Friday, May 20, 2016

Prostrate Before Him: An Examination of John 18:6 in Light of a Survey of the Use of Ego Eimi

by Michael R. Burgos Jr. 

Unitarianism has attempted to repudiate the trinitarian contention that there is a meaning of the phrase ‘I am’ within Scripture that is outside of its normative function as a means of self-identification.

So when he said to them, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:6)1

The above text is one that trinitarians have understood to be evidence for the deity of Christ. Moreover, this text is one that trinitarians have understood to be the Son's identification of himself as Yahweh. The point of this study is to demonstrate the deity of Christ as made evident by a consideration of John 18:6 in light of an overview of the use of the phrase ‘I am’ in canonical and extra-canonical texts. Thereafter, several unitarian explanations for the text will be offered so as to magnify the harmony of trinitarian orthodoxy as it relates to the biblical identity of Christ.

The Old Testament background of "I Am"

The phrase ‘I am’ carries a special meaning outside of its common usage in Scripture. Within the Old Testament it is presented as a formula indicative of the God of Israel. In Exodus 3:13 Moses asks God, "if I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'the God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'what is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God answered Moses and said, “I Am Who I Am.” The Septuagint renders God's answer, ἐγὼ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (“I am the being”). Since the Septuagint includes ὁ ὤν (“the being”), the participial form of ἐγὼ εἰμι (“I am”) in Exodus 3:14, a one to one parallel cannot be drawn to Jesus’ usage of the phrase in John 18:6 upon that basis alone. However, within the Septuagint an atypical utilization of “I am” occurs repetitiously after Exodus 3:14 without the inclusion of ὁ ὤν.2 The peculiarity of the usage stems from the fact that the phrase is employed at the end of a clause or sentence in such a way that it tends to render the text awkward.

Deuteronomy 32:39 is a case in point. The text states, “See, see that I am, and there is no god except me.”3 Just as in Exodus, the phrase communicates exclusivity- a class of one. Yahweh is the Living God because he is the “I am,” the one existing.

Using the same style, Isaiah employs “I am” repetitiously and formulaically to indicate the exclusivity of Yahweh as the only living God.
Who has wrought and done these things? The one calling her from the beginning of generations has called her. I, God, am first, and for the things that are coming, I am. (Isaiah 41:4) 
Be my witnesses; I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and the servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe and understand that I am. (Isaiah 43:10) 
Hear me, O house of Iakob and everyone who is left of Israel, you who are being carried from the womb and trained from the time you were a child. Until your old age, I am. And until you grow old, I am. (Isaiah 46:3-4)
The Hebrew text of Isaiah 45:18 states, “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” However, the Septuagint omits the tetragrammaton in favor of egō eimi alone. The Septuagint reads, “I am, and there is no other,” thereby identifying that the ancient Jewish translators recognized the significance of “I am” as indicative and even synonymous with the name of the God of Israel. Moreover, in Isaiah 45:19 the Hebrew text states, “I the Lord speak the truth.” The Septuagint renders this phrase as “I am, I am the Lord, speaking righteousness.” In light of the rendering of verse 18, the insertion of “I am” a second time within the text is certainly an allusion to who was revealed to Moses at the bush, and this without the use of the participle.

In similar fashion, the Septuagint renders Isaiah 43:25 and 51:12 in such a way that the “I am” formula occurs in succession. These utilizations provide further evidence that egō eimi was a recognized title among the Jews, especially during the second temple period.
I am, I am the one who blots out your acts of lawlessness. (Isaiah 43:25) 
I am, I am he who comforts you. (Isaiah 51:12)
Isaiah 47:8-10 states,
But now hear these things, you delicate woman who sits securely, who says in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no other; I shall not sit as a widow or know bereavement. But now both these things shall come upon you suddenly, in one day; widowhood and loss of children shall come upon you suddenly in your witchcraft, exceedingly in the strength of your enchantments.
In this passage, we see that the "delicate woman" (i.e., Babylon) is characterized as making use of the phrase "I am" in the style and tenor that Yahweh uses it of himself.4 The text is characterizing this people as being prideful to the extent that they believe that they possess sovereignty over their own circumstance like that of God. Therefore, their use of "I am" serves as a receptor of judgment; that the true Sovereign, the authentic "I am," will bring justice to this blaspheming people.5