An explanation of its meaning

K J Cronin

Exodus 3:14 in the Gospels

However, and despite all of the attention that has been given to Exodus 3:14 by Christian exegetes in all ages, what have been very seldom considered in relation to this verse are the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, and most especially Jn.8:58. In this verse Jesus speaks the words ego eimi,[9] which in contrast to the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b can only be translated into English as “I am”.[10] This is one of the numerous absolute ‘I am’ sayings in John,[11] absolute in the sense that they occur without either an implied or actual predicate. There is universal agreement amongst Christian interpreters that the words “I am” in Jn.8:58 are a statement of both the eternal existence of Jesus and of his divinity. The allusion to divinity clearly resonates with the revelation of Exodus 3:14 while the claim to eternal existence likewise connotes the meaning attributed to the ehyeh of 3:14b by Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas and the authors of the Septuagint, and so the possibility of a link between the two verses is at least plausible. There is, moreover, a widespread recognition amongst Christian scholars that most if not all of the absolute ‘I am’ sayings of John do indeed refer to the absolute ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b, and so one would imagine that the reality of this link could be confidently affirmed.[12]

That, however, is not the case, because opinion is firmly divided on this issue, with some Christian scholars decisively and even somewhat dismissively rejecting the “I am” of Jn.8:58 as a reference to the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b, while yet others elect to remain silent on the subject.[13] At first glance this rejection or silence would seem quite surprising, constituting as it does a rejection of an obvious association between the person and ministry of Jesus and the person and mission of Moses, the outstanding figure in Judaism before, during and ever since the time of Jesus. It seems more noteworthy still when one considers the prominent Mosaic typology in John, which one noted Johannine scholar considers to be beyond dispute[14] and which is documented in detail by Glasson.[15] It is, moreover, the rejection of an obvious link between the words attributed to Jesus during his ministry and the words attributed to God on the occasion of one of the most important events in the Bible; the call of Moses, which event has occupied the attention of Christian exegetes in all ages. Brevard Childs has even noted with surprise what a minor role the call of Moses plays in New Testament usage, “particularly since the call of God to both apostle and others is a basic theme of the New Testament”.[16] This would indeed be surprising if it were actually the case. I would suggest that the very fact that allusions to the call of Moses do not feature in a very obvious way in the New Testament should alert us to the possibility that they have simply not been recognised as such. The most likely, and surely the most obvious, candidates for such unrecognised allusions are the absolute ‘I am’ sayings of all four Gospels, most especially those of the Gospel of John, and most distinctively that of Jn.8:58. So why, then, might there be a reluctance to recognise and accept this obvious and seemingly attractive link?

The reluctance, where it exists, is presumably on account of the theological difficulties that such a link might appear to present. Among the most fundamental points of Christian dogma is that God (the Father), Jesus (the word of God incarnate) and the Holy Spirit are one in their essence but distinct in their persons.[17] The question that arises from this in relation to Exodus 3:14 is the following: How can the first-person singular Divine name I AM of Exodus 3:14b be convincingly reconciled with the plurality of divine persons in the Christian trinity? The short answer is that it cannot. So if the Divine name I AM is placed on the lips of Jesus in Jn.8:58, that creates a problem for theologically-sensitive Christian interpreters, and that problem makes it easy to understand why they have been very reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of there being an intentional link between these two verses. I think they would be far happier if John 8:58 had never been written.

However, it is relevant to this paper to determine whether or not such a link exists, because if it does, then we have in this verse the earliest surviving unequivocal witness to the translation of the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b into Greek as ego eimi, and so into English as “I am”. For that reason I will consider the matter carefully and in so doing will necessarily look for evidence both that John understood the absolute “I am” of Jn.8:58 to be a reference to and translation of the absolute ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b and that he understood “I AM” to be a Divine name.

Before commencing with this investigation it is useful to make a few introductory remarks on the subject of candidate source-texts for the ‘I am’ sayings of John, about which so much has been written. I must first emphasise that my aim in what follows is not to exclude from consideration any of the possible source-texts because that is too large and complex a task for this paper, and it is anyway unnecessary. It is unnecessary because, to begin with, there is little doubt that John is alluding to more than one source-text in the twenty-six “I am” sayings that he attributes to Jesus in his Gospel. Schnackenburg, for example, regards the ‘I am’ saying of Jn.8:24 as a reference to the ani hu sayings of Second Isaiah[18] and that of Jn.8:58 as a reference to the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b, with which opinion I concur.[19] Moreover, John is quite possibly alluding to more than one source-text in some of the individual ‘I am’ sayings, and he certainly does sometimes use the absolute ego eimi with deliberately ambiguous intent, as I will point out below.

