Conservative Christians often point to the book of John as proof that Jesus claimed to be the only way to salvation. I believe it is a terrible mistake to read the “I am” sayings in John as referring only to Jesus himself. The “I am” sayings are expressed in a form of Greek that makes that literal reading impossible. When English readers sees “I am” in John, what they cannot see is that John is using the Greek form of the divine name that was spoken at the burning bush. As written, it would be improper Greek if read literally.
The divine name in Hebrew was a very strange version of the verb “to be.” The word is variously translated “I am,” “I cause to be,” “I am what I am” and other such phrases. Actually, one cannot tell the subject or tense of the verb, which is why it cannot really be spoken. When Hebrew scriptures were tranlated into Greek a very peculuar form of Greek was used to tranlate the symbol of God’s name. It is that Greek that John uses in his “I am” sayings.
What should not be lost in translation, is that God in that symbolic speech is a verb not a noun. The symbol thus understood has a depth that would easily allow for a universal understanding that did not set it at odds with other paths. Such understanding could swallow all religious forms as the ocean swallows every river. It would not be unique because it was different or better than other religions forms, but because it included and illumined them all.
The same poetic form of the “I Am” sayings is found in other religions as well as Christian. In the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, Krishna speaks in words that strike me as similar to John’s picture of Christ. In both cases the subject speaks not as the leader of an individual sect, but as the heart of life itself:
“Those who know Me as the unborn, as the beginningless, as the Supreme Head of all the worlds — they only, undeluded among human beings, are freed from all sins.
I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.
The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.
To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
I am the One Soul, seated in the hearts of all living entities. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.
I am the generating seed of all existences. There is no being — moving or nonmoving — that can exist without Me.
There is no end to My divine manifestations. What I have spoken to you is but a mere indication of My infinite opulences. Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor. But what need is there for all this detailed knowledge? With a single fragment of Myself I pervade and support this entire universe.
Religion would not divide humankind if it came from this depth. As Emerson said, truth is not the possession of any one religion, but a certain depth in them all. One might say that the “One Way” Jesus called us to was not the Christian sect, but the path of universal love.
Gita quotes from this link: