HR: I have met a lot of skeptics and cultists who assert that Jesus never claimed to be God.
JS: Denigrating your opponents like Jehovah’s Witnesses as “cultists” is frankly unprofessional and does nothing to reflect the love and respect that Christians are admonished to show others. (1 Peter 3:15) Calling them non-Trinitarians would have clearly sufficed, but no, that term lacks the biting force that the pejorative “cultist” has. Additionally, it is extremely unlikely that any non-Trinitarians will be attracted to Trinitarianism after being insulted with an inappropriate rebuke.
HR: Rather, they say he referred to himself as the son of man. It is not just skeptics and cultists [Here we go again!] who are troubled by this issue. I have met just as many Christians [Trinitarians] who ask, “If Jesus is the Son of God, why did he so consistently refer to himself as the son of man?” The common follow-up question is how can I be certain that Jesus is really God and that the Trinity is a correct doctrine? [emphasis original]
Whole books have been written answering these questions.
JS: The goal then would be to read the right books!—Ecclesiastes 12:12.
HR: My goal here is to provide three brief yet adequate answers that you can quickly share with people expressing these kinds of challenges, concerns, and doubts.
JS: I strive to remain completely objective and not be emotionally invested into any paradigm or position, no matter how long it’s been held or how near and dear it has been to my heart. If HR thus fulfills his word and provides “adequate answers” demolishing opposition to Trinitarianism, then I will seek the true God with him. If not, then I must express why they are inadequate in clear, respectful, and heartfelt terms. These three “adequate answers” he provides have to do with:
- The outdated Trinitarian handling of John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14.
- Jeremiah 23:6 but ignoring Jeremiah 33:16.
- Failing to include Revelation 1:13, 14:14 and other relevant scriptures.
HR: First, while Jesus in the gospels almost always referred to himself as the “son of man,” there is at least one occasion where he explicitly claims to be God. The gospel text is John 8:58, where Jesus declares to the Jewish religious leaders, “Before Abraham was born, I AM!” Here, Jesus assumes the name God had assigned to himself in Exodus 3:14, “I AM who I AM. This what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” The Jewish religious leaders clearly understood that Jesus was claiming to be God, and it is evidenced by the fact that they attempted to stone him to death for his act of “blasphemy.”
JS: Yes, Jesus frequently referred to himself as the “son of man” across the four Gospels. Also, I am very glad to see HR posit “at least one occasion” where Trinitarianism teaches that Jesus “explicitly claims to be God.” Thus, a close examination of this only “one” Jesus=God proof text is in order, John 8:58. If it can be clearly demonstrated that John 8:58 is not a proof text, that Jesus was in-fact not explicitly claiming to be God, then that would mean that nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus ever claim to be God. The stakes are high indeed, so let’s proceed:
Taking for granted that “I AM” (‘ego eimi’) is the divine name in John 8:58, let’s run a simple test. This claim that Jesus is assuming the name of God from Exodus 3:14 can be easily tested by replacing “I AM” with another divine name or designation, like “God,” and observing the results.
[test]This declaration as it stands is nonsensical. To make sense, it needs the words “I existed as” or “I was,” or something similar: “Before Abraham was, I was God.”
“Before Abraham was, God.”
[end of test]
The same is true with “Before Abraham was, I AM.” It needs more words to be complete, like “Before Abraham was, I was I AM.” But, the Greek text does not say that, for it would have to be emended from πρὶν ᾿Αβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί to πρὶν ᾿Αβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἦμην ὁ ἐγὼ εἰμί, where ἦμην means “I was” and ὁ signifies that ἐγὼ εἰμί (‘ego eimi’) is a name.
