The Old Testament and Jewish Background for the "I AM" Sayings of the Logos – the Lord Jesus Christ
A Word that Bridges the Gap
When the Word of the Lord shall reveal Himself to redeem His people, He will say to all the nations: Behold now, that I am He who Is, and Was, and Will Be, and there is no other god beside Me. – Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Deuteronomy 32
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – The Eternal Logos, Revelation 1:8
It is often thought that Jesus’ absolute “I Am” sayings1 in the fourth gospel2 are directly related to Exodus 3:14. Without denying any and all relevance of the latter to the former, the connection is not as direct as is often assumed,3 and it is far better to relate these sayings of Jesus back to Deuteronomy 32:39, as well as to such passages as Isaiah 41:4, 43:10, 13, 46:4, 48:12, and 52:6, where the divine self-asseveration, אֲנִי הֽוּא (ani hu; I Am He), is translated ἐγώ εἰμι (ego eimi; I Am He) in the LXX (with the exception of 43:13 and 48:12 which depart from the Hebrew wording).4 On account of the direct correspondence between the self-identification formula of Yahweh in the LXX and of Jesus in the NT, as well as for many other reasons – inclusive of which are the virtually identical phrases and claims that attend these declarations in Deuteronomy and Isaiah on one hand and John on the other,5 as well as the fact that in both Isaiah and John these kindred sayings are an integral part of a larger trial motif6 – this position is pretty firmly established among exegetes.7 Yet there is another significant factor linking these sayings of Jesus to this divine self-identification formula in the Old Testament that is not as often noticed, or in some cases is even ignored or denied, that certainly merits attention, at least more than it has hitherto received.
In what follows it will be argued that an important part of the background necessary for a full understanding of Christ’s “I Am” sayings in John’s Gospel is not only the LXX, which John often quoted from, as did the NT writers generally,8 and the Hebrew Text, which John was certainly familiar with,9 but also the Aramaic Targums. It will be shown that just as Jesus, identified in the prologue as the Logos, declares Himself in the narrative to be the “I Am,” so also the “I Am” utterances attributed to Yahweh in the MT/LXX are attributed in the Targums to the Memra. Since the Greek word, Logos, and the Aramaic word, Memra, both translate as “Word,” and since both are used as locutions or substitute terms for a divine person, Yahweh in the OT, and Jesus in the NT, the conclusion follows by good and necessary consequence that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is being identified in a way readily recognizable to first century Jews as Yahweh, the great I Am.
Since the observation in view here at the same time resolves and/or is of considerable relevance to what for many have been lingering questions and long-standing conundrums about the origin of the Logos title used for Jesus in John’s prologue, the relationship of the prologue (1:1-18) to the rest of John’s Gospel (1:19-21:25), whether the Fourth Gospel ought to be viewed as a unified work, and whether or not it bears an authentically Jewish stamp, some comments will first be made on these issues.
Questions and Issues
A lot of speculation and debate has taken place on the origin of John’s Logos title. Some have argued for a Greek philosophical background, seeing it derived from the likes of Heraclitus or Sextus Empiricus, or from Stoics like Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius.10 Still others have held that John derived this title from Philo, a prominent first century Jew in Alexandria, who was influenced by Greek philosophy. Worse still are attempts to find the locus of John’s thought in gnostic sources such as the Trimorphic Protennoia, a Coptic tractate discovered at Nag Hammadi, and in Mandaean writings.11 Many other thinkers have sought an answer in the direction of Palestinian Judaism. For the latter the background material of critical relevance has been seen in either: the OT teachings on God’s Word, which curiously and often enough is portrayed as having a concrete existence of its own rather than being a bare utterance or abstraction, such that it can be said that the Word was sent (Psalm 107:20, 147:15; Isaiah 55:11), appeared (e.g. Genesis 15:1-6; 1 Samuel 3:1-21), spoke (e.g. Jeremiah 1:1-9; ), acted and accomplished God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:11), etc.;12 or the teachings of Proverbs 8 regarding the personified Wisdom of God, the high points of which are Wisdom’s pretemporal begetting and role in the creation of the world; and some have seen both streams of thought, together with Intertestamental expansions on the Word/Wisdom motif, in one way or another feeding into John’s use of the term.
