Saturday, March 10, 2018

Are the "I am" statements authentic?

Some critics doubt that Jesus could have made the "I am" statements attributed to him in John's Gospel. If, however, Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate, then there's nothing surprising or incongruous about Jesus making those statements. This isn't a theological innovation. Rather, it has OT precedent in the Pentateuch and the prophet Isaiah:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exod 3:14).

See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me (Deut 32:29)

Who has performed and done this,
calling the generations from the beginning?
I, Yahweh, the first,
and with the last; I am he (Isa 41:4)

“You are my witnesses,” Yahweh declares,
“and amy servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me (Isa 43:10)

Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isa 43:13).

“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins (Isa 43:25).

even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save (Isa 46:4)

“Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first,
and I am the last (Isa 48:12)

“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass (Isa 51:12)

6 Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am (Isa 52:6).

Given that such "I am" statements are an idiomatic self-designation and recurring motif in the OT, it's to be expected that Jesus will make claims about himself that evoke those OT statements. 

And given how that functions as a refrain in Isaiah to distinguish Yahweh from false gods, when Jesus uses the same language, that unmistakably implicates his own deity. 

In addition, this isn't unique to John's Gospel. In Revelation, the First/Last, Alpha/Omega title is applied to Jesus (Rev 1:8,11; 21:6; 22:13), and that's another Yahwistic refrain in the same section of Isaiah (Isa 40-48) that uses the "I am" language. 

Likewise, the "I am" statement in Mt 14:27 is arguably theophanic. Cf. R. Bauckham, Is "High Human Christology" Sufficient? A Critical Response to J. R. Daniel Kirk's A Man Attested by God, Bulletin for Biblical Research 27.4 (2017) 503-525.


  1. The pressing issue for the conservative Christian position on the historicity of the "I Am/am" saying is not whether Jesus could have uttered them, but why they aren't recorded in the Synoptics if they were historical? Especially since they are so theologically important.

    The following are some of my "solutions" to account for this apparent problem.

    First off, it's incorrect to say that Jesus doesn't refer to Himself as "I Am" in the Synoptics in a way, and in a context, that might reasonably suggest a claim to full Deity. See for example Anthony Rogers' excellent article contribution Mark My Words; or my synopsis Here which shows Mark recording it twice and Matthew once. One of the great points Rogers makes is that Mark 6:50, Matt. 14:27 and John 6:20 are parallel passages, and that if you're going to be consistent and say that the "I am" saying in John 6:20 is a self-indentification of Deity on Christ's part, then Mark 6:50 and Matt. 14:27 might also plausibly indicate such a self-identification as well [I phrased it more modestly than Rogers].

    But why aren't they more numerously recorded in the Synopics? One would think that Luke would record them because he did intensive research after others had already written gospels, and wrote at a time late enough that early strains of Christian tradition would have spread more uniformly throughout the church. Yet, also early enough that skeptics couldn't too easily chalk up any high Christology in Luke/Acts to development [at least to the degree they foist on GJohn].

    I suspect that maybe Matthew and Luke just didn't recognize the significance of the "I am" sayings as a claim to Deity. Otherwise they would have included both of Mark's "I Am" sayings which are explosively suggestive of that. Besides Rogers' article, see (Catholic) Brant Pitre's video HERE (at 42:47) where he describes the Divine implications of Jesus statement of "I am" when was walking on water in GMark. See my blogpost HERE regarding Jesus' "I am" statement at His trial in GMark. Matthew may have unintentionally, but fortuitously, preserved Mark's historical "I am" statement [Mark 6:50] into his own Gospel in Matt. 14:27. Unfortunately, he didn't do so in the case of the trial of Jesus.

    It must also be realized that Luke and Matthew are among the largest books in the New Testament [Luke, I believe, being the largest]. With so much to record, it's easy to leave out things that are important. Not just easy, but inevitable because it would have been financially, physically and practically prohibitive to write books much longer than they did [See this video HERE at 12:46]. Books that were also meant to be short enough that they could be quickly copied repeatedly and distributed throughout the Roman empire.

