top of page

JOHN 8:58

John 8:58  

Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.​

Amen, Amen I say to you: Before Abraham existed, I AM!

Many explanations for John 8:58 have been proposed. This page will answer frequent objections to the verse, and then state an exegetical conclusion based on the entirety of its context.

Objection 1: The sentence is ungrammatical. It is like saying, "Before Abraham existed, Yahweh."

The objection is correct in saying the sentence is ungrammatical. But it was intentionally ungrammatical. Jesus repeated a phrase He had been using in increasingly-elevated declarations throughout His few days of preaching at the Festival of Tabernacles, in order to decisively answer His audience's questions about His age, origin, and ontology. The following, unrelated sentence is an example of how He did it:

"War does not determine who is right—only who is left."

This rhetorical device is "a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part." Contemporary rhetoric of the Greeks even had a term for this phenomenon: a paraprosdokianRead the Conclusion below to see how Jesus was quoting Exodus 3:14 and applying it to Himself, thus claiming to be Yahweh Himself.

Verdict: True, but immaterial. Ungrammaticality is one device of parabolic homily.

Objection 2: Nothing is wrong with the sentence. It is saying, "Before Abraham existed, Yahweh (existed)."

This is the weakest of all the counterproposals. Not only does it require changing a word of Scripture, it makes complete nonsense of the audience's reaction. This sentence would have been uncontroversial, and moreover would have moved entirely out of the flow of the conversation.

Verdict: False. This sentence is uncontroversial, and does not comport with 8:48-59.

Objection 3: Christians say the audience understood John 8:58, but Jesus himself said they didn't understand.

Jesus said they didn't understand back at John 8:43. When He began teaching, His declarations were vague. They gradually increased in clarity as the festival progressed. Every one of His declarations allowed room for alternate explanation up to that point in the discussion at 8:43. After 8:43, He made His statements even more transparent and explicit, culminating in the final declaration in 8:58. Some people had understood before this; when they did, they put their faith in Him. But at 8:58-59, everyone understood.

Verdict: Partially True, but immaterial. The statements were intentionally veiled by parabolic speech, and continued to become clearer after 8:43.

Objection 4: Then why didn't His followers or detractors subsequently call Jesus this personal Name?

Two facts explain this: (1) Jews did not speak the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) in the 1st century A.D. The closest thing was "Adonai," translated as "My LORD," and indeed Jesus's disciples did call Him "Lord" in that sense, both after they came to full cognizance of its truth (despite lingering doubts about its fantastical nature) within the Gospel accounts, and then more heavily in Acts and the Epistles. (2) They didn't have the Internet. Some Jews heard what He said and tried to kill Him for it, but due to the circumlocutionary statement, it still wouldn't be widely understood, especially because Jesus said it only this one time. However, "The Son of God" and "The Son of Man" were widely known, and the first ascription was enough for them because Jesus explained it as a "unique-in-category" Sonship that no human obtained.
Nevertheless, some of His detractors did understand He was claiming to be God Himself. See John 5:18 and 10:33.

Verdict: Mostly False. Misunderstanding of lexico-semantics occludes how monotheistic Jews reconciled calling both The Father and Jesus "The Lord" while remaining avowed monotheists.

Objection 5: A beggar said "ἐγὼ εἰμί" in John 9:9. Gotcha! Are you saying the beggar claimed to be God?

This objection is either deceptive or exhibits total ignorance of Semantics. The words are not magic words. ἐγώ means "I" and εἰμί means "I am." The ἐγώ is not necessary in regular speech, since the pronoun "I" is already part of the Greek verb "I-am." The most common reason for adding ἐγώ is emphasis, and the formerly-blind beggar was using it in that way at John 9:9. Since he had been blind from birth, some of his neighbors were saying he couldn't be the blind beggar. He insisted, "am!" The context is what determines meaning. The place, situation, event, and context of John 8 was completely different.

Verdict: False. Misunderstanding of lexico-semantics.

Objection 6: They tried to stone him in 8:59 because he claimed to be the Messiah.

In John 7:26, Jesus's listeners pondered whether the Jewish leaders had come to the conclusion that he was The Messiah. They pondered this and weren't immediately stoning him. The prospect of messiahship was not an impetus to stone someone—just the opposite, it was eagerly hoped for and the authorities were assumed to be eagerly hoping for it, too. They tried to stone Him because they correctly understood He was claiming to be Yahweh.

Verdict: False. Claiming to be Messiah was not a stonable offense.

Objection 7: ἐγὼ εἰμί means "I am [the Messiah]," not "I AM."

The setting of John 78 was the week-long Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. After Jesus started preaching mid-way through the week, He made 54 declarative claims. Amazingly, not a single one was about His Messiahship. In John 7:26, Jesus's listeners pondered whether the Jewish leaders had come to the conclusion that He was the Messiah. Jesus redirected their question to His Sonship. The only possible allusion to Messiahship was in 8:25. However, the narrative context of The Gospel of John, particularly John 3, very strongly corresponds to His Sonship rather than Messiahship.

