Jesus: Divine, but not “God”

Jesus’s famous saying, “Before Abraham came to be, I am” is only found in John (8:58), “the maverick Gospel”. Which should be something of a red flag to careful, serious readers.

In any case, Trinitarians misuse the text as “proof” that Jesus was calling himself ontological God. That is doubtful in view even within “high” Johannine christology itself, where John’s Jesus functions merely as “the finger [human being] pointing to the moon [God]”.

John’s Jesus, in John 17:3, explicitly excluded himself from the Godhead: “YOU [Father-God] are THE ONLY TRUE GOD”. Not Apollo, not Zeus. Not Jesus. Only God.

The phrase in itself is amenable to several non-divine interpretations:

1 John’s Jesus as a divine union mystic: “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”. John’s Jesus also holds the incarnate Logos within himself, as he does the Spirit in the Synoptics. He is not claiming to “be God”, but rather to be seamlessly united to God and to the Logos.

2 As so many divine union mystics have expressed their union with God, so does Jesus – as with (say) the Sufi mystic who, pointing to himself, said, “There is no one in these garments but God”, and who ended up crucified like Jesus, by people who similarly misunderstood the claim. Which is not a claim to be God, but rather to be the “empty vessel” in which God dwells.

3 Many divine union mystics claim to experience a share in God’s consciousness, and in God’s timeless awareness: the “Eternal Now”. All of these people can say “before Abraham came to be, I am”, because, like God, they experience the Eternal Now, a timeless state.

4 In John, Jesus speaks in two voices: A) the Jewish mystic relating his divine union experience, and B) the incarnate Word. Of course, the Logos is “before” Abraham, knows the secret things of God, descends from and ascends back to heaven when He/It returns to the pre-incarnational “glory that I had with the Father before the world was made”.

None of the above requires that we must think that Jesus is speaking in capital letters and usurping the divine “I AM” that belongs to Yahweh alone. He has already excluded himself from the Godhead. He scolds “the Jews” who charge him of making himself “God” by telling them that – because they are not ashamed to call Israel’s ancient judges “gods” – they ought not complain when Jesus makes the much lesser claim of merely being God’s son.

At most, Jesus’s “I am” sayings, statements of divine oneness, and of his Eternal Now experience only represent pre-existence, not Godhead or divinity itself. This is standard Jewish theology, which held the real existence of many pre-existent beings, from the angels to the heavenly Son of Man from the book of Daniel. Jesus himself, at his Sanhedrin trial, precisely claimed to be that pre-existent celestial figure, who is “divine”, but not God eternal.

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