One of the most stunning scenes in the Gospel of John is when Jesus debates the Jewish leadership at the end of chapter eight and declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). There is little doubt that this constituted a claim of divinity because in the very next verse we read, “So they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59).
While there is little doubt that the Jews understood Jesus to be claiming a divine identity, there is some doubt regarding why they believed this. What is the background of Jesus’ “I am” declaration? Most of the time, it is assumed that Jesus is alluding to Ex 3:14 when Yahweh expresses his own name as “I am who I am.”
This is certainly a possibility. But, the Greek constructions are not precisely the same. There is another possibility that is more likely the background of Jesus’ “I am” declarations, namely the book of Isaiah, particularly chapters 40-55. Not only are these chapters formative for early Christian theology (e.g., Is 40:3/Mark 1:3), but they contain some of the most direct declarations of God’s identity as the only true God. And many of these declarations use precisely the same “I am” construction (ego eimi).
A few examples:
Isaiah 41:4 Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he (ego eimi).
Isaiah 43:10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he (ego eimi). Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.
Isaiah 48:12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he (ego eimi); I am the first, and I am the last.
These instances show that Isaiah uses the “I am” language to emphasize God’s exclusive status as the one true God. The phrase, in essence, means “I am [He]” or “I am [the One]” or “I am [the LORD].”
If so, then this brings insight into how John uses the “I am” language outside of John 8:58. For instance, when Jesus is arrested in the garden, he declares in 18:6: “I am he (ego eimi).” While most readers would miss the connection here, the response of the soldiers gives us a clue to what is meant: “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he (ego eimi)’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (18:6).
The falling back is a contextual clue that Jesus is speaking like God speaks in Isaiah. Thus, there is likely a double entendre here in 18:6. On the one hand Jesus is simply answering the soldiers’ question by saying “I am he [the one you are looking for].” But, on the other hand, he is saying, “I am he [the one true God].”
In the end, the “I am” language in John is a likely reference to God’s self-declarations in Isaiah, and thus a dramatic claim by Jesus to be the one true God of Israel. By appealing to Isaiah, Jesus is not portraying himself as another God, but the one and the same God of the Jews.