Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Did Muhammad Know Yahweh? Pt. 2

Sam Shamoun

We resume with our rebuttal.

The writer proceeds to make a further erroneous claim by asserting that the only place in Scripture that “Christendom” points to in order to prove that Jesus used the name YHWH is John 8:58. The reason we say that this is erroneous is because this doesn’t accurately represent the Christian argument. The point in quoting John 8:58 is not to show that Jesus employed the Tetragrammaton, but rather that Jesus identified himself in the same way that YHWH did to Moses when he appeared to the latter in the form of fire in the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3:1-6). In so doing, Jesus was basically claiming to be YHWH, the God of Moses.

Here are the passages so that the readers can compare them for themselves:

“Then Moses said to God, ‘Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.” Now they may say to me, “What is His name?” What shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’” Exodus 3:13-14

“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 (ego eimi).’” John 8:57-58 NKJV 

Since YHWH calls himself the “I AM”, for Jesus to then employ the same words in the context of answering the question of how he and Abraham could have actually seen each other, basically means that Christ was pretty much identifying himself as the eternally subsisting God.  

This brings us to the second point. The author proceeds to make another erroneous assumption, namely, that the Greek words of John 8:58 (ego eimi) are simply a means of designating or identifying oneself, and do not have the same meaning which the word YHWH does, a name which signifies the fact that God is the One who lives or the Living [One], the Self Subsisting.

This either illustrates the author’s ignorance or dishonesty since the context in which Jesus employs these words clearly shows that Jesus is claiming to be the Living One who eternally subsists.

Note the context carefully:

“They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.’” John 8:39-42

Here Jesus was basically telling the Jews who were opposing him that they could not possibly be Abraham’s descendants since they were trying to kill him, which is something that their ancestor did not try to do. Jesus’ statements presuppose that he and Abraham actually saw each other and, unlike the Jews whom Christ was confronting, Abraham did not oppose or disbelieve in him. In fact, Jesus went on to explain that their physical forefather was actually elated when he saw Christ:

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.’ The Jews said to Him, ‘Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, “He is our God”; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham? Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am (prin Abra’am genesthai ego eimi). Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” John 8:51-59

After stating that Abraham was glad when the day came that he saw Christ, the Jews were puzzled since they couldn’t comprehend how Jesus could have seen Abraham when the former wasn’t even fifty and the latter had been dead for roughly two thousands years. Notice that Christ doesn’t correct them, but goes on to explain how it could have been possible for him to have personally seen the patriarch: unlike Abraham who came into existence, Christ has always been!

This is clearly brought out by the fact that the Greek text uses two different verbs to contrast the difference in their modes of existence, namely, genesthai which refers to a point of origin, and the present tense eimi which in this particular context refers to timeless existence.

The following commentaries help make the point:

Barnes' Notes on the Bible

I am - The expression I am, though in the present tense, is clearly designed to refer to a past time. Thus, in Psalm 90:2, "From everlasting to everlasting thou art God." Applied to God, it denotes continued existence without respect to time, so far as he is concerned. We divide time into the past, the present, and the future. The expression, applied to God, denotes that he does not measure his existence in this manner, but that the word by which we express the present denotes his continued and unchanging existence. Hence, he assumes it as his name, "I AM," and "I AM that I AM," Exodus 3:14. Compare Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 47:8. There is a remarkable similarity between the expression employed by Jesus in this place and that used in Exodus to denote the name of God. The manner in which Jesus used it would strikingly suggest the application of the same language to God. The question here was about his pre-existence. The objection of the Jews was that he was not 50 years old, and could not, therefore, have seen Abraham. Jesus replied to that that he existed before Abraham. As in his human nature he was not yet 50 years old, and could not, as a man, have existed before Abraham, this declaration must be referred to another nature; and the passage proves that, while he was a man, he was also endowed with another nature existing before Abraham, and to which he applied the term (familiar to the Jews as expressive of the existence of God) I AM; and this declaration corresponds to the affirmation of John Joh 1:1, that he was in the beginning with God, and was God. This affirmation of Jesus is one of the proofs on which John relies to prove that he was the Messiah John 20:31, to establish which was the design of writing this book.

Vincent's Word Studies

Was, I am (γενέσθαι, ἐγώ εἰμι)

It is important to observe the distinction between the two verbs. Abraham's life was under the conditions of time, and therefore had a temporal beginning. Hence, Abraham came into being, or was born (γενέσθαι). Jesus' life was from and to eternity. Hence the formula for absolute, timeless existence, I am (γώ εμι). See on John 1:3; see on John 7:34.

People's New Testament

8:58 Before Abraham was, I am. A solemn and official declaration, preceded by Verily, verily (see PNT Joh 3:3). The utterance is a remarkable one. It does not merely assert that he was before Abraham, but before Abraham was, I AM. It identifies with the I AM of the Old Testament. Divinity has no past tense, no future tense, but always the present.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

58. Before Abraham was, I am-The words rendered "was" and "am" are quite different. The one clause means, "Abraham was brought into being"; the other, "I exist." The statement therefore is not that Christ came into existence before Abraham did (as Arians affirm is the meaning), but that He never came into being at all, but existed before Abraham had a being; in other words, existed before creation, or eternally (as Joh 1:1). In that sense the Jews plainly understood Him, since "then took they up stones to cast at Him," just as they had before done when they saw that He made Himself equal with God (Joh 5:18).

Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary 

[3.] Our Saviour gives an effectual answer to this cavil, by a solemn assertion of his own seniority even to Abraham himself (v. 58): "Verily, verily, I say unto you; I do not only say it in private to my own disciples, who will be sure to say as I say, but to you my enemies and persecutors; I say it to your faces, take it how you will: Before Abraham was, I am;" prin Abraam genesthai, egoµ eimi, Before Abraham was made or born, I am. The change of the word is observable, and bespeaks Abraham a creature, and himself the Creator; well therefore might he make himself greater than Abraham. Before Abraham he was, First, As God. I am, is the name of God (Ex. 3:14); it denotes his self-existence; he does not say, I was, but I am, for he is the first and the last, immutably the same (Rev. 1:8); thus he was not only before Abraham, but before all worlds, ch. 1:1; Prov. 8:23. Secondly, As Mediator. He was the appointed Messiah, long before Abraham; the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), the channel of conveyance of light, life, and love from God to man. This supposes his divine nature, that he is the same in himself from eternity (Heb. 13:8), and that he is the same to man ever since the fall; he was made of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, to Adam, and Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Shem, and all the patriarchs that lived and died by faith in him before Abraham was born. Abraham was the root of the Jewish nation, the rock out of which they were hewn. If Christ was before Abraham, his doctrine and religion were no novelty, but were, in the substance of them, prior to Judaism, and ought to take place of it.

(The preceding quotations were taken from the website Biblos. All bold emphasis ours)

Finally, here are the words of Bart D. Ehrman, an avowed skeptic of Christianity who has made it a chief aim of his life to attack the Christian faith, particularly the Holy Bible, in order to cause people to lose their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Jesus does not preach about the future kingdom of God in John. The emphasis is on his own identity, as seen in the ‘I am’ sayings. He is the one who can bring life-giving sustenance (‘I am the bread of life’ 6:35); he is the one who brings enlightenment (‘I am the light of the world’ 9:5); he is the only way to God (‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me’ 14:6). Belief in Jesus is the way to have eternal salvation: ‘whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (3:36). He in fact is equal with God: ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30). His Jewish listeners appear to have known full well what he was saying: they immediately pick up stones to execute him for blasphemy.

“In one place in John, Jesus claims the name of God for himself, saying to his Jewish interlocutors, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58). Abraham, who lived 1,800 years earlier, was the father of the Jews, and Jesus is claiming to have existed before him. But he is claiming more than that. He is referring to a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures where God appears to Moses at the burning bush and commissions him to go to Pharaoh and seek the release of his people. Moses asks God what God’s name is, so that he can inform his fellow Israelites which divinity has sent him. God replies, ‘I Am Who I Am … say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you”’ (Exodus 3:14). So when Jesus says ‘I AM,’ in John 8:58, he is claiming the divine name for himself. Here again his Jewish hearers had no trouble understanding his meaning. Once more, out come the stones.” (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We don’t Know About Them) [HarperOne, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2009], Three. A Mass Variant Views, p. 80; bold emphasis ours)

Hence, Jesus’ point to the Jews was that, unlike their ancestor who was created, he is eternal since he has always existed and will continue to exist forever, which is why he could personally see Abraham.

Now since the Muslim author acknowledges that this is basically what the word YHWH means, i.e. He Who Lives and the Self-Existent One, he has no choice but to admit that Christ was claiming to be YHWH since YHWH alone is eternal.  

The writer then proceeds to quote John 9:9 where the blind man whom Jesus miraculously healed employs the words ego eimi in order to prove that this phrase simply means “I am.” He then accuses Christians of deception since some translations add the word “he” in this particular text, as if this was deliberately done to obscure the fact that John 9:9 uses the same words that Jesus does. As if he couldn’t make it any more obvious that he is dealing with issues that are simply beyond his intellectual capacity and ability to comprehend, he asks the question of whether the blind mind was claiming to be YHWH by using ego eimi, which he answers in the negative and asserts that no Christian would dare claim that he was.

In the first place, had the author bothered perusing the various English versions of the Holy Bible he would have soon discovered that there are many translations that also insert the word he even in places where Jesus happens to be the One speaking. For the sake of brevity, we offer a few examples:

“‘I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (ego eimi) you will die in your sins.’… So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he (ego eimi), and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.’” John 8:24, 28 English Standard Version (ESV)

“I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he (ego eimi).” John 13:19 ESV

This brings us to the next point. As we have already noted, the Christian argument is not that the mere use of the words ego eimi proves that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, but the manner and context in which he employed this phrase which does so. As the following Evangelical scholars make clear:

The phrase I AM is not the word YHWH. However it is a derivative of the verb ‘to be,’ from which the divine name Yahweh (YHWH) is also derived in Exodus 3:15. Thus the I AM WHO I AM title which God gave to Moses is a fuller expression of His eternal being, shortened in v. 15 to the divine name YHWH. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, translated the first use of the phrase I AM in Exodus 3:14 as ego eimi. (Greek was the spoken language of Jesus’ day and is the language in which the New Testament was written.)

“So, in the time of Jesus, the emphatic form of ‘I am’ (ego eimi) in Greek was the equivalent of the Hebrew Yahweh. Depending on the context, it could be a forceful way of saying ‘I am!’ (as in John 9:9), or it could be the name of God himself, the eternal I AM.

“On several occasions Jesus used the term ego eimi of Himself as it can be used only of God. The clearest example is when the Jews said to Jesus: ‘“You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM” [Greek: ego eimi]. Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him’ (John 8:57-59). The Jews sought to kill Him for the presumption of that claim to deity. The Old Testament was clear. The prescribed penalty for blasphemy was to be stoned to death (Leviticus 24:16).” (Josh McDowell and Bart Larson, Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity [Here’s Life Publishers, San Bernardino, CA: Eighth printing 1989], p. 22; bold emphasis ours)

Therefore, the Muslim author is either simply ignorant, or outright dishonest, since his arguments badly misunderstand and/or misrepresent the actual Christian position.

Now that we got all of the author’s red herrings and straw men out of the way, it is time to move on to the third part of the rebuttal.