The Native Language of the Cross

Compared to the biblical writers our understanding of time and history may tend to be stilted. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), with the “I” here referring to the present tense Jesus as now communing with the past. This is no minor point, as Jesus is staking all of his claims on this peculiar construct, and his audience is going to try to kill him because of the claim integral to this same construct. The ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) is a clear reference to deity and the name of God (YHWH) given in Exodus, but even in our acceptance of the deity of Christ we may miss the implications of that deity. In our tendency to help Jesus make better sense we might have him say, “I was before Abraham.” Maybe he is not a native speaker of Greek and he certainly does not speak English, so maybe he doesn’t understand you cannot have a present continuous before a completed past tense (a problem in any language). The context tells us, this is not a language problem in that sense, but in another sense the whole conversation pertains to language and one’s native language. Jesus says he is the truth and speaks the truth and his interlocutors speak lies and their native language is lying, as they speak the language of the father of lies (John 8:44).

In linguistic terms, there are two deep grammars at play. One deep grammar is grounded in violence and death and the other is grounded in truth and life (8:51). In familial terms, there are two streams of meaning or two heads or fathers of language (8:38). In this short conversation the limits of one language (sequence, consequence, before and after) are challenged by Jesus’ consciousness; his supra-temporality and supra-spatiality, in which the one who is incarnate and embodied now precedes one who was born and who died in the ancient past. Jesus’ claim to divinity simultaneously disturbs all norms of sequence, cause and effect, and rationality.

Jesus is claiming to be the ground of truth, and truth of a peculiar kind, and those who are confronting him cannot hear him because they speak the wrong language, the language of lies. In other words, this is a language problem in the sense that the deep grammar (the letter that kills, the lie of sin) grounding this particular group of Jews is more than their problem but is universal.[1] The entire conversation revolves around the power of language. Those who “continue in” or do the word of Jesus “will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). But Jesus perceives that his new found friends have decided they would like to kill him: “you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you” (8:37). According to Jesus, their native language gives rise to the violence they would do to him, and if they spoke the same language or comprehended what he was saying, their murderous attitude would be cured. Unfortunately, they have been weaned on the native language of their father: “therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (8:38). I presume this does not pertain to Greek or Hebrew or English so much as to the grounding and reference point of language. Orientation to language, to law, to death, to Logos, is determinative of sin and salvation. Language is mimetically acquired – we imitate the language of our family, our father, our people, and taken as a final and full word the language can prove deadly or life-giving.

So, what if we take this conversation at face value, and resist the tendency to chalk it up to hyperbole, or a particular problem with this group of Jews? Isn’t the consistent focus of Scripture precisely concerned with language and the ground of language, whether the ground is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Babel, or the law, or the letter of the law? John contextualizes all of sin and salvation in the Logos of God or the logos of the devil. The Jewish attachment to Abraham, the law, the tradition, is not simply Jewish but seems to be a type of the human problem. My father, my family, my tradition, my tribe and nation, my understanding, provide a fulness of access to God. Here lies my univocity of being, my ontological argument, my house of language, my wisdom and power, my access to the universals (to the forms), my analogy of being. Isn’t it precisely this form of the analogia entis, this ground of being, that is the anti-Christ?

I presume we should resist reading ourselves out of the story, as there seem to be only two universal possibilities and either one comprehends the word of life and the time and tense of this “I am before Abraham” or one is uncomprehending of this reading of history, this understanding of God, or this use of language, and the key difference pertains to life and death. Which is to say, comprehension of the centrality of the Logos is the shibboleth that divides good and evil, life and death, God and the devil.

The particular contours of the time and tense of this language, this “I am” before all else, seems to be a key part of the discussion. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors inhabit a sequential reason, with time unfolding from birth to the grave.  It is not just Jesus’ “I am” statement that gets them riled, but the notion that the Jesus presently before them can have had any impact or discourse with Abraham in the past: “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” (John 8:53). In the Jewish scheme of things this leap through history is demonically inspired: “The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death’” (John 8:52).

Jesus’ counterpoint is that their incomprehension on this point is an indicator of the limits of their native language. Their notion is grounded in the grave, the lie of their father (seemingly a reference to the original lie of the serpent). Death reigns over life and the natural sequence of aging and dying is the controlling factor in their understanding: “So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’” (John 8:57). Thus comes the explanation which they cannot bear: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Their reaction betrays the limits of their language: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Their death dealing logic is bound by the sequence and limitations of the grave, and at the same time their ultimate argument would be to kill Jesus and reduce him to the limits of their understanding.

It should be noted that these particular Jews begin as those who believe Jesus (John 8:31) and yet the conversation ends with death dealing rejection. We may imagine we stand on the side of belief in this discussion, but it seems important to Jesus, important enough to drive off halfhearted believers, to spell out the full implication of his claim to deity. Part of this is that he is not bound by time, history, death, or normal spatial bonds – and this is all part of his place as the ground of truth over and against the language of the liars.

He has previously tied the ἐγώ εἰμι to his power over nature: walking on the water and calming the storm (as if we now see YHWH trampling down the waves (Job 9:8 and Ps 89:10) and offering the comfort of his being presence in the storm (Gen 26:24; 46:3; Jer 1:8; 1:17; 26:28). In this same passage in John 8 he ties the “I am” to the light (8:12) simultaneously connecting it to the Logos of the Prologue called the light of men (John 1:4-9).[2] The light of the world, the Logos grounding one form of language against all other forms of language, entails a bending of time, space, history, and cause and effect.

If we miss the time bending implications of the Logos, we may tend to flatten out all such passages describing Jesus’ work of redemption as not only preceding Abraham but preceding the work of creation. Paul, for example, in Romans 5:14 pictures the first man Adam as being preceded by and pointing toward the image of Christ. As Irenaeus explains, “For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.”[3] Redemption precedes creation, the second Adam precedes the first Adam, the saving work of Christ is the telos of Adam in this explanation. Irenaeus goes on to explain that the end is already in the beginning, maintaining “that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself.”

Much as in the “I am” statement of Christ, the one who was to come (the second Adam), exists before the first Adam. It is not that Adam fell, and then God put plan B into action to save what had gone wrong. Christ’s saving work, in Irenaeus explanation, precedes those he is saving. As Cyril of Alexandria explains, “There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[4]

The incarnate Jesus is the preexistent Christ, and even the life of Christ is ordered, not from his birth but from the cross. Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12 which pictures all of human history as the woman (the Church) bearing her child (who is Christ). He pictures the weaving of the incarnate flesh of Christ an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” [5] The Word of the Cross is creations completion the Church teaches, proclaims and bears. If we miss the history bending, time bending, wisdom bending Word of Christ we miss the manner in which we are to be part of the creating-redeeming activity of God in Christ.

[1] In this instance these are not his enemies but “those who believed him” (8:31).

[2] This is not the final ἐγώ εἰμι of John. In John 18:5–6 Jesus’ twofold saying ‘I am’, was so impressive that those who had come to arrest him drew back and fell to the ground. In John 18:8 Jesus confirms his ‘I am’ for the third time.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4.

[5] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4.