“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]

Sensing a smoking gun opportunity 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. Believing they had no doubt heard a blasphemy, the Pharisees and 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.