Before Abraham Was, I Am
Jesus said, ‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
The gospel of John presents us with the considerable challenge of understanding the evangelist’s usage of the word translated in English as ‘the Jews.’ Christians and the Church universal must continue to recognize and repent of the significant sins committed against the Jewish people across the centuries rooted in anti-Jewish readings of the gospels, especially John. The readings associated with Holy Week have been employed in particularly heinous ways, and thus we must be especially attentive to this reality as we approach that holy time. The conflict between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ in John’s gospel is a complex issue about which scholars have written extensively.
To put it in a very brief and simplified way, John’s gospel is not so much reflective of the situation between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ during the time of his earthly ministry as it is reflective of what was happening between his followers and ‘the Jews’ when the gospel was written several decades later. That was a time, it seems, when the early Christian community, overwhelmingly of Jewish background, was beginning to separate from the Jewish community and become more distinct in practice and belief. It is important to understand such conflict as one between those who had previously belonged to the same group. To use the distinction Jesus and ‘the Jews’ is in part misleading because, of course, Jesus was himself Jewish. The scene that takes up nearly the entire eighth chapter of John is one of the most confrontational encounters between Jesus and ‘the Jews.’ It ends with Jesus’ incredible claim that, ‘before Abraham was, I am.’ Jesus refers here to the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: ‘I Am Who I Am’ (Exodus 3:14).
Such a statement from Jesus would, of course, have been blasphemous for a Jew, for by saying so Jesus equated himself with God. Jesus and his message undeniably brought about division among those who received it, which he had warned his disciples would be the case (Luke 12:49-53). In a way that is admittedly challenging for the modern reader, John’s gospel highlights this reality among Jesus’ own community of the Jewish people. It is our task as Christians in the present day to ensure that our reading of the Biblical text, while not discrediting the truths we find therein, does not support anti-Jewish sentiment or further perpetuate the sins of our forebearers.
O God, you have called us to be your children, and have promised that those who suffer with Christ will be heirs with him of your glory: Arm us with such trust in him that we may ask no rest from his demands and have no fear in his service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2006, p. 59)