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What Did Jesus Mean by:
"Before Abraham was I Am?"
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © 12.29.2010 (last updated 08.30.2013)
According to the New Testament Y'shua (Jesus) made a seemingly astounding claim. This claim has been used for centuries to promote the idea that he believed himself to be God. But is this what he really claimed?John 8:54 Yeshua answered, "If I praise myself, my praise counts for nothing. The One who is praising me is my Father, the very one about whom you keep saying, 'He is our God.'When read with pre-existing Nicolaitan assumptions it may seem that he was claiming divinity here, but when we read his words as they are, as the words of a first century Jewish reformer who frequently spoke in parables, they reveal something else completely. Consider:
55 Now you have not known him, but I do know him; indeed, if I were to say that I don't know him, I would be a liar like you! But I do know him, and I obey his word [i.e. Torah].
56 Avraham your father was glad that he would see my day; then he saw it and was overjoyed."
57 "Why, you're not yet fifty years old," the Judeans replied, "and you have seen Avraham?"
58 Yeshua said to them, "Yes, indeed! Before Avraham came into being, I AM!" [Greek: ego eimi: "I existed"]
59 At this, they picked up stones to throw at him; but Yeshua was hidden and left the Temple grounds.
- Y'shua clearly denies that he is God here: "If I praise myself, my praise counts for nothing. The One who is praising me is my Father... He is our God."
- Y'shua claimed that he knows God as a Being different from himself and he obeys that Other as his Lord/Master: "But I do know Him, and I obey his word." The Other must be obeyed by him, hence must be a different being.
- He says that Avraham knew the day would come when he (or someone like him) would do what he (Y'shua) was attempting to do and was "overjoyed" by the prospect. Avraham knew that one day HaMoshiach would arrive. Y'shua apparently considered at this point in his ministry that he might be that anointed servant of HaShem. Other sections of the Gospels make it clear however that he knew he would not fulfill the prophecies. And of course he did not. Nonetheless HaShem always has tzadikim in place to lead His people as we read at Deuteronomy 18:15:A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me [i.e. Moshe], the Lord, your God will set up for you you shall hearken to him.Of course no one as great as Moshe has ever appeared (see point seven of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Judaism). According to Rashi:This means: Just as I [Moshe] am among you, from your brothers, so will He [HaShem] set up for you [another prophet] in my stead, and so on, from prophet to prophet.According to our sages then this was not a messianic prophecy despite what some Christians believe. It was not that a prophet 'greater than Moshe' would ever arise, but that Moshe would be the first in a long line of prophets, judges, sages and rabbinim who would lead our people. Y'shua agreed with this understanding hence he noted that the rabbinim sit in the seat or authority of Moshe (Matthew 23:1-3).
- Y'shua claimed to exist before Avraham was born: "Before Avraham came into being, I existed [Greek: ego eimi]."
This last point is the crux of this discussion. Was Y'shua claiming preexistence beyond the normal occurrence of Gilgul Neshamot (rebirth) which he seems to have accepted? Was he claiming divinity by evoking HaShem's claim to be the I Am?
I AM is capitalized in most English translations at John 8:59 to support of Nicene tradition of Y'shua's believed divinity, however there is no textual reason to do so in the Greek. According to the Greek text what he said was: "Before Avraham came into being, I existed [Greek: ego eimi]. What does this mean?
First, his comment was not a reference to HaShem's statement recorded at Exodus 3:14 as some Christians maintain because the two statements had nothing grammatically in common:"God said to Moshe, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh [I am/will be what I am/will be]," and added, "Here is what to say to the people of Isra'el: 'Ehyeh [I Am or I Will Be] has sent me to you.'").
The meaning of each statement is clear when read in context without the confusion of Nicean dogma.
The testimony of the entire Bible is that HaShem alone is God and that He shares His glory with no one (for instance Isaiah 42:8). On many occasions Y'shua is referred to as a son of God, as being subject to God, as one who does God's Will as a servant, as being our elder brother (for instance Hebrews 2:11) and so on. He makes no allusions to personal divinity according to the New Testament. Taking a single verse and interpreting it in a way that contradicts these two well established principles (i.e. HaShem's Oneness and Y'shua's otherness from Him) is obviously a misinterpretation of what was stated based on consistency of teaching.
- Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is used as a descriptive name/title of Deity ('I AM has sent you'); ego eimi is simply a part of speech ('I existed before he did'.). The latter is not used as a name/title. There is no connection between the two verses grammatically.
- The Exodus passage claims that HaShem is eternal, transcending all time and space: that He was, is and will ever be (i.e. Ain Soph), while John 8:54 only claims that "I" lived before Avraham. Avraham lived ten generations after the global flood. He lived well within the present time stream whereas HaShem transcends time and space. There is no connection between the two verses theologically.
So what does this phrase mean? 'Before Avraham was ego eimi, I existed'. Who is "I"? Who was there before Avraham?
The apocryphal book The Wisdom of Ben Sira clears this up for us. It presents Torah as the preexistent Wisdom (Chokmah) of God personified (1:1-5, 26; 15:1; 24:1ff.; 34:8) and cites many verses from both the Written and the Oral Torah as evidence, for instance Proverbs 8:22-31 (see below). There Wisdom is praised as the beginning of God's creation. Chokmah (Wisdom) arose in the beginning with Binah (Understanding) or Tabun (Intelligence).
Our sages teach that Torah was one of the six or seven things created prior to the creation of the world (consider Gen. R. 1:4; Pes. 54a, et al.). Of these preexistent things, it is taught that only Torah and the throne of HaShem's Glory were actually created. The others were 'conceived' by Elohim.
In one of his deeper and often misunderstood mystical teachings (II Peter 3:15, 16) Paul references this connection between the created and the conceived at Colossians 1:15 as he contrasts Wisdom (Eternal Torah-Word) and the "Only Begotten." This is not the place for that discussion however his teaching here is completely consistent with the rabbinic view that the Torah preceded even the Throne of Glory (Gen. R. 1:4).
Who is Y'shua referring to when he says ego eimi?
Who is he referring to when he says:John 14:6 "I am the way -- and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.
From a traditional Jewish perspective his meaning is clear: His followers believed Y'shua was an accomplished tzadik (righteous person), not a god man. Y'shua, they believed, was 'one with the Word' or Torah (John 1). They believed he spoke with the Wisdom (Chokmah) and Understanding (Binah) that arises from Da-at (true knowledge of Torah). THAT is Derech HaShem, the only Way to God and THAT existed before Avraham. It is from within that consciousness that the tzadikim speak Wisdom:Proverbs 8:22 "ADONAI made me [i.e. Wisdom (Chokmah)] as the beginning of his way, the first of his ancient works.
23 I was appointed before the world, before the start, before the earth's beginnings.
24 When I was brought forth, there were no ocean depths, no springs brimming with water.
25 I was brought forth before the hills, before the mountains had settled in place;
26 he had not yet made the earth, the fields, or even the earth's first grains of dust.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there. When he drew the horizon's circle on the deep,
28 when he set the skies above in place, when the fountains of the deep poured forth,
29 when he prescribed boundaries for the sea, so that its water would not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 I was with him as someone he could trust. For me, every day was pure delight, as I played in his presence all the time,
31 playing everywhere on his earth, and delighting to be with humankind.
From this and the overwhelming biblical evidence that a.) HaShem does not share His Glory with anyone, 2.) that He is utterly echad or absolutely One and 3.) that Y'shua was always clear that he was subservient to HaShem (John 4:34 etc.), we can conclude the following:
All true tzadikim (righteous people) are by definition harmonious with the Wisdom (Chokmah) and Knowledge (Binah) of HaShem. While within that unified state of consciousness tzadikim are 'one with the preexistent Torah' (the Mind of God). This is why we hold our rabbinim in such respect. Y'shua believed himself to be such a tzadik and he prayed that his followers would attain this level of consciousness as well (John 17:21). He was therefore speaking from within this stream of unified consciousness when he made such statements (Matthew 13:34). To believe otherwise would be to negate the entirety of Torah and that can not be done (Matthew 5:18).
As Jews and Noahidim I believe it is important to understand such matters so we can assist those who desire understanding and freedom from anti-Torah belief systems (Isaiah 56:7).
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