Why is There Doubt Over the “I am” Statements in the Gospel of John?

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Much of contemporary New Testament scholarship views the “I am” sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of John as being controversial. The seven sayings in John are as follows:

• I am the Bread of Life (6:35)
• I am the Light of the World (8:12)
• I am the Door (10:9)
• I am the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14)
• I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
• I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (14:6)
• I am the Vine (15:1, 5)

Although many Christians hope to sustain the historicity of Jesus himself saying the “I am” statements (1), a number of Christian New Testament evangelical scholars believe that it is unlikely Jesus actually said these words, which is a view shared by most scholars in the field (2). Professor Craig Keener states that “all Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition” (3). In other words, John’s author recasts Jesus’ teachings in his own words. This means that although Jesus’ precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John’s gospel, his voice (ipsissima vox) is (4). Craig Evans agrees with Bart Ehrman that Jesus probably never said the “I am” statements recorded in John (5). Christian scholar Michael Licona provides several reasons why:

1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus “sounds” in John is very different than the way He “sounds” in the Synoptics. Most scholars thus believe that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style.

2. The way Jesus “sounds” in John’s Gospel sounds very much like how John “sounds” in 1 John. That is, the grammar, vocabulary, and overall style of writing in both are strikingly similar.

3. The Messianic Secret.

The third point, the Messianic Secret, refers to the theme in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus commands his followers to maintain silence about his Messianic mission (Mark 8:29-30, 1:43-45; also Matthew 16:16-20 and Luke 9:20-21). Yet if Jesus took such measures to remain secretive in public about being the Messiah, as he is in Mark’s gospel, then one would not expect him to be claiming to be God so publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting. The conclusion drawn here is that it is unlikely Jesus would have said the “I am” statements.

Scholar, theologian, and historian James Dunn also questions why only John’s gospel includes these sayings of Jesus: “if they were part of the original words of Jesus himself, how could it be that only John picked them up and none of the others? Call it scholarly skepticism if you will, but I must confess that I find it almost incredible that such sayings should have been neglected had they been known as a feature of Jesus’ teaching” (6). According to the influential German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, the “I am” sayings of Jesus have met a “growing certainty by critical study of the Gospels to be the work of the post-Easter community” (7). These are just a few reasons why most New Testament scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings. John Hick writes that,

“[A]mong mainline NT scholars, both conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant, there is today a general consensus that these are not pronouncements of the historical Jesus but words put into his mouth some 60 or 70 years later by a Christian writer expressing theology that had developed in his part of the expanding church” (8).

The question for some is concerns what this means for the reliability of the Gospel of John? If one is interested in historical reliability (e.g. John’s accuracy in regards to geography and persons) most historians view the gospel as having some historical value (9) and is in some places arguably more historically accurate than the Synoptics (10). But what of the words preserved in John that invite skepticism? According to Licona, this “elasticity” on the part of the reporting of the gospel author does not mean that John is unreliable; rather, it means that John’s author is often communicating Jesus’ teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Licona says that,

“John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his “I am” statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That’s a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John.”

References

1. McGrew, Lydia. 2017. Jesus never said the “I am” statements? Available; Bowman, Robert. 2017. Top 10 Reasons for Accepting Jesus’ “I Am” Sayings in John as Historically Reliable. Available.

2. Licona, Michael. 2017. Are We Reading An Adapted Form of Jesus’ Teachings In John’s Gospel?  Available.

3. Craig Keener quoted by Mike Linona. 2017. Ibid.

4. Licona, Michael., and Evans, Craig. 2016. Why are There Differences in the Gospels? Oxford University Press. p. 239.

5. YouTube. 2017. Craig Evans: Some Sayings in John Weren’t Actually Said by Jesus! Available.

6. Dunn, James. 1985. The Evidence For Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36.

7. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1982. Jesus – God and Man. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 327.

8. Hick, John. 2001. Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 135.

9. Theissen, Gerd., and Merz, Annette. 1998. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press. p. 36-37.

10. Theissen, Gerd., and Merz, Annette. 1998. Ibid.

5 comments

  1. Very interesting. I had never noticed that contrast before, i.e., the Messianic secret vs. the “I Am” declarations. It’s difficult for me to rationalize why they could both be accurate, unless Jesus was talking to different audiences for different purposes, but I assume this is not the case. Does John never record anything about Jesus trying to keep his messianic status secretive?

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