We are offering here a summation of the latest research on the "I AM" (ego eimi) self-referent used by Jesus regularly in John's Gospel. (It is also found in Matthew 14:27, though English translations may obscure this fact.) Is this a divine title, and is Jesus' self-reference a claim to deity?
Our initial source here is David Mark Ball's 'I Am' in John's Gospel: Literary Function, Background and Theological Implications. It is our position that "I AM", used in what Ball calls an "absolute" sense (i.e., not as a mundane self-referential; "I am going to eat dinner") is a divine title.
Ball's survey begins with a look at previous attempts to draw parallels in other literature to I AM. Some, such as Bultmann's connection to Mandaism, are easily dispensed with (there is no evidence for development of a Mandean movement prior to the 2nd century AD).
Another idea parallels I AM to ani hu in the OT (Deut. 32:39, Is. 46:4); yet another parallels it to the use of "I am..." statements by divine Wisdom, and equation which would fit with our arguments elsewhere.
Another appeal notes a parallel to the Passover Midrash in later rabbinic literature:
For I will pass through Egypt--this means, I and not an angel; and I will smite all the firstborn -- this means, I and not a seraph; and I will execute judgment -- this means, I and not the messenger; I the Lord -- this means I am and no other.
After extensive analysis, however, Ball concludes that the closest parallels to Jesus' use of I AM is to be paralleled to uses of ani hu in the latter part of Isaiah. These are the parallels Ball draws between the two documents:
- John 4:26//Is. 52:6
- John 6:20//Is. 43:1-3, 5, 10
- John 8:18, 24, 28, 13:19//Is. 43:10
- John 8:58//Is. 43:13
Then the following points are made:
- In Isaiah ani hu is "always attributed to Yahweh" and is a statement only he can make. Anyone else making the same statement would be guilty of "an attempt to claim equality with God or displace him."
- It signifies that "Yahweh alone is God" and is sovereign over history, and creator.
- Though Isaiah is a main focus, Jesus' "I AM" sayings match him with the "the Bread of which the Old Testament spoke, the Light of which Isaiah spoke, the Shepherd of whom Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke, and the Vine of which many Old Testament passages spoke." The words I AM "thus act as a formula which applies Old Testament and Jewish concepts to the person of Jesus who embodies and fulfills them." 
I AM thus provides a powerful self-identification in which Jesus identifies himself with the roles and person of YHWH in the Old Testament. We will now seek out contrary arguments and evaluate them accordingly.
We find our first critical response on a JW website and an authorially uncredited item that spends a great deal of time speaking about those who address the NWT for being inaccurate, but do not address other versions (which they are probably unaware of! -- who today has heard of "The Unvarnished Bible," which sounds like a translation for painters and remodelers!) that do the same. Since persecution complexes do not interest us, we will proceed to arguments actually having to do with I AM.
The article makes much of the idea that ego eimi in John 8:58 has been understood as "I have been" or "I was" by some translators. But the Isaianic parallels noted by Ball are more like what makes our case. "I am" paralleled to Ex. 3:14 is useful, but comparably, less strident than these Isaianic parallels.
In any event the eternal Yahweh is one who would say "I am" or even "I was" or "I have been" before Abraham. The telling point is not time indicated (since "I am" doesn't specify time one "am" before) but whether this phrase is one that is used exclusively by one whom even JWs agree is the eternal deity.
The article cites with approval JW apologist Rolf Furuli's opinion that "I have been in existence since before Abraham was born" fits what is said in John 8:58. As just noted, eternal deity could say the same, so we find nothing here that addresses our points above as yet, though we may find some in other articles on the same site.
The unattributed article goes on for a few more lines about an article that they believe treats them unfairly. We get to something worth note when a NWT translation note is cited about John 8:58:
"The action expressed in Joh 8:58 started before Abraham came into existence and is still in progress. In such situation [ego eimi]which is the first-person singular present indicative, is properly translated by the perfect indicative. Examples of the same syntax are found in Lu 2:48; 13:7; 15:29; Joh 5:6; 14:9; 15:27; Ac 15:21; 2Co 12:19; 1Jo 3:8."(Appendix 6F,pp1582-83)
But certainly the eternal God "started" before Abraham came into existence, or we would say, was around; obviously "I was" or "I have been" contains no verb which indicates an actual "starting" point before which the person "was" and if anything, the lack of a verb supports the idea of an eternal temporality.
