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The Apologists  Bible Commentary

 

 

John 18

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3 - 8

3 Judas then, having received the Roman cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

4 So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, " Whom do you seek?"

5 They answered Him, "Jesus the Nazarene." He said to them, "I am He." And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them.

6 So when He said to them, "I am He," they drew back and fell to the ground.

7 Therefore He again asked them, "Whom do you seek?" And they said, "Jesus the Nazarene."

8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am He; so if you seek Me, let these go their way,"

 

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The crucial question in this passage is:  Does Jesus use a divine title for Himself or not?  And why did the Roman cohort (about 600 soldiers) and temple guards fall to the ground?  Were they merely stunned by Jesus' calm yet forceful response?  Or was there something else far more profound going on?  In the English, the proper meaning is lost in the translation "I am He."  In Greek, it is eg˘ eimi ("I am"), which some have proposed is more than mere self-identification, but a claim to Deity.  This theory is supported by the number of times Jesus uses this absolute expression in John's Gospel (9 times)1, particularly John 8:28).  I would argue that there is a progression of the "I am" declarations of Jesus in John, climaxing here.

We should first note that Jesus uses eg˘ eimi with an explicit predicate numerous times in the Gospel of John ("I am the way, the truth, and the life," "I am the door," "I am the bread of life," etc.).  But He uses it without the predicate on nine occasions.  It is these instances where disputes arise:  What exactly did Jesus mean by these absolute uses?

"The strange use of the words 'I am" in Jn 18.5, 6 and 8 clearly show that while eg˘ eimi is used as simple identification, the two words may simultaneously have a far deeper meaning.  The reason that the soldiers fall down when Jesus utters the words eg˘ eimi is not stated.  It is assumed the reader will know.  While accepting the fact that Jesus identifies himself to the soldiers with these words, the reader must look for something that would explain their strange reaction.  The words here act as a trigger to point the reader to other occurrences of the term in the Gospel to explain Jesus' words.  The threefold repetition of eg˘ eimi emphasizes the importance of the expression.  That this statement occurs at the moment of betrayal particularly points back to 13:19 where the fulfillment of Scripture and Jesus' own words was linked to the betrayal in order that the disciples might believe.  Thus a simple recognition formula in which Jesus states that he is the person whom the soldiers seek is given a double meaning by the reaction of those same soldiers to his words as well as by the previous use of eg˘ eimi in the Gospel. Although it is correct to talk of Jesus' identity in terms of Jesus of Nazareth on one level, on another level there is something that cannot be explained without looking into the environment in which the Gospel was first written. In that environment, the Gospel writer can take simple words and, by the way they are formulated (8:24,28; 13:19) as well as by the reactions to them (8:58; 18:5-6,8), allude to a background where Yahweh alone is God and Saviour. In the Gospel, these words are taken up by Jesus and applied to himself" (Ball, p 201).

"They went backward, and fell to the ground - None of the other evangelists mentions this very important circumstance. Our Lord chose to give them this proof of his infinite power, that they might know that their power could not prevail against him if he chose to exert his might, seeing that the very breath of his mouth confounded, drove back, and struck them down to the earth. Thus by the blast of God they might have perished, and by the breath of his nostrils they might have been consumed: Job 4:9" (Clarke).

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speira

speira

band (of soldiers), cohort

1) anything rolled into a circle or ball, anything wound, rolled up, folded together

2) a military cohort

2a) the tenth part of legion

2a1) about 600 men, i.e. legionaries

2a2) if auxiliaries either 500 or 1000

2a3) a maniple, or the thirtieth part of a legion

2b) any band, company, or detachment, of soldiers (Thayer)

In our lit[eratire] prob[ably] always a cohort, a tenth part of a legion (BDAG)

A Romam military unit of about six hundred soldiers, though only part of such a cohort was often referred to as a cohort (Louw)

uperhreths twn Iudaiwn

hUPHRETHS TWN IUDAIWN

Officers, temple guards, of the Jews

In the NT of the officers and attendants of magistrates as - of the officer who executes penalties (Thayer)

In the NT, uperhreths is employed to many diverse types of servants ... especially in the Gospel of John, Jewish Temple Guards (Louw)

egw eimi

eg˘ eimi

I am.