Verdict: False. There are zero direct allusions to Messiahship from Jesus in the entire pericope.

Objection 8: If Jesus were quoting Exodus, he would need to say ὁ ὤν, not ἐγὼ εἰμί.

Shortly before Jesus came to Earth, the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament was translated into Greek for Greek-speaking Jews. This translation, called The Septuagint, did not have the same authority as the revealed Scripture. In fact, its translators even changed some words to suit theologies of the day (see, for instance, Exodus 24:10).

At Exodus 3:14, the Septuagint did not translate the Hebrew but instead paraphrased it. For "I am who I am" it paraphrased γώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, meaning "I am the one who is" or "I am the being-one" and then isolated the substantive ὁ ὤν as the piece to translate the lone "I AM" coming after it. But not only does ἐγὼ εἰμί genuinely translate "I AM," but this is also the phrase Jesus had been using throughout John 8 to tell the crowd who He really was. And unlike John translating Jesus's words to Greek to propagate his gospel, Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic or the exact Hebrew.  

Verdict: False. ἐγὼ εἰμί is more literal, and matches the exact syntax of the Hebrew.

Objection 9: ἐγὼ εἰμί means "I am he," not I AM."

This is the only alternative proposition which is possible. However, if one is attempting to avoid a claim of deity, this objection does not help at all. "I am He" (אֲנִי־הוּא) is a marked self-description of Yahweh. Two important examples are in Deuteronomy 32:39 where Yahweh declares there is no other God besides Him, and in Isaiah 48:11-17 wherein Yahweh says He is The First and The Last (cf. Rev 1:17; 22:13!). In the Septuagint (LXX), אֲנִי־הוּא is translated ἐγὼ εἰμί.

For those exegetes who merely believe it is in better concord with the "I am He" themes of Isaiah rather than the self-identification of "I AM" in Exodus 3, the narrative context of John 78 is compelling evidence against it (see the Conclusion).

The translation "I am He" has an additional demerit: it could have easily been misinterpreted in the same way all the previous statements had been. If Jesus had spoken the words Ani Hu rather than Ehyeh, the response would have been mixed, rather than decisive (and possibly unanimous). There would still be room to assume many alternative meanings, including the mundane and vague, "I am the one I have been talking about" or "the one some of you have been talking about."

Verdict: Very Probably False. Does not comport with phrase usage in the highly-contiguous narrative.


The narratival evidence is compelling. The flow of The Gospel of John, and especially the overwhelming majority of the pericope (John 7–8), is about identity. The "I am" statements in John 8 obtain either mundane grammatical antecedents or clear predicate nominatives which do not allow for double entendre of the complete sentence, "I am He." On the other hand, they are fully compatible with a capstone declaration of the predicate-less "I AM." Insert "I am He" into the following phrases in order to see how the phrase almost certainly cannot be in view:

  • "I am come from Him" [7:29]

  • "and where I am [afterward], you cannot come" [7:34; 7:36]

  • "I am The Light of the World" [8:12]

  • "I am the one who testifies about myself" [8:18]

  • "You people are from Below; I am from Above" [8:23a]

  • "You people are from this world; I am not from this world" [8:23b]

  • "For unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins" [8:24]

  • "When you lift up The Son of Man, you will know that I am" [8:28]

  • "Amen, Amen, I say to you: Before Abraham existed, I AM" [8:58]

Moreover, these statements form a crescendo. All have surrounding or previous referents, even 8:28 which goes back to the question in 8:25: "Who are you?" John 8:58 cannot be read in isolation of this referential scheme, and especially not divorced from the crucial statements in 8:24 and 8:28.

A few, final considerations:

  1. Even the muted interpretation of this phrase means that Jesus pre-existed Abraham.

  2. To claim pre-existence, the imperfective "was" would have been grammatically correct, not "am."

  3. The "I" in "I am" is superfluous (because it is already part of the Greek verb). It had a purpose.

  4. We have no evidence human prophets ever began their own proclamations with a liturgical preface like "Amen, Amen."

  5. In the most immediate context, he was answering 4 different questions, all having to do with His identity.

  6. Throughout John 7–8, Jesus had been repeatedly pointing people towards His derivation, even when they suggested things like His messiahship.

  7. Throughout John 7–8, Jesus had been repeatedly saying that He is literally from Heaven [8:23; 8:38; 8:42].

  8. At no point throughout all His controversial statements in John 78 did the audience try to stone Him. After 8:58, they immediately attempted it. 


→ See the paper Where Does Jesus Say "I am God?for the full exegesis.

In light of the evidence, the most likely interpretation by far is that Jesus pronounced the self-identifying ascription of Yahweh in Exodus 3:14, the "Ehyeh" or "I AM." He claimed to be Yahweh Himself, and it was for this seeming blasphemy that many tried to stone Him. But He was telling the truth.

bottom of page