Monogenes Theos: A Gnostic Corruption?

I am reposting New Testament textual scholar James E. Snpp Jr’s post where he shows that the reading moongenes theos (“only-begotten God”), being the read that many English versions adopt, may have been a heretical gnostic corruption that crept its way into the New Testament textual transmission.


In the preceding three posts about John 1:18, we have considered (1) the case for rendering μονογενὴς as “only begotten,” (2) some patristic evidence for rival readings in John 1:18, and (3) the probable background of Codex Sinaiticus’ exemplar for this verse. 

Today, we consider the basic question of which reading in John 1:18 was the original text: 

(a)    ὁ μονογενὴς θεός (the only begotten God) or

(b)   μονογενὴς θεός (only begotten God) or

(c)    ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός (the only begotten Son).            

None of these options seems to have been regarded as distinctly unorthodox in the early church:  “only begotten Son” was used by orthodox writers such as Hippolytus, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom; meanwhile “only begotten God” was used by orthodox writers such as Basil, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria; other writers appear to have used both readings.  However, “only begotten God” appears to have been especially favored by the non-orthodox – specifically, by Valentinian Gnostics.            

 The case that the text of John 1:18 was altered, whether by intent or by accident, in the 100s, and that Valentinian Gnostics favored the text with θεός, begins with evidence that doctrinally driven changes to the text were made by heretics in the second century.  In Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History Book 5:28, one finds excerpts from a composition known as the Little Labyrinth, composed (or at least attributed to) Caius, a presbyter in Rome, written when Zephyrinus was bishop of Rome (in 180-217).  Its author makes the following charges against the Valentinians:            

“They have boldly falsified the sacred Scriptures, and they have rejected the canons of the ancient faith, and they have ignored Christ, not inquiring what the sacred Scriptures say, but laboriously seeing to discover what form of syllogism might be contrived to establish their impiety.”  And a little further on:  “Regarding those men who abuse the arts of the unbelievers to establish their own heretical doctrine, and by the craft of the impious adulterate the simple faith of the divine Scriptures, what need is there to say that these are not near the faith?             

Because of this they have boldly laid their hands upon the divine Scriptures, alleging that they have corrected them.  And that I do not state this against them falsely, anyone who pleases may ascertain.  For if anyone should choose to collect and compare all their copies together, he would find many discrepancies among them.  The copies of Asclepiades [this was probably intended to refer to “Asclepiodotus,” an individual mentioned earlier in the composition],at any rate, will be found at variance with those of Theodotus.             

And many such copies are to be had, for their disciples were very zealous in inserting the corrections, as they call them, that is, the corruptions that each of them made. . . . .  Either they do not believe that the divine Scriptures were spoken by the Holy Spirit, and thus are unbelievers, or else they think themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and in that case what else are they than demoniacs?  For they cannot deny the commission of the crime, since they copies have been written by their own hands.  For they did not receive such Scriptures from their instructors, nor can they produce any copies from which they were transcribed.”                

Theodotus, to whom Caius refers, was a leader of the Valentinians.  Samples of his writings are found in Extracts from Theodotus.  (The person who preserved these excerpts, and commented on them, is unknown; some have suggested that it was Clement of Alexandria.)  In Parts 6-8 of the Extracts from Theodotus, we find the following (notice the use of two different forms of John 1:18, in bold print): 

“The Valentinians understand the verse, ‘In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God” like this:  they say that “the Beginning” is the “only Begotten,” and that he is also called God, as also in the verses which immediately follow, it is explained that he is God, for it says, ‘The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.’  Now they say that the Logos – in the beginning (that is to say, in the Only Begotten, in the Mind and the Truth – indicates the Christ, the Logos and the Life.  Wherefore he also appropriately called him God who is in God, the Mind.   ‘That which came into being in Him’ – the Logos – ‘was Life,’ the Companion.  Therefore the Lord also says, ‘I am the Life.’”             

Therefore the Father, being unknown, wished to be known to the Aeons, and through his own thought, as if he had known himself, he put forth the Only Begotten, the spirit of Knowledge which is in Knowledge.  So he, too, who came forth from Knowledge, that is, from the Father’s Thought, became Knowledge, that is, the Son, because ‘through the Son the Father was known.  But the Spirit of Love has been mingled with the Spirit of Knowledge, as the Father with the Son, and Thought with Truth, having proceeded from Truth as Knowledge from Thought.  And he who remained ‘Only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father’ explains Thought to the Aeons through Knowledge, just as if he also had been put forth from his bosom; but him who appeared here, the Apostle no longer calls ‘Only begotten,’ but, ‘as Only begotten,’ ‘Glory as of an Only Begotten.’  This is because, being one and the same, Jesus is the ‘Firstborn’ in creation, but in the Pleroma is ‘Only begotten.’  But he is the same being to each place such as can be contained [in it].             

