Tuesday, February 21, 2012

JOHN 8:58 does not necessarily mean what it seems

"Jesus said unto them, "truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am". (RSV).

This scripture is routinely compared to Exodus 3:14, where we read of Yahweh: "God said unto Moses, "I AM WHO I AM". And he said "Say this to the people of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you"". (RSV).

Just a few notes: The Exodus statement was made in response to a request from Moses for God to identify himself. And the reply (understandably?) "I am who I am" is simply impatient. I believe that I myself have at times said "I am who I am" in response to certain challenges. And the second part, "I am has sent me", just carries on the impatience of God with Moses's request for identification. But God gives in to Moses in the next verse and identifies himself as "Yahweh", the traditional god of the Hebrews. So while the theologians have made much of this passage, it is hardly the claim to uniqueness that they often assert. It just shows that the Hebrew god was a rather human figure who got impatient with people not knowing who he was -- and who handed out carved stone tablets and various other things.

Moving on to John 8:58 and the expression "I am" there: The Greek expression Jesus used here is "Ego eimi" -- which is the first person singular form of the verb "to be" in Greek. Its meaning is not however as straightforward in Greek as it is in its English counterpart. It is quite imprecise and can be translated in a number of ways. Even in that particular passage, translators differ on their rendering of it. Some authorities suggest "I have been" but the suggestion I like best is "I am he". That translation fits the text best, it seems to me. He was, after all, answering the enquiry, "Have you seen Abraham?". And in other passages of the NT (e.g. John 14:9) "eimi" is routinely translated as "have been".

So Jesus was certainly claiming to be an ancient being but the statements in Exodus and John are clearly not comparable. And in fact the case and tense structures of Hebrew and Greek are very different so any exact comparability would in any event be fanciful.

What Jesus actually said in his native Aramaic, we can only guess of course. We have only John's report in Greek.

For what it is worth, John would have been well aware of the ancient and widely used translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek -- The Septuagint -- and the Septuagint renders Exodus 3:14 as “EGO EIMI HO OHN,” meaning “I am the being” or "I am the one", so again comparability between the two texts is lost. If John had seen Jesus's Aramaic words as a reference to Exodus 3:14, he would presumably have translated them into Greek in the same way that the ancient Jewish translators behind the Septuagint did.

That John in fact chose a Greek expression that is capable of at least two different meaings is however well in keeping with his Gnostic tendencies. Gnosticism (the pretence of secret knowledge) was around long before Christ and it did eventually infect Christianity. There were various gnostic Christian sects from the second century on. John, however, does appear to have written quite late in the first century so may perhaps be regarded as the first of the Christian Gnostics. The book of Revelations, in particular, reads very much like a Gnostic text, with its constant use of symbolism.

So John took advantage of the various uses of "eimi" to make one of his Gnostic utterances. Compare John 1:1, where his clever use of an anarthrous predicate also leads most Greekless people into thinking he is saying more than he is. He was obviously a very competent Greek stylist.

So John was not being deceitful in using the the words he did. He was just being vague -- perhaps with the aim of saying that REAL Christians would be able to untangle the intended meaning, which is a very Gnostic thing to do. And at the time that was probably no difficulty. But with the impossibility of exactly translating all Greek tenses into languages with different verb structures, misunderstandings have certainly developed.

As someone who has often battled with translating German into English (which are after all two closely related languages) I am confident in saying in fact that ALL translations are only approximations. I comment on that at greater length here. On some occasions you do have to study the original texts to get an accurate sense of the passage.

I can't resist adding a few more comments about the Septuagint. The Torah section of it (including Exodus) is quite ancient and the oldest surviving manuscripts of the OT are in fact mostly of the Septuagint. And there are quite a few places where the Septuagint and the Masoretic (Hebrew) text differ in meaning, though the differences are not usually greatly important.

It used to be automatic among Bible translators to prefer the Masoretic renderings and dismiss the Septuagint as "freely" translated. A widely held view among textual scholars these days, however, holds that the Septuagint was based on a pre-Masoretic version of the Hebrew text and that its renderings are therefore at least as likely to represent the lost original texts as are the Masoretic renderings. In which case the less enigmatic Septuagint rendering of Exodus 3:14 might reasonably be preferred. So YHWH might originally have been recorded as saying not "I am who I am" but rather something like “I am the being” or "I am the one".

Note finally that the apostle Paul normally quoted from the Septuagint in his epistles. How's that for a headspinner?