Because it is clear that John’s teaching about the Logos shows only a formal and not a substantive or material one-to-one correspondence with that of Greek philosophers on the subject,13 and because it has even less to do with gnostic myths that didn’t even originate until long after the Fourth Gospel was written, those that seek an explanation in the OT Scriptures and in sources and modes of thought that were native to John’s own Jewish background are certainly on the right track, especially when the Targums are also brought into the picture.14 Nevertheless, after remarks of the sort made by C. K. Barret, who in his otherwise justly esteemed commentary on John considered the Targums to be a dead-end in the search for the origins of the Johannine Logos, though he did give a significant place to the OT concept of God’s Word and Wisdom, many have uncritically ignored the relevance of the Targums. According to Barret:
In the Targums of the Old Testament use is made of the Aramaic word מימרא (memra, word). It has sometimes been supposed that this is a divine hypostasis capable of furnishing a true parallel to John’s thought of a personal Logos incarnate in Jesus. מימרא however was not truly a hypostasis but a means of speaking about God without using his name, and thus a means of avoiding the numerous anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament…. Memra is a blind alley in the study of the biblical background of John’s logos doctrine.15
But the facts are as plain as day to anyone acquainted with the Targums. Far better than Barret on this score are the words of Leon Morris. After noting the formal points of contact with Greek uses of the term, Morris states:
More important for our understanding of this Gospel in general and of its use of this term in particular is its Jewish background. The opening words “In the beginning” compel a comparison with Gen. 1:1, while “the Word” irresistibly turns our attention to the repeated “and God said” of the opening chapter of the Bible. The Word is God’s creative Word (v. 3). The atmosphere is unmistakably Hebraic.
A feature of the Old Testament teaching that was receiving attention in the first century was its use of concepts like “the Word”, “Wisdom” and the like. While nothing was said to compromise the basic monotheism of Judaism attention was increasingly directed to passages where such entities are given an almost independent existence. Thus throughout the Old Testament the Word of the Lord is thought of as an effective agent for the accomplishment of the divine will. “By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6). When God speaks He does something. His word is a divine action. God’s revelatory act is often described by saying that the word of the Lord “came” to the prophet. In keeping with this a prophet may ascribe a more or less independent existence to the Word, as when he reports God as saying, “so shall the word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). And in Psalm 29 “the voice” of the Lord is regarded in much the same way.
… There is another use of some importance, namely that in the Targums. When Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language the Scripture was still read in that language in the services of the synagogue. As a concession to the weakness of the flesh there arose the custom of giving a running translation. This was called a Targum. At first the Targums were oral only, but in later times they were written down. Those that have survived enable us to see that they were rather free paraphrases rather than exact translations. The Targumists tried to give the sense of the passage being read, and not simply to translate mechanically. These Targums were produced at a time when, from motives of reverence and from a fear of breaking the third commandment, Jews had ceased to pronounce the divine name. When they came to this name in the original the readers and translators substituted some other expression they thought more reverent, such as “the Holy One” or “the Name”. Sometimes they said “the Word (Memra)”. For example, where our Bible says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God” (Exod. 19:17) the Targum reads “to meet the Word of God”. This kind of thing is quite common. Barclay says that in the Targum of Jonathan alone the expression is used in this way about 320 times. It is often said that this Jewish use is not relevant, because it does not denote a being in any way distinct from God. It is just a reverent way of referring to God Himself. But this is hardly the point. The point is that wherever people were familiar with the Targums they were familiar with “the Word” as a designation of the divine.16
The latter remarks by Morris are evidently made in reply to the view made popular by Barret. Such remarks are certainly cogent as a reply to Barret, for it certainly isn’t necessary for the apostle John to walk in lockstep with the Targums and go no further than them in light of the additional revelation brought by the incarnation of the Word, and only an improvident handling of the material can enable one to miss that John is clearly patterning what he says about Jesus after what is said about the Memra in the Targums. A helpful summary of some of the evidence is provided by Craig Keener, who notes:
In sum, virtually every element of the Johannine Prologue is paralleled in targumic and midrashic materials. Moreover, there are many significant parallels between the targumic memra and the Johannine logos. It appears that every assertion regarding the asarkos logos [preincarnate Word – AR] in the Prologue’s opening five verses is true of the targumic memra:
- The memra was in the beginning (Jn 1.1a; see §56 [Targ. Neof. Gen. 1.1]).
