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John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only (μονογενῆ) Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

My question resides in the greek term μονογενῆ often translated a only or "only begotten" and which seems to be a significant part of Christian theology. This seems to indicate that Jesus is God's ONLY child.

I am not understanding how this translation can square with the John concept that we can also be children of God (τέκνα Θεοῦ) as in John 1:12 and elsewhere in the Johannine letters. This concept also appears in Philippians and Romans, but not anywhere else in the new testament.

Important to the New Testament (God sacrifices his son), this is also related to the child sacrifice narratives of Isaac (Genesis 22) and Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11). It seems to be related to the Hebrew word yachid (יְחִֽידְךָ֤). In Gen 22:2, yachid is used to describe Isaac, and is translated as αγαπητόν (the one you love), and in Judges yachid is directly translated as μονογενής. But in Judges, it follows on saying that she was his μονογενής daughter, AND he had no other daughters or sons. The idea of μονογενής and "no other children" seem to be two separate and distinct properties. The greek does not use the term for "for/because," but the conjunction "and/but."

μονογενῆ seems to be explicitly μονο-γενῆ which means "one" (mono) and "kind" (genus - as in species taxonomy). Furthermore, Isaac was clearly not an only child to Abraham. Abraham was also the father of Ishmael.

This seems to be a crucial point to Christian theology. Was Jesus a "one of a kind" child of God or "only begotten?" If he is only begotten, then how can we also be children of God? Psalm 2 seems to indicate (though not naming) that King David is God's annointed (Mesiah) and also his begotten child (though I assume many will take this as a prophecy of Jesus).

But then there are the explicit references to the children (or sons) of God in Genesis 6:2, and in Job 1:6 and 2:1, בְּנֵ֣י הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים, "Children of God," (Greek: υιοί του θεού) Here it is clearly plural and in Job, this menagerie includes Satan.

In Exodus 4:22, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is God's firstborn son... I get that there is likely a reference to the "people of Israel" here, but perhaps he is referring to Jacob/Israel and thus to his children? The name "Ramses" means "child of Ra" (ra-mses), so we see here a contrast and conflict to children of the egyptian God and the god of Moses. It's interesting that Moses' name has the same root as ramses (MSS), but the place for the god name (ra-mss) is empty, indicating the invisible God of Moses perhaps.

Question: How can μονογενῆ be translated as "only begotten" or "only" son in the context of the old testament reference and along with the concept that we can also be children of God? Does being a child of God mean that we are each unique and one-of-a-kind? Given that John 3:16 is the most quoted New Testament verse, isn't this of extreme importance?

  • Isn't the term' begotten' un-original or forced? Rather 'only unique or kind', as Isaac was, the only 'true' son. monogenē has no 'begotten' in it. – user48152 Oct 8 at 12:26
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    There is division regarding the translation of monogenes. This is dealt with on SE-C where reference is made to articles by Deny Burke and, particularly, by Charles Lee Irons. This is not going to be sorted out on BH, but it is good to be aware that there is a controversy. 'Only begotten' refers to the fact that the Son of God is generated (eternally) by the Father, in an everlasting relationship. – Nigel J Oct 8 at 12:58
  • @NigelJ Can we analytically cut out the possibility of it meaning "only child" here on BH? It seems like... given that there are explicit references to the plural "children of God" as I mentioned, as well as the Pauline and Johannine idea that we can be children of god also, that the term "only" child doesn't apply in the typical way that we think of? Or perhaps it refers to the idea that there are not separate people, but that each child of God is identical to the only child of God. I am still not clear on what BH means if we can't address such topics. Also, this is not about John 1:18. – Gus L. Oct 8 at 13:07
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    There is considerable division over the translation of monogenes. KJV has 'only begotten' and that is, by some, disputed. The matter is significant. It also includes complex arguments which need extensive treatment. The link I gave sets out the controversy and gives links to two respected academic experts on the subject. The prime reference is John 1:18 (because of the mention of 'the bosom of the Father') not John 3:16. BH is not the place for repeated re-visiting of known controversies. – Nigel J Oct 8 at 14:06
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If monogenes (mono + genes) really means 'one of a kind', 'special', 'a single example' and so forth, then what has happened to genes ?

