Someone sent me an article on John 8:58 written by a Muslim and asked me to reply to it. He didn’t say who wrote it, so I will just refer to this person as “the author.”
After reading the article my best guess would be that this Muslim is probably an apologetic dabbler or upstart, though I have seen many seasoned Muslim apologists, some of whom boast of having come from a Christian background, make errors that are equally as egregious as those made by this author, so it is difficult to say with any certainty. To be charitable I will assume this person is a neophyte arguing from blind zeal rather than someone who has been around for a while and has no problem engaging in duplicity.
The author begins with what is supposed to be the argument of Christians for the deity of Christ from John 8:58:
Many Christians claim that Jesus in John 8:58 claims to be “I AM”, and God in Exodus 3:14 refers to Himself by this title/ name, therefore Jesus is knowingly referring to himself as a God. How can Muslims respond to this argument?
Contrary to this authors’ claim, Christians do not argue that Jesus is referring to himself as “a” God, as if Jesus is just one God among others. There is only one God according to John’s Gospel (as well as the entire NT), and Christians only affirm one. Muslims may think the Trinity is inconsistent with monotheism, but this is a conclusion that has to be argued for, not an assertion that is legitimately front-loaded into one or another of the premises in order to then infer it in the conclusion. Although the author does not run with this, he clearly miscasts what Christians believe and thereby insinuates that Christians are polytheists, which is probably due to the failure of Muhammad or his redactors to accurately describe to Muslims what Christians believe. As it is, to misrepresent Christian doctrine in this way, innocently or intentionally, is to set up a straw man and commit the fallacy of petitio principii.
The author continues:
John 8:58 is perhaps one of the best verses to disprove the deity of Christ, most Christians simply fail to see the problems with utilizing such a verse and in this article I’d like to demonstrate just how useful the “I AM” statement attributed to Christ is. Let’s first take a look at the verses in question:
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:14.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” – John 8:58.
There is something very important to note, we must ask, who is God in Exodus 3:14? The Hebrew from the Westminster Leningrad Codex references God as Elohiym, see here. According to Christian belief, Elohiym can either refer to the Father (God) or the Godhead (all three persons of the Trinity). If Christ is claiming to be the Elohiym of Exodus 3:14 then there exists a major problem.
Grammatically, syntactically and in its Johannine context John 8:58 clearly teaches the deity of Christ. The possible connection with Exodus 3:14, which I will address momentarily, isn’t necessary to establish this. The Greek word eimi means “[I] am,” and the addition of ego, “I,” which brings out the subject already implied in eimi, makes it emphatic. To bring this out into English we might translate it as “I, I am.” Ordinarily such a phrase would be joined with a predicate or an implied predicate can be found in the surrounding context. When the phrase lacks a predicate, either explicit or implied, as is the case here, it is considered absolute. There are seven absolute “I am” statements attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel, and while some writers attempt to argue that an implied predicate is close to hand in the case of some of these utterances, virtually no one believes this can be done in the case of John 8:58.
The force of the emphatic and absolute “I am” statement is brought out clearly by the intended juxtaposition Jesus makes between Himself and Abraham. On one hand, Abraham was born; on the other hand, Jesus already was. In fact, the Greek is even stronger here. What this translation renders as “was born” is the Greek word egeneto, an aorist infinitive, which literally means, “became.” And since Jesus says, “I am,” ego eimi, present indicative, and that “before Abraham became,” the contrast is between one who came into being and one who exists eternally. The idea is the same as what Paul wrote in Colossians 1: “He IS before all things and in Him all things consist.” The language in both cases is that of eternal, unoriginated existence.
Those who enter John’s Gospel through the front door would already be alerted to this idea and would not be surprised when they come across it in the narrative. In the prologue to the book, John introduces Jesus as the eternal Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through Him” (John 1:1, 3). In the beginning of everything, the Word already was. In fact, He was the agent through whom everything came into being. Here again we see that the Word is eternal and unoriginated, with the only additional thought being that He is also the source of everything. So the same contrast made between Jesus and Abraham in John 8:58 was made already in the prologue between Jesus as the Word and all created reality, of which Abraham is a part.
What is said in John 8:58 about existing before Abraham also receives expression in relation to John the Baptist.
