In an argument with “the Jews” of his day, Jesus uttered these words:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58 NRSV)
As I sat in on a the SBL Development of Early Trinitarian Theology program yesterday, there was some discussion on this verse. Just like in Jesus’ day, today many tempers flare over the last two words of this verse—although this did not happen at the SBL, of course—and many today will argue over the last two words of this verse, providing a variety of interpretations: (1) I am = I am he, (2) I am = an incomplete sentence, (3) a claim to be YHWH of Exodus 3:14, (4) other interpretation.
My initial understanding of this verse has generally been point 3, in that I understood Jesus to be referring to the Hebrew. I have come to understand this in other slightly different ways. I will iterate them below:
(a) The Septuagint was around in Jesus’ time. It might have been that Jesus was quoting not from the Hebrew text but from the LXX. At Exodus 3:14, we find in the LXX the words “I am HO ŌN [the being].” While Jesus does not quote the last two words, could it be possible that the Jews, upon hearing Jesus’ statement, would have filled in the other two words, and thus understood his claim to be YHWH?
(b) The words translated “I am” with the emphatic pronoun attached could mean “I exist.” The verb is present tense signifying on-going action which in this case is the act of existing. This on-going existence is qualified by the phrase “before Abraham was,” which tells us something about when this existence took place. Furthermore, I have understood this to somehow be verb expressing timelessness. Could it be, then, that Jesus’ claim to on-going, timeless existence is a claim that he is YHWH?
As to the above, I learn more toward (b). I am not convinced that the verb in that construction necessary indicates timelessness—and if it did not, then there is the possibility for an Arian reading. The entirety of Scripture, however, does argue against such reading.
Where does your understanding of John 8:58 lie? Does it lie close to either (a) or (b)? Or do you understand it in a completely different way? If so, what is your view?