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Standard caveat: I'm new to NT Greek, so please be gentle if my question is silly, basic or obvious.

John 3:16 in the UBS5 is:

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

From my understanding of Greek adjectives (this is taken from BBG p.67), the form of τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ is an attributive adjective. So, τὸν μονογενῆ modifies τὸν υἱὸν, which means the whole phrase would be rendered "the unique/only-begotten Son".

And that's where I'm confused. Every single translation I found online (using www.bible-hub.com) renders that phrase as some variation of "His only Son". See here:

New International Version

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

New Living Translation

"For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

English Standard Version

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

New American Standard Bible

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

King James Bible

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Holman Christian Standard Bible

"For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.

I get that logically, Jesus is God's Son. I completely agree with that point and think it's required theology for Christians. That said, I don't see it in the text of this verse.

I do see it in the text of the TR, but in the UBS4 text I have in print and in the UBS5 text online, I don't see any textual variants listed, which makes me believe that there isn't great manuscript support for the τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ reading.

Adding it in seems like an interpretive decision. Am I missing something, or is the reading of this verse so ingrained in English-speaking culture that changing it now is unthinkable?

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The OP requests clarification about why the English is not:

?For God so loved the world, that he gave the only son....

What is the meaning of this English, and does it accurately convey the Greek? To me, this construction is questionably intelligible. It seems to imply that there was never another son (of anyone), which is patently false, causing me to pause and wonder what is being conveyed and....I don't know exactly.1 This remains an appropriate translation if the Greek carries that aspect of questionable intelligibility. I don't think it does.

The Greek article may function as a possessive pronoun.2 It regularly does so when the antecedent is obvious. Based on both the local and the larger context, I think this is the case in John 3:16.

Locally
This sentence begins a short description of “his son” that maintains the consistent antecedent, continuing through verse 18. There it concludes with a restatement of “the son” using a genitive specifier, “of God”. In case there was any doubt that this is the same son, it also repeats the adjective μονογενής:

οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν...
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son...

οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον...
God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world...

ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.
He who does not believe is already condemned because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God.

Whose son is now explicit.

More broadly
I don’t think there is much controversy that John’s gospel has at its focus a man he calls the son of God. John the Baptist encapsulates this at the outset (1:34):

κἀγὼ ἑώρακα καὶ μεμαρτύρηκα ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ.
And I have seen and have testified that this is the son of God.

And the author clearly shares this assessment (20:31):

ταῦτα δὲ γέγραπται ἵνα πιστεύ[σ]ητε ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ...
These things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God...

A twist
This would settle it in my mind but for the fact that Gospel of John often refers to this same individual using the unmodified the Son,3 otherwise odd English. This title (?), though, is used in John’s Gospel only in close association with the Father, an equally odd expression outside of Biblical English. In 3:16, we have instead God. Also, the Son without a possessive modifier generally doesn’t take any modifiers, another reason it would be difficult to read 3:16 as the only Son.

When John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus in relation to God, it is his son.4


1. The reason this seems odd, to my reckoning, is that the semantics of son (and, equally, υἱὸς) requires reference to a father. When definite, English generally uses a possessive construction to contain both required aspects of the concept: "his son" or "Bob's son" or "the son of Bob". "The son ∅" is occasionally used in contexts where the referent and his father are specified in relation to each other but remain abstract and not unique ("If the father dies, the son will inherit...”). This is clearly not the case here.

2. For an example in what might be an "easier" language, if you know Spanish (and probably similarly in other post-Latin languages with a definite article, not sure), you would say, Abro los ojos and nobody would wonder whose eyes. The possessive pronoun would generally be used only if the subject and the possessor of the eyes were two different individuals. (Native speakers should feel free to correct me.) In English, this usage of the article would be strange.

3. I throw my hands up about the capitalization decisions of various translations here.

4. This is a bit (OK, completely) circular, but it's consistent with English idiom (as realized in the Gospel of John).

  • As usual, your answer is quite satisfying! I think you're probably right about the article functioning as an implied possessive. I will say that I disagree that using "the Son" implies that there have never been any other sons (of anyone) at all. God (who has recently been called the Father) gave the Son. So, the Father gave the Son. I might be weird, but that just makes sense to me. But I agree we'd most likely formulate it as "His Son" in English, so the rule you referenced in Wallace is likely applicable. And, of course, almost every translation agrees with you! ;-) Thanks! – mbm29414 Sep 28 '15 at 11:39
  • You may be right about “the Son” (capitalizing it probably helps with specification too). I think it’s just a matter of how far one’s English sensibilities stretch to accommodate this extension of what is basically a Bible-ism. I have to admit I was a lot less certain about this answer when I finished than when I started. :-) – Susan Sep 28 '15 at 12:14
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The phrase appears to be correctly rendered in all of the above translations that you have listed. For example, Young's Literal Translation renders John 3:16 thus:"for God did so love the world, that His Son -- the only begotten -- He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during" That God the Father 'gave' [didōmi] 'His' [autos] 'only begotten' [monogenēs] Son [huios] is in the text.

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    Where do you find αὐτοῦ in the text, except for the TR? – mbm29414 Aug 14 '15 at 12:05
  • Is there only one TR? - You say that "Adding it [αὐτοῦ] in seems like an interpretive decision" but isn't the whole point of a translation to interpret? That's why people who translate for others are called 'interpreters'. Given that αὐτοῦ appears in some manuscripts (e.g. TR) and that it fits the context and also conveys what the writer of the gospel of John is saying (as you also have agreed), doesn't that justify the generally accepted translation, on the basis of both manuscipt evidence and the fact that it most accurately conveys the meaning of the text? – Richard Aug 19 '15 at 8:37
  • Actually, no, I don't expect a whole lot of interpretive decisions to be made when translating a text. I understand that you cannot avoid all of them, but translation seems to me to be much more about "what does it say?" than "what does it mean?" I will admit to being a novice in this area, but I'm a bit suspect if the rationale is "well, it might be in the text (even though it's not even a textual variant in the UBS4/5) and it fits with other parts, so let's keep it!" That seems like sloppy scholarship and I'll be surprised if that's actually how we got this reading. – mbm29414 Aug 25 '15 at 22:41
  • I completely agree with your point about interpretation needing to be at a minimum when translationg, though unavoidable at times. But the rationale is not as you claim. The point I was making is that αὐτοῦ is indeed in the text (e.g. TR). However, you clearly favour the NA26-28 and UBS4 manuscripts, but there are respectable arguments on both sides. – Richard Aug 26 '15 at 9:16
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    It's not so much that I favor them (thought I think that's probably true), but that the UBS4 is what I have and use. They (NA27/28 and UBS4/5) are also what underlie my preferred translation, the ESV. And when I look at this area, the αὐτοῦ is not even listed as a textual variant. That's what surprised me and generated my question. – mbm29414 Aug 26 '15 at 12:28

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