- The memra was with God (Jn 1.1b; see §56 [Targ. Onq. Gen. 20.3]).
- The memra was God (Jn 1.1c; see §57 [Targ. Ps-J. Deut. 32:39] and §58 [Targ. Neof. Gen. 1.26-27; Targ. Isa. 44:24]).
- Everything came into being through the memra (Jn 1.3; see §58 [Frag. Targ. Exod. 3.14]).
- In the memra was life (Jn 1.4; see §59 [Targ. Ps.-J. Gen. 3.24]).
- The memra gave light to the world (Jn 1.4b-5; see §60 [Targ. Neof. Gen. 1.3; Targ. Neof. Exod. 12.42; Targ. Ps-J. Gen. 1.3]).
Every assertion regarding the ensarkos logos [incarnate Word – AR] in the Prologue’s final five verses, with the exception of the incarnation itself, is true of the targumic memra:
- The memra ‘tabernacled’ among humankind (Jn 1.14a; see §62 [Targ. Ps.-J Exod. 29.42b-45; Targ. Ezek. 43.7b-8; Targ. Zech. 2.5(9)]).
- The memra’s glory was seen (Jn 1.14b; see §62 [Targ. Isa. 6.1,5] cf. §33 [LXX Exod. 25.8]).
- The memra is full of grace and truth (Jn 1.14c, 16, 17; see §62 [Targ. Ps.-J. Exod. 29.42b-45; 34.5-6; Targ. Isa. 48.1; 51.1; Targ. Jer. 42.5]).
- The Baptist bears witness to the memra (Jn 1.15a; see §63 [Targ. Jer. 42.5]) and to the fact that he (the memra) preceded him, not followed him (Jn 1.15b; see §56 [Targ. Neof. Gen. 1.1]).
- Although one cannot see God, one can see the incarnate Word (Jn. 1.14, 18; see §62 [Targ. Isa. 6.1, 5; cf. Jn 12.41] and §64 [Targ. Onq. Exod. 33.20]).17
But evidence of the sort summarized above shows far more than just that Memra is used for God and in place of the name of God, for the Memra is frequently enough distinguished from God, as Keener and other able scholars like Westcott, Edersheim, Oesterly, Kohler, Chilton, Hayward, Boyarin and many others have held and continue to hold, just like the Logos in John’s Gospel is both said to be God and to be with God. The distinction so often drawn is one that quite often leaves no question either as to the divinity or to the hypostatic nature of the Memra. For example Memra is used in the Targums in such passages as Genesis 16:7-14 as a substitute term for the Angel of the Lord,18 that fully divine person who so often appeared to the patriarchs and prophets of old as at once Yahweh and yet personally distinguishable from Yahweh.19 When considerations such as this are taken into account the Memra comes to its own and stands out as a true parallel to John’s thought of a personal Logos.
Another issue agitated by interpreters of John’s Gospel concerns the identification of Jesus as the Logos who became flesh in the preamble and how this relates to the narrative that follows, where the term is never used by Jesus, John, or anyone else as a title for Jesus. John introduces the term at the beginning, but inexplicably drops this title entirely thereafter.20 Since it is easily discernible that John’s prologue introduces a number of themes that will be explicated in the body of the book, the fact that he apparently never brings this one up again, at least not explicitly, becomes a matter of considerable interest. For some this becomes the impetus for arguing, or confirmation for believing, that the Fourth Gospel is the product of more than one author.
