An ex-Jehovah’s Witness, now Catholic, who we at Catholic Answers helped to come to Christ in his Church, gave me some valuable gifts for apologetics by way of old books, many of them first edition, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the publishing arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses run by the leaders of their sect. Of note among these is a first edition copy of The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, the official Jehovah’s Witness translation of the New Testament, first published by the Watchtower in 1950.
It is not the translation itself that makes it of particular interest, though it certainly is important. The New World Translation is, at times, not so much a translation as it is an attempt to force Jehovah’s Witness theology into biblical texts that actually oppose it. But you can get newer editions of the translation that aren’t that much different than the old. So again, the translation is not what is most important. The footnotes explicating the texts are where the real value lies.
In future blog posts, I will comment on some other examples of these footnotes, but in this post I want to focus on the footnote to John 8:58, one of many New Testament texts that contribute significantly to our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ as fully God (of course, Christ is also fully man, we should note). And keep in mind, Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity.
So first, let me cite a more accurate translation of the text from the RSVCE, including verses 57 and 59 for a bit of context:
 The Jews then said to [Jesus], “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.
When Jesus responded to “the Jews” saying, “Before Abraham was, I am,” our Lord, most of those present to hear his words, and St. John himself years later as he penned his Gospel, would have most likely had in mind God's revelation to Moses revealing the divine name as "I AM WHO AM,” and the shorter “I AM” in Exodus 3:13-15.
 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘[YAHWEH], the God of… Abraham… Isaac… and… Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
In the Hebrew text of this passage, when God first answers Moses’s question as to what his name is, in verse 14, he says, ehyeh asher ehyeh is his name, which translates as “I am that I am.” But notice God then tells Moses, in that same verse, to tell “the sons of Israel I AM has sent me to you.” There, God says his name is more simply ehyeh, or “I AM.” Then, in verse fifteen, he declares to all that his name forever will be YHWH, commonly read and spoken as Yahweh, which translates basically the same as ehyeh asher ehyeh—“I AM THAT I AM,” or “I AM WHO AM,” as St. Jerome translated it. Yahweh, it would seem, was revealed as God's formal name while the essence of his name, or the shorter version, if you will, is revealed simply as I AM. Metaphysically, this name reveals God to simply be. He has no beginning, no end, no lack of being; He is all perfection. He is existence itself. And this is his name.
It is difficult for us in the 21st century to fathom how utterly blasphemous it would have sounded for Jesus of Nazareth to dare utter the words we cited above from John 8: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He is essentially claiming the divine name for himself and revealing that he is the great I AM who spoke to Moses a millenium-and-a-half earlier. It is no wonder that in verse 59 the Jews picked up stones to kill him. It was certainly not every day that a local Jewish guy would claim to be God!
What Say You, Mr. Jehovah's Witness?
Obviously, Jehovah’s Witnesses could not leave this as is and maintain their denial of Christ’s divinity. So what do they do with this text, you might ask? Let me now cite the New World Translation’s rendering of verse 58:
Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”
Notice the change? There is an enormous difference between Christ using the divine name, I AM, and him saying "Before Abraham came into existence I have been." The former claims divinity; the latter claims a pre-human existence, but not necessarily divinity.
In the footnote below where the translators give their justification for this departure from 2,000 years of Christian understanding, they claim because “I am” (Greek, ego eimi) comes after an aorist infinitive clause, it is “properly rendered in the perfect indefinite tense.” Moreover, they declare, “It is not the same as [ho ohn] (ho ohn, meaning “The Being” or “The I Am”) at Exodus 3:14, LXX.”
We should note here that the LXX, to which the note refers, is the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament translated ca. 250-100 BC. In this translation, the name God first reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:14, ehyeh asher ehyeh—"I am that I am"—is translated into Greek as “ego eimi ho ohn,” which translates as “I am the being.” With this in mind, this latter point in the NWT footnote is absolutely incoherent. A first or second year Greek student knows that ho ohn does not mean “The I AM” as the Jehovah's Witness translators claim. Ho ohn means “the being.” Ego eimi means “I am.” Thus, again, ego eimi ho ohn, translates literally as “I am the being.”