 

Jesus deliberately echoes a pattern of themes that are unique to YHWH by using the expression "I am" (Greek: eg˘ eimi; Hebrew: ani hu). The high density of "I am" sayings of YHWH found in Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah (so-called Second Isaiah) match the high density of "I am" sayings of Jesus in the gospel of John. The theme of Isaiah 40-55 is the identify of YHWH; the theme of John is the identity of Jesus. When Jesus echoes the sayings of YHWH in Isaiah, he is clearly applying this "language of deity" to himself as YHWH. Jesus saying "I am" by itself would prove little; but the pattern of His use in various themes that exactly match Isaiah, create an unmistakable mosaic that is a powerful and irrefutable proof of his deity.

 

(I am indebted to: http://www.bible.ca/trinity/trinity-i-am.htm of many of these ideas)

 

  1. 'Ani hu' in Second Isaiah is always attributed to Yahweh. It is a solemn statement or assertion that only he can properly make. If anyone else spoke these words, it would be a sign of presumptuous pride, an attempt to claim equality with Yahweh or displace him. This is very nearly the case in 47.8, 10, in which Babylon makes the presumptuous statement, "I am, and there is no one besides me". In these verses it is interesting that Second Isaiah uses the single word 'I' ('ani) to express the idea "I am". He is evidently contrasting Babylon's claims with the 'ani hu' of Yahweh. Yet even here he refrains from attributing the phrase 'ani hu' to anyone other than Yahweh.
  2. 'The phrase 'ani hu' signifies that Yahweh alone is God, in contrast to the so-called "gods" of the various peoples of the world. This assertion of exclusive monotheism is a major theme for Second Isaiah which he expresses in a variety of ways ... he makes the explicit assertion that there is no god besides Yahweh (44.6, 8; 45.5, 6, 18, 21, 22; 46.9)
  3. '... For Second Isaiah the belief in Yahweh as Lord of history is closely related to the assertion that he alone is God. This belief in Yahweh's sovereignty over history finds particular expression in the prophet's conviction that he is about to redeem the people of Israel by restoring them to their homeland. In a number of passages Second Isaiah weaves these ideas together (44.6-8; 45.1-8; 46.5-13).
  4. For Second Isaiah the belief in Yahweh as redeemer of Israel was closely related to the belief that he is also the creator of the world... It is significant to note here that Second Isaiah associates the phrase 'ani hu' with creation faith. In this way he indicates that this phrase of self-predication, in addition to its other meanings, also presents Yahweh as creator of the world.
  5. 'One of Second Isaiah's main tasks was to awaken faith on the part of his fellow exiles in Babylon and reassure them that Yahweh was indeed about to restore them to their homeland. Many of the people, he realised, were inclined to believe that Yahweh was powerless because the Babylonians had destroyed their temple in Jerusalem and taken a large number of Israelites into exile. In the context of this need for renewed faith, Second Isaiah represents Yahweh as using the self-predication "I am He".'
  6. 'Second Isaiah regarded the phrase "I am he" as an abbreviated form of other expressions, especially "I am Yahweh," summing up in concise terms everything represented by the longer terms.'

(Philip B. Harner, The 'I Am' of the fourth Gospel, p 7-15, as summarized by Ball, p. 202)

