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
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.