Bible Myths: Before Abraham was, a Burning Bush

by James Dowden

1. A thought experiment in modern languages

This is actually a post about how the English language works. Let’s take an example that has nothing to do with the Bible. If I wanted to say in Welsh that I am working:

Dw i’n gweithio.

Simple: “dw i” means “I am” and “yn gweithio” means working. Let’s extend the sentence a bit to say, “I am working as a nurse”:

Dw i’n gweithio fel nyrs.

Yep, the extra words are pretty obvious. “Fel” means “as”, there is no indefinite article (just like in Greek), and “nyrs” is one of those brilliant Welsh words that have been calqued from English. Isn’t this easy? Let’s extend the sentence again:

Dw i’n gweithio fel nyrs ers pum mlynedd.

Hurrah! I am working as a nurse since five years! Wait, what do you mean I can’t say that in English?

Every native speaker of English would correct (whether out loud or politely in their own heads) a speaker of a modern foreign language who said “I am working as a nurse since five years”. In English, one must use the retrospective and say “I’ve been working as a nurse for five years”. The speaker of the other language would probably then protest that they were still working as a nurse, but to no avail.

It is an oddity of the English present tense that one does not use it with “since” clauses. So let’s continue with our old Welsh nurse’s outlandish claims:

Dw i’n gweithio fel nyrs ers cyn i ti gael dy eni!

We’ve lost “pum mlynedd” – five years – and replaced it with “cyn i ti gael dy eni”. Hyperliteralistically, this translates as “before to you getting your birth”; what it actually means is “before you were born”.

Unsurprisingly given what we’ve just learnt about English tenses, once more we do not translate this “I am working as a nurse since before you were born”, but rather “I’ve been working as a nurse since before you were born”.

So let’s swap out another couple of elements. Let’s forget working as a nurse and just have existing, and let’s up the outlandish claim from your birth to Abraham’s:

Dw i’n bodoli ers cyn i Abraham gael ei eni!

And once again, we remember how English tenses work, and say “I have existed” – not “I exist” – “since before Abraham was born”.

The alert among you will notice that I have just quoted word-for-word’s Welsh translation of John 8.58. Aside from swapping the clauses around to make less stilted Welsh (and the slight liberty that people don’t come to pass in languages other than Greek; they are born), this is a totally straightforward translation of the Greek.

2. Some English translations of John 8.58

So, given what we’ve learnt about English tenses, we should expect Jesus’ words in John 8.58 to be “I have existed since before Abraham was born”; or at the very least, Yodaishly keeping the clauses in the Greek order, “since before Abraham was born, I have existed”.

Tyndale: yer Abraham was I am
Geneva: before Abraham was, I am
KJV: Before Abraham was, I am
Douay: before Abraham was made, I am
RV: Before Abraham was, I am
Weymouth: before Abraham came into existence, I am
ASV: Before Abraham was born, I am
Knox: before ever Abraham came to be, I am
NAB: before Abraham came to be, I AM
NEB: before Abraham was born, I am
RSV: before Abraham was, I am
NASB: before Abraham was born, I am
NIV: before Abraham was born, I am
GNB: Before Abraham was born, ‘I Am’
NRSV: before Abraham was, I am
ESV: before Abraham was, I am
HCSB: Before Abraham was, I am
ISV: before there was an Abraham, I AM
NLT: before Abraham was even born, I Am
NWT: before Abraham came into existence, I have been

Okay, so what’s going on here? One obvious point is that, as is all too typical with English Bible translations, everyone’s plagiarizing Tyndale, consciously or unconsciously. But it is strange that everyone is using English tenses like a non-native speaker. (Well, everyone, that is, except those weirdos who deny their children blood transfusions and knock on the front door when you’re in the shower. They at least manage Yoda’s version.)

But, as I’m sure everyone is already aware, there’s something else going on here. Just look at all those versions with weird capitalizations and scare quotes. Everyone’s sacrificing English grammar on the altar of making some clever reference.

3. That Burning Bush

Yes, that clever reference – as pointed out in every English-language sermon on John 8.58 – is to what God answers Moses with at the Burning Bush at Exodus 3.14. God tells Moses his name is “I AM”. And as we learnt in Greek 101, εγω ειμι is how one says “I am” in Greek.

The snag is, of course, that God does not call himself εγω ειμι at Exodus 3.14 in the LXX. Rather, the name is rendered ο ων – “the existent one”, or as English translations of the Book of Revelation tend to translate it, “WHO IS”.

If John had written something like πριν Αβρααμ γενεσθαι εγω ειμι ο ων, then the connection would be there in Greek, but of course it doesn’t say that; it just says πριν Αβρααμ γενεσθαι εγω ειμι.

4. Absurdity

In case anyone was in any doubt about εγω ειμι not meaning I AM at John 8.58, let’s offer some equally silly translations:

I AM is the bread of life (Jn 6.35,48)

I AM is the light of the world; he who follows me… [shurely “him”?] (Jn 8.12)

I AM is the door: he who enters through me [him?] will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (Jn 10.9)

I AM is the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. [shades of patripassionism] (Jn 10.11)

I AM is the way, the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father but through me. [now this is just confused] (Jn 14.6)

I AM is the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. [God the Grandfather?] (Jn 15.1)

Perhaps it is tempting to have the people who came to arrest Jesus in John 18 fall over (v.4-8) at “I AM”, but when they ask for “Jesus the Nazarene”, εγω ειμι clearly just means “that’s me”. It also happens to be the way Peter says “it’s me” at Acts 10.21, Judas says “it isn’t me” in Matthew 26.22,25, and the many false messiahs say “it’s me” in Mark 13.6 and parallels.

5. To conclude

I’m sure this myth is so deep-seated that I don’t stand any chance of shifting it. I’m also far from the first to point this out (Jason BeDuhn devotes an entire chapter to it in Truth in Translation). But at least you’ve now all learned how to say what your job is in Welsh.