What John 8:58 says as opposed to how Trinitarianism reads it:
- πρὶν ᾿Αβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί
- πρὶν ᾿Αβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἦμην ὁ ἐγὼ εἰμί
|Click to enlarge.|
|Click to enlarge.|
Therefore, the Trinitarian translation not only has Jesus failing at proper communication, but it also has Jesus not following a simple conversation. True, the Pharisees he was conversing with were being unreasonable, but Jesus was attempting to answer their last question in a sensible way, not changing the subject. Indeed, they were asking him, “You are not yet 50 years old, and still you have seen Abraham?” As Jesus began his reply with Abraham, it is clear that his intent was to answer their question—if he existed before Abraham or not, which he answered affirmatively. But if that is the extent of it, then why did they want to stone him? The answer is in paying close attention to the context. First, John 8:20 provides the setting: the Temple compound in the treasury area which would locate him in the Court of Women where four massive menorah lamps are reported to have stood that illuminated this Temple courtyard, and doubtlessly symbolized spiritual illumination for the world. It was before these sacred lamps then that Jesus declared in verse 12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (NIV)
To recap: at the minimum the Pharisees wanted to stone Jesus for:
- Blaspheming the Temple (saying he’s the “light of the world,” brighter than the Temple lamps)
- Injuring Abraham’s sacred genealogical prestige for existing prior to him and thus being greater than him.
HR: Second, the Old Testament in Jeremiah 23:6 assigns the name YHWH (I AM) to the righteous Branch, the King, who will come from the lineage of David. Jesus in several places in the gospel claims to be this righteous Branch and King.
JS: Ignoring the “YHWH (I AM)” statement, there are some responses in order. First, in both Exodus 23:21 and Zechariah 3:1-2 the angel of the Exodus and the angel of YHWH (in this case arguably the same person) are called by the divine name YHWH. This is shown in the NET Bible footnotes. The Exodus 23:21 footnote for “name” says in part: “Driver quotes McNeile as saying, ‘The “angel” is Jehovah Himself “in a temporary descent to visibility for a special purpose.”’” For Zechariah 3:1-2 a footnote informs us that: “The juxtaposition of the messenger of the LORD in v. 1 and the LORD in v. 2 shows that here, at least, they are one and the same.” Thus, there is a scriptural precedent for representing God and bearing his name in a representational sense. So all Jeremiah 23:6 could be saying then is that Jesus represents YHWH, Jehovah God. Regarding Jeremiah 23:6, HR and his colleagues would do well to notice that Jeremiah 33:16 also “assigns the name YHWH” to Jerusalem—the exact phrase in both scriptures being “Jehovah Is Our Righteousness.” Thus Jerusalem would also represent Jehovah, but obviously not be Jehovah. Thus one scripture in Jeremiah helps us to properly understand another scripture in Jeremiah. This is accepted and valid hermeneutic.
HR: Third, Jesus is making a special theological point about his deity in calling himself the son of man in the gospels. This point becomes clear in examining the New Testament. For every New Testament passage referring to Jesus Christ that happened chronologically after the first day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–41), Jesus is always referred to as the Son of God and never as the son of man. Conversely, in the gospels, Jesus consistently calls himself the son of man and never the Son of God.
JS: Jesus called himself the “Son of Man” as a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, of the enigmatic, messianic and apocalyptic human figure, “someone like a son of man,” who was exalted to God’s throne to rule in his name. This figure was enigmatic until Jesus identified him as himself. Following the Pentecost event as seen in Revelation 1:13 and 14:14, this figure “someone like a son of man” that Jesus identified as himself is seen again as a reigning king. Thus, HR’s first claim that following Pentecost “Jesus is always referred to as the Son of God and never as the son of man” is invalidated. Secondly, regarding HR’s second claim, Jesus called himself “Son of God” in John 10:36 where he said: “I am God’s Son.” Additionally, Jesus on earth was called God’s son by God Himself without any objection by Jesus—at his baptism: Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, see also John 1:34, and at his Transfiguration: Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35. Thus, HR’s second claim that while on earth he never called himself the Son of God is also invalidated.
