In scholarship the “I am” sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of John are quite controversial. They 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)
Though a large number of Christians, both lay believers and scholars alike, hope to sustain the actual historicity of Jesus saying the “I am” statements (1), a number of Christian New Testament evangelical scholars believe that it is unlikely Jesus actually said these words. This is a view shared by most scholars in the field (2). Professor Craig Keener, for example, 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 which means that though Jesus’ precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John’s gospel although his voice (ipsissima vox) is (4). Similarly, professor and world renowned Jesus scholar, Craig Evans agreed with skeptic Bart Ehrman that Jesus probably never said the “I am” statements recorded in John (5). Moreover, Christian scholar Mike Licona provides a handful (of 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 (see Mark 8:29-30; 1:43-45, and also Matthew 16:16-20; Luke 9:20-21). However, 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. It is therefore unlikely that 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. Thus the conclusion of John Hick,
“But among 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 that would would be as to what this means in terms of the reliability of the Gospel of John? Generally speaking, if one is interested in historical reliability (i.e. John’s accuracy in regards to geography and persons) most historians view the gospel as having some historical value (9), and in some places arguably more historically accurate than the synoptics (10). But what then of the words preserved in John? According to Licona this “elasticity” on the part of the reporting of our 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 explains 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.”
2. Licona, M. 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, M. & Evans, C. 2016. Why are There Differences in the Gospels? p. 239.
5. Yahya Snow [YouTube]. Craig Evans: Some Sayings in John Weren’t Actually Said by Jesus! Available.
6. Dunn, J. 1985. The Evidence For Jesus. p. 36.
7. Pannenberg, W. 1982. Jesus – God and Man. p. 327.
8. Hick, J. 2001. Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion. p. 135.
9. Theissen, G. & Merz, A. 1998. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. p. 36–37.
10. Theissen, G. & Merz, A. 1998. Ibid.