The "I AM"
April 20, 2007
Trinity on Trial : Act V continued...
One of the arguments devised to support the doctrine of the Trinity is that when Jesus said the words translated as I am he was identifying himself with the Israelite God YHWH. Evidence adduced from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament will demonstrate the falsity of this claim.
Support for the claim is most often drawn from the 'burning bush' incident in Exodus Chapter 3, usually translated into English as:
"And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.
"Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers, hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?
"And God said unto Moses, I am that I am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I am hath sent me unto you.
"Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the Lord (YHWH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations". [verses 2, 13-15]
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh
Ehyeh [1st person singular imperfect form of the verb "to be"] Asher [relative pronoun] Ehyeh [1st person singular imperfect form of the verb "to be"].
The verbs here are in the 'imperfect' meaning that the action may have begun in the past but will be completed in the future, or will continue in the future.
Scholars, sages and rabbis have argued for over two millennia about the precise meaning of the enigmatic Hebrew phrase Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh spoken at the burning bush. In many cases, these arguments were driven by philosophical or theological considerations. However, without going into too much tedious detail about verb forms, most Jewish scholars and translators today would agree that the words should be rendered into English as “I will be what I will be”. To state categorically that these words spoken at the burning bush should be translated into English as “I am that I am” or as “I am who I am” is deceptive.
It has been conclusively demonstrated by Claude Tresmontant* and others that the Greek gospels were originally composed from Hebrew originals or from Hebrew notes. It makes no difference whether Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew - his words were originally recorded in Hebrew, the 'sacred' language. I am is a translation of the Greek ego eimi which, in turn, is based on the Hebrew ani hou (I, he).
The simple copulative forms of present tense "to be" are not written into Hebrew texts but merely implied e.g. I (am) sick; she (is) pretty; we (are) happy. The appropriate form, in this case AM, has been simply added, first to the Greek and then to the English, to conform with linguistic demands. The original words which Jesus uttered were simply "I, he" or, as we would say, "it's me!"
The New Testament also clarifies the burning bush incident - we discover that it was indeed an angel that appeared to Moses:
"This Moses whom they refused, saying, who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush." (Acts 7:35).
Even if we ignore linguistic demands and pretend that Jesus could have said the words "I am," the claim that he was identifying with YHWH by repeating a messenger's explanation of the timeless "being" of YHWH is still exposed to the ridicule it so richly deserves. We can only hope that all the other teachings and doctrines which subvert the message of the New Testament will eventually be exposed to similar ridicule.
* Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ: Language in the age of the Gospels, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1989.