Before Abraham was...
Now here’s an offer I can’t refuse! I assume by this that you are taking the standard line on John 8:58, that Jesus was claiming to be the God of Exodus 3:14. This assertion is based on a kind of ‘translation theology’, which isn’t borne out in the original language.
In the LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), at Exodus 3.14, Yahweh declares "ego eimi o ohn". “I am he that exists”. The addition of ‘o ohn’ is needed to reflect the fact that it is the word ‘ehyeh’ here in the original Hebrew as opposed to ‘ani hu’. In John 8:58 Jesus only says "ego eimi" (I am he). On this basis it isn’t really fair to the text to force an unambiguous reference to Exodus 3:14.
Instead anyone could say ‘I am’ or ‘I am he’ without any allusion to a claim of divinity. Current Reebok adverts quote stars saying “I am what I am”. Another more Biblical example of this is found in John 9:9 where the man born blind says ‘ego eimi’. I am he. None of these individuals are claiming to be the Exodus God.
So ‘ego eimi’ is neither God’s name nor an exclusively divine title.
(This calls into further question the widely asserted notion that the words ‘ego eimi’ were understood by Jesus’ hearers to be a claim of ‘divinity’. Instead of seizing upon this as the long awaited and much sought after grounds to accuse him, they respond by asking ‘who are you?’ (v.25). Obviously Jesus has not identified himself sufficiently by this statement for them to know what the ‘he’ referred to is.)
Reading on from v.25, the discourse moves to Abraham. "How can you claim to offer the life of the age to come?" they ask Jesus, "even Abraham himself is dead, surely you’re not claiming to be greater than him!" (v.51-53)
Next, they misunderstand Jesus’ statement in v.56 (Abraham rejoiced to see my day) by reading too much into it, because in v.57 they accuse Jesus of claiming to have seen Abraham! He never said that. Neither did he say that Abraham had seen him. Only that Abraham had rejoiced to see his day.
Abraham, having believed the gospel preached to him by God (Gal 3.8) rejoiced in hope, looking forward to the ‘day of Christ’ in the same way we do.It is in response to this misunderstanding that Jesus makes his statement "Before Abraham was, I am he". Notice however that he did not say "I was before Abraham" or "before Abraham was, I was".
The present tense ‘I am’ in reference to the past (before Abraham was) simply does not work as a stand-alone sentence.
It only makes sense if Jesus is referring back to some statement he has made previously about his present status with respect to the patriarch. I would suggest that Jesus is expanding on his statement in verse 56 by explaining how, in spite of his not being 50 years old, Abraham could still have rejoiced to see his day.
Bringing the two together what we get is: "Before Abraham was, I am he… whose day Abraham rejoiced to see".
Abraham’s greatness was based on his belief in the promise God made to him about his seed and the fact that, in so doing, he became the means through which God would bring his word to pass.
Jesus is greater than Abraham because he is the embodiment of God’s end purpose and the subject of the promise which Abraham rejoiced in. This is the staggering claim which so offended the Jews that they attempted to stone him.
Though 1st Century Judaism regularly made us of poetic personification with regards to God’s attributes, they had no expectation that God himself would become a man. A heavy burden of proof therefore lies upon anyone who would suggest that the apostles preached any such revolutionary thing.
With regards to John’s gospel, I thought you would be interested in the statement below, expressed by respected scholar Colin Brown, himself a Trinitarian.