John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed BEFORE me.’” (John 1:15)
“This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed BEFORE me.’” (John 1:30)
This idea is carried forward from first to last in the ensuing narrative. And since it speaks of Jesus being sent or coming from the Father or from heaven or from above upwards of fifty times, it is hard to believe that this author has even read the prologue or the narrative that precedes or follows this verse. In fact, even if we restrict ourselves to the local context of John 8:58 we see Jesus assert this several times in the same dialogue. Moreover, two of these notices even occur in conjunction with other “I Am” statements:
Then He said again to them, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews were saying, “Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since He says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:21-24)
So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. (John 8:28-30)
The latter passage reminds us that John fully incorporated into his gospel an understanding that Jesus, though God, i.e. the great “I Am,” did not use the equality that He had with the Father (John 5:17-18; cf. 1:1c) in any way that would circumvent the task laid upon Him as the Word made flesh (John 1:14), which meant always acting on the Father’s initiative and always doing what pleased the Father, even to the point of being lifted up on the cross (and subsequently back into glory, John 17:5).
And so, if John 8:58 is one of the best verses non-Christians have to work with as this Muslim author claims, then the doctrine of Christ’s deity is incredibly secure. There is nothing worse for any position than for one of its best arguments to fail this miserably. To be fair, while I don’t think for a minute that any verse in the Bible disproves the deity of Christ, I have to imagine that this greenhorn has let his zeal lead him into excessive bombast at this point, a common temptation for people who really believe they are right but who also realize that their argument is not as strong as they would like it to be. Some people believe that by giving themselves over to excessive hyperbole they can make up for defective arguments, and since this claim is surely defective, this author decided to hype up the claim.
As for Exodus 3:14, along with many scholars I don’t think that it is the most directly relevant verse to John 8:58. The two passages are of some relevance to one another, but the argument as stated by this author is not nuanced enough to see how that is the case. Since many Christians do not have a nuanced enough understanding of this themselves, I won’t fault the author too much, though I would encourage him, on the off chance that he reads this, to take some time out to read up on this issue, especially if he plans to try to write more apologetic pieces in the future.
A direct link between the seven absolute “I am” statements in John’s Gospel is more accurately located in the seven ani hu declarations of God in the Old Testament, rather than in the ehyeh asher ehyeh of Exodus 3:14. Whereas ancient Jews rendered the latter into Greek as ego eimi ho on, where a predicate is supplied, the ani hu declarations are given an absolute rendering in the Greek translation (LXX), just like we find in John’s gospel. In this regard, the verse most relevant to John 8:58 is found in Deuteronomy 32:39. To see how this is the case, see my article: The Old Testament and Jewish Background for the “I AM” Sayings of the Logos – the Lord Jesus Christ: A Word that Bridges the Gap.
It is unnecessary at this point to go any further since the rest of the article is predicated on the above mistake. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that Exodus 3:14 is the best place to go to establish the OT background for Christ’s saying, nothing this author goes on to say does anything to call that into question.
According to the author the word for “God” in Exodus 3:14 is Elohim. Furthermore, the author tells us that for Christians this word can refer either to the Father alone or to all three persons together. But this isn’t correct, or at least it is not the whole truth, which means that our author has committed the fallacy of false choices or exhaustive hypotheses. Since all three persons are consubstantial, the word God is equally applicable to any single member of the Godhead, whether Father, Son, or Spirit, or to all three persons together. This means the word can either refer to the Father, to all three persons, or to either one of the other persons, whether the Son or the Spirit. On the basis of this mistake the author generates several “problems,” the first two of which are:
Elohiym consists of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit of one substance, united by the Godhead. If Christ is claiming to be this Elohiym (the united Three Persons), then he is claiming to be the Father as well as the Holy Spirit. According to Trinitarian dogma, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit. In other words, if Christ is claiming to be the Elohiym (of Three Persons) then he is effectively breaking the rules of the Trinitarian dogma as the Son is claiming to be other persons in the Godhead.
If the Elohiym of Exodus 3:14 is the Father alone, then Christ who is the Son is claiming to be the Father and according to Christian Trinitarian belief, the Son is not the Father. Therefore if the Christian is claiming Christ to be Elohiym – the Father, then the Christian is admitting that the Trinity in this case is a false teaching or that Christ did not believe in the Trinity that they appeal to.
Since the author believes that Elohim for Christians refers to either the Father alone or to the three persons together, he charges Christians with making an argument that supports one or another version of Modalism (though he doesn’t call it by that name), which was an anti-Trinitarian heresy roundly condemned by the ancient church. On the view that it refers to the Father alone, Christians would be guilty of saying that Jesus is the Father. On the view that it refers to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, then Jesus would be guilty of saying that He is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son.