I would think that in the circumstances a really serious Christian Bible student (are there any left?) would be heading out to buy himself a copy of the Septuagint with an accompanying English translation. I do myself own such a volume but it is quite old so I doubt that it is still in print anywhere. For what it is worth, however, it was published by Samuel Bagster and Sons of London in 1879. Bagster had a most comprehensive range of Bible study aids but with the decline of Biblical scholarship they have now gone out of business. There is however a translation only here that sounds useful. The most "official" translation of the Septuagint at the moment is here but I don't like the assumptions underlying it at all at all.


Cultural decay

Panem et circenses


Why America Keeps Getting More Conservative

I think that the short answer is: Obama. But some other reasons are explored below. Note that self-identified conservatives tend to have less education. Given the anti-factual Leftist brainwashing that pervades the educational system, that figures. The lesser your education, the better is your grip on reality to some degree

Another (related) thing to note that is that working class people are overwhelmingly conservative. The Democrats still sometimes pretend that they are the party of the little guy and the worker but that is straight out false. They've got it ass-about. They are the party of the minorities and the smug

Even with the president’s approval rating showing signs of life and the Republicans busily bashing themselves over the head — “one is a practicing polygamist and he’s not even the Mormon,” retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently quipped about her party’s two frontrunners — America continues to track right, according to polling data released by the Gallup Organization last week.

Americans at this political moment are significantly more likely to identify as conservative than as liberal: conservatives outnumber liberals by nearly two to one. Forty percent identify as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 21 percent liberal.

There are four states where conservatives make up more than half the population: Mississippi, Utah, Wyoming, and Alabama. Conservatives make up more than 40 percent in 20 more states. Liberals now outnumber conservatives in just one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

Last March, I took an in-depth look at the factors that might be associated with America’s increasingly conservative ideological cast; I update that analysis here with Gallup’s year-end data. The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism's hold. America is becoming a more conservative nation, at least at the state level.

My MPI colleague Charlotta Mellander ran a series of correlations on a range of political, economic, demographic and other factors. The associations we found, I hasten to add, are just that — associations; correlation does not show causation. Nonetheless, they reflect the deep cleavages of income, education, and class that divide America.

As before, conservative states are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states. The correlation between conservative political affiliation and religion (the share of state population for which religion is an important part of daily life) has grown stronger, increasing from .63 to .70.

The correlation between religion and the increase in conservatism over the past year is also considerable. As American states become more religious, they also become more conservative.

Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones. The correlation between conservative affiliation and the percent of adults who are college graduates) is also substantially higher than before (-.76 vs. -.53), as is the correlation between human capital and the increase in conservatism (-.79).

States with more conservatives are less diverse. Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants (–.56), or gay and lesbian ( -.60). There is no correlation to race or ethnicity, however, whether measured as percent white, percent black, or percent Hispanic.

Class continues to play a substantial role. Conservative political affiliation is strongly positively correlated with the percentage of a state's workforce in blue-collar occupations (.73), and highly negatively correlated with the proportion of the workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work (-.61). Both are also associated with the tilt toward conservatism in the past year.

States with more conservatives are considerably less affluent than those with more liberals. Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with state income levels (-.73) and even more so with average hourly earnings (- .77). This is in line with the findings of Andrew Gelman's Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, which finds that while rich voters favor Republicans, rich states favor Democrats.

That said, conservatives across America appear to be split along class and income lines when it comes to the issue of whether government should provide help for the poor. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than half (57 percent) of lower-income Republicans (those with family incomes of less than $30,000) said that government does not do enough for the poor, while less than one in five (18 percent) said it does too much. Richer Republicans (those with incomes of $75,000 or more), perhaps not surprisingly, overwhelmingly think government does too much.

The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened America's conservative drift - a trend which is most pronounced in its least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.



Over-regulated America

The home of laissez-faire is being suffocated by excessive and badly written regulation --comment from Britain

AMERICANS love to laugh at ridiculous regulations. A Florida law requires vending-machine labels to urge the public to file a report if the label is not there. The Federal Railroad Administration insists that all trains must be painted with an “F” at the front, so you can tell which end is which. Bureaucratic busybodies in Bethesda, Maryland, have shut down children’s lemonade stands because the enterprising young moppets did not have trading licences. The list goes hilariously on.

But red tape in America is no laughing matter. The problem is not the rules that are self-evidently absurd. It is the ones that sound reasonable on their own but impose a huge burden collectively. America is meant to be the home of laissez-faire. Unlike Europeans, whose lives have long been circumscribed by meddling governments and diktats from Brussels, Americans are supposed to be free to choose, for better or for worse. Yet for some time America has been straying from this ideal.

Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010. Its aim was noble: to prevent another financial crisis. Its strategy was sensible, too: improve transparency, stop banks from taking excessive risks, prevent abusive financial practices and end “too big to fail” by authorising regulators to seize any big, tottering financial firm and wind it down. This newspaper supported these goals at the time, and we still do. But Dodd-Frank is far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.

Hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York (see article). Those who have struggle to make sense of it, not least because so much detail has yet to be filled in: of the 400 rules it mandates, only 93 have been finalised. So financial firms in America must prepare to comply with a law that is partly unintelligible and partly unknowable.

Dodd-Frank is part of a wider trend. Governments of both parties keep adding stacks of rules, few of which are ever rescinded. Republicans write rules to thwart terrorists, which make flying in America an ordeal and prompt legions of brainy migrants to move to Canada instead. Democrats write rules to expand the welfare state. Barack Obama’s health-care reform of 2010 had many virtues, especially its attempt to make health insurance universal. But it does little to reduce the system’s staggering and increasing complexity. Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis.

Two forces make American laws too complex. One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (eg, a proposed code for nurseries in Colorado that specifies how many crayons each box must contain) to the delusional (eg, the conceit of Dodd-Frank that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick financiers will dream up in the future). Far from preventing abuses, complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity.

The other force that makes American laws complex is lobbying. The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy. Congress’s last, failed attempt to regulate greenhouse gases was even worse.

Complexity costs money. Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private. America’s share of initial public offerings fell from 67% in 2002 (when Sarbox passed) to 16% last year, despite some benign tweaks to the law. A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee. It’s a wonder the jobless rate isn’t even higher than it is.

A plea for simplicity

Democrats pay lip service to the need to slim the rulebook—Mr Obama’s regulations tsar is supposed to ensure that new rules are cost-effective. But the administration has a bias towards overstating benefits and underestimating costs. Republicans bluster that they will repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank and abolish whole government agencies, but give only a sketchy idea of what should replace them. [Anything?]

America needs a smarter approach to regulation. First, all important rules should be subjected to cost-benefit analysis by an independent watchdog. The results should be made public before the rule is enacted. All big regulations should also come with sunset clauses, so that they expire after, say, ten years unless Congress explicitly re-authorises them.

More important, rules need to be much simpler. When regulators try to write an all-purpose instruction manual, the truly important dos and don’ts are lost in an ocean of verbiage. Far better to lay down broad goals and prescribe only what is strictly necessary to achieve them. Legislators should pass simple rules, and leave regulators to enforce them.

Would this hand too much power to unelected bureaucrats? Not if they are made more accountable. Unreasonable judgments should be subject to swift appeal. Regulators who make bad decisions should be easily sackable. None of this will resolve the inevitable difficulties of regulating a complex modern society. But it would mitigate a real danger: that regulation may crush the life out of America’s economy.




Another crooked Kennedy?: "The Kennedy family's return to power rests on the shoulders of a 31-year-old lawyer and former Peace Corps volunteer who has never campaigned for public office. Joseph Kennedy III announced Thursday that he is running for Congress, in the Massachusetts district currently represented by retiring Democratic Rep. Barney Frank. In doing so, the grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy is vying to carry the family mantle back to Washington after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2009 left a void."

Social Security default: "For the Congressional Budget Office to predict disaster for Social Security in the year 2020 is a startling admission. These people are paid to believe that the trust fund exists, so if they are predicting that the trust fund will be depleted that soon the situation must be pretty dire indeed."

There is a new lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc. He notes a British confirmation of Putnam's well-known American finding -- that people are happiest when living in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods


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Malcolm Smith said...

An interesting article on John 8:58, but it raises two questions. First, doesn't this really belong in the Scripture Blog rather than the Dissecting Leftism blog?
Secondly, Jon, where did you learn your Greek? My Greek textbook is quite clear that eimi is the first person singular indicative present tense, while the aorist infinitive is einai. So the only possible translation is "I am". I might add that the preceding phrase is Prin Abraam genesthai: "before Abraham became". In this case, the verb is in the infinitive, but that is the normal formation after a preposition.

JR said...

Glad to get an informed response

Westcott & Hort certainly give "eimi" there so my memory has deceived me about the aorist

The broader point hold, however: "ego eimi" is translated in various ways throughout the NT

JR said...

I will revise the post

Malcolm Smith said...

I think you are right in referring to John 14:9. In English we would say, "I have been with you such a long time", but in Greek they say, "I am with you etc" because the "action" is ongoing and unbroken. In a number of other language, they say, "I am living here since 2000" for the same reason. Likewise, Matt. 28:20, the present tense is used where we would say, "I will be with you", because His presence is intended to be ungoing and unbroken.
I suspect that the same thing is implied by the present tense in John 8:58. But I am not so familiar with the subtleties of Greek to say for certain.

JR said...

I have done a full update now