Although a more decisive answer to this has already been suggested and will be argued more fully momentarily, here it can be mentioned that although Jesus never uses the word as a title for Himself, and neither does anyone else, it is clear enough that certain things that are said about the Logos in the prologue are said about Jesus in the narrative.21 For instance, from the prologue we know that while everything came into being, the Logos Himself already was (1:1-3). The same idea is found in John 8, where we are told that before Abraham came into being, Jesus Himself already was (8:58). We are also told in the prologue that the Logos is the light (1:4, 9) of the world and the source of life (1:4), and Jesus is repeatedly said to be the light (3:19-21, 8:12, 9:5, 12:35-36) and the source of life (3:15-16, 36, 4:14, 5:21, 26, 6:33, 35, 40, 47, 48, 68, 11:25, 14:6, et. al). A final example of many that can be given relates to the Logos as the one who “tabernacled” among us (1:14) and to the many ways that Jesus identifies Himself as the true tabernacle/Temple, the most transparent of which is found in John 2: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’... He was speaking of the temple of His body.” (see also 1:47-51, 4:1-30; cf. Matthew 12:6).22 These observations, strengthened by the fact that other Johannine writings clearly identify Jesus as the Logos (1 John 1:1-3; Revelation 19:11-16), show that for the author of the Fourth Gospel at least, there can be no question that the Logos who became flesh is to be identified as Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word/Son of God. While these considerations go a long way in demonstrating the parity of the prologue and the narrative on this point, it still remains that Jesus never comes right out and says, nor does anyone else say, that He is the Logos, and so some tension still might be and has been thought to remain. That John would bring this title up and make so much of it in the prologue and then do away with it later seems odd to many, and this in turn becomes the fodder for much speculation about the unity of John’s Gospel and the origin of John’s Logos title.
The Memra, the Logos, and the I AM
This brings us finally to a consideration of Jesus’ “I Am” sayings and the special relevance of the Targums. Notwithstanding the strong evidence for viewing the OT ani hu declarations as the key to understanding Christ’s absolute ego eimi statements, all too briefly noted above, there are some exegetical and theological stragglers, often and expectably those of a unitarian bent, who benightedly still protest it. Without suggesting that the aforementioned observations are insufficient to conclude that Christ’s use of ego eimi corresponds to Yahweh’s use of ani hu in the OT (via the LXX), all unitarian denials notwithstanding, what follows will offer another line of evidence, one believed to be especially potent, for viewing these self-identification formulas as one way by which Jesus identified Himself as the “I AM” of the OT. The way in which this will be shown to be the case will also be seen to have wide-ranging significance to the questions and issues cursorily sketched and only partly answered above.
The solution lies in a recognition of the fact that John was not only familiar with the MT and the LXX but also with the interpretive translations of the Old Testament known as the Jewish or Aramaic Targums. Special attention will be given to Deuteronomy 32:39, but the point follows just as well from a consideration of the Targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel on Isaiah.23
Before looking at the relevant Targums on Deuteronomy, we should first observe what the Masoretic Text of Deuteronomy 32:39 says, and bring out the evident connection between it and what Jesus said about Himself in John’s Gospel:
See now that I, I am He (ani hu), and there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39)
The divine self-asseveration becomes ego eimi in the Greek Septuagint:
See, see that I am (ego eimi), and there is no god except me. I will kill, and I will make alive; I will strike, and I will heal, and there is no one who will deliver from my hands (καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ὃς ἐξελεῖται ἐκ τῶν χειρῶν μου; kai ouk estin os eξeleitai ek tōn cheirōn mou). (Deuteronomy 32:39, LXX; tr. Melvin K. H. Peters)
It is manifest that Jesus is portrayed in the body of the Gospel as the one in view in Deuteronomy 32:39, for not only does He identify Himself by the “I Am” formula many times over, but He also said He is sovereign over life and death (5:21, 6:39, 8:51-52, 10:28, 17:2), including His own incarnate life and death (2:18-22, 10:17-18). Moreover, Jesus even echoed on this score the words spoken by Yahweh of old when He said:
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand (καὶ οὐχ ἁρπάσει τις αὐτὰ ἐκ τῆς χειρός μου; kai ouch harpasei tis auta ek tes cheiros mou). My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:25-30)
By themselves these words of Jesus are breathtaking in what they set forth, namely, that Jesus does whatever the Father does (such as granting eternal life and preserving His sheep). Jesus made the same point elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel when the Jews wanted to kill Him for making Himself equal with God (q.v. 5:1-47), at which time He proceeded to defend His claim on the grounds that He does whatever He sees the Father doing (such as giving life to whom He wills and executing judgment on whom He wills). In saying and showing that He can and does do whatever the Father does, Jesus was giving clear evidence (“I did tell you,” “the works I do in my Father’s name testify about me”) of His divine identity and unity with the Father (“I and the Father are one”). As staggering as these words are by themselves, they are all the more staggering when seen in relation to the words of Yahweh in Deuteronomy 32:39 cited above, of which John 10:25-30 is an unmistakable echo.