Mono alone means 'one', 'sole', 'single'.

The rejection of monogenes meaning 'only begotten' is too complex and too extensive to properly cover all the many convolutions of argument used in the controversy, on a site such as this. Fourteen Professors and Assistant Professors published a book in order to, extensively, demolish all the tributary arguments and to clear the area of specious claims.

The book is called 'Retrieving Eternal Generation'. I would not normally draw attention to a publication on BH but this time I think it is justified due to the impossibility of reproducing all the data, here in an answer.

My own publication is called 'The Only Begotten Son of God' and is available, free of charge, here.

What is lost, if monogenes be cut in half and the meaning 'sole', 'unique', 'a single kind' and so on, substituted for it - what is lost is the relationship of an eternal generation of Father and Son (in One Holy Spirit).

One is left with a solitary individual (in humanity) - instead of one united, indivisible God in an eternally generated relationship : Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a perfection of divine love.

This is not the only example of a controversy being initiated against the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. And no wonder, for without that relationship one believes in three, unknown, gods. See also the F E Raven & Taylor Senior controversy which split both the Exclusive Brethren and the Strict Baptists in the 19th century using arguments very similar to this division.

Yes, this is a matter of 'theology'. It is so, because that is the motive for rejecting 'only begotten' for monogenes.

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  • Fascinating. Thanks, and +1. I will take a look at your essay. I view Jesus as John describes him in John 3:14-16 (which includes monogenes). Turning our eyes to christ on the cross is an act of obedience. Christ is as the serpent that Moses raised up in the wilderness. That serpent was empty. It was not an idol, but a sign (sēmeion) empty of self and pointing to God. I think a big problem we have is the evolution of the latin term persona into the english term person. The former is an empty mask on god. The latter is a solid idol. The trinity is three personas, not three persons. – Gus L. Oct 8 at 19:47
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    By using the word 'persona' you seem to be implying that Divine Persons adopted characteristics which do not express their own individuality, thus your way of seeing the matter is not a revelation of what is true of the eternal Deity. I understand that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are revelations of whom God really is. One indivisible God, revealed in three distinct, individuals whose true and eternal relationships are a matter of eternal begetting. – Nigel J Oct 8 at 20:14
  • When analysing the text, what has 'eternal generation' got to do with anything? It has no place and is biblically unfounded. We cannot state that as the foundation for any thesis, proof or argument. Including such makes BH a sham. – user48152 Oct 8 at 20:36
  • Can you be any more specific about why "unique" Son diminishes the doctrine of Christology compared to "only begotten" Son? If we are all "sons of God" then what does that make Jesus? – Dottard Oct 8 at 22:12
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    Monogenes literally means one (mono) of a kind (genus - as in taxonomy). How is there confusion on this other than due to some accumulated doctrinal baggage that is way outside the scope of BH? Begotten just ain't part of the word. – Gus L. Oct 9 at 1:40
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Monogenes 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”.

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.

Children of God

Literal adoption was used in both Hebrew (most notably Moses, Ex 1, 2, and Esther) and Roman societies as a means of providing heirs for those who could not have their own, or, providing protection for children deprived of parents by either death or poverty. It is the latter sense that the New Testament uses the term as a metaphor of a person becoming a “Son of God”. This idea is drawn from the Old Testament that discusses Israel’s adoption by God (Deut 14:1, 32:6, 18, Jer 31:9, Mal 1:6).

The idea of sinners being adopted as Sons of God occurs infrequently in the NT and only by Paul (Rom 8:15, 23, 9:4, Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5). However, Jesus appears to unmistakably alludes to adoption in John 3:1-8 and 1:12, 13 where we are able to become children of God. Rom 1:7, 2 Cor 1:2, Eph 1:2, Gal 1:3, Phil 1:2, 4:20, Col 1:2, 1 Thess 3:11, 2 Thess 1:1, 2, 2:16, 1 Tim 1:2, etc. This is contradistinction of the Jewish leaders whom Jesus accused of having the Devil as their father, John 8:44.

