‘Being still’, according to Bhagavan, requires no thinking and no assertions. On the contrary, it requires a complete absence of both. This attitude was primarily a criticism of the ancient tradition of repeating or thinking ‘I am Brahman‘ as a means of attaining liberation. In the following quotation Bhagavan explains how the real meaning of ‘I am Brahman‘ has been ignored or missed by commentators and practitioners:
It simply means that Brahman exists as ‘I’ and not ‘I am Brahman‘. It is not to be supposed that a man is advised to contemplate ‘I am Brahman, I am Brahman‘. Does a man keep on thinking ‘I am a man, I am a man’? He is that, and except when a doubt arises as to whether he is an animal or a tree, there is no need for him to assert ‘I am a man’. Similarly, the Self is Self. Brahman exists as ‘I am’ in everything and every being. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 22nd November 1945)
At the beginning of this article I explained the ancient Jewish attitude to names, noting how many biblical names revealed something about the person or being who possessed the name. God’s name, ‘I am’, revealed His essential nature; Abraham’s his destiny; Jacob’s his chief character trait, and so on. At the dawn of the Christian era the belief that names gave an insight into a person’s character and destiny was still widely prevalent, so when an angel appeared to Joseph at the beginning of the New Testament, announcing that his wife would bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the name given by the angel assumed great significance:
… an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins’. (Matthew 1:20-21)
The name Jesus is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name leschouah, which is itself a contraction of lehoschouah. The longer version is not euphonious to Jewish ears, so the shorter version is generally used. The etymology of the longer name produces the meaning, ‘Yahweh is salvation’, or ‘Yahweh helps’. The former meaning has always been more popular, and it is alluded to in the passage I have just cited: ‘for he will save the people from their sins.’
Yahweh, it will be remembered, is ‘He who is’, the name used by the Jews to denote ‘I am’, the original divine name revealed by God to Moses in Exodus. Since Yahweh is merely a euphemism for ‘I am’, one can say that Jesus’ name also means ”’I am” is salvation’, or, more generally, ‘The Name of God is salvation’. Both ideas were to be major themes in early Christian teachings.
The idea that the Name of God, by itself, could produce salvation, without even being chanted or remembered by the devotee, was a peculiarly Jewish one. Psalm 54:1, for example, begins with the plea, ‘Save me, O God, by your name’. For the Jews of the biblical period the Name of God is God, not a mere designation or title. For them, the statements, ‘The Name of God is salvation’, ‘God is salvation’, and ”’I am” is salvation’ are all saying the same thing.
When Jesus began his teaching career, He consciously identified Himself with the Yahweh of the Old Testament by calling Himself, on several occasions, ‘I am’, a name and a title that all Jews knew only God could use.
In one of the most famous New Testament stories Jesus walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee in order to meet some of His disciples who were fishing there from a boat. Seeing that the disciples were alarmed by His action, Jesus called out to them, ‘I am; do not be afraid’. (Matthew 14:27, Mark 6:50 and John 6:20) In most Bible translations the sentence is rendered, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’, but this is not what the original Greek says. The Greek for ‘I am’ is ego eimi, and these are the only two words that appear before the semicolon. The claim to Godhood was not lost on the disciples. The miraculous feat of walking on the water combined with Jesus’ bold assertion ‘I am’ caused the disciples to exclaim, ‘Truly, you are the son of God’ (Matthew 14:33). The same sentence, ‘Ego eimi; do not be afraid,’ also appears in some manuscripts of Luke 24:36. On that occasion Jesus was appearing to His disciples after His resurrection. Again, most translators have rendered it as ‘It is I’ rather than ‘I am’, but the post-resurrectional context makes it more likely that He is declaring his Godhood (‘I am’) rather than His mere physical presence (‘It is I’).
There is another verse, found in both Luke’s and Mark’s Gospels, in which Jesus uses the words ‘ego eimi‘ in a most interesting way. After predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the centre of Jewish worship, Jesus warned John and Andrew of terrible events to come. During the course of His warning he said, ‘Many will come in my name, saying ”I am”, and shall deceive many’. (Mark 13:6, Luke 21:8) To proclaim oneself as ‘I am’ is to announce one’s divinity, and such a claim would be taken by the Jews to be blasphemy. Evidence of how strictly this injunction was upheld can be found in Mark 14:62-3. In these verses, which give an account of His trial, Jesus was asked by the Jewish High Priest, ‘Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed?’ and He replied, ‘I am’. This simple statement ‘I am’ was not taken as a mere affirmative answer, but as a claim to Godhood because the priest angrily exclaimed to the others present, ‘You have heard this blasphemy’. The priest’s associates agreed with him that it was blasphemy, for after this reply they condemned Jesus to be executed (14:64). So, going back to Jesus’ warning to John and Andrew, when He said that many people would come ‘in my name, saying ”I am”,’ He was saying that impostors would appear, claiming to be God Himself, and furthermore claiming that Jesus had sent them. The juxtaposition of ‘I am’ and ‘my name’ is particularly interesting, for in the context it is possible to say that Jesus Himself is laying claim to the original divine Name.
