John 1:18 – What Does Μονογενὴς Mean?

The major English versions of the New Testament are inconsistent in their renderings of the Greek term μονογενὴς – and they are remarkably inconsistent in their rendering of the term in John 1:18b.  In the past 25 years the inconsistency has become downright silly.  The following examples –shown here without their footnotes – display the inconsistency with which this verse is treated:            

● New American Standard Bible 1977:  “the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”   

● NASB Update 1995:  “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”  

● New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 1989:  “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”   

● Good News Translation 1992 (Robert Bratcher):  “The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” 

●  Christian Standard Bible (CSB) 2017:  “The one and only Sonwho is himself God and is at the Father’s side – He has revealed Him.”

● The Message 2002:  “This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.”             

● English Standard Version (ESV) 2016:  “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”             

● New International Version (NIV) 1984 (no longer in print):  “but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”             

● New International Version (NIV) 2011:  “but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”              

● New Living Translation (NLT):  “But the unique one, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart.  He has revealed God to us.”  

● New English Translation (NET) 2005:  “The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.”               

● New American Bible (NAB Revised) 2010:  “The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”                                        

All of these recent translations and paraphrases, except for the New American Standard Bible, have something other than “only-begotten” in their English text to represent μονογενὴς. 

The NIV’s English translation of John 1:18 is particularly atrocious:  the base-text of the NIV is supposed to be the Nestle-Aland compilation, which, depending on the edition, reads either ὁ μονογενὴς θεός or μονογενὴς θεός – neither of which unfolds to mean “The one and only Son, who is himself God.”   If one were to attempt to translate the NIV’s English text of John 1:18 into Greek, one would end up with a made-up thing, a reading that does not exist in any Greek manuscript.  Similarly, the rendering in the ESV presents a puzzle to readers:  how is it that “the only God“ reveals the Father?  Do we not all acknowledge that the Father is God?            

Translators do not seem eager to use the expression, “only-begotten God.”  The main arguments against interpreting μονογενὴς as “only-begotten” were presented by Dale Moody in 1953 in the Journal of Biblical Literature, and they were collected and re-expressed by Richard N. Longenecker in The One and Only Son, an article which appeared as the eleventh chapter of the 1991 book, The Making of the NIV, edited by Kenneth L. Barker.             

However, most of the significant points offered by Moody and Barker have been tested and found wanting by researcher Michael Marlowe, whose detailed essay on the subject is online at the website.  Marlowe also provides an essay by Harmann Martin Friedrich Buchsel on the meaning of μονογενὴς.

Longenecker was repeatedly careless, and his flawed research led to a flawed conclusion.  At one point, as he discussed the use of μονογενὴς in the Septuagint, Longenecker stated that in Genesis 22:2, 6, and 12, “μονογενὴς is used of Isaac” – but the Septuagint does not read μονογενὴς in those three verses.  It is true that μονογενὴς is used to describe Isaac in Hebrews 11:17, even though Abraham had another son, Ishmael.  However, this may be accounted for by the author’s intention to draw a parallel between the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac, and the sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus.  Strict literal accuracy should not be insisted upon when an author is sketching a typological parallel and says plainly (as Hebrews 11:19 conveys) that he is speaking figuratively.           

The translators of the recently published Evangelical Heritage Version(EHV) do not seem to have been persuaded by the claims of Moody, Longenecker, and Wallace; this is how they rendered John 1:18:  “No one has even seen God.  The only-begotten Son, who is close to the Father’s side, has made him known.”                

I invite those who believe that μονογενὴς only means “one-of-a-kind” to sift through Greek compositions of the era in which koine Greek was used, and see how many times μονογενὴς describes inanimate man-made objects such as unique statues, unique houses, one-of-a-kind pictures, etc. – that is, things that are created rather than begotten – and then explain why there is no semantic implication of begotten-ness in the term μονογενὴς.  They may also want to read Dr. Denny Burk’s insightful critique of renderings of μονογενὴς that do not treat the term equitably and Dr. Charles Lee Irons’ 2016 essay Let’s Go Back to Only BegottenSpencer Stewart’s thoughts on the subject, and Dr. Wayne Grudem’s thoughts on an overlapping subject.            

The traditional rendering “only begotten” is entirely appropriate.  (It is not “misleading,” as a false note in the NET claims.)  The eternal Word is unique because the Word is eternally only-begotten.  Instead of merely conveying that Jesus, the incarnate Word, is in a class by himself, English translators should return to the meaning of the term as it was expounded by the theological giants of the early church.  In the meantime one can only wince at the confusing renderings of John 1:18 (some of which are indistinguishable from conjectural emendations that conflate the rival variants) which defective analysis has facilitated.           

Besides the question about what the term μονογενὴς means, there is another question to consider in John 1:18:  does the original text refer to the only-begotten God, or to the only-begotten Son?  That question shall be explored here in detail, God willing, in the near future.

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