Turning to the Targums of Deuteronomy 32:39 we learn that it is the Memra who is behind the “I Am” declaration of this passage. Since Memra in Aramaic means “Word,” just like Logos does in Greek, it becomes apparent that John’s references to Jesus as the Logos/Word (John 1:1, 14) anticipate the narrative in so far as what Jesus says in the narrative is just what the Memra (or Yahweh with/in His Memra) said long ago. Here is how Deuteronomy 32:39 reads in various Targums:
When the Word [Ar. Memra] of the Lord shall reveal Himself to redeem His people, He will say to all the nations: Behold now, that I am He who Is, and Was, and Will Be, and there is no other god beside Me: I, in My Word, kill and make alive; I smite the people of the Beth Israel, and I will heal them at the end of the days; and there will be none who can deliver them from My hand, Gog and his armies whom I have permitted to make war against them. (Deuteronomy 32:39, Targ. PS.-J.)
See now that I in My Word am He, and there is no other God beside Me. I kill the living in this world, and make alive the dead in the world that cometh; I am He who smiteth, and I am He who healeth; and there is none who can deliver from My hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39, Pal. Targ.)
I, I in My Word am He, and there is no other god beside me. I am He who causes the living to die in this world, and who brings to life the dead in the world to come. (Deuteronomy 32:39, Tg. Neof. [what is virtually the same reading appears in Frg. Tg. V])
The three absolute “I Am” sayings of Jesus found in John 8 (vv. 24, 28, and 58) are of special relevance to Deuteronomy 32:39 for at least a couple of reasons:
First, the place and occasion on which Jesus spoke these words to the Jews was at the temple in Jerusalem on the last great day of the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths, as is evident by following the context from as far back as 7:2 (see also: 7:8, 10, 11, 14, and esp. 37).24
The reason this is significant is because:
a. As its very name suggests, the Feast of Tabernacles was, among other things, a commemoration for the people of Israel of the time when they dwelled in tents after God took them out of Egypt, a time when the Lord Himself dwelt in a tent/tabernacle among them. The temporary tabernacle structure was eventually replaced by the more permanent Temple in Jerusalem at which all Israel was to appear for the feast.
b. On the septennial of this feast the entirety of the law of God, which included Deuteronomy 32:39, was to be read aloud in the hearing of the people. On such occasions the reading of Deuteronomy 32 would have coincided with the last great day of the Feast.
So Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. Then Moses commanded them, saying, “At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:9-13)
c. Moreover, since Deuteronomy 32 was not only included or subjoined to the Torah that was to be read but was also a song, it was to be taught to every Israelite so that it would serve as a witness against them in the future when they would rebel against the Lord and as a consequence be driven into exile:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, the time for you to die is near; call Joshua, and present yourselves at the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves at the tent of meeting. The Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the doorway of the tent. The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will come upon them; so that they will say in that day, ‘Is it not because our God is not among us that these evils have come upon us?’ But I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they will do, for they will turn to other gods.
“Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, so that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel. For when I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to their fathers, and they have eaten and are satisfied and become prosperous, then they will turn to other gods and serve them, and spurn Me and break My covenant. Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.” So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the sons of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:16-22)
The song was thus closely connected with the Feast of Tabernacles, and the evidence suggests that it was sung every year at the Feast, and at the very least would have been read on the septennial.25
The “I Am” declarations of Jesus in John 8, then, spoken as they were during the Sabbath of the Feast of Tabernacles, would have been heard against the backdrop of Deuteronomy 32:39, which would still have been ringing in their ears when Jesus said what He did in John 8:58. Little wonder that they picked up stones to stone Him (John 8:59).