The author (ceasing to quote his Gnostic source) then says in Part 8:  “But we maintain that the essential Logos is God in God, who is also said to be ‘in the bosom of the Father,’ continuous, undivided, one God.”

There are quite a few Gnostic concepts that need to be unpacked here; for some idea of what was meant by the references to “Aeons,” “Knowledge,” “Mind,” “Truth,” and “Logos,” see Robert Grant’s introductory description of Gnostic cosmology in his book Irenaeus of Lyons.  The things to see, for our present purpose, is that as the Valentinians assigned fantastical meanings to terms used in the opening chapter of John (especially John 1:1-18), they referred to “the Only Begotten” as a supernatural emanation of God.  They considered “Christ” to be another emanation, dependent on Knowledge.  Irenaeus was justified in his concern that these false teachers attempted to turn “Jesus” and “Christ” into two entities.             

(Such a concern ought to raise a red flag when we see, in À* in John 1:17, that the word “Christ” is missing.  Perhaps concern should also be felt when we see the editors of the Nestle-Aland compilation (27th ed.) avoid mentioning this in their apparatus.  Did I say that out loud?)                

Irenaeus primarily countered Gnostic teachings that were spread at Rome.  As I proposed earlier, it seems probable (as much as one can gauge probabilities from such limited evidence) that the Valentinians in Rome, such as Heracleon, used a text of John 1:18 which referred to “the Only Begotten,” followed by neither “God” nor “Son.”  But Caius attests that the Valentinians’ copies disagreed among themselves, and nothing precludes the idea that the Valentinians corrupted John 1:18 by putting their phrase “only begotten God” into John’s text.             

There is no clear evidence that Heracleon, in the West, supported such a corruption.  But what about Basilides and the Gnostics in Egypt in the second and third centuries?             

There is not much to go on – although it is clear that Clement of Alexandria was well-acquainted with Basilides’ writings known as the Exegetica, because he (Clement) quoted from the 23rd book of this 24-book presentation of Basilides’ teachings, in Stromateis, Book 4, chapter 12.  Some insight, though, may be gained by considering the contents of the sixteen-page Gnostic composition known as the Trimorphic Protennoia (or, the First Thought in Three Forms), one of the texts among the Nag Hammadi papyri – in Codex XIII.                 

In Trimorphic Protennoia (which resembles in some points another Gnostic composition, the Apocryphon of John), as the author depicts the pre-existent Word as the emanator of celestial entities called Aeons, he writes as follows:             

“Then the Perfect Son revealed himself to his Aeons, who originated through him, and he revealed them and glorified them, and gave them thrones, and stood in the glory with which he glorified himself. They blessed the Perfect Son, the Christ, the only-begotten God.  And they gave glory, saying, ‘He is!  He is!  The Son of God!  The Son of God!  It is he who is! The Aeon of Aeons, beholding the Aeons which he begot.”             

A little further along, after the names of the Aeons are listed, the author writes:   “Now those Aeons were begotten by the God who was begotten – the Christ – and these Aeons received as well as gave glory. They were the first to appear, exalted in their thought, and each Aeon gave myriads of glories within great untraceable lights, and they all together blessed the perfect Son, the God who was begotten.”            

If Hort had been aware of the existence of the Trimorphic Protennoia in 1876, he might not have claimed (as he did on p. 9 of his Dissertation), “Neither in the Valentinian nor in any other known Gnostical system could there have been any temptation to invent such a combination as μονογενὴς θεός.”

I submit that μονογενὴς θεός entered the text of John 1:18 in a manuscript used by Gnostics – a manuscript in which the text of this verse had already been altered (via a mild harmonization to 1:14) so as to contain no explicit reference to the only begotten Son, but only to the Only-Begotten.  A Valentinian scribe added θεός to reinforce Gnostic doctrine about the pre-existent Word as a celestial persona consisting of God’s first thought.             

This reading became popular in Egypt not only among Gnostics, but also among the orthodox, who gave it an altogether different significance, affirming the deity of Christ.  It may be worth mentioning that Ambrose – not Ambrose of Milan, but Ambrose the Alexandrian who financed Origen – was formerly a Valentinian before being led out of that belief-system by Origen, and Ambrose’s copies of the Gospel of John may have been among the first to have this reading; if so, they were well-situated to have their contents be recopied in Egypt and later in Caesarea, alongside Origen’s copy of Heracleon’s commentary on John.  