The most approprite and propitious approach to any investigation of these sayings is not to establish which single source-text is the correct one, or even which one can with certainty be excluded. It is rather to determine which source-text can be said with confidence to be fitting in any particular instance. With this in mind my only aim in what follows is to demonstrate that the evidence in John most patently and strongly suggests Exodus 3:14b as the source-text that John had in mind when he wrote the words ego eimi in Jn.8:58.

The most useful place to begin this investigation is with the recognition that the author of the Gospel of John was very familiar with the Torah. Every Christian scholar would agree with this, as no doubt would any Jewish scholar familiar with the text. John would therefore have been very familiar with the account of the revelation at the burning bush and with the words spoken by God in Exodus 3:14. As a deeply religious and highly educated Jew he would certainly also have known the possible meanings of the Hebrew words of this verse, and, being fluent in Greek, would have known that one of the only two literal translations into Greek of the word ehyeh as it occurs in this verse is ego eimi. He would therefore have known that the words he was placing on the lips of Jesus in Jn.8:58 could be understood to have the same meaning as the word ehyeh spoken by God in Exodus 3:14b. The question we must first consider is whether or not that is how he intended them to be understood.

If we first suppose that it is not how he intended them to be understood, and that the apparent link between these verses is therefore not intentional, then there are only two possible ways to understand John’s use of the absolute ego eimi in Jn.8:58. Either he was aware of the possibility that his readers might – and as it has turned out certainly would – make the link between the enigmatic declaration of God in Exodus 3:14b and the equally enigmatic and apparently-identical declaration of Jesus in Jn.8:58, but despite being so aware didn’t think it was necessary to make it clear that this was not the link that he intended, or else it didn’t occur to him that his readers would make this link, in which case he made a serious error of judgement in writing his Gospel. The latter possibility can surely be uncontroversially rejected, given John’s familiarity with the Torah and the care with which his Gospel is written. We need therefore only consider the former possibility, i.e. that John was aware of the likely association being made between these two verses, that he did not intend it to be made, but that he allowed the possibility to stand just the same. Given the theological significance that such a link could be seen to entail, and the prominence of the call of Moses at the burning bush within Jewish religious and national consciousness, it is extremely improbable that John would have been indifferent to this link being incorrectly made, and that he would have been so knowingly ambiguous in making the link that he did intend as to make such an obvious, theologically significant, and unintended link inevitable, and so this possibility can also be confidently rejected. It is therefore the case that the apparent link between Jn.8:58 and Exodus 3:14 cannot be reasonably accounted for either as an accident or even as merely unintended.

We must therefore consider the only remaining possible explanation, which is that John placed the words ego eimi on the lips of Jesus in Jn.8:58 in the full knowledge and expectation that they would be associated with the absolute ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b, and that the total identification of Jesus and God is what he at least meant to suggest in these words, whatever his precise thinking on the so-called ‘divine relations’ might have been. If this is the case, then we would expect to find some other evidence in John that also suggests such a total identification, which evidence is actually not difficult to find.

There are in the Gospel of John several statements to the effect that God and Jesus are one and the same. Take for example the opening words of the Gospel: Jn.1:1 “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God”. This statement does not suggest any distinction between God and His word, and does, on the contrary, strongly suggest a condition of total identity between the two. Also highly suggestive are the words attributed to Jesus in Jn.10:30: “I and the Father are one”. This is a very clear statement of the unity of the being of God and the being of Jesus, and whilst this concept was subsequently taken into consideration in the trinity-in-unity formula of Christian dogma, there is no clear reason for us to suppose that the Jewish John thought of unity as anything other than total identity, and even less reason to suppose that the religious community for whom he was writing would have made any such distinction. Then in Jn.14:9 Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, which strongly suggests a condition of identity between the two. More telling again is Jn.16:15 where Jesus says, “all things the Father has are mine”, and Jn.17:10 where he says, “all things that are mine are Yours, and Yours are mine”, both of which are tantamount to stating that Jesus is identical to God, and even that he is God. And finally the confession of Thomas in Jn.20:28, where Thomas addresses the resurrected Jesus as, “My Lord and My God”. In the Gospel of John the title Lord is the Greek kurios, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew adonai, which in turn is the qere perpetuum for the divine name YHWH (i.e. the word spoken wherever YHWH is written in the Hebrew Bible). Kurios is also the way YHWH is translated into Greek in the Septuagint. The words spoken by Thomas in Jn.20:28 are therefore equivalent to him addressing Jesus as both God and YHWH, and this again strongly suggests that John was totally identifying Jesus with God.

