Questions From Readers
● John 8:58, according to the King James Version, says: “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” But the New World Translation states: “Jesus said to them: ‘Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.’” Why does the New World Translation use “I have been” instead of “I am”?—R. B., United States.
The Greek verb there used, eimiʹ, is literally in the present tense, but in view of its being preceded by the aorist infinitive clause which refers to Abraham’s past, the Greek verb eimiʹ must be viewed as a historical present. Regarding the historical present Hadley and Allen’s Greek Grammar says, in section 828: HISTORICAL PRESENT.—In vivid narration, a past event is often thought of and expressed as present: . . . The present in this use is freely interchanged with the past tenses . . . ”
Says A. T. Robertson’s A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, under “The Historical Present,” pages 866-869: “This vivid idiom is popular in all languages, particularly in the vernacular. . . . it is much more frequent in Greek than in English and is a survival of ‘the original stock of our languages.’ ‘It antedates the differentiation into imperfect and aorist.’ . . . It is common enough in the LXX [Septuagint], . . . Hawkins finds the historical present in the LXX 337 times. Josephus uses it also. The New Testament examples are thus ‘dramatic.’ The historical present is not always aoristic. It may be durative like the imperfect. . . . Hawkins . . . finds 93 historic presents in Matthew (15 of them in Parables), but 162 in John and 151 in Mark. It is rare in the rest of the New Testament. It is most frequent in Mark, John, Matthew and in this order. . . .”
If you will examine the New World Translation you will find that except for the final book of The Revelation the historical present is not rendered as such in the translation, but if the context calls for it the historical present is rendered in the past. For examples of where the Greek mixes the historical present with past tenses, we refer you to John 1:29-42, also John chapter 20, as shown in the King James Version. Note also Mark 1:12, 13. Even the King James Version renders some historical Greek presents as English past tenses; for instance, Matthew 3:1.
That a historical present in the Greek in the midst of a context of the past tense is properly rendered in English as a past tense is recognized by the best of modern Bible translators. Dr. James Moffatt was on the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee, and note how he translates John 8:58 in his own version: “‘Truly, truly I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘I have existed before Abraham was born.’”
Professor E. J. Goodspeed was a member of the American Standard Bible Committee, and his translation renders John 8:58 as follows: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you, I existed before Abraham was born!’”
Note other translations:
Chas. Williams’ The New Testament: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘I most solemnly say to you, I existed before Abraham was born.’”
A. S. Lewis’ “The Four Gospels” According to the Sinaitic Palimpsest: “He said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I have been.”
The Twentieth Century New Testament: “‘Believe me,’ Jesus replied, ‘before Abraham was born I was already what I am.’”
G. M. Lamsa’s The Modern New Testament: “Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Before Abraham was born, I was.”
Jas. Murdock’s The Syriac New Testament: “Jesus said to them: Verily, verily, I say to you, That before Abraham existed, I was.”
F. Pfaefflin’s Das Neue Testament (German): “Jesus: ‘Before there was an Abraham, I was already there [war ich schon da]!’”
C. Stage’s Das Neue Testament (German): “Jesus said to them: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you: Before Abraham was born, I was [war ich].’”
Nácar Colunga’s Nuevo Testamento (Spanish): “Jesus answered: ‘In truth, in truth, I say to you: Before Abraham was born, I was [era yo].’”
F. Delitzsch’s Hebrew New Testament and that by Salkinson-Ginsburg both have the verb in the perfect form “I have been” (haiithi) instead of in the imperfect form.
From the above it is to be seen that the New World Translation is consistent with itself in rendering the historical present by rendering John 8:58 “I have been” instead of “I am.” Since Jesus was here referring to an existence from before Abraham and continuing down till he spoke, the New World Translation rendered egoʹ eimiʹ as “I have been” instead of “I was.”
When any clerical critic tries to claim inaccuracy for the New World Translation at John 8:58, then he is indicting not only it but also all these other scholars, English and foreign language, of inaccuracy. He is entitled to take and accept the version that he prefers because of bias toward a religious doctrine, in this case the trinity, but yet it should be recognized that the New World Translation has plenty of support by acknowledged, widely known translators for its rendering at John 8:58.