In the hands of orthodox fourth-century writers such as Gregory of Nyssa and the well-traveled Basil of Caesarea (not the same Caesarea where Eusebius was bishop in the early 300s, but the Caesarea in what is now central Turkey), ὁ μονογενὴς θεός was not considered intrinsically supportive of Gnosticism.  The translators of the Peshitta must have viewed it as an orthodox statement.  Similarly in modern times, the term is often considered a useful affirmation of the deity of Christ, as if although Westcott and Hort’s revision of the New Testament effectively removed Romans 9:5, and Acts 20:28, and Ephesians 3:9, and Colossians 2:2, and First Timothy 3:16 from the Trinitarian arsenal, compensation was given via the deposit of John 1:18 therein.       

This scenario – in which ὁ μονογενὴς θεός originated in Valentinian manuscripts, in Egypt (or perhaps first in Rome, and then Egypt) – fits the evidence rather snugly.  In addition, despite the use of the phrase by Basil, Eusebius, and the Peshitta, resistance to this reading – expressed by its non-inclusion in the Byzantine Text – may be succinctly accounted for by scribes’ awareness of its association with Egyptian Gnosticism; also notable is Athanasius’ persistent use of ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός.  Although an adept theologian such as Basil could use John 1:18b with θεός in the cause of orthodoxy, forms of John 1:18b with θεός are practically unheard of in Latin antiquity; the Alexandrian reading is not shared by the Western Text, nor the Caesarean Text, nor the Byzantine Text, whether we consult the earliest or youngest Greek representatives. 

There is one piece of the puzzle, however, which does not seem to fit this theory:  Irenaeus’ use of ὁ μονογενὴς θεός in Against Heresies Book 4:11.  It is hard to account for this, especially since Irenaeus quoted John 1:18 with “only begotten Son” at the end of Against Heresies 4:6, introducing the verse with “as is written in the Gospel.”  While I do not want to multiply speculations, I would rather say something instead of nothing when facing this puzzle, so:

I suspect that Irenaeus had encountered a corrupted form of John 1:18 in Valentinian writings, and, while focused on anecdotes in the books of Daniel and Revelation (which he proceeded to investigate), added this quotation somewhat casually and parenthetically, introducing it not with “As it is written in the Gospel of John,” but with the phrase, “of whom also the Lord said.”  Irenaeus quoted from memory at this point, and his memory was influenced by the Valentinian compositions which he had been studying – not unlike the way in which a Christian apologist, after spending days reading the Watchtower Society’s New World Translation, might absentmindedly make a parenthetical quote from it, rather than from his own Bible.  Of course it is impossible to prove this, but the theory wraps up this loose end.       

Just two more things:

(1)  It is sometimes proposed (by Allen Wikgren, for instance, in a brief note added in Metzger’s Textual Commentary) that one reading or the other originated as a transcriptional error; Wilkgren proposed that the reading with θεός originated in the Alexandrian Text when a scribe, using nomina sacra contractions, wrote ΘΣ instead of ΥΣ, a difference of a single letter. By itself, this theory does not seem likely, inasmuch as the letters Θ (theta) and Υ (upsilon) do not resemble one another.  But if one introduces a scenario – one I have proposed previously – in which one scribe wrote the main text, leaving overlines with blank space below them, and a proof-reader added the nomina sacra contractions as he proof-read – well, the chance that the proof-reader could write the wrong nomina sacra is higher than the chance that any copyist could mistake  Θ for Υ or Υ for Θ.  (There are many textual contests between competing nomina sacra, or between the presence and absence of a nomen sacrum; I doubt that there are more than a few variant-units anywhere that constitute a contest between Θ and Υ.)  In which case, ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός wins the contest as the reading favored by much more diverse support from early patristic and versional witnesses, besides the enormous manuscript-evidence in its favor; as Ezra Abbot stated in his detailed essay on this subject, the witnesses for ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός “represent every important division of the Christian world.”

(2)  It is sometimes proposed that internal evidence favors “God,” on the grounds that copyists would tend to harmonize it to the more familiar phrase “only begotten Son” that appears elsewhere in the Gospel of John.  But against this theory, no such harmonization was made to 1:14, although the wording there is not found again.  Plus, a consideration of authorial style favors “only begotten Son,” a phrase which is used by John several times, while μονογενὴς θεός is non-Johannine.  Metzger depends on precisely this sort of argument quite often elsewhere; yet here it is abandoned when it weighs in against an Alexandrian reading.

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