Fact: when Jesus spoke to the crowds of people that gathered to listen to him, he the spoke in an ancient Semetic language called Aramaic. Another fact: the English language version of Jesus’ teachings that we have access to today were not translated from Aramaic, but instead translated from Greek after first being filtered through Greek philosophy and greek language.
Consequently, much of the modern English canonical gospels are a representation – and sometimes a downright manipulation – of the teachings of Jesus that best supported the Greek culture and worldview at the time.
That’s a hard one to swallow if you have been living your life according to every single Greek-to-English word of your NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, or even AMP version of the Bible. Nevertheless, it’s important – and I think that every serious Christian, and every serious spiritual seeker should be well-informed about this.
Because here’s the thing: if you attempt to throw that translation process into reverse, and get as close as you can to the original meaning of the original words that Jesus spoke, you wind up getting confronted with some pretty significant challenges to the fundamental ideology of a lot of modern, western Christian thinking.
“In Aramaic, the word that is later translated as ‘I am’ is really ‘I-I.’ Aramaic doesn’t have a ‘being’ verb. You can’t actually say ‘I am’ in ancient Aramaic, nor can you do it in ancient Hebrew, as far as that goes. So really what Jesus is saying is, ‘I-I.’ [In other words:] The connection of the small self, which in Aramaic is called ‘nafsha’, is the self that is growing, evolving, learning through life. And the connection between that and the greater self, or what would be called the ‘only I’, ‘the only being’, ‘Alaha’, or ‘the One’, or ‘God’.”
– Neil Douglas Klotz, from his interview on Insights At The Edge via Sounds True.
I cannot tell you how many times some well-intentioned Christian person has reminded me that Jesus once said “I am the way, the truth, and the light”, as a way to justify their idea that belief in the person of Jesus is the only legitimate path to heaven.
It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to spoil anyone’s worldview in a painful way, but is of great significance to me that the word(s) “I am” would not have been linguistically available to Jesus in the language in which he was teaching at the time. Furthermore, if what he actually said was something closer to the Aramaic word for “I-I”, this piece of Jesus’ message – and it’s theological implication – becomes quite transformed.
Curiously, in many other religious, psychological, and philosophical disciplines the idea of a relationship between a “small self” and a “greater Self” – as indicated by this Aramaic word “I-I” – is a common theme. This is more common in far Eastern spiritualities, where concepts of “Buddha nature“, “Atman and Brahman“, and “Tao” invite it’s practitioners to seek spiritual enlightenment by liberating oneself from a “small-self only” orientation towards oneself and the world, and uncover a connection to the [choose your favorite word for the divine, i.e. God, Source, the One, Only-I, etc.] within.
Western psychology also has a way of conceptualizing this phenomena. The notion of the “small self” would probably be best described as “ego”. Ego, in psychological terms, is understood as the part of ourselves we experience as limited by time and space, and contained within a physical form. Ego, or small self, is something I’m confident we can all identify with; it’s the part of ourselves that worries about whether people like us, if we will be able to pay the rent, whether we will be happy, or what might make us happier.
Additionally, there are transpersonal psychological theories that discuss the idea of a “greater Self”, and often point to this concept as a fundamental part of psycho-spiritual health. In Jungian psychology for example, there is this notion that self-realization is available only through the development of an ego-Self (as in, greater Self) axis, or the ability to get your ego and the divine part of your consciousness talking to each other on the regular.
So, here’s what the phrase “I-I” means to me: “The way, the truth, and the light” is accessible to everyone. There is no dogma that can dictate this path, and there is no governing body to decide how it must be done. There is just you-YOU. You, the vulnerable human being subject to all the vicissitudes of your daily experiences. And YOU, the you that’s got a direct line to God.
Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Look, if you can get these two aspects of yourself – the human and the divine – communing with one another”, well … that is the way, that is the truth, and that is the light of human existence.