Updated: Feb 27, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek personal pronoun egō, meaning “I”. The word appears 4 times in the gospel of the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A (Mt 5:17-37), and a further twice in the gospel of the following Sunday, the 7th in Ordinary Time (Mt 5:38-48), which continues the sequence of Jesus’s teachings on the law in Matthew chapter 5.
In New Testament Greek, pronouns do not normally appear explicitly when they are the subject of the verb – because in Greek, as in Latin (and also in Hebrew), it’s the ending of the verb that shows whether the subject is first person “I” or “we”, second person “you (singular or plural)”, or third person “he” or “she”, or “they”. The majority of occurrences of the word “I” in English translations of the Bible are where, in the original Greek or Hebrew, the pronoun is implied as part of the verb in this way. Therefore, when the Greek pronoun egō does appear as the subject of a verb, it often (though not always) implies a prominence or emphasis – rather as if in English we might say “I myself”. In this article, I will focus on the places in the Bible where egō appears explicitly, with this emphatic sense.
In the secular world of the ancient Near East, the pronoun egō frequently appeared in inscriptions or papyri which listed a deity’s attributes, in the form of a self-proclamation or self-glorification. One example is an inscription written close to the time of Christ, about the goddess Isis, at Cyme, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. It has nearly 50 “egō-statements” of what Isis was or did, for example “I am Isis, ruler of every land…I gave laws…I divided the earth from the heavens”. Rulers, including Hammurabi in Babylon, Akhnaten in Egypt and Cyrus in Persia could also issue “egō-proclamations” about their power.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God makes self-declarations about His identity and attributes, sometimes directly, and at other times through the prophets. For example, God begins the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the statement “I am the Lord your God” (Exod 20:2). “I am He” is a phrase frequently spoken by the Lord, from Deuteronomy (Deut 32:39) to the prophet Isaiah (Isa 41:4; 43:10, 25; 46:4, 51:12). In the first reading of the 6thSunday in Ordinary Time, year A, (Leviticus 19:2), God says “I, the Lord your God am holy”. The Lord’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:14, in Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh, appears in most English translations as “I am who I am” (though it is almost untranslatable, and could just as well be “I will be what I will be (or cause to be)”; the element that persists in all translations is the “I”, God’s self-identification. In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rdand 2nd centuries before Christ, all of these self-declarations, whatever words occur in the Hebrew original, use the Greek word egō, many in the form egō eimí, “I am”.
When humankind uses egō in the LXX, it is often said in conscious relation to God: the Psalmist’s use of “I” appeals to universal feelings: a cry for help, or repentance, or of praise, or hope – but always the statements speak of a relationship with God. When the prophets speak, even in their “I” statements, they make it clear that they are the Lord’s mouthpiece. God looks severely on those, such as the “ruler of Tyre” (in Ezekiel 28:2 and 9) who have the pretension to make their own “egō declarations”, since, as God points out “you are a man and not God”.
In the New Testament, the Gospels and the book of Revelation portray Jesus as making statements with an emphatic egō. There are 2 main types of “egō-statement” by Jesus:
1. First, where Jesus uses egō as the subject of a verb of action, calling attention to what He does by His own authority.
A notable example is in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, which appears in the Lectionary on the 6th and 7th Sundays in Ordinary Time year A (Mt 5:17-37 and Mt 5:38-48). Jesus uses 6 times the formula “but I say to you”, where the “I” (egō) is emphasised. Jesus urges a deeper observance of the law, by penetrating to the more fundamental reason why the law exists. Such statements, in His own person, imply that He is more authoritative even than Moses, who brought the law to Israel from God.
Jesus uses egō as the subject of other actions which He does through His own authority: “I have come that they may have life” (Jn 10:10); “I am sending… out [disciples]” (Mt 10:16); “I saw Satan fall from heaven” (Lk 10:18).
Sometimes Jesus’s egō actions are done “in the name of my Father”, inheriting the Father’s authority. This gives some of His egō sayings a solemn, almost oracular tone – such as when He says “I also have received authority from my Father” (Rev 2:28).
Even when Jesus prays to or praises God, His use of egō suggests a unique intimacy with His Father. One notable example is His prayer in Gethsemane: “Not as I will, but as You will” (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36).
2. The other type of “egō-statement” is the phrase “I am”, in Greek egō eimí – which reinforces Jesus’s unique identity, especially in John’s gospel, where it occurs 17 times.
Jesus uses it to endorse His Messianic identity when He tells the woman at the well, “I am He” [egō eimí] (Jn 4:26); He also confirms, in response to the High Priest’s question, that He is the Christ, saying: “I am” – again, egō eimí (Mk 14:62).
The phrase egō eimí is used even more widely by Jesus in John’s gospel, suggesting His Divine identity.
