“I AM” – a Blasphemy or the Truth?

High Priest Caiaphas asked Jesus of Nazareth a direct question, “”Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus answered ‘I Am.’”[1] To Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders, it was self-incriminating prima facie evidence – standalone proof – of blasphemy. Leviticus Law defined blasphemy to be a capital offense, death by stoning:

LV 24:16 “Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” (NASB)

As the backdrop, the son of an Egyptian father and Israelite mother had been apprehended for the offense of blasphemy. In the first and only documented judgement for blasphemy in the Old Testament, the Tanakh, the offensive son was judged by God Himself through Moses:

LV 24:13-15 Then the LORD said to Moses: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.

LV 24:23 “… and they took the blasphemer outside the camp and stoned him. The Israelites did as the LORD commanded Moses. (NIV)

What exactly constituted the act of blasphemy? It was not until centuries later that the legal question was answered in the Babylonian Talmud:

MISHNAH:  “The blasphemer is punished only if he utters the [The Divine] Name.”(Soncino)[2]

An effort to further define the Mishnah, called the Gemara, led Jewish Rabbi sages to discuss the act of blasphemy. Considered to be so sacred, the topic required extraordinary treatment by using euphemisms in the written text.[3]

During a blasphemy trial, special rules prohibited witnesses from quoting the blasphemy, instead using the substitute name of “Jose.”[4] Only one witness was allowed to quote the blasphemy and all others were to simply say if they agreed with what they heard.

Upon hearing a blasphemy, the judges were to rend their garments, a Jewish sign of displaying heart-rending anguish or mourning.[5] Exactly the reaction of Caiaphas when he heard Jesus answer his question with “I Am.”

Great Hebrew significance of “I AM” goes all the way back to Moses and the unconsumed burning bush. Curiosity drew Moses closer when a Voice called him by name. Moses asked who was speaking and the Voice responded:

EX 3:6 “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (The Complete Jewish Bible, NASB)

The Voice identified Himself as ‘elohiym, the Hebrew plural masculine word meaning “God, divine ones, rulers, judges.”[6] (Translators added the preceding “I am” only as a clarifying literary aide.) Commanded to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, Moses asked what he should say if anyone asked who sent him? Resoundingly, the booming Voice declared:

EX 3:14-15 “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.”  God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations. (NASB)

Translated as “I AM” from the Hebrew verb hayah, it means “to exist i.e. to be or become, come to pass (always emphatic)” – neither a noun nor a pronoun. God emphatically identified Himself with an on-going action verb, according to Rabbi Rashi – “I will be” – no beginning or end.[7]

I AM then gave Moses His name, YHVH, the unspeakable four letter Hebrew name of God or “Tetragrammaton.” Intended to be concealed, according to Rashi, because the Hebrew 4-letter Name is spelled without a “vav” (a Hebrew letter/symbol).[8] The ineffable Hebrew proper name of God derives from the root word hayah, “I AM.” Translated as “The LORD” in place of the unspeakable Devine Name, it appears in other Biblical references as Jehovah, God (‘elohiym), or Adonai.[9]

Jewish translators of the Hebrew-to-Greek Septuagint LXX completed in 247 BC translated the Exodus text of both “I AM” and “The LORD” into Greek as ego eimi.”[10]Jesus answered Caiaphas using these very same two Greek words.

Ego is a primary first person pronoun to be used emphatically.[11] Eimi, also to be said emphatically, is “the first person singular present indicative meaning “exist’” with characteristics of present, imperfect and future tenses.[12]

When Jesus answered Caiaphas’ question with ego eimi, he in essence declared emphatically and authoritatively, as a statement of fact:  “[Yes], I Am [presently and into the future, the Messiah, the Son of God].”

A year earlier, Pharisees also believed they had heard Jesus commit blasphemy. While teaching at the Temple, Jesus several times referred to himself as ego eimi:

JN 8:12 “…I AM the light of the world…” (Jubliee)[13]

JN 8:24 “…unless you believe that I AM, you’ll die in your sins.”(ISV)[14]

JN 8:28 “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM…”(ISV)[15]

Thinking they had a smoking gun that even the surrounding crowd could not ignore, the Pharisees accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon after he said “If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.”[16] They aptly pointed out that Abraham and the prophets had surely kept God’s word yet they were dead.[17] Jesus picked up on the reference to Abraham:

JN 8:56-58 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”(NKJV)[18]

Possibly the most astonishing statement in all the Gospels, Jesus not only said he actually knew Abraham, he had observed in real time Abraham rejoicing when he saw that the day of Jesus had arrived. Even more incredibly, Jesus explicitly said, “Before Abraham was, I Am” – ego eimi. The Pharisees picked up stones to kill Jesus, but according to John, it was not yet his time, and Jesus escaped unharmed.[19]

Facts of the case are undisputed – Jesus identified himself as I AM, the Son of God. What remains is the open question: did Jesus speak a blasphemy or the truth? If Jesus spoke blasphemy, his death sentence was truly justified according to God’s own Law.

