“I Am That I Am”: Understanding Exodus 3:14 in Older Bibles

By Ruth M. Davis And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the Children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say unto them? And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM—Exodus 3:13-14, KJV, 1611 A.D.

In a recent edition of Bible Editions & Versions there was an article about a Quaker Bible translator, one Anthony Purver, shoemaker and shepherd, who felt called to study Hebrew and re-translate the Old Testament in order to update and improve upon the King James Version, which was then almost 100 years old.1 Purver expressed himself mystified by the KJV rendering at Exodus 3:14, “I am that I am.” He himself translated this verse “I am he who am,” and added a note in his Bible:
It might properly be interpreted The self-existent Being. I know not what made our 2 Translators put it that I am.

But there is a good explanation for the KJV’s mysterious rendering. It lies in early modern English grammar, and in particular the obsolete use of ‘that’ as a pronoun with something called ‘ellipsis’ (discussed below). In my 1982 edition of the New King James Version, this verse was updated with the pronoun ‘who’:
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

Among modern Bibles, the NIV and the RSV agree with the New King James, and we find other collocations with ‘who’:
New English Bible ©1972: I AM; that is who I am. New Jerusalem Bible ©1985: I am he who is. New Living Translation ©1997: I AM THE ONE WHO ALWAYS IS.

By the advent of the 20th century the KJV wording, if not obsolete, could only have been in archaic use. Nevertheless, some Bibles retained it. In 1901 the American Standard Bible followed the KJV, but noted two alternate readings: “I AM BECAUSE I AM, or, I WILL BE THAT I 3 WILL BE.” (In its first alternative, the pronoun ‘that’ has become the conjunction ‘because.’ ) The 1909 Scofield Bible kept the KJV wording right through to the 1945 edition that I have. Zondervan’s Amplified Bible gives three different translations suggested by the Hebrew at Exodus 3:14:
And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM and WHAT I AM, and I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.

It appears that the Hebrew could be a reference to who the Lord is and to what He is. At least one modern translator chose the latter:
Moffat ©1952: I-will-be-what-I-will-be.

Moffat agrees here with early 16th century Bible translators William Tyndale (1530) and Myles Coverdale (1535). Tyndale’s rendering was taken into the Matthew Bible:
Matthew Bible,1549: Than, sade Moses unto God: when I come unto the chyldren of Israel and saye unto them, the God of youre fathers hath sent me unto you, and they saye unto me, what is hys name, what aunswer shall I gyve them? Than sayde God unto 4 Moses: I wylbe what I wylbe.

But what did the KJV intend with “I am that I am”? Did it mean ‘what I am,’ ‘who I am,’ or something else? Actually, all these are possible. 1

In certain obsolete usages, ‘that’ was a versatile word. As an equivalent of the modern ‘what,’ it was an abbreviation of ‘that which’ or ‘that that.’ Early writers often dropped ‘which’ or ‘that,’ but the omitted words were silently understood by the reader:
1549 Matthew Bible: I spare, lest any man should think of me above that he seeth me to be. [= that which or what he sees me to be] (2 Corinthians 12:6)]

The practice of omitting a word so that it becomes a silent partner, so to speak, is called ellipsis. This particular elliptical usage was common in older Bibles, but has disappeared from our language and is no longer understandable. Grammarian A.C. Partridge explains:
Relative (or demonstrative) ‘that’ for ‘that that’, modern ‘what’ (that which) This is an elliptical usage, and consequently it is difficult to determine whether the demonstrative or relative was omitted…Examples: Genesis XXXII, 23: ‘And he tooke them…and sent over that hee had’ (= what); Luke XII, 33: ‘Sell that yee have, and give 5 almes.’

Manfred Görlach adds:
A typical Early Modern English feature is the use of that for ‘that which’ in nominal 6 relative clauses… what did not become frequent until the seventeenth century.

With the passage of time, then, compound and elliptical usages became less popular, and ‘what’ replaced them. As a result, we were left with several ways of saying the same thing. Compare different translations of Matthew 20:14 (spelling updated):
Wycliffe 1380: Take thou that that is thine and go, for I will give to this last man as to 7 thee. Tyndale 1526: Take that which is thy duty, and go thy way. I will give unto this last as 8 much as to thee. Coverdale 1535: Take that thine is and go thy way. I will give unto this last also, like as 9 unto thee. New King James 1982: Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.