The metaphor of adoption is extended by the New Testament’s repeated idea of Christ being our brother (Heb 2:11-13, Ps 22:22, Isa 8:17, 18, Matt 12:48, 49, John 20:17, Rom 8:29) following adoption.

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  • Again, sticking to the Q with very useful information.ty – user48152 Oct 8 at 20:41
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Pointless Squabbling

The dispute regarding the rendering "only-begotten" and "only [son]" is completely unnecessary, simply because "only-begotten" and "only son" are entirely synonymous. If the Son is the only child, he is the only-begotten, if he is the only-begotten, he is the only son; if one objects to the child really being begotten, he will object to the child really being a child; if one rejects the only-begotten being really begotten, he will reject his being really a child; and the Son's being a child and being begotten are both meant metaphorically.

One is not a child who is not begotten, but a foster child; one who is an only child, is an only-begotten, and vice versa.

Insofar as one is a child, even if used in a metaphorical sense, one is begotten.

1 Corinthians 4:15 (DRB) For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you.

'I am your father = I have begotten you. If you are my son, you are my begotten. If my only son, then my only begotten.'

Begotten doesn't imply anything that 'son' or 'child' does not. For both, if one is a metaphor, are metaphors; both, if one is a simile, are similes.

Hebrew

In Hebrew, only-begotten is yachid. Yachid simply means only; alone; one. It does not say anything about what is the only, what is the one, what is the alone.

But in the context of a child - because all children are begotten - it also means in certain contexts only-begotten.

Therefore, whether you interpret monogenes as only-begotten or only-child, you arrive, helplessly, and necessarily, at the same destination.

No one who believes the Son is begotten of God is the son as in offspring of a sexual union, and no one who believes God's is the only Son of God believes there are other sons of God.

Because to Christians, the Son of God is Son because of His having the nature of God. and creatures are God's sons because they are fathered, via being created, by God. Son never means literal sexual offspring, because God is not a man.

No one but the Son of God looks into the hearts of creatures (Revelation 2:23), not believers, only He who is God (1:17-18). Believers, on the other hand, are sons of God only in the sense of being created, as in fathers 'creating' children. The Son of God is Son in the sense that He shares the NATURE of His Father, unlike believers, which his why he claimed to be (John 10:30-31), and was considered to have claimed to be (John 10:33, 36), and was believed to be (Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, etc.), God, by the earliest Christians.

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    +1 for the first half as in "Abraham begat Isaac" etc. in Matthew 1:2 - the last three paragraphs are a different point – Henry Oct 9 at 0:27
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Monogenes in today's scholarship means 'only' based on earliest biblical manuscripts in other languages

Following the scholarly research on the Greek word μονογενης, majority of modern translations had μονογενης as expressing its original semantics based on its morphology: "only-one-of-its-kind" [μονος - one/only + γενος - kind/type]. Thus,

  • μονογρνες υιος is "the only-son-of-his-kind" (i.e. the unique son or simply, the "only son" as found in the ASV)

  • μονογενης θεος is "the only-God-of-his-kind" (i.e. the unique God or simply, the "only God" as found in the ESV)

Majority of the bible in other languages (Coptic, Latin, Syriac) in the 2nd-4th century CE had "only" for μονογενης. This follows the more ancient Hebrew yachid ("only") for μονογενης.

(source: God's Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version, Dale Moody, 1953)

Monogenes means 'only begotten' according to 2nd century church fathers

The Greek word μονογενες was deemed by second century Greek and Latin church fathers as "only begotten" prior to the Arian controversy in the fourth century.

  • Irenaeus had the Latin "unigenitus" [A.D. 180] for μονογενες in John 1:18.
  • Tertullian spoke of Christ as "unigenitus because alone genitus of God'' [Against Praxeas VII].
  • The Greek fathers like Justin Martyr used μονογενες in the context of the begetting of the Son before all creatures (Dialogue to Trypho, 105).