Most likely, this error is rooted in a poor rendering of the shorter version of God's name we mentioned above in the LXX. When God tells Moses to tell the "sons of Israel, the I AM sent me to you," the Septuagint has God saying to Moses, “Say this to the sons of Israel, the being (Gr.—ho ohn) has sent me to you.” From there, it appears the translators thought ho ohn could be translated as “the I am," when in fact, the translators of the Septuagint were either using bad manuscripts or just got it wrong here for whatever reason. The Hebrew text reads, “… I AM sent me to you” as we said above. But most importantly again, to think ho ohn could be translated as “the I am” reveals a truly remarkable lack of knowledge of Greek by the “translators” of the New World Translation.
The second error in the footnote is a bit more complicated. In short, there is no “perfect indefinite tense” in Greek. So it is odd to claim “I have been” is a rendering of the “perfect indefinite tense.” Apologists among Jehovah’s Witnesses will claim it is being “rendered” or translated into English using the English perfect indefinite tense, and that the translators were not claiming there is an actual "perfect indefinite tense" in Greek. This is odd to say the least. But we can give them the benefit of the doubt here.
We don’t use a perfect indefinite tense in modern English, but one can find older English grammars that will include it. In days past, English speakers would say things like, “I am come to the farm…” which uses “I am come” in the present tense, while carrying a perfect sense of “I have come…”
I would add in defense of the JW translators, Herbert W. Smyth, in his classic Greek Grammar, published by Harvard University Press, explains that there are certain Greek verbs that express “an enduring result, and may be translated by the perfect.” Heiko (I have arrived) is a good example as we find it in I John 5:20, “And we know the Son of God has come…” Has come (Gr.—heikei) is in the present tense, but employs a perfect sense.
In John 14:9, we find Jesus responding to Philip’s insistence that he “show us the Father,” by saying, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?” St. John used eimi for “am I” here as an interrogative of the verb to be. The literal translation would be “Am I with you so long…” This is another case of the verb—this time the verb to be—in the present tense, but used in a perfect sense.
So, even though we would argue that, at best, the JW translators could argue for a present for perfect usage here, do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a point? Could John 8:58 be another case of a present for perfect? Should we translate it as “before Abraham came into existence, I have been?” The answer is no.
Using rules of grammar, the JW's might have an argument, but what the Watchtower does not take into account is the actual usage of ego eimi in John 8:58 in its proper context. As D.A. Carson points out in his book, Exegetical Fallacies, context and usage are more important than technical, grammatical rules. There are often multitple different ways a text can be translated that would fall within the parameters of Greek grammar. The proper understanding of terms comes most often through discovering its actual usage in the sacred text.
As a simple example, I like to use an example I borrowed from my colleague Jimmy Akin. No number of grammatical or lexical rules and definitions will determine what "put the kitty on the table" means. The context of either a pet store or a poker game is the determinative factor.
Context, Context, Context
Bruce Vauter, C.M., helps us to establish a context for the usage of ego eimi ("I am") in John 8:58 in the Jerome Biblical Commentary. He points out that "the ‘I am’ formula without the predicate,” as he calls it, is used frequently in St. John’s Gospel and elsewhere in the New Testament, with crucial antecedents in the Old Testament as well. In Mt. 14:27; Mk. 13:6; 14:62; John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 8:28, 18:6 and, of course, John 8:58, as we’ve seen, we find this formula used, but each time it is in the context of either some sort of miraculous intervention where Christ is revealing his divine authority, or in the context of an overt statement declaring his divinity in no uncertain terms as we saw in John 8:58.
If we couple these examples with the fact that God uses a similar “I am” formula in the Old Testament in texts like Exodus 3:14; Dt. 32:39; Is. 43:10; 46:4; 51:12 and more, revealing himself to be the infinite God—the I AM—without beginning and end, all perfection, being itself, etc., Jesus’ usage becomes all the more profound. Again, he is declaring himself to be God.
If we examine just three of these examples we cited above, we can see a pattern of usage. Notice, Jesus uses the divine name just before he miraculous calms the storm in Matt. 14:27, revealing an authority over nature that only God possesses. He responds to the High Priest using the divine name just before the High Priest declares him to have committed blasphemy in Mark 14:62. And we've already seen the reaction the Jews had to his use of ego eimi in John 8:58; They wanted to kill him!
Historically, it was not punishable by death to believe wrongly that human beings could have had a pre-human existence, which is all the “I have been” translation would indicate. In fact, the pre-existence of the human soul was believed by many Jews in the first century. Claiming to be God was considered blasphemy. Thus, it is the context as much as the words themselves that reveal Jesus's claim to be God in John 8:58.