Many Christian scholars believe that Jesus claimed the divine name spoken to Moses from the burning bush, most specifically using the example in John 8:58, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”
The passage from which the divine name originates is Exodus 3:14: “And God said unto Moses, I AM [THAT] I AM: and he said, Thus shall you say unto the children of Israel, I AM has sent me unto you.”
With little variation, “I Am That I Am” is the common English translation of this verse. However, English translations do not accurately reflect the meaning of the name. Most languages have one main copula. In English, this is the verb “to be” in all its various forms — am, are, is, was, were, been, etc. Both the English, Hebrew, and Greek also have a non-copular use of “to be,” meaning that at times it is used as an existential verb, denoting “to exist” (an English example would be Shakespeare’s famous line, “To be or not to be, that is the question”).
The copula verb in Exodus 3:14 is used twice, which is why English translators repeat it twice. However, that does not reflect the Jewish understanding of the phrase. When the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek (called the Septuagint), they did not repeat the Greek copula verb twice, because they understood the emphasis to be on the second time the copula was used, i.e. the subject complement.
I = subject
first am = verb
second am = subject compliment
In other words, the sentence could be translated: “I am The Being” or “I am Existence” or “I am He Who Exists” with the implication that God exists without a first cause. Thus, the Greek version, translated by Jews, does not read “I am [that] I am,” it reads “I am He Who Is.” The Jews understood that the second “being” meant existence. To state this more simply, God’s name is not the verb and the subject compliment; His name is the subject compliment. This becomes increasingly clear when in the same verse, God then says to Moses, “Tell the people I Am (subject compliment) sent you.” He did not say, “Tell the people I Am that I Am (verb and subject compliment) sent you.”
The Greek copula is “eimi.” Thus, the Greek reads, I am (eimi) He Who Is (ho on), Tell them He Who Is (ho on) sent you.
I (ego) = subject
first am (eimi) = verb
second am (ho on) = subject compliment
This brings us back to Jesus’ statement in John 8:58.
“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.
John translated Jesus’ words (most likely spoken in Aramaic) to the Greek “ego eimi” (I am). He did not translate Jesus as saying, “ho on” (He Who Is). Nowhere in the gospel of John does the apostle use the term “ho on” as a title or a name. Yet we know that John was quite familiar with it as such, for five times in the book of Revelation he uses “ho on,” but only as a name or title for God (the Father), not Jesus, whom he usually refers to either by name or as the Lamb. For example, in Revelation 1:4-5 (parenthesis and emphasis mine): “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is (ho on) and who was and who is to come; and from the seven spirits who are before His throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood….”
So if John felt the divine name of Exodus belonged exclusively to the Father, and if the Jews of Jesus’ day shared John’s view, then Jesus wouldn’t have claimed a name attributed only to His Father, or he would have been supporting the doctrine of Modalism (this will be further discussed in the forthcoming article The Divinity of Jesus Part Two: Did Jesus Claim to be God?).
However, note that in John 8:58, John breaks tense (“Before Abraham was” = past tense, “I am” = present tense). If recording Jesus as claiming the divine name of Exodus was not John’s intent, then he likely broke tense to stress his use of “eimi,” wishing it be understood in its non-copular existential form. In other words, “Before Abraham was born, I existed.”
Was this a claim of divinity?
Without a doubt. Jews are only Jews because they are descendents of Abraham. Not only did Jesus’ claim of existing before Abraham was even born communicate the idea that He was of a higher status than the chosen people, but to assert that He pre-existed Abraham, 3,000 years after him, ensured His hearers understood that He claimed to be more than a mere mortal. If the Jews believed Jesus was claiming only to be an angel, they would have laughed at him and thought him delusional. But they picked up stones to execute him for the charge a blasphemy, which clearly indicates they understood his assertion of divinity.
In conclusion, whether or not Jesus used the divine name of Exodus 3:14, the one thing that is clear from John’s passage is that He did indeed claim to be divine, and his audience certainly understood that claim. Orthodox Jews are amongst those that reject the idea that Jesus was claiming the divine name. Obviously, they also reject the idea that Jesus was divine, but many acknowledge that Jesus thought he was divine. Thus, sharing a linguistic starting point with those of the Jewish faith by not taking a dogmatic stance on Jesus claiming the divine name (since there is the possibility that he was not doing so) may help foster communication when engaging in apologetics with them, and bring them to a closer understanding of who Jesus was.