"The phrase 'ego eimi' has been used by Jesus in the Gospel on several occasions and has only once, in 8.58, provoked any surprising reaction on the part of his opponents. In ch. 8, Jesus' words provoked his opponents to anger and he was the one who 'drew back'. In contrast, when Jesus utters the Words 'I am' in 18.5-8, he deliberately makes himself known to his opponents and, rather than hiding himself from them, he hands himself over to them (vv. 8,12). Here Jesus' words provoke his opponents to fear and they are the ones who 'draw back and fall to the ground'. Despite the different reactions on the part of the narrative audience, in both instances it is precisely these surprising reactions to his utterance of the words 'eg˘ eimi' that alert the reader to look for a deeper meaning behind them. On at least one level it is clear that the use of 'eg˘ eimi' in John 18 draws the reader's attention to the other places where the phrase has been used, even though the previous occurrences may have been before a different narrative audience. Although the above references to Jesus' 'I am' sayings elsewhere in John may help determine the force of the term for the reader, it is the soldiers and officers from the chief priests who react to Jesus' words here. The reader may well ask whether the words 'eg˘ eimi' would be understood by such people in a way that would explain their actions.' If the text of John 18 implies both a very simple and a very profound use of 'eg˘ eimi' when Jesus declares himself to his aggressors, the only clue the narrative gives to this double-meaning is the reaction of Jesus' narrative audience. The reader is expected to 'read between the lines' of the text and understand far more than is explicitly stated. It is significant that this final 'eg˘ eimi' alludes to several occurrences of the phrase elsewhere within the Gospel (8:24, 28, [58]; 10:14-18; 13:19). This occurrence, which in many ways fulfils the predictions of other occurrences of the term, takes the reader back to those occurrences to re-interpret them in the light of the reaction of the narrative audience to Jesus' words here. That the "I am' is obviously here used to convey two meanings at one and the same time may also throw light on the earlier occurrences of the term. The way in which the self-declaration of Jesus in 18.5-8 is interpreted will automatically colour the use of 'eg˘ eimi' elsewhere in the Gospel, for it shows that the author of John can at one and the same time use 'I am' as a simple formula for identification and intend overtones of profound significance that are only explicit in this instance. It must be asked whether 'eg˘ eimi' is a term used with deliberate double meaning as part of Johannine irony whereby a simple phrase can take on profound theological importance.' A literary study of the function of 'ego eimi' in the arrest scene of Jesus has shown the important part the words play in the structure of this individual periscope. By the repetition of the words, attention is focused on Jesus and his self-identification. Furthermore, this scene occurs at an important point of the Gospel narrative. The arrest marks the beginning of Jesus' passion, and the words 'eg˘ eimi' show that Jesus willingly gives himself up to death. He, rather than the captors, is in control of his own destiny. Again the words 'eg˘ eimi' are accompanied by irony, for Judas thinks that he controls the arrest, but in fact Jesus does. The phrase 'eg˘ eimi' epitomizes the characterization of Jesus as the dominant character in this scene. Such dominance is due to the different perspective from which Jesus operates. Because he knows that this is his hour of glory, he goes to the cross willingly. Because Peter does not know this, he vainly tries to defend his master. Finally, it could be said that the words 'eg˘ eimi' actually function as a theme in these verses. Their threefold repetition at such a crucial stage of the Gospel and the mysterious reaction on the part of the narrative audience, forces the reader to ask whether the previous occurrences of the term were quite as straightforward as they first appeared. The questions raised by the reaction of Jesus' narrative audience to the words here encourages the reader to look for a deeper explanation to the simple words 'eg˘ eimi'" (Ball, p 143-145).

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Jehovah's Witnesses

objectionFormer Witness Greg Stafford offers the most significant objection to Christ claiming Deity in this verse.  He objects to Christian writer James White for 'failing to deal with' what Mr. Stafford feels are the three most significant obstacles for those claiming that Jesus asserts His deity in this passage:

White does not present a counter exegesis to John 7; he does not explain the variants in ancient manuscripts of Joh[n] 18:5-6 which actually supply the understood predicate; and he does not address the impression left on the soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus earlier in the Gospel account, impressions that were so great that even Roman soldiers (non-believers) could not arrest Jesus simply because of the way he spoke (Stafford, pp. 286-287, n. 92).

response: Let's take these one at a time:

John 7

Commentators, such as those cited by Mr. Stafford, often attempt to draw connections with John 7:32, 46.  But a careful reading suggests that it is not the same group of "officers," here.  There was an entire Roman cohort at Jesus' arrest (or at least as many who could be referred to in that way), which was not present at the earlier incident.  The two scenes are thematically connected, to be sure, but in John 7, the officers did not return with Jesus because they thought they were going to arrest someone very different from the man they actually encountered:  "No one speaks as does this man!"  Perhaps they thought they had been sent in error, and they would be commended for returning without Him.  In John 18, there is a group of upwards of 600 Roman soldiers, in addition to the Temple guards, coming to arrest Jesus.  That the two groups were identical  is a mere assumption and is not substantiated by the Biblical evidence.  

Robertson offers the following definition of "officers" here:

For hupŕretas (temple police here) (RWP, John 7:32).

When we look at John 18, the fact that this was not the same group of "officers" from the encounter in John 7 is made clear::

So the Roman cohort and the commander and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him, (John 18:12 NASB, emphasis added).

John actually repeats the declaration of His divine identity not once, but twice (vv. 6, 8).  They were so overwhelmed that they "drew back and fell to the ground."  Clearly, more than mere self-identification is in play, here.  

 

Variants

The fact that our standard Greek NTs (UBS4/NA27) are in agreement that  eg˘ eimi is absolute should be ample reason to accept that reading as genuine.  Add to this the comments of Bruce Metzger:

If egw eimi were the original reading, it is probable that copyists would have identified the speaker by inserting a proper name.  The variation of position of (o) IhsouV before or after eimi is further indication of the secondary character of the longer readings (Metzger, p. 215).

To be fair, this reading is given a C rating (the scale ranges from A to D), indicating that the Committee "had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text" (Ibid, p. xxviii).  But, I find Metzger's comments to be persuasive.  And the reading is made even more certain by the recurrence of eg˘ eimi in verses 6 and 8.

Also, it really would not matter how Jesus replied, Stafford would still have to account for the reaction of the entire Roman cohort (or at least a portion thereof) and the temple guards.

 

The Reaction of the officers in John 7

As already discussed, it is doubtful it was the same group of soldiers that were dispatched to arrest Jesus as witnessed His bold, authoritative speech in John 7.  Even if some or all of them were present at both incidents, what about the Romans cohort, who as Mr. Stafford admits, were not believers?  Why did they fall down?  It is inconceivable that anything less than something supernatural could explain why hardened, pagan Roman soldiers would collapse to the ground.

Stafford implies the cohort was there on both occasions,2 but as we have seen, they were absent from the first encounter all together.

 

Conclusion

As I hope I have demonstrated, Mr. Stafford's counter-arguments have failed to be persuasive.  He does not engage the 'double meaning' hypothesis at all in regard to these verses, and cites only scholars favorable to his position.  I could cite scholars favorable to mine (as indeed I have!), but that would only prove that these scholars believed as I do, and not John's original intention.  

In summary, John emphasizes Jesus' word not once, not twice, but three times.  This comes as the climax of a progression of absolute "I am" statements, running from 4:26, through 3 instances in chapter 8 (24, 28, 58), 13:19, and finally culminating here with the threefold proclamation.  Jesus is claiming for Himself absolute eternality, self-existence, and creatorship of all things by echoing YHWH's words in Isaiah, translated in the LXX (the Greek OT) as eg˘ eimi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes 

1.  The lone exception is John 9:9, where formerly blind beggar also uses ego eimi and, of course, is not proclaiming himself to be deity.  This demonstrates that ego eimi was a fairly common way to say "I am he" in Greek.  But those who say this usage disproves that Jesus used this expression to also claim He was Divine, are saying too much.  The fact that John places this expression so often in the mouth of Jesus illustrates there is something more going on than mere self-identification, as I shall attempt to demonstrate in this article.

2. "[White] does not address the impression left on the soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus earlier in the Gospel account, impressions that were so great that even Roman soldiers (non-believers) could not arrest Jesus simply because of the way he spoke" (Stafford, pp. 287, n. 92).

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