I Am That I Am 

One of God's great names, that He revealed to His servant Moses, is 'I Am That I Am.' God is the fountain of all being; He is the source of supply. We are shooting stars, blazing up in our sudden  borrowed existence, but He alone, of all things that are, exists in such a way that He cannot not exist. Thus it is fitting for Him to tell Moses to tell the children of Israel, "I AM hath sent me unto you:"

  • “And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

  • (Exodus 3:14-15).

This becomes a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible. God often identifies Himself with a similar phrase, 'I am He.' Here are several of these verses in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint:

"Now see that I, even I, am He ['ego eimi' LXX], and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39).

"Who has performed and done it, Calling the generations from the beginning? 'I, the LORD, am the first; and with the last I am He ['ego eimi' LXX].'" (Isaiah 41:4); "Who has wrought and done these things? he has called it who called it from the generations of old; I God, the first and to [all] futurity, I AM ['ego eimi']." (Isaiah 41:4, Brenton Septuagint).

"'You are My witnesses,' says the LORD, 'And My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He ['ego eimi' LXX]. . .'" (Isaiah 43:10).

"Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He ['ego eimi' LXX], I am the First, I am also the Last." (Isaiah 48:12)

Of especial interest are the Septuagint's reduplicated 'ego eimi's in Isaiah 43:25 and 45:19, which are difficult to understand unless the Seventy explicitly understood 'I am he' as a divine name: "I am 'I AM' ['ego eimi ego eimi'], who erases your iniquities" (43:25), "I am 'I AM' the Lord ['ego eimi ego eimi kurios'], who speaks righteousness." (45:19, Septuagint translations from C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 94). The second 'I am:' "I am 'I AM'"— is understood most naturally as a name. The alternative is to take it as idle repetition. Though the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, I've offered here the Greek because the New Testament is written in Greek, and what we are looking for is correspondence. Do any phrases occur in the Greek New Testament which are reminiscent of the Divine Name 'I am' or 'I am He' of the Old Testament?:

  • “Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground. Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way:.”

  • (John 18:4-8).

Jesus said, "I told you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am ['ego eimi'], you will die in your sins. . .When you raise the son of man aloft, then you will know that I am. . ." (John 8:24-28, Lattimore). Though Jesus spoke Aramaic not Greek, the principle plays out the same way in both languages. The phrase 'I am' is a very common one, people say, 'I am fat, I am thin, I am tall, I am hungry, I am rich, I am poor,' etc. In an inflected language like Greek or Latin it is slightly less common than in English, because it is not always needed, but 'I am' is still a very common phrase, the connective tissue holding together subject and predicate. Much of the time Jesus' use of this very common phrase excites no more attention than would anyone else's. But sometimes the phrase is brought to our attention by unusual audience reaction (picking up rocks to stone Him, falling down backwards, etc.), or by the question it answers. If the question is, 'Who are you?' and the answer is 'I am,' that is somewhat unusual. An explanation is required, and the divine name 'I am' is one possibility.

For Jesus to respond to questions about His identity with the phrase 'I am' would strike a chord with Old Testament readers, who would recognize the phrase as God's way of identifying Himself. For example,

"But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am [ego eimi]: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:61-62).

In this case, given the parallel passages, it is not clear whether Jesus actually said 'I am' or whether Mark summarizes His meaning with this phrase. Here in Mark we have an unusual audience reaction, as with the soldiers who fell to the ground, coupled with the phrase occurring in answer to an identity question. Of course, Jesus might simply have meant to say, 'I am [the Christ].' Another instance of unusual audience reaction is John 8:58,

  • “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.”

  • (John 8:56-59).

Why are Jesus' hearers so sure that He is blaspheming, sure enough to pick up rocks? Because God revealed His name to Moses: "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you."'" (Exodus 3:14).

Jesus told His hearers, "Jesus said to them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.'" (John 8:58). And His hearers got the message, too; they picked up stones to throw at Him for claiming to be God.