Considering just these few verses, the very least that can be said is that it would not have been entirely out of character for John to have put the Self-identification of God as written in Exodus 3:14b on the lips of Jesus in Jn.8:58. On the contrary, it would have been entirely in character for him to have done precisely this, and it would therefore have been entirely reasonable for his readers to assume that he had done so, and so for them to have made this obvious and highly meaningful link just as so many others have since done over the course of almost two millennia.

The theme of self-identification brings us next to a consideration of the context in which Jesus speaks these words, because the “I am” of Jn.8:58 is the climax of a lengthy passage in which the identity of Jesus is repeatedly addressed and in which he speaks the absolute ego eimi on no less than three occasions – Jn.8:24, 8:28, and 8:58. In Jn.8:25 ‘the Jews’ ask Jesus “who are you?”, and in 8:53 “whom do you make yourself out to be?”. In Jn.8:58 comes his definitive response, with Jesus referring to himself in the same words as the Greek translation of the absolute-and-eternal meaning of the divine name of Exodus 3:14b, the divine name that Moses before him had been commanded to say to the doubting Israelites in Egypt. These parallels are surely no accident, and surely do, on the contrary, indicate the making of a deliberate link between these two verses.

The above evidence strongly and patently suggests that the absolute “I am” of Jn.8:58 is a reference to and translation of the absolute ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b, and because we have already established that this link cannot be reasonably accounted for as either an accident or even as unintended, this evidence is sufficient to confirm that the link between these two verses must be real and intended. Having established this, we come now to the second point of this enquiry, which is the question of whether or not John understood the “I am” of Jn.8:58 to be a divine name. To confirm that he did so we need begin our search no further than Jn.8:59.

In Jn.8:59 ‘the Jews’ whom Jesus was addressing in 8:58 attempt to stone him immediately after he speaks the words ego eimi. The Mishnah rules that the sentence of death by stoning for the crime of blasphemy should be applied only in cases where the offender has fully pronounced the divine name YHWH (Sanh. 7:5),[20] but Jesus is nowhere recorded as having spoken this name, let alone in Jn.8:58. However, these verses do not make absolutely clear that it was for speaking the words ego eimi that he was to be stoned. Elsewhere in John there is a description of an attempt to stone Jesus when he has not committed a crime technically deserving of this punisment (e.g. Jn.10:33), so we must look elsewhere for evidence that the ego eimi of Jn.8:58 is to be understood as a divine name.

There are two further passages in John that help us clarify the meaning and the significance these words had for its author, and in so doing help us to understand the version of events described in Jn.8:58-59.

First to Jn.18:5-6 and to the ego eimi sayings that feature therein. These declarations are thought by many commentators to have an implied predicate, and that the ego eimi of these verses should therefore be translated ‘I am he’.[21] That, however, would make the behavior of those who have come to arrest Jesus very puzzling, because they fall to the ground upon hearing him speak these words, a direct association that is carefully and clearly emphasised in Jn.18:6. Falling to the ground in this verse describes the act of prostration. We can be certain of this because Jn.18:5 is a close parallel to Mt.26:39 and Mark.14:35, in both of which verses the act of prostration is described, although in those verses it is Jesus who is recorded as having thrown himself on his face (Mathew) or to the earth (Mark) in prayer.[22]

Prostration is the typical biblical response to theophanies (e.g. Lev.9:24; Jos.5:14; Judg.13:20; Ezek.1:28), but that is clearly not the intended association with this behavior in Jn.18:5-6, because the arresting party had already seen Jesus and heard him speak without responding in this way. They prostrate themselves only when he speaks the words ego eimi. More relevant to this enquiry is that prostration is recorded as the response of worshippers to hearing the name YHWH pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple during the daily Tamid service (Sir.50:21; Eccles. Rabbah 3:11), and so its implications would have been very widely understood.

However, what is even more relevant to our enquiry is that prostration is also recorded in the Mishnah as the response of worshippers to hearing the name YHWH fully pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple on the most important day in the Jewish religious calendar; the Day of Atonement (Yoma 6:2).[23] The name YHWH was pronounced three times during the day’s ritual, called the Avodah, but it is only on the occasion of the High Priest beseeching God to forgive the sins of the whole House of Israel – and of his symbolically laying their sins on the scapegoat before dispatching it to its death in the wilderness – that the congregation are explicitly recorded as having responded by falling on their faces. That is to say, the priests and the people of Israel fell on their faces in the presence of the High Priest immediately after he spoke the name YHWH, and immediately before the scapegoat – whose death would cleanse them of their sins – was led away to its fate. There are obvious parallels between this account and the account of Jesus’ arrest in the opening verses of Jn.18, and these parallels become even more apparent when one considers the long-recognised ‘high-priestly’ character of the prayer of Jesus in Jn.17, the prayer that ends immediately before the account of his being arrested and taken away to his eventual death begins.

Because both the Tamid and the Avodah rituals were observed in the Jerusalem Temple – which was destroyed in 70 CE – we can be confident that they were current and widely known during the lifetime of Jesus. Even if these were rituals with which John was not personally familiar, he would certainly have been aware of them, and so he would certainly have been aware of the significance of his own reference to ‘falling to the ground’ in Jn.18:6.

This leaves no reasonable doubt that these words are to be understood as a form of divine identification and, because they stand alone and relate to no other theophanic phenomenon or statement of divine presence, they must in this context be understood to be an actual divine name. That Jesus repeats the words ego eimi in Jn.18:8 in such a way as to bring the arresting party to their senses and to tell them that he has already identified himself as the man they seek only further underscores the singularity of the response described in 18:6, and is also a good example of John’s occasional use of the absolute ego eimi in an ambiguous way.

This being the case, John is telling us that Jesus did indeed speak a divine name in Jn.8:58, but not the name to which the Mishnaic ruling specifically applies. However, the implication of Jn.8:59 and 18:6 is that the divine name he did speak – ego eimi – was not merely thought of as a general designation for God, but rather that it had at least equal standing with the name YHWH, because according to John it elicited the same response from those who heard it spoken as would have been expected from the name YHWH. On this point, therefore, John seems to be in broad agreement with Ibn Ezra, Recanati, and Buber, as we shall see again below.

Despite the technical and likely historic inaccuracy of the events described in Jn.8:58-59, the reaction of ‘the Jews’ in 8:59 and of the arresting party in 18:6 would suggest that ego eimi / ‘I am’ was well known as a divine name in 1st century CE Palestine. That, however, is very unlikely to be case. To begin with, if the ego eimi of Jn.8:58 is a reference to Exodus 3:14, then the Gospel of John is the earliest surviving unequivocal witness to this translation of the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b[24] and no other contemporaneous Jewish source bears witness to it.[25]

Moreover, the words attributed to Jesus in Jn.17:26 present us with compelling evidence that this divine name was not widely known during his lifetime, because in this verse Jesus states that he has “made known” (Gk. gnorizo [26]) the name of God to those whom God had sent to him, meaning that he had made it known to his disciples. The name he was making known cannot have been YHWH because that name would already have been well known to his disciples and there is also no record in John or in any other Gospel that he spoke this name at all. Indeed, the complete absence of the name YHWH in John stands in marked contrast to the twenty-six “I am” sayings attributed to Jesus in this Gospel, which imbalance, it will be recalled, is the reverse of that encountered in the Hebrew Bible in relation to ehyeh and YHWH. Nor even can we accept that Jesus might be referring to the qere perpetuum for YHWH (kurios / Lord) in Jn.17:26 because this too would have been well known to his disciples. Nor is the divine appellation he does frequently use (Father) recognised as a name either in Judaism or in Christianity. Moreover, nobody would disagree that if John had wanted his readers to know that Jesus was making known a particular divine name, as is stated in Jn.17:26, then he would have noticeably attributed the use of that name to Jesus in his Gospel, and so he presumably did.

This implies that Jesus was making known a divine name other than YHWH or Lord, and the only conceivable reason he would have needed to do that is because it was not already known, or at least not widely so. It also implies that the divine name in question must feature noticeably in the Gospel of John.

Under the heading ‘Modern Jewish Philosophy’ in the main paper published in this website we have already noted that if ehyeh is a Divine name then it was almost certainly unknown to mainstream Jewry in the interval between the writing of Exodus 3:14 and the beginning of Christianity. According to the analysis presented in this review, the absolute “I am” sayings of Jn.8:58 and 18:5 are to be understood as a divine name, and outside of the Gospels there is no record of this name being known at all in 1st century CE Palestine or indeed at any earlier time. On the other hand, there is no record in John that Jesus spoke any other divine name during his ministry, let alone one that he was trying to make known to his fellow Jews.

It is therefore both reasonable, and indeed necessary, to conclude that ‘I AM’ is the divine name to which Jesus is referring in Jn.17:26. Conversely, the reference in Jn.17:26 to a divine name that needed to be made known is yet further evidence that the absolute “I am” of Jn.18:5-6 and 8:58 is to be understood as a Divine name.

