John 8:58 – A Claim of Pre-existence or an Admission of Being the Almighty God?

The following is a partial transcript of a discussion I had on this subject in a Biblical discussion and debate group. The real names of other participants have been changed, and some of their spelling and punctuation have been corrected. The purpose of posting it here is simply to preserve my efforts expended in the discussion.

Riley: According to Daniel B. Wallace (Trinitarian Scholar) ego emi is not even a claim to pre existence. I quote him:”John 8:58 CANNOT be reffering to pre-existence”

Michael: Why can’t the term “ego eimi” be referring to his preexistance? The context of the conversation is his age. They wondered how he could have seen that Abraham looked forward to his (Jesus’) day. Jesus answered “Since before abraham, I have been’.

Robert Angle: Daniel Wallace (author of Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics) argues against translators who say it is a statement of pre-existence. This is because of his biased trinitarian views. He misleads the reader with a number of false statements to twist it to mean “I AM” and makes a connection to Exodus 3:14. Says Wallace “Jesus is here claiming to be the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, the I AM, the eternally existing One, Yahweh”. So what appears to be a book about Greek Grammar is really a cloaked opportunity to promote certain doctrines. He says it “cannot be referring to pre-existence” because to him it has to refer to his identity/divinity.

Riley: Emi the PRESENT SINGULAR Tense of I LIVE, not I Lived or Im living. You should also understand the difference between aorist infinatives or indicatives that surround Emi that would denote pre existence in John 8:58

Robert Angle: Eimi in John 8:58 should be rendered with some form of the English past tense, because of its modification by the adverbial clause “before Abraham came to be.” <— This very clause, which is an answer to the Pharisees question “You have seen Abraham?”, makes Jesus words a statement of pre-existence. It’s exactly what the context is talking about (this understanding shouldn’t even be a problem for a trinitarian either). The subject of the verb (Jesus) is not simply said to live or exist, but to live/exist in reference to a designated place in time (before Abraham was born). A corresponding English phrase must be able to state that the existence had been before Abraham was born and still continues to the present.

Riley: Your understanding of the construction is not correct, with all due respect. For something to be describing something in English as being, “common sense” does not follow in other languages,aorist indicatives or infinatives in Greek grammar speak louder in Greek than what you used for logical context in english.

Daniel B Wallace is a TRINITARIAN recognized scholar, he has NOTHING to gain and everything to LOOSE by making his correct statement that EMI is NOT USED TO DENOTE A Historical present. How long have you been studying the GK Language Robert? Why is the mood infinative not indicative, in the second aorist tense, middle deponent? That is an important question we all need to ask.

Robert Angle: You are correct that Daniel B. Wallace has everything to lose by stating that EMI is not used to denote a historical present, because John 8:58 then no longer stands as some far-fetched proof text of the trinity. Daniel Wallace is just plain wrong. Because EMI is in the present tense, but preceded by the aorist infinitive clause which refers to Abraham’s past, EMI must be viewed as a historical present. This is not uncommon to other Bible passages as well as extra-biblical literature of the time.

That ginomai is in the second aorist tense, middle deponent voice, and infinitive mood is an interesting thing you bring up, although I am not sure why. It is aorist because Abraham’s coming into existence took place in the past (There is no difference between the functions of the first and second aorist). It is infinitive because Abraham’s coming into existence is not ongoing, it is a complete, momentary event in time. Some people argue that the infinitive does not have time significance, but in direct discourses it does. While a present infinitive denotes linear action, the aorist infinitive denotes point action.

Contrast that with EMI, which is present active indicative, and we still have a case for Jesus stating that he was alive from some point in time prior to Abraham’s coming into existence and is still alive up to that point, as opposed to him answering the Pharisees question “Have you seen Abraham?” with a dodgy indirect answer like “Before Abraham came to be… yo dudes I am actually your God himself”.

If you like Wallace, that is fine, but the man does come under a lot of scrutiny. Many other scholars, even trinitarians, think he resorts to intellectual dishonesty to get his points across. A number of respectable scholars agree that Jesus words in John 8:58 is not by any means a claim to divinity, but merely a direct and actual answer to the Pharisee’s question.

Riley: Where is Emi used for a historical present anywhere else in Scripture?

Robert Angle: Challenging me to produce another usage of EMI as a historical present is comical, and essentially parroting Daniel Wallace to boot. Historical presents are not uncommon by any means. A historical present is using a present tense verb in discussing past events (google it). This is exactly what is happening in John 8:58 -> the arrival of Abraham is a past event, and EMI is a present tense verb. The fact that we have a present tense verb being modified by an adverbial clause expressing past time is the only point of worthy consideration. In the LXX and NT, there are over 800 such historical presents, and many of them are aoristic in nature just as it is in John 8:58

EMI is translated “have been” (starting at a point in the past and continuing to the present) because of time indicators in…

John 14:9 “Jesus said to him: “Have I been (Greek EMI, present tense) with YOU men so long a time (time modifier)”

John 15:27 “and you, in turn, are to bear witness, because you have been (“este” 2nd person plural of “emi” in it’s present tense “are”) with me from when (time modifier) I began.”

Even though the present tense verb is used in both of those verses, you cannot translate John 14:9 to read “Am I with you for so long a time”, nor translate John 15:27 to read “you must bear witness because you are with me from when I began”. It’s senseless, bad English, and hurts the ears. This is because the narrow grammatical tense of the isolated verb eimi must be qualified by its larger grammatical context. We call this the “present of past action still in progress”, or PPA for short.

In John 8:58, we have the present tense verb EMI (“to be”, “am”) being modified by the adverbial clause expressing past time starting with PRIN (“before”). Similarities can be found in classical Greek literature of the time.

Testament of Job 2.1: “For I was (EMI, present tense “am”) Jobab before (time modifier) the Lord named me Job.”

Menander, Dyscolus 616: “For I have been (EMI, present tense “am”) a friend to you long before (time modifier) I knew you.”

Just like in John 8:58, the present tense of “am” is modified by the grammatical context that points to the past, so a corresponding English phrase must convey the sense of starting in the past but yet also continuing to the present as long as it remains good English grammar (which in the case of Testament of Job 2:1, it would not be, so a strict past tense does indeed sound better, or perhaps even “had been”).

Constantly appealing to Daniel Wallace is to me is ad verecundiam, because there are several respectable scholars who disagree with him. An exhaustive list of other translations who recognize the relevance of the construction of John 8:58 and render it properly in their English translations will follow in the next post.

Next Post: List of other translations of John 8:58


The discussion fell dead at this point with no further responses.


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