The verses I have quoted so far have all come from the synoptic Gospels, the first three books of the New Testament. The fourth Gospel, John’s, has a different approach to Jesus’ life and teaching and gives a far more prominent place to His affirmations of ‘I am’. To understand just how different John’s Gospel is, one only needs to make a brief list of what it contains, and what it doesn’t, and then compare these items with the contents of the other Gospels. Unlike the other Gospels, there is no account of the birth of Jesus or of His baptism and temptations; there is no account of the last supper or His ascension; no healing of people possessed by devils and spirits, a major theme in the synoptic Gospels; there are no parables whatsoever; and finally, Jesus’ speeches in John are long dignified pronouncements, often a whole chapter long, rather than the short pithy sayings that typify the synoptic accounts.
John’s Gospel was written decades after the other three had been composed, and innumerable theories have been propounded to explain why its approach and style are so different from the other Gospels. An early judgement, which has stood the test of time, was put forward by Saint Clement of Alexandria, who, writing around AD 230, claimed that ‘John, perceiving that what had reference to the bodily things of Jesus’ ministry had been sufficiently related, and encouraged by friends, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote a spiritual Gospel’. That is to say, John was more interested in proclaiming what Jesus was then what He did. He wanted to explain the significance and meaning of Jesus’ appearance on earth, rather than merely chronicling the physical events of His life. It is in this context that the ‘I am’ statements in John acquire added significance.
What are these statements and how are they phrased? Biblical scholars have distinguished two major categories:
(1) simple assertions that He is ‘I am’, that is to say, God manifesting through a human body.
(2) more complex assertions in which He described the nature and function of the ‘I am’ in a series of common, everyday metaphors. I will list and discuss the quotations that fit into the former category first.
1 The woman at the well
Jesus asked for a drink from a Samarian woman who was pulling water from a well. During the course of a long philosophical conversation the woman, who had already become convinced of Jesus’ greatness, asked Him whether she should worship God on the mountain where her ancestors had worshipped, or whether she should go to the Temple at Jerusalem, the place all Jews went to perform ritual acts of worship.
4.21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
4.23 ‘But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
4.24 ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’
4.25 The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes he will show us all things’.
4.26 Jesus said to her, ‘[I] who speak to you, I am’.
Here we have a simple but bold declaration by Jesus that He is both God Himself as ‘I am’ and the Messiah who has been sent to save the world.
The exact formulation of this ‘I am’ statement owes as much to the book of Isaiah as to Exodus, for in Isaiah God repeatedly identifies Himself as ‘I’ and one occasion (52:6) speaks a phrase that is very similar to the one Jesus used. In 52:5 God takes note of the fact that His name is despised by the Assyrians, who were then oppressing the Jews, before going on to say: ‘Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know it is I who speak; here am I.’ (RSV)
Since the word ‘am’ does not appear in the original Hebrew, the last portion could be more accurately rendered as ‘… it is ”I” who speak; behold, ”I”.’ This is almost identical in sense and implication to Jesus’ later words, cited above: ‘I who speak to you, I am.’ It should also be noted that ‘behold ”I”’ is associated with an earlier part of the sentence in which God says that ‘my people shall know my name’.
The Jews of the biblical period had long been waiting for the Messiah to come. By using the name ‘I am’ and by using other phrases by which God identified Himself in the Old Testament, Jesus was conveying to His audience, many of whom would have been familiar with these Old Testament texts, that He was their ancestral God, ‘I am’, functioning through a human body. The Jews were accustomed to having God identify Himself as ‘I’, for Isaiah is liberally sprinkled with such statements. In 43:11 He says, ‘I. I, Yahweh [He who is]; beside me there is no saviour’. In this and the succeeding two verses there are twenty-nine words in the original Hebrew. Twelve of them are first-person words such as ‘I’ or ‘my’, and the first-person pronoun repeats itself five times.
Most of the Isaiah ‘I’ phrases are in the form of ‘I am He’ rather than simply ‘I’ or ‘I am’. (See 43:13, 25; 46:4; 51:12) And since ‘am’ is not present in the original Hebrew, God is actually saying ‘I-He’ rather than ‘I am He’. This is probably a contraction of ‘I, I, Yahweh’, a variant that appears in 43:11. Most of these ‘I-He’ verses indicate either God’s transcendence or His omnipotence:
43:10 I-He: before me there was no God.
43:11 I, I, Yahweh; beside me there is no saviour
43:13 Yea, before the day was, I-He.
This verse echoes the most famous of all John’s ‘I am’ quotes. In 8:58, where he has Jesus say ‘Before Abraham was, I am,’ he is merely confirming what Yahweh had said in Isaiah 43:13: that before time and the world began, ‘I’, the ‘I’ that is God, existed, untrammelled by creation, as He who is.
2 The address to the Pharisees in the temple
In chapter eight Jesus got into a long dispute with the Pharisees in the Jerusalem Temple. He responded to their various complaints and questions from a lofty ‘I am not of this world’ position, while twice declaring (vv. 24 and 28) that ‘I am’ provided a route to salvation:
8:19 They said to him therefore, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me you would know my Father also’.
8.21 ‘I am going away and you will seek me and die in your sins; where I am going you cannot come.’
8.22 ‘Will he kill himself since he says ”Where I am going you cannot come”?’
8.23 He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world’.
8.24 ‘I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am.’
8.25 They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Even what I have told you from the beginning’.
8.28 So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know that I am, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak thus as the Father taught me’.
In this fascinating passage Jesus is not merely saying that He is the ‘I am’. He is saying that belief in Him, that ‘I am’, is essential for those who do not want to die in a state of sin. Note also that in verse twenty-eight He states that it is quite possible to ‘know’ this ‘I am’, and that when one knows ‘I am’ one will also understand Jesus’ state and His statement that, of His own accord, He could do nothing.