And finally, it should be noted that in Jn.17:26, Jesus is depicted as having regarded this name – and his success in making it known – as being such an important feature of his ministry that he would make emphatic mention of it in his final address to God, even in the moments immediately preceding his arrest. We can therefore safely assume that the author of John likewise regarded this name as uniquely important, as suggested above, and that he too would have wanted to make it known. This, however, does not imply that he had the same understanding of its meaning and significance as did Jesus.

Taking account of all of the above evidence from the Gospel of John, the implications are inescapable. The words ‘I AM’ were understood by John to be a Divine name. This name was understood to be a reference to and translation of the absolute ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b. It was regarded by John as uniquely important and according to his account by Jesus too. And it was understood to be a divine name by at least some sector of 1st century CE Jewry.


Footnote number 9-26

[9] Marshall A., The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, The Nestle Greek Text with a Literal English Translation, (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1958), p.401. For online interlinear Greek-English New Testament, visit:

[10] All English language New Testament quotations are taken from: New American Standard Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999). Available online at:

[11] The following is a complete list of verses in The Gospel of John where the absolute ego eimi / ‘I am’ occurs: 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5, 6. Source: Keck L. (ed.), The New Interpreters Bible, A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Luke, John Vol. 9, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2002), p.602.

[12] See e.g. (1) Freedman D. (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Vol.3, (NY: Doubleday, 1992), p.924 (2) Brown R., The Gospel According to John (i-xii)Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible, (NY: Doubleday, 1966), pp.367 and 533ff (3) Meeks W. (ed.), The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books, (NY: Harper Collins, 1993), p.2029, n.8:24 (4) Schnackenburg R., The Gospel According to John: Vol. 2, (London: Burn and Oates, 1980), p.84 (5) Keck, The New Interpreters Bible, p.634, n.8:24 (note the typological error in commentary on Jn.8:24; ‘Exod.13:14’ should read ‘Exod.3:14’. The words ‘I am’ do not occur in Exod.13:14 in any version or language).

[13] See e.g. Harner P., The “I Am” of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Johannine Usage and Thought, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp.15-17, 60.

[14] Ashton J., Understanding the Fourth Gospel, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p.194.

[15] Glasson T F, Moses in the Fourth Gospel (Studies in Biblical Theology), (London: SCM Press, 1963).

[16] Childs, Exodus, p.83.

[17] Ott L., Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.69. See also essay on The Dogma of the Holy Trinity at:

[18] The Hebrew ani hu and anoki hu are rendered into Greek in the Septuagint Version of Second Isaiah as ego eimi. The verses in Second Isaiah where these sayings occur include: 41:4; 43:10-11; 43:25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12; 52:6. For full analysis of these verses, see: Harner, The “I am” of the Fourth Gospel, p.6ff. For English translation of Septuagint Second Isaiah, see: The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, with an English Translation, London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1879, p.874ff.

For a very recent English Translation, see: Silva M., New English Translation of the Septuagint, Electronic Edition, available online at: → Prophecies → Esaias.

[19] Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to John, p.84.

[20] Neusner J., The Mishnah: A New Translation and Commentary, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.597.

[21] This is the translation found in even the most scholarly of translations of John, such as the NRSV and NASB, although the former adds the accurate translation in a footnote, and the latter italicises the ‘he’ to indicate that this word does not feature in the text.

[22] See:

[23] Neusner, p.275.

See also:

[24] The absolute “ego eimi” is also attributed to Jesus on five (or perhaps six) occasions in the Synoptic Gospels, all of which predate John. However, its use as a divine self-identification is less clear than in John, and so I regard John as the earliest surviving unequivocal witness to this translation of the ehyeh of Exodus 3:14b. The occurrences in the Synoptics are as follows: Mark 6:50 par. Matthew 14:27; Mark 13:6 par.Luke 21:8; Mark 14:62 (and perhaps Luke 22:70), for all of which see: Marshall A., The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Also available online at:

[25] There is some evidence that ‘I am’ as a translation of the Hebrew ‘ani hu’ was understood to be a divine name both in the Septuagint and in Rabbinic Judaism, for which see: Dodd C., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p.94.

[26] Contrast Jn.17:6, 21:1, 1:31, where the Greek phaneroo is employed. The meaning intended by the ambiguous phaneroo is clear, but translations still differ on this point. It clearly implies the physical embodiment or appearance of the word of God in the figure of Jesus. It presumably does not convey the same meaning as that intended by the unambiguous gnorizo of 17:26 – as e.g. suggested by the NAB and NRSV – or the same word would have been used for both.