If Jesus is the Son of God, he could not have spoken a blasphemy and as a result he was unjustly judged in his Father’s own chosen judgment seat of Israel pursuant to his Father’s own Law of blasphemy. Perhaps the greatest paradox of all time – at the Passover on the sacred Mount Moriah in the holy city of Jerusalem, Jesus declared himself to be the Son of God to the Priests and Scribes of the Temple, the House of God – coincidence?

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REFERENCES:

NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
ISV = International Standard Version translation
NIV = New International Version tranlation
NKJV = New King James Version translationn

[1] NASB. Luke 22:67-71. CR Matthew 26:63-65; Mark 14-63-65;
[2] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. Sanhedrin 55b, footnote #20. <http://come-and-hear.com/tcontents.html>   
[3] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Sanhedrin 56a, 66a.  The Babylonian Talmud. Rodkinson translation. Book 8, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter VII, Mishna VI. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm>
[4] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Sanhedrin 56a, 66a.
[5] Lamm, Maurice. “Keriah – The Rending of Garments.” Chabad.org. 2018. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/281558/jewish/Keriah-The-Rending-of-Garments.htm>
[6] “<H0430>”Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible.  n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com>
[7] Net.bible.org. Hebrew text. Strong, James. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 1990.“hayah <1961>.”  The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary. 2018. Shemot – Exodus 3:14 translation & commentary. <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9864#showrashi=true>  “exist;” “be/” “become,” “transitive.” Merriam-Webster. 2018. <http://www.merriam-webster.com>
[8] Rashi. The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary. Shemot – Exodus 3:15 commentary. Benner, Jeff, The Ancient Hebrew Alphabet. 2017. “vav.” <http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/alphabet_letters_vav.html>
[9] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Sanhedrin 55b & footnote #20, 56a.   Martincic, Tom. “The Meaning of the Tetragrammaton.”  Eliyah.com.  n.d.  <http://www.eliyah.com/tetragrm.html>  “Tetragrammaton.” Dictionary.com.  <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tetragrammaton?s=t>  Marlowe, Michael. The Translation of the Tetragrammaton.”  Bible Research. 2011. <http://www.bible-researcher.com/tetragrammaton.html>     “Tetragrammation.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14346-tetragrammaton>  Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus, et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Volume 9. 1912. “The Seven Names.” p 163.   <https://books.google.com/books?id=lfoOtGOcIBYC&lpg=PA594&ots=6qoCfVVUz7&dq=wave+sheaf+encyclopedia&pg=PA594&hl=en#v=onepage&q=seven&f=false>
[10] NetBible.com. Exodus 3:6 – Septuagint text; Hebrew text Myhlah <403>, ‘elohiym, the plural form of  ‘elowahh <0433>.   Biblehub.com. Exodus 3:6 Hebrew ’ĕ-lō-hê <403>, plural form of eloah. Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.1-6, 13-1. Trans. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[11] Net.bible.org. Luke 22:70, Greek text.  Strong. “ego <1473> The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
[12] Net.bible.org. Luke 22:70, Greek text.  Strong. “eimi <1510>” The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.       
[13] Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary. John 8:12. BibleHub.com.  <http://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/john/8.htm>
[14] Gill’s Exposition. John 8:24. BibleHub.com. <http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/john/8.htm> Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. John 8:24. BibleHub.com. <http://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/john/8.htm> Wesley’s Notes on the Bible. John 8:24. BibleHub.com. <http://biblehub.com/commentaries/wes/john/8.htm>
[15] Wesley’s Notes on the Bible. John 8:28. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. John 8:28.
[16] NASB. John 8:52.
[17] John 8:52-55.
[18] Gill’s Exposition. John 8:58. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. John 8:58. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary. John 8:58. Wesley’s Notes on the Bible. John 8:58.
[19] John 8:59.

God v. Jesus – The Trial of Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested Thursday evening, formally the Jewish beginning of Friday, Passover Nissan 15, by a posse of the Jewish leadership in the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem. Escorted by the armed Temple Guards and their Roman captain back into the city, he was to immediately stand trial on the charge of blasphemy as defined in the Law of Moses.[i]

Prosecuting the case in defense of God’s Law was Chief Priest Caiaphas. The defendant representing himself was Jesus of Nazareth. The verdict of the trial of Jesus would have colossal implications in one of two very different ways.

Acquittal would mean, at the very least, that Jesus could possibly be the Son of God. Such a verdict would be an embarrassment for the Jewish council while posing a threat to their religious political powerbase. Rome would surely react unfavorably to any potential new Jewish figurehead who might be viewed as an insurrectionist.

Conviction would publicly label Jesus as a blasphemer worthy of death, not worship. God’s Law would be successfully defended and upheld.[ii]Trouble with Rome would be averted. As an added bonus, the subversive threat to their Jewish political powerbase would be eliminated. A Jewish Talmud Gemara would later expose another truth behind of the charge of blasphemy

San 49b “…thus the blasphemer and the idol-worshipper are executed.  Wherein lies the particular enormity of these offences? — Because they constitute an attack upon the fundamental belief of Judaism.”[iii]

Gravity of the situation called for a fair and thorough trial, but how likely was that reality? At stake was the defense of Judaism, a religious institution headed by the same powerbase that was responsible for rendering the verdict – the prosecution witnesses even came from among those serving as judge and jury.[iv]

Defense witnesses for Jesus were nowhere to be found. Not because there weren’t any, but being under the threat of death themselves, who would come forward in his defense?[v]Even his most stalwart disciple, Peter, upon whom Jesus had declared would build his church, would deny knowing Jesus three times that very night as the trial progressed.