In the face of the faithless response of the Jews who wanted to stone Jesus after He used the same self-identification formula used by Yahweh in Deuteronomy 32, we are told that Jesus hid himself from them:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus HID Himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:58-59; cf. 12:36)
This is what Yahweh, the great I Am, said in Deuteronomy 32 he would do in the face of such apostasy:
Then He said, “I will HIDE My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness.” (Deuteronomy 32:20; cf. 31:17, 18)
The warning of the song proved true, for that “perverse generation” was judged for their rejection of Jesus when the temple was destroyed and over a million people were killed and others were sent into exile, just as Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse.26
A second reason the “I Am” sayings found in John 8 are of special relevance is because of the way Deuteronomy 32:39 in the Targum of Pseudo Jonathan interprets the meaning of the “I Am” of the MT, and how it represents these words as something that would be said by “the Word” in the future when He would appear for the purpose of revelation and redemption: “When the Word of the Lord shall reveal Himself to redeem His people, He will say to all the nations: Behold now, that I am He who IS, and WAS, and WILL BE…”
A comparison of the three times Jesus declared Himself to be the “I Am” in John 8 will show that He did just this:27
|He Who Is |
|“Unless you believe that I am [ego eimi], you will die in your sins” (8:24)|
|He Who Was |
|“Before Abraham existed, I am [ego eimi].” (8:58)|
|He Who Will Be |
|“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [ego eimi].” (8:28)|
Allied to this is what is related in another of John’s writings - the book of Revelation. There we read the following words, which are most naturally taken to be those of the Lord Jesus in context:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)
While the Father is referred to in this way in Revelation 1:4, it is evident that Jesus is the speaker in verse 8, and therefore the words of verse 8 refer to Him, for He is the one who is coming according to the verse that immediately precedes it:28
Behold, HE is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see HIM, even those who pierced HIM; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over HIM. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:7-8)
That the one “who is and who was and who is to come” of verse 8 is identified as “the Alpha and the Omega,” a title commonly understood to refer to the Father in Revelation 21:6,29
Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.”
and which incontestably refers to Jesus in Revelation 22:12-13,
“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
shows that both the Father and the Son share the same titles, something that is also apparent from the fact that the Father in 21:6 refers to Himself as “the beginning and the end” even as Jesus does in 22:13. So the fact that the Father is identified as He “who is and who was and who is to come” in 1:4 does nothing to mitigate the force of the contextual consideration in 1:7-8 that points to Jesus sharing this same identification.
It is also of relevance to note that Jesus unequivocally refers to Himself as “the first and the last” in Revelation 1:17 and 2:8, for this is the very title used for Yahweh a number of times in Isaiah (41:4, 44:6, 48:12). In fact, the first and last of these passages (no pun intended) so happen to be among the ani hu declarations found in Isaiah:
“Who has performed and accomplished it, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am the first, and with the last. I am He (ani hu).’” (Isaiah 41:4)
“Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He (ani hu), I am the first, I am also the last.” (Isaiah 48:12)
The esteemed commentator William Hendrickson was right when he wrote the following about Revelation 1:8:
That this glorious title refers to Christ should not be open to doubt. Both the immediately preceding and the immediately succeeding contexts have reference to Christ (see verses 7, 13). The expression ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ is found in a slightly modified form in verse 17—‘I am the first and the last’—where it refers to Him who was dead and is alive for evermore. Observe also the parallel passages, 21:6-8 and 22:13.