In any event, while the article goes to great lengths to quote Greek grammars concerning the use of a "progressive present" it does so oblivious to the point that such usage is hardly antithetical to a Trinitarian position, when (as in John 8:58) no past temporal moment is specified and no verb of action is present. Thus when it is said:
Jesus in answer to the question, "You are not yet fifty years old, and still you have seen Abraham?" -v 57 replied, as reported by John, that he had been in existence since before the existence/birth of Abraham. The "I am", present tense is 'modified' by the adverbial past time expression "Before Abraham to become" and hence is another example of a 'PPA'. Hence, again, the most natural and, hence, best translation into English would be; "Before Abraham came into existence, I have been," or as one scholar suggests," I have been in existence since before Abraham was born."-McKay, "I am' in John's Gospel," Expository Times 107.10(1996),302
So it is. Jesus as the eternal Wisdom or Word of God was certainly "in existence since before Abraham was born." It is perhaps that JW apologists do not fully understand Trinitarianism (as few do, actually) that they think this is some sort of painful affront to our position.
Indeed the admission that eternality is not ruled out by this passage is as much admitted by a quote from Awake! which says, "[The] text in itself says nothing about how long Jesus existed before Abraham." It then goes on to attribute an understanding of eternality to Greek philosophy -- thinking that this fallacious argument thereby disproves such existence for Jesus.
Another difficulty for these JW apologists is that the listeners attempt to stone Jesus after this statement. In response they begin with a quote from one William Loader, who merely says of 8:58, "...[it] might suggest blasphemous utterance of the divine name, but need not either here or elsewhere. Need it mean no more than the stupendous claim: I am in existence since before Abraham?"
Need it? If you want a fair stoning, it certainly does; though we can see JW apologists suggesting that Jesus was stoned just at that moment by unfair coincidence. Loader in any event offers this argument for understanding "I AM" in John's Gospel:
"In 6:20, 8:25, 28 and 58 Jesus uses the absolute, 'ego eimi'(lit.'I am'). In 8:25,28 the context favours the meaning, 'I am what I claim to be', understood in terms of the revealer pattern(so:esp 8:28). In 6:20 Jesus is identifying himself: 'It is I(not a ghost or the like)' and in 8:58 the text need mean no more than I am and was in existence before Abraham, still a majestic claim but not an allusion to the divine name...."
Loader's speculations run fully aground, as noted above, on the Isaianic parallels, which are to the very verses he seeks to defuse. It is certainly telling that he tries to wrench a different meaning out of three different uses of the same phrase.
The article goes on to discuss Ex. 3:14, which for our purposes is beside the point, since the Isaianic parallels are more definitive.
Our next subject is a major name of JW apologetics, Greg Stafford, who actually does get into the Isaianic parallels a bit. Stafford wrote earlier than Ball, but others (Brown and Harner) offered some of the same insights and Stafford refers to them.
However, some of the cites noted are not those noted by Ball. Is. 41:4 and 45:18, which Stafford first touches on, are not on Ball's list that we gave above; thus we make no judgment here about the accuracy of either view. But Is. 43:13 is, and this is where Stafford first comments:
......In verse 10 'ani hu/ego eimi stands without an expressed predicate, though it is expressed in the context.(122) The archaic ....('anoki, "I") is followed by the divine name in verse 11. In verse 12 ...(el, "God") follows ...(ani). Israel is reminded that Jehovah alone is God, not the idol gods of the nations, as none of them has ever had or will ever have actual existence. Yet He has proved to be a living God, who has effected deliverance for His people (Isa 43:1-9). The end of verse 12 reads, "'You are My witnesses,' says the Lord [Heb:[tetragram] "Jehovah"; LXX: "God" or "Lord," or possibly the divine name], 'and I am God' [....'ani 'el; LXX: kurios ho theos, "the Lord God" (some manuscripts add ...ego, "I," before "Lord")]." (NIV) Verse 13 begins by saying, "Also, all the time I am the same One [ani hu]." (NWT)(123) Again the predicate (or 'el, "God") is supplied by the context.
This is all quite interesting, but we have to wonder what exactly Stafford is trying to accomplish. The argument would be that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah and placing himself where Isaiah has placed Yahweh. Stafford's comments do not say anything about this. Indeed, it seems that NONE of his explanations address the idea of a parallel, not even those not in our list from Ball.
Stafford discusses Is. 43:25 and 46:4 (not on Ball's list) and in none of this seems aware of an idea that there may be parallels. It seems that Stafford is so wrapped up in the argument that "I am" is a divine title that he sees nothing else.
Indeed Ball's argument here does not even require "I AM" to be a title. One may look at it this way: If Jesus went through OT passages, and substituted references to himself where there were references to YHWH, what would that say about Jesus' claims?
That this is indeed Stafford's problem is obvious in that he concludes:
We have seen that the LXX translation of 'ani hu is used in a manner consistent with the use of the same phrase in the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics: self-identification. This in no way suggests that the identity of the speaker is the same in each case. The identity of the speaker must be determined from the context in which the phrase is used.