It is true that neither option is consistent with Trinitarianism, but since the argument is not premised on the full range of options available to Trinitarians these “problems” are irrelevant. As already mentioned, the word God according to orthodox Christianity can be and is used for any one of the Trinitarian persons considered individually, and not just for the Father individually or all three persons together. In other words, the word Elohim can be used for the Son even as it can be used for the Father by Himself or for the Holy Spirit by Himself. The only problem this leaves us with is the problem of teaching this author and other Muslims how to accurately express what we really believe.
A third problem according to this author is the following:
The Fallacy of False Equivocation.
Jack is a boy.
James is a boy.
Jack is James.
Obviously Jack is not James.
Orange is a fruit.
Apple is a fruit.
Oranges are Apples.
Obviously Oranges are not Apples.
God says I am.
Jesus says I am.
God is Jesus.
Clearly we can see that this is the fallacy of false equivocation.
Here the author switches gears before he returns in problem four to the false options he set forth above.
According to this argument Christians are guilty of equivocation. But the equivocation belongs entirely to this author. He appears to think that the phrase “I am” when used in the way Jesus used it can mean just about anything and can be spoken by anyone and isn’t a title or description that applies exclusively to the eternal God. But when Jesus said, “Before Abraham became, I Am,” He was using the phrase in a way that can only be said in truth by God. The only way out of this is to equivocate on how Jesus used the phrase, which we have already seen is an unequivocal assertion of eternal, unoriginated existence. If first century Jews reasoned like this author they wouldn’t have been upset with Jesus. Although the Jews in question did not believe Jesus was who He claimed to be, they showed quite clearly that they knew what He was claiming when they picked up stones to stone Him (John 8:59; cf. Leviticus 24:16). If this Muslim were present on the scene to hear these words spoken by Jesus, he would have been dumbfounded by the reaction of the Jews. While they gnashed their teeth and started picking up stones to kill Jesus, this Muslim would have been mumbling to himself: “Jack is a boy, James is a boy, therefore Jack is James.”
Here is the fourth and final problem this author presents:
The Christian claims that while the Son cannot claim to be the Father or the Spirit, the Son can claim to be God. For explanation purposes, let’s use a common learning aid which Christians use to explain this reasoning:
However, this makes it worse for the Christian. Consider the following examples:
You cannot say that John is an employee in the company, but you can say that John works for the company.
You cannot say that Shem and Ham are brothers, but you can say that they have the same mother and father.
You cannot say that a banana is a fruit, but you can say that the banana belongs in the fruit basket.
You cannot say that the Son is the Father or the Spirit, but you can say that the Son is the Father, Son and Spirit.
It’s a contradictory claim. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit, yet they believe the Son is the Father and the Spirit unified. Allow the Christian to ponder on this logic and see where it leads them, aid their thinking process by using the other examples provided above.
While Christians do believe that “the Son is not the Father or the Spirit,” we do not believe that “the Son is the Father and the Spirit unified.” In order to argue that Christians are guilty of making contradictory claims, it has to be the case that both of the claims are actually held by Christians. Since we affirm the former and deny the latter, there is no contradiction on our part. The contradiction exists only in the mind of this author who by this point appears to have quite a knack for misunderstanding or an almost unbridled penchant for misrepresentation.
The author offers the following conclusion:
The Christian cannot appeal to John 8:58 without disproving the doctrine of the Trinity by means of demonstrating that Christ himself did not know he could not claim to be the other persons of the Godhead. We can also demonstrate that they are applying faulty reasoning in their argumentation and thus can quickly disarm their frivolous claims.
Over the course of this article we have seen this author commit several informal logical fallacies – e.g. refuting a straw man, reasoning in a circle, equivocation, the fallacy of false alternatives, etc. The author has also demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care to accurately express what Christians believe, is not aware of how the grammar, syntax and Johannine context of John 8:58 support the deity of Christ, and has no knowledge of the most relevant Old Testament and Jewish background to this verse.
Rather than demonstrate that Christian claims vis-a-vis John 8:58 are frivolous, the author has only disproved his own heretical perversion of what Christians believe, and since he said this verse is one of the best verses Muslims have at their disposal when the exact opposite is the case, we can see not only that he has not disarmed anyone with his arguments, but that he has only managed to give himself a black eye.
John’s gospel is replete with evidence for the deity of Christ. This is why Muslim apologists like Paul Bilal Williams have junked any attempt to argue otherwise. Instead they try to argue against the reliability of John’s gospel on the alleged grounds that it represents a later development. This of course flies in the teeth not only of the fact that Paul, the earliest NT author, already presupposes the deity of Christ throughout his writings, but also the fact that the other NT writings, whether the synoptic gospels or the writings of James, Jude, and Peter, all presuppose it as well.
This greenhorn has a lot of work to do before returning to the apologetic fray.