These examples illustrate how the ellipsis works, and how at Exodus 3:14 ‘that (that)’ or ‘that (which)’ with ellipsis might mean “I am what I am.”10 However another elliptical usage is also possible, one that was typically employed with reference to persons.11 Here the word or words in first position were ellipsed from ‘he that,’ ‘they that,’ or ‘the person that.’ We see this ellipsis in Tyndale’s New Testament at Mark 2:3:
1549 Matthew Bible: And there came unto him that brought one sick of the palsy, borne by four men. [=people that, or persons who]

In the KJV we see it at Proverbs 11:24:
KJV: There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth. [=he that or a person who scatters]

The Oxford English Dictionary gives Exodus 3:14 as an example of this second form of ellipsis.12 If so, “I am that I am” is an elliptical form of “I am he that I am,” or perhaps “I am the one that I am.” Of course, now we would say ‘who,’ which leads to the New King James rendering. In the final analysis, the distinction is not great, and perhaps we cannot really expect to delimit the question of the “name” of our infinite God; that is, what wondrous thing or person or being He may be. This must in part have been the point of God’s answer to Moses. Furthermore, judging by the variety of translations, the Hebrew is imprecise. It so happened 2

that the KJV could reflect this, because it drew on the English language in an age and time when words were fuller and many-facetted, pregnant with meanings and nuances of meaning; when the thoughts of men were often less precise; when expression was looser and more all-encompassing.13 The men of the King James’ revision committee chose a rendering that captured all the possibilities inherent in the Hebrew. In conclusion, it appears that at Exodus 3:14 in the KJV there is an elliptical usage of the pronoun ‘that.’ Tyndale was unusually modern when he put ‘what.’ The KJV rendering is not problematic due to any fault of its own, but to changes in our language over time.
Michael Kuykendall, “The Quaker Bible: Anthony Purver’s Glorious Failure,” Bible Editions & Versions, 14, no.4 (October-December 2013), p.15. Purver began his work in about 1706. He published a complete Bible in 1736, which came to be known as the Quaker Bible.
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Ibid, p. 18.

No doubt the Hebrew, like the English ‘that,’ could function as pronoun or conjunction. In early modern English ‘that’ was sometimes used as the conjunction ‘because.’ I am told that at least one other Bible, Spurrell’s of 1885, has the translation “I am because I am.” From Tyndale’s 1530 Pentateuch as carried into the Matthew Bible (“MB”), first published in 1537, being the first English Bible containing translations from the original Greek and Hebrew. My source is my original 1549 edition. All MB quotations are from my copy. Spelling may be silently modernized.
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A.C. Partridge, English Biblical Translation (London, England, Andre Deutsch, 1973), p. 129.

Manfred Görlach, Introduction to Early Modern English (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 125. From The English Hexapla (London, Samuel Bagster and Sons, M.DCCC.XLI; Facsimile by Lazarus Ministry Press, 1999).
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William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament (Facsimile by Hendrickson Bibles, 2008). Miles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Volume 2 (Facsimile by The Bible Reader’s Museum, 2009).
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It was not always clear which pronoun was ellipsed. Regarding the ellipsis of 2 (relative) pronouns after that, see the discussion at entry 7 of ‘That, pronoun 1’ in the online Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”). The OED shows here another ellipsis in their example “Who is that stands by the dying fire” (= that that or that who).
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Online OED, entry 3.b of ‘That, pronoun 2.’ (The online OED can only be accessed by subscribers.)

Ibid. This ellipsis seems fairly frequent in complementary use after ‘be,’ as at Exodus 3:14, which tends to support the OED classification of it. See also Proverbs 11:24 above, p.2. A much smaller vocabulary meant that one word often meant much more than it does now. This must have affected people’s world view, and also resulted in what to moderns would be considerable ambiguity. I discussed this more fully in “No Room in the Inn,” also posted on Scribd. © Ruth M. Davis, November 2013. Ruth is editor of the New Matthew Bible Project, dedicated to updating the 1549 Matthew Bible for today. Information is at www.newmatthewbible.org. Ruth is also the author of the book “True To His Ways: Purity and Safety in Christian Spiritual Practice,” a “surprising,” insightful, and biblical examination of the problems with Charismatic spiritual practices. Information about the book is at www.truetohisways.com.
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