Monogenes (only) is synonymous with agapetos (beloved) in the Hebrew bible.

Yachid translates into Greek as μονογενης (monogenes) and αγαπητος (agapetos).

The "life" (soul) of a man in Psalm 22:21 (LXX) was literally his "only"[life] (μονογενης). Thus, figuratively his [life] is darling for him. The sense is that he loves his life, knowing that he only lives once.

The figurative meaning "beloved" of μονογενης and its synonym αγαπητος was attested in the Septuagint.

Isaac the only son (of Abraham and Sarah)

Isaac was the only begotten son of both Abraham and Sarah. The child of promise was Isaac alone and Isaac had one mother only, which logically means that he was the only begotten of his parents, who had him quite literally as their only son.

11 By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; (Hebrews 11:11, 11:17 NASB)

Christians begotten of God (by faith)

every one who hath been begotten of God, sin he doth not, because his seed in him doth remain, and he is not able to sin, because of God he hath been begotten.1 John 3:9 (Young's Literal Translation)

Christians were born of God when they accepted the name of the Son of God. But his new birth to become children of God does not occur in eternity (see John 1:12-13, 3:2-7).

Jesus: the only eternal son

Jesus (as the pre-existent Word) was "The Son of God" because was begotten before all things were made. (i.e. eternally begotten).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:1-3, 1:18 NASB).

Summary

In the second century CE, the Greek word μονογενης had two co-existing meanings: (i) "only begotten" according to the writings of the church fathers both in East and West and (ii) "only" in ancient bible translations in other languages (Coptic, Latin, Syriac) following the Hebrew yachid (only). Isaac was the only son [in both Hebrew and Greek MSS] of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Hebrews. Christians were not eternally begotten sons. Jesus was the only eternally begotten son. Thus, Jesus was the only eternal son.

Conclusion

  • The literal definition of μονογενης as "the only one of its kind" (or "only") , based on its morphology, is highly likely the original due to being attested in pre-Christian Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament.

  • μονογενης as "only" is also the only consistent definition found in early biblical manuscripts in all languages (Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Latin) in the early church (circa 2nd-4th century CE).

  • The figurative meaning "beloved" of μονογενης and its synonym αγαπητος was attested frequently in the Septuagint. Both μονογενης and αγαπητος translates the same Hebrew yachid (Literally, "only").

  • The definition 'only begotten' was already present as early as the second century CE. It was the universally accepted meaning by the church fathers both in the east and the west in regards to its application to Jesus Christ even before the Arian controversy.

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  • the only begotten God... doesn't anyone see what an oxymoron that term is? There might be a 'unique god', but we can't have two unique Gods! We already have, 'there is but one God, the Father', 1 Cor 8:6, Ehp 4:6, which plainly state the truth, and Jesus who speaks of His God, the Father. Go figure! – user48152 Oct 8 at 23:32
  • @user48152, The only begotten God , by virtue of being in the bosom of the Father, does not add up to two Gods when counted together with God the Father. They are still one God because they are one i.e. in unity, as θεος (God) (John 1:1, 10:30) and are both equal/greater/above (10:29) all the θεους (gods) (10:35 quoted by Jesus from Psalm 82:6a). You cannot have the Father and Jesus as two Gods when they possess the same and one power. – Radz Matthew C. Brown Oct 8 at 23:50
  • show me where this is so 'they possess the same and one power' Jesus life comes from the Father! John 1:1 says nothing about Jesus - nothing. 10:30 must be aligned with 17:11 to get the true meaning as opposed to the made-up one. – user48152 Oct 8 at 23:56
  • Jesus is not the only son of God. Not only do John and Paul both speak of their communities as children of God, but genesis 6:2 and Job all speak of a group of the children of God. – Gus L. Oct 9 at 1:42
  • @user48152 John 10:29 [the father is greater than all] John 10:30 [i and the father are one]. John 10:29 must be aligned with John 10:30. That's what you call context. – Radz Matthew C. Brown Oct 9 at 2:56

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