John hears the Lord Jesus Christ Himself speaking to him and saying, ‘I myself am the Alpha and the Omega.’ Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. Thus Christ here describes Himself as being the complete and perfect revelation of God. He says, as it were, ‘I am from the very beginning to the very end, that is, the Eternal One. Take courage; your enemy cannot destroy your Christ.’ He Himself tells us that He is fully equal with the Father, for He adds: ‘declares the Lord God, who is and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’ Notice that the same phrase which in verse 4 described the Father here designates the Son. ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn. 10:30).30
Several other passages in the New Testament cite or allude to Deuteronomy 32 in application to Jesus. Paul says that Jesus is the Rock who accompanied Israel in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4; cf. v. 9), a title for Yahweh that comes from Deuteronomy 32 (vv. 4, 15, 18, 30, 31). Later in the same epistle Paul sets participation in the Lord’s Supper over against participation in idol feasts by appealing to the warning given in Deuteronomy 32:37-38 (1 Corinthians 10:14-21). Such an act would provoke Jesus to jealousy (1 Corinthians 10:22) even as Yahweh said of those who would turn away from Him to false worship (Deuteronomy 32:15-22). For a final example, the author of Hebrews quotes the LXX version of Deuteronomy 32:43, which instructs all the angels of God to worship the Lord. According to the book of Hebrews the object of this angelic worship is the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 1:6).
Of course as Ronning points out, the Targumic rendering of Deuteronomy 32:39 was not the only passage relevant to John 8:58, for the saying “Before Abraham was, I Am” also finds counterparts in the targumic rendering of several other passages.
Whereas in the MT of the Pentateuch there is only one “I am he” saying (Deut 32:39), in the Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch there are about sixty (about forty each in Tg. Neof. and Tg Ps-J, with about a 50 percent overlap). All but one of these (Tg Ps-J Gen 45:3) are divine “I am he” sayings, and some of them are quite suggestive of John 8:58. The following are all from Targum Neofiti; brackets are used to indicate marginal glosses: (1) “When Abram was 99 years old, the Word of the Lord was revealed to Abram and he said to him, ‘I am he, the God of heaven”‘ (Gen 17:1); (2) “And the [Word of the] Lord was revealed to him that night and he said ‘[I] am he, the God of Abraham your father”‘ (Gen 26:24); (3) “The Word of the Lord called to him from the midst of the thorn bush. .. and he said, ‘I am he, the God of your father, the God of Abraham”‘ (Exod 3:4–6); (4) “And the [Word of the] Lord spoke with Moses and said to him, ‘I am he, the Lord. And I was revealed in my Word to Abraham”’ (Exod 6:2–3). While one need not consult the Targums to see why Jesus’ hearers picked up stones to stone him (John 8:59), such synagogue readings as noted above may well have come to mind and contributed to the interpretation that Jesus was claiming to be the God of Abraham.31
From all of this it ought to be seen that the Targums mightily strengthen the connection that is widely seen to exist between Jesus “I Am” sayings and these OT utterances of Yahweh, and show that John did not, after all, drop the theme of Jesus as the Logos in the prologue. John uses the Targumic locution for God when he calls Jesus the Logos/Word in 1:1 and 1:14, and in the body of the book Jesus uses the words of the MT that are attributed (with periphrastic variation and expansion) to the Memra in the Targums.
… John calls Jesus “the Word” because of the use of Memra and Dibbera/Dibbura in the Targums. Such a conclusion helps resolve one of the problems of John’s Gospel, namely, that Jesus is not identified as the Word outside of the Prologue. If “the Word” [in the prologue – AR] is targumic, then we can see that Jesus repeatedly saying “I am he” in the body of the Gospel, in contexts that echo the divine “I am he” of the OT, amounts to the same thing as John’s designation of him as the Word who is God in the prologue. Both expressions identify Jesus as the God of Israel, the one true God, so that the divine “I am he” sayings in the body of the Gospel complement the Logos title in the Prologue.32
It thus appears that John, through a skillful use of the MT, the LXX, and the Targums – the three great sources of Scriptural knowledge for the Jews in the first century – identifies Jesus as the counterpart of Yahweh in the New Testament. The ani hu sayings of Yahweh in the MT, which become ego eimi in the LXX, and which are self-revelations of the Word in the Targums, find there complement in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word who was with God and was God and who tabernacled among us.
In addition to the sources mentioned in the footnotes, the following articles are recommended for further reading:
- Biblical Monotheism Examined - Trinitarian or Henotheistic in Nature? Pt. 8
- The Deity of Christ in Light of Jesus’ I AM Statements
- Excursus – An I AM Saying in the Earliest Gospel
- Purpose and Meaning of “Ego Eimi” in the Gospel of John in Reference to the Deity of Christ.