    Matthew and Luke were meant to be much more exhaustive than Mark. Yet interestingly, Mark records two contextually conspicuous "I am" sayings EVEN THOUGH it's the shortest Gospel and the earliest Gospel [and so likely to be more historical by comparison, given skeptical assumptions attached to Markan Priority, which is itself not necessarily a skeptical position to take].


    1. Also, it should be recognized that Luke wrote for a Gentile audience, and so the "I am" sayings would not be as significant to Gentile readers [even given the fact that Gentile converts would eventually read the LXX which does have Divine "I am" statements]. Skeptics often claim Luke was written relatively late. Most scholars accept Markan priority and often also think Luke wrote his gospel after the finalized version of Matthew was more universally published. Yet, interestingly, Luke's Gospel [and possibly with the inclusion of Acts] has the lowest Christology of the canonical Gospels (IMO). That's contrary to the versions of theological and christological development popular among skeptics. Conservatives too can consistently affirm development, but not of the magnitude and type skeptics claim.

      I already said that Matthew may not have recognized [or at least fully appreciated] the significance of the "I am" statements, but we should also take into consideration the fact that his target audience were Jews. For Matthew to too frequently have Jesus use them would likely have been too shocking to their Jewish ears. It would have been too incredible. Instead, Matthew only hints at Jesus' full Divinity in his Gospel [STRONG hints as they are, and as I've argued many times in my blogs on the Trinity].

      When the church fathers talked about there not being any secret teachings/doctrines, they wrote those statements after the first generation of Christians had passed, and so everything by then was completely open to the public. I say that because I don't think it's impossible that there were deeper theological teachings of Jesus which John records and which the Synoptics didn't record precisely because the earlier Gospels were meant to be introductions to Christianity to ease people into the shocking claims of Christianity. Shocking to both Jews and Gentiles, but for different reasons. None of the Gospels wanted to give the impression that Jesus was just like the others pagan gods who came down to earth. They wanted to distance themselves from all that. Whereas John was written at such a late time that it would have been culturally and theologically safe, and apologetically necessary to proclaim the inner teaches of Jesus, which included the "I am" sayings. I don't think this contradicts Jesus teaching to preach openly what He taught, since there can be different levels of teaching. Even at the present time we talk about introductory level, intermediate and advanced levels of teaching regarding modern secular subjects.

      What about the epistles? Why don't they contain Jesus' "I am" sayings? In most instances, there would have been no occasion needed to quote Jesus as having claimed to be the I Am. Though, they did regularly attribute or apply Old Testament passages concerning YHVH to Jesus [see my blogpost on this topic HERE]. Thus showing very high Christologies in Christian writings/communities PRIORto the writing of the canonical Gospels. At the same time they also wanted to affirm, and not deny, Jesus' functional subordination to the Father. There was a theological balancing act all early Christians were attempting when addressing Jesus' divinity AND submission to the Father. Different Christian communities made that attempt, and voiced it, differently. So, we shouldn't expect a Pauline community to sound like a Johannine community, or vice versa. Even today, pastors and theologians who have virtually the same theology will still express it differently and have different emphases in their sermons.

    2. BTW, I just created a blogpost based on my comments above [with expansion] HERE.

  2. Matthew, as a Jew, would of course have recognized the significance both of "Before Abraham was, I am" and also of "I and the Father are one." Obviously, the other Jews also recognized it, for the tried to stone Jesus.

    It doesn't follow that he would have excluded them only consciously and in order to avoid shocking his audience, though that's a *possible* explanation.

    But as Steve pointed out recently, the Trinitarian formula at the end of Matthew (baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) would have been upsetting to Jews for at least approximately the same reason but is uniquely included in Matthew. So that seems like a counterargument.

    Sometimes it can be good to test hypotheses of motives by considering other, similar cases. (For example--digression--one reason I think virtually all claims of "protective anonymity" are weak is because the Gospel in question usually includes names of other people who would have been at least as vulnerable. It's unlikely that Mark didn't give the name of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet *because of* considerations of "protective anonymity," since Mark includes the names of *several* women who were present at the cross and then brought spices to anoint Jesus' dead body.)

