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Excursus –

An I AM saying in the earliest Gospel

Sam Shamoun

In one of John’s I AM sayings Jesus walks on the sea in a clear display of his sovereign power over creation: 

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Caper'na-um. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, ‘I am; do not be afraid (ego eimi me phobeisthe).’ Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” John 6:16-21

Anyone who is familiar with the OT can immediately spot the connection with the OT depiction of Yahweh as the master of seas and storms:   

“who alone stretched out the heavens, and trampled the waves of the sea;” Job 9:8

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” Job 38:16

“Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. Psalm 77:13-19

What makes this particular event all the more spectacular is that this same exact episode is found in the earliest of our Gospels, specifically Mark! 

“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Beth-sa'ida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, I am; have no fear (ego eimi me phobeisthe).’ And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennes'aret, and moored to the shore.” Mark 6:45-53

We thus have an episode recorded in our earliest written Gospel that is also found in John where Jesus is presented as the Divine I AM who has supreme authority over the natural elements!

The late Raymond Brown’s comments concerning John 6:20 are relevant to the meaning and explanation of Mark 6:50:

“I would include two other texts. The first is 6:20 where the disciples in the boat are frightened because they see someone coming to them on the water, and Jesus assures them, ‘I AM; do not be afraid.’ The second is 18:5: The soldiers and police who have come to the garden across the Kidron to arrest Jesus announce that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, and he answers, ‘I AM.’ Some would tell us that the first means simply, ‘It is I, i.e. someone whom you know and not a supernatural being or ghost.’ And they would tell us that the second means simply, ‘I am he, i.e. the one you are looking for.’ A better solution is to recognize a play on the expression ‘I AM’ as having a twofold meaning: While it has a simpler story-line import (as just exemplified), it also has a higher connotation. In the first example, the sacral comes from the context that involved Jesus’ walking on the water and a dangerous storm from which they are immediately brought to land: in the second example it comes from those who, hearing Jesus’ response, fall back to the ground. Both, then, would be instances of a theophany or divine appearance of one who, like the God of Israel, is master of storms and the sea and at the mention of whose name every knee must bend.” (Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, p. 137, fn. 202; bold emphasis ours)

Moreover, the fact that the Synoptic Gospels contain similar I AM statements such as Mark 6:50 convinced Brown that John didn’t invent these sayings:

John did not invent this usage, for there are examples that verge on the absolute use of ego eimi in the Synoptics even though one can argue that a predicate is assumed. For instance, in Matt 14:27 (Mark 6:50): As Jesus comes walking across the water, he says to the disciples in the boat, ‘Ego eimi; do not be afraid.’ This is the same use we saw in John 6:20 (footnote 202). That in this scene Matthew intends more than a simple ‘It is I’ is suggested by the profession of faith elicited by the disciples (Matt 14:33), ‘Truly you are God’s Son!’ Or again, when speaking of the signs of the last days Jesus warns, ‘Many will come in my name, saying ego eimi’ (Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8). The context does not clearly suggest a predicate (even though Matt’s 24:5: ‘I am the Messiah’); and the juxtaposition of ego eimi and ‘my name’ brings us close to Johannine usage. Thus, John’s absolute use of ‘I AM,’ rather than a creation from nothing, maybe an elaboration of an early tradition that has left some traces in the Synoptic Gospels as well.” (Ibid., pp. 139- 140; bold emphasis ours)

Brown wasn’t the only liberal scholar who thought that Mark 6:50 served to unveil Jesus’ Divine identity since here is what the very liberal The New Jerome Biblical Commentary writes concerning Mark 6:45-52:

(b) WALKING ON THE WATERS (6:45-52). The approach to this story as an epiphany/theophany is most consistent with Mark's presentation. The twin focus is Jesus and the disciples: (1) The divine identity of Jesus is suggested by his walking on the waters, his passing by them, and his words, “It is I” … The OT portrays walking on water as a divine function (see Job 9:8; 38:16). The representation of Jesus as walking on water thus carries an implicit claim about his divinity. he wanted to pass by them: The implicit christological claim is strengthened by the use of the vb. parelthein, which was linked with the theophany tradition in the LXX (see Exod 33:19,22; 34:6; 1 Kgs 19:11). Its appearance in the LXX of Amos 7:8; 8:2 also suggests that Jesus desired to help his disciples in their difficulty… I am He: In the context of self-disclosure and theophany, this phrase must allude to the OT revelation formula (Exod 3:14; Deut 32:39; Isa 41:4; 43:10) applied to Yahweh, thus contributing to the implicit christological message of the text. The formula ego eimi is prominent in John… (NJBC, eds. Raymond E. Brown, SS, Joseph A Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm [Prentice Hall; Englewood Cliffs, NJ], p. 611); bold emphasis ours)

The Catholic commissioned version of the Holy Bible, the New American Bible (NAB), concurs:

[50] It is I, do not be afraid!: literally, "I am." This may reflect the divine revelatory formula of Ex 3,14; Is 41,4.10.14; 43,1-3.10.13. Mark implies the hidden identity of Jesus as Son of God. (*)

The following Biblical scholar writes:

“John 6:16-21 relates the story of how Jesus walked on the waters. The disciples take his appearance as an apparition, but Jesus calms them, saying, ‘It is I (ego eimi); do not be afraid’ (v 20). The translation ‘It is I’ is completely legitimate (cf. John 9:9); however, I am inclined to agree with those exegetes who have held the words to be more significant than this. The injunction ‘Fear not!’ is a standard assurance in the context of Old Testament theophanies (cf. Gen 15:1, et al.). Thus the description of Jesus’ walking on the waters can easily be understood as a scene of self-revelation, in the context of which Jesus says, ‘I AM (ego eimi), do not be afraid’ Both the episode and Jesus’ words are well attested in the earliest Gospel tradition (cf. Mark 6:50). Note also that Matthew’s version of the scene containing Jesus’ ‘I AM’ (Matt 14:27) concludes with the disciples’ confession of Jesus as son of God (v 33). What we see in John is a revelation in which Jesus in his majesty is viewed for a moment by his astonished disciples. The medium of this is Jesus’ deed–his miracle–and his word: the majestic ‘I AM.’ If such expressions enjoyed a particular role in the contemporary Jewish festivals, then it is important to see when this event is said to have taken place. The evangelist relates, ‘Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand’ (John 6:4).” (Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God – The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names [Fortress Press, 2005], 2. The God Who Says “I AM”:  The Riddle of the Name YHWH, The New Testament: When Jesus Says "I AM," p. 46; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Moreover, it should come as no surprise that conservative Evangelical scholarship agrees that this story found in Matthew, Mark and John serves the purpose of revealing Jesus as God. The Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary Volume 2: New Testament says in respect to Matthew 14:25-27 (being the parallel to Mark 6:45-52) that:

25-27 The Romans divided the night from sunset to sunrise into four watches (reflected here). Jesus’ approach to the boat therefore occurred between 3:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M. The disciples were terrified, thinking they were seeing an apparition or ghost. “Take courage!” and “Don't be afraid” bracket the central reason for his calming exhortations: “It is I.” Although the Greek words for “It is I” (“I am”) can have no more force than that, any Christian after the Resurrection and Ascension would also detect echoes of “I Am,” the decisive, self-disclosure of God (Ex 3:14; Isa 51:12; cf. Jn 8:58). Once again we find Jesus revealing himself in a veiled way that will prove especially rich to Christians after his resurrection (see comment on 8:20). (Kenneth L. Barker & John R. Kohlenberger III [Zondervan Publishing House; Grand Rapids, MI 1994], p. 73; bold emphasis ours)

And here is what another evangelical commentary, the Life Application Bible Commentary, writes concerning the Markan version:

"Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid." Jesus called out to the disciples over the storm, telling them to take courage. He identified himself and told them not be afraid any longer. The literal reading for "It is I" is "I am" (Greek, ego eimi); it is the same as saying "the I AM is here" or "I, Yahweh, am here" (see Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 52:6). Jesus, the "I AM," came with unexpected help and encouragement during the disciples’ time of desperate need. (Ibid., Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Wheaton, Il. 1994, p. 189; bold emphasis ours)

This next Evangelical source states:

50. For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: It is I; be not afraid -- There is something in these two little words -- given by Matthew, Mark and John (Mt 14:27; Mr 6:50; Joh 6:20) -- "It is I," which from the mouth that spake it and the circumstances in which it was uttered, passes the power of language to express. Here were they in the midst of a raging sea, their little bark the sport of the elements, and with just enough of light to descry an object on the waters which only aggravated their fears. But Jesus deems it enough to dispel all apprehension to let them know that He was there. From other lips that "I am" would have merely meant that the person speaking was such a one and not another person. That, surely, would have done little to calm the fears of men expecting every minute, it may be, to go to the bottom. But spoken by One who at that moment was "treading upon the waves of the sea," and was about to hush the raging elements with His word, what was it but the Voice which cried of old in the ears of Israel, even from the days of Moses, "I AM"; "I, EVEN I, AM HE!" Compare Joh 18:5, 6; 8:58. Now, that Word is "made flesh, and dwells among us," uttering itself from beside us in dear familiar tones -- "It is the Voice of my Beloved!" How far was this apprehended by these frightened disciples? There was one, we know, in the boat who outstripped all the rest in susceptibility to such sublime appeals. It was not the deep-toned writer of the Fourth Gospel, who, though he lived to soar beyond all the apostles, was as yet too young for prominence, and all unripe. It was Simon Barjonas. Here follows a very remarkable and instructive episode, recorded by Matthew alone: (Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible; bold, italic and underline emphasis ours)

Finally, in his book The Case for Christ Christian apologist and author Lee Strobel interviewed noted NT Evangelical scholar Dr. Craig L. Blomberg concerning the reliability of the four Gospels. In the interview Strobel asked Blomberg a question concerning the Deity of Christ:

“John makes very explicit claims of Jesus being God, which some attribute to the fact that he wrote later than the others and began embellishing things,” I said. "Can you find this theme of deity in the synoptics?”

Yes, I can,” he said. “It’s more implicit but you find it there. Think of the story of Jesus walking on the water, found in Matthew 14:22-33 and Mark 6:45-52. Most English translations hide the Greek by quoting Jesus as saying, ‘Fear not, it is I.’ Actually, the Greek literally says, ‘Fear not, I am.’ Those last two words are identical to what Jesus said in John 8:58 when he took upon himself the divine name ‘I AM,’ which is the way God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. So Jesus is revealing himself as the one who has the same divine power over nature as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.” (Strobel, The Case for Christ [Zondervan Publishing House; Grand Rapids, MI 1998], Part 1: Examining the Record, 1. The Eyewitness Evidence – Can the Biographies of Jesus be Trusted?, pp. 35-36; bold emphasis ours)

So much for the assertion that Jesus’ I AM statements are a later Christological development not reflected in our earliest Gospel traditions.

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