In a recent online kerfuffle, various evangelicals have expressed diverse opinions about comments about Jesus’ “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John that were made by New Testament scholar Craig Evans in his 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman. I do not wish to become embroiled in the “he said, she said” controversy in which some individuals on opposing sides, including personal friends of mine, made critical statements about one another that I would not wish to defend. Instead, I want to address the historical question directly: Are those “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John historically reliable?
Let me first try to be as precise as I can about the question here. I am not inquiring as to whether Jesus made statements about himself that were tantamount to claims to deity. He did, as all of the evangelical participants in the recent controversy agree. My friend Ed Komoszewski and I adduced a wealth of evidence on this point from all four Gospels (as well as passages from the rest of the New Testament) in our book on the deity of Christ.
On the other hand, I am not looking to defend the claim that John has given us an exact transcript of the words of Jesus in the “I am” sayings—what biblical scholars call the ipsissima verba (“very words”) of Jesus. Since I don’t think Jesus usually spoke in Greek, I assume that at best what the Gospels give us are translations of Jesus’ statements (with the occasional exceptions where they quote Jesus in Aramaic). And translations can vary in how literally (or how woodenly) they represent the words of the original-language sentences.
The usual term used by scholars to denote the view that the Gospels give us a reliable presentation of what Jesus said but not in his exact words is ipsissima vox (“very voice”). I am comfortable with this expression as long as we don’t use it too loosely. I think this may have happened in the current controversy. For example, to acknowledge that Jesus made statements that were tantamount to claims to deity, but nothing like the “I am” sayings in John, would as best I can see be a denial that John gives us the ipsissima vox of Jesus. On the other hand, if John is paraphrasing statements that Jesus actually made, so that each statement in John corresponds as a whole to something Jesus said, then John would be giving us Jesus’ ipsissima vox.
I’m sure much more could be said about this theoretical matter, but let’s get into the specific issue.