    I think your point about the size of Matthew and Luke is very important. They were filling their scrolls already.

    One thing I think we definitely need to get past is the idea that the Gospel authors were trying to "build a case" for this or that doctrine and trying to build the *strongest* possible case by including this or that saying of Jesus. This can be anachronistic. We think apologetically, but it's not clear that Mark did, and Matthew's apologetic approach would have been different from ours--fulfillment of prophecy, for example, more than "gotta defend the deity of Christ." Mark seems to have been far more narrative in his goals--wanting to *tell the story*. Luke, as well, seems to think of his apologetic purposes chiefly in terms of narrating events rather than in terms of building doctrinal cases by including sayings that support them. We go back and look for texts to build cases, and there's nothing *wrong* with our doing so. It's not that it's bad hermeneutically, if the case is a good one and the text does support the conclusion. But we shouldn't turn that around and assume that the Gospel was written with that intention in mind. The argument from silence against John gains more traction from the tacit assumption that Matthew, Mark, and Luke would have wanted to include Jesus' sayings about important doctrines to make sure that the case was made for those doctrines, as if that were one of their foremost narrative purposes. Hence, if Jesus said these things that are so important to teaching this doctrine, they would have been sure to include them. That first premise is something we shouldn't lightly assume.

    1. //So that seems like a counterargument.//

      I was intending to address that but I forgot to. Especially since I agree with Steve's point in that blogpost and expanded it in my own comments. But even Matt. 29:19 doesn't explicitly say that Jesus is included in the tetragrammaton. Though, I argued it was the most likely interpretation. Also, Matt. 29:19 is at the end of the Gospel, and so everything prior would have prepared the reader/listener for the inclusion of the Son and Spirit into the tetragram. But that's not to deny that there are strong indications that Jesus is implied as being fully God in Matthew (without explicitly saying so). Even in that ego eimi passage in Matt. 14:27, Matthew's account of Jesus walking on water ends with Jesus and Peter entering the boat and the passage saying, "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.' " Matthew is clearly is implying Jesus more than an ordinary human being irrespective of whether you translate the Greek as "did obeisance" [as Unitarians would prefer] or "worshiped" [as Trinitarians would prefer].

      Additionally, I've written blogposts about Matthew's use of "ho theos" for Jesus, Jesus being greater than the Temple (where God's presence resides!), Jesus being in the presence of two or three believers is an allusion to a passage in the Mishnah about the Shekinah, Jesus' wings are God's wings, et cetera.

      //I think your point about the size of Matthew and Luke is very important. They were filling their scrolls already.//

      Yes, that was what I was getting at. I didn't phrase it that way because I suspect there were different scroll lengths and I don't know in what sizes (so to speak) they came in, and which of them the Gospel writers would have been inclined to use based on their prices, availability, commonness, intended length, practical copyability/copiability [cf. John 21:25] etc.

      //That first premise is something we shouldn't lightly assume.//


    2. excellent discussion by Annoyed Pinoy and Lydia McGrew - thanks.

      That is the big question that Annoyed Pinoy brought up. Liberals, skeptics and now Muslims are using their arugments against the "I am" statements.

      Others have also mentioned that Mark emphasizes the "Messianic secret" - and that later John brings out the "I am statements" because they were spoken of in more private settings with the disciples and that the Synoptics have lots of public ministry.

      Mark may have only recorded Peter's action oriented sermons, if Papias and subsequent church tradition is true that Mark is the interpreter for Peter and wrote down his sermons.

      But Peter was in the inner circle, and there during the Johannine I am statements; so it is possible that the Gospel of John is a combination of all the other inner circle disciples' recollection, written by John, but compiled from more than just John (Peter, James, Andrew, etc.) as the fulfillment of Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit who will come and bring to their remembrance all that I have spoken and leading them into all the truth. (John 14, 16)