HR then uses this invalid dichotomy to base his next point on, that “the same kind of demarcation for the human followers of Jesus Christ,” that prior to Pentecost Christians “are always called sons of men or children of men and never as sons of God,” but following Pentecost Christians “are always called sons of God and never as sons of men.” And while it is true that Daniel was “highly esteemed” (Daniel 10:11, 19) yet was called a “son of man” (Daniel 8:17), this is another way of saying “human” and does not have the messianic, apocalyptic significance of Jesus’ identification based on Daniel 7:13-14. Similarly, the great prophet Ezekiel who had the rare privilege to behold the “visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1) was himself called “son of man” 93 times. This too is a reference to his humanity and is distinct from the meaning of Daniel 7:13-14.
In closing, I believe that Dr. Hugh Ross has been a powerful witness for God and Christ regarding the validity of creation. However, as he is an Evangelical Trinitarian, I can also identify where God and Christ have been misrepresented, and where authentic witnesses for God and Christ have been denigrated.
To err is easy and takes but a few words. To correct the error though demands wordiness proportionate to the magnitude of damage the error has inflicted.
 As seen in the Kingdom Interlinear Translation: http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/b/r1/lp-e/int/E/1985/43/8#s=58
 See also Matthew 14:33, 27:43, Luke 1:35 and John 19:7. Matthew 27:43 and John 19:7 appear to be recollections from Jesus’ enemies of his statement at John 10:36.
Related blog entries:
- (Y!A) Trinitarians, do you see the flawed reasoning of “I AM” in John 8:58?
- Exploring a Trinitarian Black Box
- Who did Jesus say he was? (Specifically Appendix A: “How Jesus identified himself as the apocalyptic Son of Man figure from Daniel 7:13-14.”)
- (From Kazland) ‘Before Abraham was, I’…what, exactly?
From Dr. Edgar Foster:
- Margaret Davies and the EGW EIMI Sayings in John's Gospel
Related articles by Solomon Landers (1942-2013) on Coptic John 8:58:
- Does Sahidic Coptic John 8:58 Say Jesus is God?
- Sahidic Coptic John 8:58 and Sahidic Coptic Exodus 3:14
- The Coptic Version and Theological Questions
Podcast with Rabbi Tovia Singer:
When downloaded, the minute marker is specifically 58:40-1:04:50. Rabbi Tovia Singer humorously says he needs “Dramamine” when listening to the Trinitarian explanation for Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58, which he caustically adds gives him “acid reflux.” He says it “doesn’t match at all,” and uses this to lampoon Christianity!
Why do Christian bibles translate and capitalize Exodus 3:14 as “I AM”? Find out the answer to this and many other questions in this week’s Torah Pearls!
Pictures are from the book Jesus: The Way, The Truth, The Life (seen here https://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jesus/): Transfiguration scene is from chapter 60. Jesus teaching before the menorah lamp scene is from chapter 68. The John 8:59 scene is from chapter 69.
More background regarding John 8:58-59 and blasphemy
When they realized the implications of Jesus’ claim to have existed before Abraham, as the Christ whose “day” Abraham “saw,” the Jews took up stones to stone him. They rejected his claim to be the Christ, as well as any suggestion that he was superior to their “father,” Abraham.133
Several references to “blasphemy” in the writings of Josephus help further illustrate how the Jews of Jesus’ day could have interpreted his words as blasphemous without associating them in any sense with a claim to be God. For example, in his Antiquities of the Jews 3.180 Josephus refers to “blasphemous charges” that are made against the Jews which are “really seen as an attack against the lawgiver Moses, who is seen as speaking for God.”134 In Antiquities 12.406 a connection is made “between blasphemy and attacking the people of God, especially the leadership.”135 Finally, in Antiquities 20.115 a soldier “seized the Laws of Moses, that lay in one of those villages, and brought them out before the eyes of all present, and tore them to pieces; and this was done with reproachful language [Greek: epiblasphemon, ‘blasphemies’], and much scurrility” (Whiston’s translation). It is clear, then, that disrespect for God’s law and for his leadership was, for the Jews, tantamount to disrespecting God himself.
Additionally, in the Qumran scrolls “blasphemy” is used for how God’s servants are treated (1QpHab 10.13) and of those who ‘open their mouth against the statutes of God’s covenant by saying, “They are not right”’ (CD-A 5.12; compare 5.21).136 In the OT Apocrypha, “blasphemy” is used to characterize actions against God’s name, against his people, and against their holy places, such as the temple and its sanctuary (1 Maccabees 2:6-14; 2 Maccabees 8:2-4; compare 2 Maccabees 12:14; 15:24). In Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 3:16 the one who forsakes his father is “like a blasphemer” (hos blasphemos). This understanding is perhaps because of the position and the responsibility God is said to have given fathers according to Sirach 3:2.
When I consider the high priest’s declaration of “blasphemy” against Jesus upon hearing him affirm that he is the “Christ,” “the Son of the Blessed,” and the “Son of man,” [Mark 14:60-64] together with the general understanding of blasphemy found in Jewish literature during this time, it is easy to understand why the Jews attempted to stone Jesus according to John 8:59: He claimed to be the Christ whose “day” Abraham “saw.” He also claimed to have “seen Abraham” by existing “before” him, showing his superiority137 to the one whom the Jews believed Jesus was ‘not greater than.’—John 8:39, 53.138
133 Consider, too, this Midrash (a rabbinical investigation into the meaning of a particular text completed sometime after 200 CE) on the book of Psalms:
R. Yudan said in the name of R. Hama: In the time-to-come, when the Holy One, blessed be He, seats the lord Messiah at His right hand, as is said The Lord saith unto my lord: “Sit at my right hand” (Ps. 110:1), and seats Abraham at His left. Abraham’s face will pale, and he will say to the Lord: “My son’s son sits at the right, and I at the left!” [The Midrash on Psalms, William G. Braude, trans. (New Haven: Yale, 1959), page 261.]Here Abraham is presented as upset over the Messiah’s place at God’s right hand! It should be no surprise, then, that those who viewed Abraham as their “father” (Joh 8:39) were also upset when Jesus claimed to have existed “before Abraham was born.”
134 Darrell L. Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Final Examination of Jesus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1998), page 54.
135 Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation, page 57.
136 James Charlesworth, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations, vol. 2, Damascus Document, War Scroll, and Related Documents (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1995), page 21.
137 Interesting in this connection is Satan’s statement to Michael the Archangel in the Life of Adam and Eve 14.3. After being told to “worship the image of God” (namely, “Adam”), Satan responds (with underlining added): “I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me” (M.D. Johnson, “Life of Adam and Eve,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, James H. Charlesworth, ed. [New York, NY: Doubleday, 1985], page 262). This shows that there was a definite sense of superiority associated with one who existed before another. Johnson (“Life of Adam and Eve,” page 252) dates the original composition of this work from between 100 BCE to 200 CE, most probably “toward the end of the first Christian century,” with the Greek and Latin texts produced between that time and 400 CE.
138 Other ancient Jewish references that speak of Abraham in exalted or elevated terms can be found in Philo (see Allegorical Interpretation 3.9, 83, 203 [compare 244]; On the Cheribum 18; Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 5; The Worse Attacks the Better 159; Posterity and Exile of Cain 27, 174; On the Giants 62, 64; On Sobriety 17; On the Change of Names 69, 88, 152; On Dreams 1.70; 2.244; On the Life of Moses 1.76), in the Apocalypse of Abraham (10.5-17; 14.2), and in the Testament of Abraham ([Recension A] 1.2, 5-6; 2.3; 4.6; 10.5-11, 13; 15.14-15; 16.9; 17.7; [Recension B] 13.9-10). Compare also Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 1.225, 256.
[End of quotation.]
What I found particularly noteworthy was this:
- How it was possible to blaspheme the Temple.
- The Midrash on Psalms that preserved the ancient Jewish concern to protect Abraham from the notion that the Messiah should enjoy priority over him.
- The similar complaint voiced in Life of Adam and Eve which preserves “that there was a definite sense of superiority associated with one who existed before another.”
[A1] Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, third edition by Greg Stafford, chapter 3 “Jesus of Nazareth—The Christ from Heaven” pages 297-8. (Elihu Books. 2009, digital version 2012)
[A2] Pages 296-7.
[A3] Pages 223-5.