Absolutely agreed! But if Jesus "borrows" YHWH's statements of self-identification for himself, then what does that say about Jesus? Stafford misses this with his talk of determining predicates in context.
Our third subject is not a JW at all, apparently, but one whose work has been misused by JW apologists. Credit is given to an article, "'I am' in John's Gospel," The Expository Times, 1996, page 302 by Kenneth McKay. The comments begin:
"The verb 'to be' is used differently, in what is presumably its basic meaning of 'be in existence', in John 8:58: prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi, which would be most naturally translated 'I have been in existence since before Abraham was born', if it were not for the obsession with the simple words 'I am'. If we take the Greek words in their natural meaning, as we surely should, the claim to have been in existence for so long is in itself a staggering one, quite enough to provoke the crowd's violent reaction."
The article then goes on to critique an article by CARM that argues that the present tense "I am" is warranted, and notes that the New World Translation's version of the verse is not warranted. The article replays the objection noted above about unfair criticism of their translation, when others do it too.
Indeed? A reader sent me a staggering list of 55 translations that render John 8:58 as "I am," including a few Jewish translations, if we wish to go that direction, and if we wish, as the JW article does, to claim that only Trinitarian translations render it so. The article goes on to say:
The writer of CARM also when using John 14:8-9 as an example where they feel it IS justified fail to mention that this type of construction in passages of scripture the Greek Grammars of Winer and J.H.Moulton include John 8:58 where such a translation as found in the New World Translation is "warranted." As A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, by G.B.Winer says: " Sometimes the Present includes also a past tense (Mdv. 108), viz. when the verb expresses a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues, a state in its duration; as, Jno. xv. 27 .....viii. 58."
McKay said in his book "A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek,An Aspectual Approach"; "Tense...4.2.4. Extension from Past. When used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications(but not in past narrative, for which see 4.2.5), the present tense signals an activity begun in the past and continuing to the present time: Luke 13:7...Lu 15:29....Jn 14:9 [Tosouton khronon meth muoon eimi]..have I been with you so long...? ; Ac 27:33...Jn 8:58 [prin Abraam ego eimi], I have been in existence since before Abraham was born...."
As noted of course this would be agreeable even to a Trinitarian, since even the eternal Logos (Christ) "commenced at an earlier period" -- an eternity earlier. An eternal being would be an "I have been" (as the NWT has it) as well as an "I am now" and an "I will be later". The issue is that there are simply no verbs that connote by themselves an eternal action.
In any event, we have again no mention of Isaianic parallels as noted by Ball. And the JW article even concedes unwittingly:
We must not forget to point out to our CARM writer that there are several grammarians such as Winer in 'A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament',[translated by J.H.Thayer, Andover, Warren Draper, 1897, p.267] and Nigel Turner, 'A Grammar of New Testament Greek [vol.3. Syntax, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1963, p.62, sec. 1(c) that point out that the idiom involved at this place, where the present eimi is used with an expression of past time, is a 'present of past action still in progress'. As such, then to translate as the NWT and others have done is surely to be preferred if one is not out to defend a theological interpretation of Jesus' words.
Well then! Christ the Logos, an eternal being, stating at a point in time that he is the "present of a past action still in progress." So it would be said of eternal Wisdom, which is a past "action" indeed -- one eternally past. Apparently a similar point was also made by Greek grammarian A. T. Robertson; and Greg Stafford replied:
Stafford informs his readers that Robertson in this work states that 'eimi' here conveys "timeless being." Stafford remarks on this by writing; "But there appear to be no undisputed examples anywhere in Greek literature where eimi is used with an expression of past time....but in an absolute sense which conveys "timeless being." In fact, it really makes no sense to use an absolute expression intended to convey eternal existence with an expression of past time, for then we would have[in John 8:58], "Before Abraham came into existence I am eternal" or "I eternally existed." If the use of eimi is meant to convey the eternality of the subject, then what is the point of using the expression of past time at all?
The problem with Stafford's objection here is that he cannot speak of eimi not conveying "timeless being" unless there is some other timeless being to which the words have ever been used to refer. Among Christian and pseudo-Christian traditions, only YHWH himself would perhaps be regarded by the JWs as a timeless being; among the Greeks and Romans, the major gods were not timeless beings, and it would be up to Stafford to show that such language was never used, and as well that other languages was used, of beings considered timeless.
Of course, given the Isainic parallels, Jesus here DOES identify himself with YHWH, a timeless being, so it is misguided for Stafford to demand that the word "eternal" be inserted anyway. (However, such lanaguage was used of Wisdom, with which Jesus identified himself.)
Arthur Daniels, a friend of the Tekton ministry, has done some work on this subject here.