Should the sense of the Greek μονογενής (only-begotten vs unique) in John be understood from Pagan Greek religion or Scripture?
I think that the sense of monogenes is very clearly delineated within scripture and I find that arguments from outside of scripture are dubious and ambiguous.
The first aspect of the use of the word is clear in the gospel accounts. I shall not go into huge detail, though I have done so in a booklet recently published. To be brief, an examination of the use of the word relating to those who benefited from miracles done by Jesus shows that both mother and father and both son and daughter are included.
Therefore, gender (both of parent and progeny) is irrelevant in the use of the word as scripture uses it.
But generation is important. It is a matter of generations : father to daughter, mother to son, father to son, whatever.
Thus the first principle. Generational but not gender specific.
The second principle becomes clear when one considers the use of the word in relation to Isaac. Ishmael, was, of course, the first child produced by Abraham. But Ishmael is decidedly not the monogenes of Abraham. 'This shall not be thine heir' says God.
Ishmael was born of convenience. Ishmael was born of a woman not a wife. Ishmael was not born of a real union. I stress union. This union is important in the consideration of what monogenes means - as used within scripture.
It becomes clear with thorough consideration (again I cannot go into vast detail, though I have done so in published form) what monogenes means, as regards divine principles and divine purposes.
It is a special relationship. And I emphasise relationship.
It is not merely the fact of the 'first born'. It is a unique relationship. I disagree with the concept of 'one and only' or 'solitary' but there is a vein of truth in that wording. But the 'solitary' 'unique' 'one and only' translation does not convey what is most important. The relationship.
'Solitary' 'unique' 'one and only' leaves the monogenes alone, almost destitute.
That concept, in my own view (and I would say that in strict regard of scriptural usage) is not correct. It leaves out the focus of the word in regard to the relationship between the generations.
Thus monogenes expresses a non-gender (therefore a spiritual) relationship, It is not of nature. Isaac was born supernaturally from the union of one past bearing and one as good as dead.
Now that is monogenes.
Only when we examine the use of the word - as used in scripture - do we see what we are being taught.
not of nature : of spirit
the result of a union
a unique relationship - like no other
All of this is conveyed in these few mentions within holy writ of the Greek word, monogenes. But nowhere - absolutely nowhere - else would we discover such information.
Solidly founded on roots in the Hebrew scripture, firmly bedded in the history of God's dealings with his own chosen people, and further expressed in the miracles done, uniquely, by Jesus Christ himself, attended by the power of God : this is our learning, these are our precedents.
And all of this is documented carefully for us by chosen apostles of Jesus Christ that we might learn from them.
All we do, ourselves, is notice what they have done.
And thus, and thus alone, do we learn what the word conveys when applied to the Son of God, the Son of the Father's love.
μονογενής (monogenés) is a word of the Greek New Testament that occurs 9 times, whose meaning is contentious because of the Arian vs Trinitarian controversy. The contention is best illustrated by its translation in the earliest version, Jerome’s Vulgate of 400 AD.
- 3 times it applies to a parent’s only child (Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38) and is translated “unicus”, unique.
- once it is used to describe Isaac (Heb 11:17) and is translated “unigenitus”, only begotten.
- 5 times it is used to describe Jesus (John 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9) and is translated “unigenitus”, only begotten.
Thus, the Vulgate (both Jerome and Clementine texts) adopted an uneven practice when rendering monogenes which was followed by Tyndale, the KJV, NKJV and many more until the late 20th century. Many modern versions since the late 20th century including NIV, NRSV, ESV, etc, uniformly translate this word as “only”, “unique” or equivalent.
The point at issue here is the cognate root of the second part of the word – is it related to gennao (beget, bear), or to genos (class, kind)? Modern linguistic analysis (eg, see BDAG) is firmly of the view that the latter is correct. Indeed, if the New Testament writers had intended “only begotten” then they would have used the word, monogennetos; but they did not. This conclusion is further shown in other instances of monogenes in the LXX such as Ps 21:21 (LXX), 22:20 (NASB), Ps 24:16 (LXX), 25:16 (NASB) where the meaning cannot be “only begotten”.
BDAG, which says the words is compound of monos + genos, provides two meanings for this word as:
- pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, eg, Heb 11:17, Luke 7:12, 9:38, 8:42
- Pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind) of something that is the only example of its category, eg, John 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9, John 1:15, 18. BDAG also adds this: "The renderings only, unique may be quite adequate for all its occurrences here."
Lastly, the correct meaning of monogenes is clear from its use in Heb 11:17. Isaac was neither Abraham’s first nor only child; however, Isaac was, by virtue of his miraculous conception and birth, and being a progenitor of Christ, unique among Abraham’s numerous children.
πρωτότοκος (prototokos) is a very different word from monogenes. Its literal meaning is clearly "first born". BDAG provides two basic meanings:
- literally, pertaining to birth order, firstborn, eg, Matt 1:25, Luke 2:7, Heb 11:28
- pertaining to having special status associated with a firstborn, firstborn, eg, Rom 8:29, Heb 1:6, Rev 1:5, 2:8, Col 1:15, 18.
Note that in the case of Jesus in Col 1:15, Jesus cannot literally (biologically) be "firstborn" as the same word is used in V18 to denote "first born of the dead". Since Jesus was not the first resurrected (there were many before Him), its idiomatic meaning is "the most important", which is obviously true.