- There are 7 statements of the form “I am the…” followed by a noun: I am the bread of life (Jn 6:20; 6:35, 41, 48, 51); the light of the world (Jn 8:12); the gate (Jn 10:7, 9); the good shepherd (Jn 10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25); the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6); the vine (Jn 15:1, 5). Each of these declarations express Jesus’s role as the giver of life, and they are accompanied by conditional statements stressing the importance of following Jesus, or the consequences of failing to do so – for example, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
- The most dramatic of Jesus’s egō eimí statements is when He claims a Divine presence from the beginning, when He tells the Jews, with a solemn preface “Amen, amen, I say to you”, that “before Abraham was, I am (egō eimí)” (Jn 8:58). There are 3 such occurrences of egō eimí which stand alone, without any noun to follow, and they evoke the many egō eimí statements spoken by God in the LXX, that I mentioned earlier, especially Isaiah 43:25 and 51:12, and Exodus 3:14.
Even when Jesus says egō eimí in a more functional context, to confirm His presence, each of these statements follow dramatic episodes of Jesus’s power, and therefore reinforce His unique authority, adding to the sense of Someone Who is more than just a man. He reassures the disciples “egō eimí” when He walks on the water (Jn 6:20); He causes those coming to arrest Him to fall to the ground, when He confirms with an egō eimí that He is the one they have come for (Jn 18:5, 6, 8); and in a post‑resurrection encounter, He assures the Eleven that “I am He” (Lk 24:39).
When human characters use egō in the New Testament, just as with human use of egō in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is often a reminder – sometimes ironic – of the individual’s relationship to the Divine egō, in other words, to Jesus.
When Jesus says that one of the Twelve will betray Him, they – including Judas – protest their innocence with the question: “is it I?” (Mt 26:22, 25); the irony of such protestations is most tragic when Peter says with an emphatic egō, “I will never fall away” (Mt 26:33).
Other characters express their identity or authority by egō, but often in relation to Jesus authority or identity: John the Baptist needs to use egō 6 times to differentiate himself from the Christ (Jn 1:20, 23, 26, 27, 30, 31); the centurion’s egō compares his own authority to Jesus’s greater authority (Mt 8:9); even Pilate uses egō eimí forcefully, to separate himself from those who have accused Jesus, when he says “Am I a Jew?” (Jn 18:35). But the words egō eimí in Pilate’s mouth are full of dramatic irony, in the light of Jesus’s frequent use of the same phrase.
Jesus warns against those who falsely say egō eimí to claim they are the Messiah (Mt 24:5; Mk 13:6; Lk 21:8), recalling the reproaches of the Hebrew Scriptures against those make their own deceitful “egō-declarations”.
The Apostle Paul frequently speaks in the first person, not just as a result of writing letters to his communities, but also to emphasise his own apostolic status and authority. When he does this, it is often not for a self-serving purpose, but to remind his audience of the source of his authority, from Christ. The most powerful assertion of such authority is his reminder to the Galatians with an emotive egō, that “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17). Sometimes, for example in 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 7:28, he differentiates between the authority of a particular teaching as being either from himself (by the use of egō), or from the Lord.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians, he uses egō in a different way, when with biting criticism, he satirises the lack of unity of those in the community who say “I am for” Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, or Christ (1 Cor 1:12). Here the egō of the Corinthians indicates a self-centred attitude, which recalls the English word “ego”, which comes from the Greek egō.
Paul frequently uses an apparently personal-sounding egō for rhetorical effect, to convey his argument. Such an egō may be to some extent about stating the thoughts and actions of Paul of Tarsus, but also, in a manner that in some way recalls the Psalmist’s use of “I”, it has a universal significance, of Paul as Everyman – so that every reader can identify themselves with the ideas that are stated. In Romans chapter 7, Paul conveys the dilemma of every sinner, with a sequence of 8 occurrences of egō, about the negative impact of sin on the individual; this sequence culminates in the phrase “A wretched man am I!”, before Paul concludes, making his rhetorical purpose explicit, by going from the personal egō to the universal “us”, saying “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).
Perhaps the Apostle’s most moving use of egō, is when, at the end of a lengthy account of his personal defence of his conduct before the Twelve, he points beyond himself, to Christ, and says “No longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). But even given the personal tone, Paul’s hope is that not just he, but every disciple of Jesus can make the same claim.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
I think there are 2 key challenges for each of us:
First, God tells us “I, the Lord am God, there is no other” (Deut 32:39). So, do we acknowledge the Lord’s majesty, His authority, His boundless love and mercy? Or is there another to whom we owe allegiance: power, wealth, influence, security, even the demands of everyday life? Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart shall be” (Lk 12:34). But a contemporary rendering of the same idea might be: “where you spend your time and energy, that’s what really shows where your heart is”. Can we turn back to the Lord, who tells us: “I am [egō… eimí] with you always, yes, to the end of time” (Mt 28:20)?
Second, can we, like John the Baptist, diminish the “I” in ourselves, so that Christ can increase in us (Jn 3:30)? Can we grow more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18), so that like the Apostle Paul, we can say “no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20)? We must displace our own ego, so we can follow the Lord’s Divine egō.