and old one).

    1. We shd. remember though that both "Before Abraham was, I am" and "I and the father are one" are spoken to partially unsympathetic groups. (Obviously, because they try to stone him.) And the bread of life discourse is spoken to a crowd. So intimacy vs. public-ness isn't entirely what this is about. Though many (not all--not the bread of life discourses) of the additional notable bits in John concern non-Galilee locations, which may be significant as well.

      I think that in general John was trying to tell things the synoptics didn't tell. Like, "Dudes, why did you leave out the foot washing? For crying out...Okay, nevermind, *I'll* write about the foot washing!"

    2. So intimacy vs. public-ness isn't entirely what this is about.

      I agree. I didn't mean to imply that that was all Steve appealed to.

      If I recall, Steve also distinguished between how the Synoptics focused on the Lord's ministry outside of Jerusalem, while John focuses on His ministry in Jerusalem (which shouldn't be surprising since half of GJohn is devoted to His final days).

      It seems to any another reason why John records the "I am" sayings is that by the time of its writing the split between the church and the Jews was so clear cut that the author of John could let loose and tell it like it was, no punches pulled.

      Whereas the Synoptics were trying to ease into convincing Jewish readers of Jesus' full deity in indirect ways (especially GMatthew [written with a Jewish audience in mind] & GMark [based on Peter's sermons to his Jewish mission field). In order not to shock Jewish sensibilities too much too early. Though, both Mark and Matthew have Christ use "ego eimi" in the story where He walks on water in a way that might intentionally be hinting at His full deity. That is, maybe we're supposed to infer that upon further theological reflection and re-reading of the text. Mark also has Christ use "ego eimi" in his trial before the high priest in light of Dan. 7:13 which also suggests His full deity (as I've noted in a blog).

    3. So intimacy vs. public-ness isn't entirely what this is about.

      Nor did I intend to imply that Steve thought it applied in every instance. Clearly some places in GJohn where Christ hints at His deity were during (more or less) publics occasions.

  3. " Mark also has Christ use "ego eimi" in his trial before the high priest in light of Dan. 7:13 which also suggests His full deity."

    That, by the way, is relevant in another way to apologetics. Bart Ehrman didn't like it when Tim implied (I think it was in their debate on Unbelievable) that Jesus' answer "You have said it" to Pilate is an affirmative. He quibbled on that. But in the trial before the Sanhedrin recorded in Luke 22:70, when Jesus is asked if he is the Son of God, he says, "You have said it." It looks as though what he actually may have said is "I am" as in Mark. If Luke received the information that Jesus said "Yes" or otherwise answered strongly in the affirmative when asked the question, he might not have realized that Jesus used the "I am" statement and rendered the emphatic affirmative answer as "You have said it." The point is that this is evidence that "You have said it" really does indicate an affirmative.