Other ominous signs did not favor a fair trial since it was not conducted in accordance with Jewish law. Legal code in the Talmud defined how capital offenses were to be tried and convictions rendered. Among them: [vi]

MISHNA: Sanhedrin 32a:

“Capital charges must be tried by day and concluded by day.”

“In capital charges, anyone may argue in his favour, but not against him.”

“Capital charges may be concluded on the same day with a favourable verdict, but only on the morrow with an unfavourable verdict therefore trials are not held on the eve of a Sabbath or Festival.”

Pretrial events began at the residence of Annas, a Sanhedrin power broker, former Chief Priest and father-in-law of Chief Priest Caiaphas.[vii]Annas began with cursory questions asking Jesus about his disciples and his teachings. Jesus replied that he had always spoken openly in the Temple and synagogues – there were no secrets. “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”(NRSV)

His response did not sit well with his captors, one of them reacted by hitting Jesus. Holding firm, Jesus challenged his captors again saying, “”If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?””(NRSV) With this, Annas sent the posse with their blindfolded and bound prisoner to Caiaphas. By the time they arrived, Jesus had been mocked and beaten.

Chief Priest Caiaphas presided over the aberrant trial held that fateful night. The Law required two eyewitnesses to corroborate the same point of evidence to establish a fact for a conviction.[viii]Initially the proceedings were not going well for the prosecution effort with many accusers coming forward, but no two testimonies could agree.[ix]Finally, two witnesses confirmed an accusation: “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’”(NASB)

It was true. Jesus had made this claim after he wrecked the tables of the money changers and merchants in the Temple.[x]Was this a literal or figurative claim by Jesus? Was it really evidence he blasphemed God? Caiaphas understood the implications – he pounced on the moment with an indicting question that cut to the heart of the trial:

“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (ISV, NLT, NRSV)

An answer in the affirmative would be self-incriminating and condemning. It was the moment of truth – was Jesus of Nazareth willing to put it all on the line knowing that he could die if he acknowledged this to be true? The answer to Caiaphas was clear when Jesus answered:

I am.

To be crystal clear, Jesus added:

“’you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” (ISV, NET, NRSV)

Verdict was rendered immediately when Chief Priest Caiaphas tore his robes and said,

“He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses?”(NASB)

– – – – –

Sentencing was still not a slam dunk. Under Roman rule, the Jews were not allowed to carry out capital punishment.[xi]Would a heathen Roman government even entertain a charge of blasphemy based solely in Jewish religious law? They figured, probably not. On the outside chance that did happen, would Rome issue a death penalty verdict for blasphemy? Even more unlikely.[xii]

Considering their options, the Jewish council sought to convince Pilate that Jesus was guilty of failure to pay taxes to Caesar and insurrection to Rome for claiming to be a king. Either could result in the Roman death penalty. For Pilate, insurrection was a hot button issue with Rome having battled insurrections throughout his tenure as Procurator.[xiii]Ultimately Pilate found Jesus to have no guilt, but caved to the political pressure and sentenced Jesus to be crucified.

Was it a fair trial?

REFERENCES:

NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
ISV = International Standard Version translation
NLT = New Living Translation
NRSV = New Revised Standard Version translation
Gospel accounts:  Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 18-19.

[i] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter VIII.  NetBible.org. Greek Text. John 18:3, 12: “chiliarchos <5506>” and “speira <4686>”.
[ii] Leviticus 24:15-16. Josephus. Against Apion. Book II, #21-23. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. 1935 – 1948. Sanhedrin 49b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html>
[iii] Sanhedrin 49b.
[iv] Josephus.  Against Apion. Book II.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>   Spiro, Ken. “History Crash Course #39: The Talmud.” <http://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48948646.html>  Valentine, Carol A. . “The Structure of the Talmud Files.” <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/structure.html>
[v] Sanhedrin 43a.
[vi]  Sanhedrin 32a – 36b.
[vii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Chapter 13.  <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>  Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XX, Chapters IX.1 & X.1; Book XVIII, Chapter IV.   Whitson, William. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Footnotes – Book XX, Chapter VIII. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[viii] Deuteronomy 17, 19; Numbers 35.  Sanhedrin 9a, 30a.  Resnicoff, Steven H. “Criminal Confessions in Jewish Law .“  2007. <http://www.torah.org/features/secondlook/criminal.html
[ix] Sanhedrin 41a.  “Capital Punishment.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/capital-punishment>
[x] John 2.
[xi] Sanhedrin 41a. “Capital Punishment.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/capital-punishment>
[xii] Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V, Chapter 14.
[xiii] Forsythe, Gary Edward.  “Ancient Rome – The Roman Army.” 2007.  <http://history-world.org/roman_army.htm

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