The Jehovah's Witnesses respond to this problem by translating Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58 in such a way as to push them out of congruence. Here is the New World Translation of Exodus 3:14: "At this God said to Moses: 'I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT IS SHALL PROVE TO BE'". And he added: 'This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, 'I SHALL PROVE TO BE has sent me to you.'" Some modern translators think this is the way to go with this passage.

No doubt the Hebrew scholarship of the modern translators is leaps and bounds ahead of what was available in first century Palestine, because folks back then were unaware Exodus 3:14 was supposed to be in future tense, instead rendering it as present: 'ego eimi'. The Septuagint did so, so did Philo Judaeus, as well as early church fathers attentive to Hebrew scholarship, like Origen and Jerome: "This is why Moses will say of Him as best he may in human speech, 'I AM He that IS' ['ego eimi ho on'] (Exod. iii. 14), implying that others lesser than He have not being as being indeed is, but exist in semblance only, and are conventionally said to exist." (Philo Judaeus, The Worse Attacks the Better, 160).  So first century readers would have read John's words in 8:58 as an exact quote of Exodus 3:14.

"The declaration 'I AM THAT I AM' was an unfolding of the meaning of the name Jehovah. The form of the word Jehovah appears deliberately to intermingle future and past tenses, i.e. He will be, He was, and so He is, and possibly even the sense that He causes to be, or brings to pass.
"The name speaks of the unchangeable One, with whom essentially there is no past nor future, but rather an eternal present. That which He is, He ever has been. . .All His works and ways in His universe have their fount in His own nature. Nothing external can impose any necessity upon Him, or add to Him, or take away from Him. Dependence is a basic law of all created existence. The Creator alone possesses the freedom of an absolute independence.

"In spite of Israel's failure, the name was revealed, until amid the nation, and born of it as to His human birth, there was manifested the only sinless Man, and from His pure lips there came the words, 'Before Abraham was, I am' (John 8:58). To the Jews who heard Him the claim was unmistakable. For them there could be no middle course. Either they must own His rightful use of the title, 'I AM,' and worship Him, or they must account Him a blasphemer worthy of death. In their folly they rejected Him, but it was He who had spoken to Moses from the bush who now spoke to them in lowly manhood."

( H. C. Hewlett, The Companion of the Way, pp. 52-54)

In their effort to pry John 8:58 as far as possible away from Exodus 3:14, the Jehovah's Witnesses not only translate Exodus 3:14 as future, as no one was doing in the New Testament era, they also translate John 8:58 as past tense!: "Jesus said to them: 'Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.'" (John 8:58 New World Translation). This 'improvement' to the text is less helpful than it might be, inasmuch as it leaves the reader wondering for what crime the lynch mob audience intended to stone Jesus. The charge is blasphemy: claiming to be God.


As noted earlier, Jesus warned His hearers that they must believe 'I am:' "I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he ['ego eimi'], ye shall die in your sins." (John 8:24). (In this as in several similar passages, the "he" is supplied by ever-helpful translators; it is not present in the Greek.) What, after all, was He demanding? That His hearers believe that He exists? Certainly even the scribes and Pharisees already believed that He existed. Similar passages:

"Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things." (John 8:28)

"Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he." (John 13:19).

These are clear instances of the use of 'I am' as a divine name, because His hearers, believing and unbelieving alike, already knew that He existed, and there is no near referent ('Christ,' for example) which might be supplied from context. This 'I am' is not a Lego-block linking subject with predicate, because there is no predicate. Yet it is very important that the people should know that "I am." Certainly if, following clear Old Testament precedent, we understand 'I am' as a divine name, these passages make sense in a way they would not otherwise.

Other examples of Jesus' saying 'I am' fall into a gray area; they might be instances of the divine name, or simpler expressions, 'I am he,' 'it is I.'

  • “And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I [ego eimi]; be not afraid.”

  • (Matthew 14:25-27, John 6:19-20, Mark 6:49-50).

In this case, walking upon the water is something one might associate with God: "Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea." (Job 9:8); "The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever." (Psalm 29:10). The great name 'I am' would fit in with that theme, although here it might also mean simply, 'it is I.'