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:
In some of my exploration of this, I’ve found that there are two kinds of “I am” statements in the Gospel of Jn. I think the group to which you refer may be better tied to some of the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah than to the Mosaic “God” in Exodus. Would that make a difference in how you would interpret them in Jn.?
It appears to me that, from context, literary personification would be obviously expected in the sayings you quote from the Bhagavad Gita; whereas, the narrative structure of Jn. as a biographical story of a historical person would not suggest that sort of interpretation, although the concepts being communicated might otherwise be similar or even identical in some cases.
Bob Jarvis–4/1/13, No fooling–08:50 CDT
I don’t know what sources you looked at, but the “I Am” sayings are literally what is said at the burning bush. The first theologian I ran across who realized this was Bultmann, but what I’m saying is a simple fact of the languages. ‘Ego eimi’ was how the Hebrew “YHVH” was translated in the Septuagint. Of course, no conservative commentary will agree with my interpretation because they look at biblical narratives as historical and concrete. Someone can disagree with my interpretation but in my opinion it is nonsense to say there is no link to God’s name in Exodus- they are literally the same words.
The structure of John is narrative, but his prologue suggests to me that he is speaking at a much deeper level. The spiritual sayings of Christ seem to be in tension with the people in the story that would take them literally. Again, no conservative scholar will agree with what I have to say.
I am not suggesting that John was aware of specific Hindu texts, but there were Hindus in Alexandria, Egypt so there is a real possibility if not likelyhood of that kind of influence. The same kind of poetry was discovered in the Nag Hammadi texts of Egypt as well, so it can be found on both sides of Israel. Unless they had helicopters, the tradition likely past through Israel. Many Biblical scholars do not study earlier traditions because they believe the Bible to have been dictated by God to the biblical authors. That doesn’t make any sense to me, as some of the stories of scripture can be found in earlier cultures. And when you take a saying like “Before Abraham was, I am,” or “What you do to the least of these you do to me,” literalism doesn’t make any sense. If Jesus is speaking as the eternal Logos mentioned in the preface, then it makes all kinds of sense.
Be careful Jim! That kind of truth telling will get you crucified in some (many) circles.
This is what is so hard about exegesis and preaching. There are gaps between culture and language that cannot be bridged without a lot of work on both shores.
But back to the initial question: Is there a “way” apart from Jesus’ way. I think not! But there are other ways than Paul. Just as YHWH and ego eimi are verbs, so is pisteo (the verbal form of faith). I think that Jesus points to and demonstrates the way. That way is to become fully human, and not try to be little gods (which seems the goal of most Westerners– to control all situations and people around them).
Thanks Rev. Lee. Insightful as always.