Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Having a seminary professor as a Dad has its advantages. It is an advantage because it allows one to think critically about one’s faith perhaps earlier than one might have otherwise. One such example from my Junior High School years comes to mind. My father asked me if I could quote him a scripture where Jesus claimed to be God. After the initial shock of this challenge subsided, I had to admit that I was unaware of one where Jesus explicitly stated, “I am God.”

However, this quest caused me to investigate whether other sayings of his conveyed the same message. With some assistance, I focused on the “I am” sayings of John. This piece updates that early study by examining these statements within expanding concentric circles of context. First, these sayings in Chapters 4, 6, 8 and 13 will be examined on their own; then within their immediate context; then within the larger context of John; and finally within an Old Testament context.

Exploring Jesus’s “I Am” Sayings in John

A. John 4:26

John 4:26 provides: “Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.” (NASB; italicization in original.) Viewed in isolation, this statement does not persuasively establish that Jesus regarded himself to be deity. In fact, it necessarily refers to the antecedent of “He”. In other words, Jesus was adopting something that a woman—the “her”—had just said to him. Looking directly above this verse, one finds that the woman, the Samaritan “Woman at the Well” had just declared: “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” (John 4:25; NASB.)

Accordingly, the “He” should be read to mean that Jesus did accept the Messiah title. However, that Jesus had just adopted the woman’s appellation of “Messiah” does not automatically translate into an affirmation of his deity.

B. John 6:20

“But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’” (John 6:20; NASB.) Here, Jesus is seeking to comfort others by saying he is now with them. Examining the broader context of this passage demonstrates that Jesus’ disciples were fearful as they were (a) at sea; (b) in the dark; (c) during a storm; and (d) without Jesus. They were not questioning his deity. “Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. And it had already become dark, and Jesus had yet to come to them. And the sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When therefore they had rowed about three or four miles, they beheld Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat; and they were frightened. But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’” (John 6:16-20; NASB.)

Viewed in this broader context, it is evident that Jesus was seeking to alleviate the disciples’ fear by telling him that he was with them during their travail inasmuch as they had become frightened in his absence. His announcement of “It is I” is more of an announcement of his presence than a declaration of his deity. It is not likely that his scared disciples, being jostled in the boat, were questioning whether Jesus and God were one, or were looking for an affirmation of deity to settle a theological debate among them.

However, this statement is coupled with his ability to “walk on the sea” (John 6:19), which admittedly defies normal human experience and explicates some control over natural phenomenon. Nevertheless, it does not appear that Jesus is using this statement to communicate anything other than reassurance of his frightened disciples, and in this context should not be read to mean that Jesus was using this occasion to exclaim his deity.

C. John 8:18, 24, 28

John 8 provides several “I am” sayings. This paper examines, however, John 8:58 separately below as it comes thirty verses later than the last of the cluster in the middle of John 8, and is substantively distinct on its face.

First, “I am He who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me.” (John 8:18; NASB.)

Like John 4:26, this verse again employs the formulation where Jesus is referring to himself as “He” following the “I am”, so we must understand to what the “He” refers in this immediate context. The “He” here is one bearing witness of or to himself. Viewed in isolation, this statement alone does not necessarily transmute into an affirmation that Jesus regards himself as deity. In other words, one could say that he or speaks on his own authority or testifies according to his own witness, but this does not necessarily mean that the speaker is claiming oneness with God. It could be interpreted as a statement of self-assuredness, for example.

However, it does bespeak a higher authority, such that others are not needed to underscore his authority. In addition, Jesus goes further to state that God Himself is his witness and has sent him. This position is undeniably elevated, but it does not necessarily establish equality with God. For example, Paul, who clearly did not claim deity for himself, repeatedly referred to himself as being sent by God, and also to God being his witness. (See, e.g., Phil. 1:8 and Rom. 1:1, 9.)

Second, “I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:24; NASB, italicization in the original.)
Once again, this rendering shows Jesus referring to himself as “He”, so this requires an examination of the immediately broader context to ascertain to what “He” refers. However, the text is not explicit in this regard.

Here, Jesus converses with “The Adulterous Woman”. She has just been accused by the “scribes and Pharisees” of committing adultery, and they seek Jesus’ endorsement of her stoning. (John 8:3-5.) Jesus remarks that he does not condemn her, tells her to go her way and sin no more. (John 8:11.) He then underscores his authority by saying that he is the “light of the world” (8:12) , that he “bears witness of” himself (8:18, see above discussion), that God is his witness (8:18), that God sent him (8:18), that he is from above (8:23), and that she must believe that Jesus is “He” for forgiveness of sins (8:24).

Actually, the use of the “He” has apparently been added in the New American Standard translation by the denotation of italics. The fact that “He” has been added in the NASB translation comports with the fact that there is no readily apparent antecedent in this context. Moreover, according to this version’s notes, a more accurate rendering would be that Jesus told her that unless you believe that “I AM”, you shall die in your sins. (8:24, n. 1 [“Most authorities associate this with Ex. 3:14, I AM WHO I AM”].) This formulation, “I AM” is materially different from that of “unless you believe that I am He”, which may refer to “He” as the Son of God, the Son of Man, or the Messiah—titles which do not necessarily equate with an affirmation of deity.

We will discuss the “I AM” formulation in the discussion of the Old Testament context below. Nevertheless, even setting aside an Old Testament understanding of the phrase “I AM”, these words carry remarkable significance even to English-speaking and non-Jewish readers. “I AM” denotes no past and no future tense. It implies eternal existence. Only God can legitimately claim eternality.

Third, “Jesus therefore said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” (John 8:28; NASB.)

This verse helpfully provides the antecedent of “He” within itself. The “He” here refers to the “Son of Man.” (John 8:28.) As we have noted previously, that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man does not necessarily equate to a claim of his deity. However, this phrase is joined or juxtaposed with Jesus’ reference to God as his Father. Separating out the broader context of Scripture, which can provide a fuller Christology or a systematic theology of the Trinity, this statement of being a son does not alone establish Jesus as deity, because Jesus himself told others—his thoroughly human disciples--to pray to God as their “Father” as well. (See, e.g., Matt. 6:8-9.) He clearly did not intend to imply that they (or we) somehow enjoyed oneness with God as God’s children.

D. John 8:58

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.’” (John 8:58; NASB.)

In my judgment, this verse makes a direct and unmistakable claim of deity. First, as noted above, Jesus is clearly stating that he existed before Abraham. Anyone hearing this with some knowledge of Abraham (who predated him by approximately two thousand years) would recognize that Jesus was claiming to be eternal. In fact, they incredulously asked him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” (John 8:57.) No sane (and mere) human can make such a claim.

Second, Jesus’s use of the present tense to describe a past occurrence carries a special significance in the context of the Old Testament. In other words, instead of simply saying before Abraham existed, “I was”, Jesus used the powerful “I AM”. In so doing, he skillfully conveyed his meaning that goes even beyond a claim of eternality. While claiming eternality, he also claims equality with God or YAWHEH, who referred to himself as “I AM” in the following scripture: “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.’” (Ex. 3:14; NASB.)

It should be noted that this verse, as translated into English, does not add the “He” after the “I AM”. As we have explored above, the “He” might have injected some ambiguity as to what “He” was intended to convey, such as Son of Man, or something similar. The absence of any “He” or anything else tracks identically with YAHWEH’s own formulation set forth in Exodus 3:14; God has referred to himself in verse 14 as “I AM”, and moreover tells Moses to tell others that is His name.

Further, the immediate context to this verse amply shows that this meaning—an equation with God--was successfully conveyed. In the following verse, it is written: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple.” (John 8:59; NASB.) Stones were picked up to hurl at Jesus because the listeners—those apparently in the Temple who would understand what “I AM” meant—deemed this statement blasphemy. If it were untrue, it would have been.

Third, the broader context of John 8:58 also shows that Jesus was crafting a polemic for his deity. In verse 51 for example, Jesus says that whoever “keeps [his] word shall never see death.” (John 8:51; NASB.) Jesus accordingly demonstrated his power over death—a position only God enjoys.

This passage, the use of “I AM” in this context, leaves little room for legitimate cavil that Jesus claimed to be God. Recognizing this fact, the debate then moves to whether this saying can be deemed authentic or has been added by overly zealous followers of Jesus. We will examine that debate later.

E. John 13:19

“For now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” (John 13:19; NASB, italicization in original.)

Unlike John 8:58 which employs only “I AM”, and not the appended “He”, this verse incorporates some of the ambiguities found in the pronoun’s use. Looking immediately above verse 19 shows that Jesus was quoting Psalms 41:9 with respect to David’s betrayal and analogized it with his own. (John 13:18.) The fact that Jesus was one to be betrayed or perhaps was a suffering servant as foreshadowed in other Old Testament texts (see, e.g., Is. 53), this position or status does not necessarily equate to a claim of deity.

F. The Context of John

John generally has been regarded as the Gospel most overt in its claims of Jesus’ deity. One such example comes at the outset: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1; NASB, emphasis added.)

While this is not a saying of Jesus, it provides a fuller context to his sayings that follow it. In other words, if John demonstrates a low or skeptical view of Jesus’s claims to deity, it would make little sense for him to report sayings that imply his deity. Moreover, it would make little sense for a reader to understand or interpret Jesus’ sayings to the contrary conclusion.

Conversely, because the Gospel of John clearly regards Christ as divine, the interpretation that “I AM” denotes deity fully comports with that broader context.

G. The Old Testament Context

As explored above, Exodus, not only referred to YAHWEH or God as “I AM”, but showed that God instructed the use of that name for Himself. (Ex. 3:14.)

David Mark Ball in I Am In John’s Gospel: Literary Function, Background and Theological Implications has argued that the “I Am” sayings above also correlate with those used by YAHWEH in Isaiah. For example, Ball notes that Isaiah 52:6 provides: “Therefore My People shall know my name; therefore in that day I am the one who is speaking, ‘Here I am.’” (Is. 52:6; NASB.) Also, Ball also relies on Isaiah 43:13 which states: “’Even from eternity I am He; And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?’” (Isaiah 43:13; NASB.) These (and other) Isaianic references further underscore, or at least allude to, YAHWEH’s use of the “I AM” formulation, and find their parallels in the I am sayings of John 4, 6, 8 and 13, that we have discussed hereinabove, according to Ball.