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The ESV gives a strange meaning to John 1:18, one which contradicts John 17:3.

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:18, ESV)

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3, ESV)

In John 17, Jesus is clearly speaking to the Father, as the ESV unambiguously presents it as well in the introduction to Jesus' prayer:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, (John 17:1, ESV)

Therefore, ESV has Jesus saying that the Father is "the only true God" but it also claims that "the only God" is "at the Father's side."

Obviously, when two separate entities are referenced, of which ONE is said to be "the only...", they cannot BOTH be described.

Which of these two is correct, and why the discrepancy?

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  • The TR has the only sensible Greek text in this place ο μονογενης υιος ο ων εις τον κολπον του πατρος εκεινος εξηγησατο the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. [KJV]. . . . for the very reasons you outline. Up-voted +1. The ESV is diminishing the relationship of Father and Son.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 23 at 2:15
  • I don't think bringing in 17:3 is necessary to the question per se, given that any number of verses could be otherwise compared to prove the dilemma in the ESV's Jhn 1:18(e.g. Jhn 14:1-2).
    – user21676
    Aug 23 at 3:51
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    @user21676 You may be right that it is not necessary, but it is a part of sound hermeneutical practice to compare scripture with scripture. In this case, the verse can almost be compared with itself. Consider the "no one has ever seen God" in contrast with "the only God...has made him known"--and this "only God" being "at the Father's side," making a non-God of the Father, or else saying that the Father is beside Himself! The translation truly puts things in a ludicrous light which defies all logic.
    – Polyhat
    Aug 23 at 4:17
  • This has nothing to do with the translation but the underlying Greek text.
    – Dottard
    Aug 23 at 6:24
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    "The translation truly puts things in a ludicrous light which defies all logic", is right on. Upvoted +1. Aug 23 at 11:58
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The differences in the translations isn't a matter of how to translate, but what is the original text to translate base on the textual variations that we have. Bruce Metzger discussed this in his textual commentary. The comment enclosed in [] at the end is a decision by Allen Wikgren disputing the committee's majority decision. The majority decision was based on early text evidence. The dissenting decision was based on theology, not believing that John would have had that developed of a Trinitarian theology.

  1:18      μονογενὴς θεός {B}

With the acquisition of 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, both of which read θεός, the external support of this reading has been notably strengthened. A majority of the Committee regarded the reading μονογενὴς υἱός, which undoubtedly is easier than μονογενὴς θεός, to be the result of scribal assimilation to Jn 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9. The anarthrous use of θεός (cf. 1:1) appears to be more primitive. There is no reason why the article should have been deleted, and when υἱός supplanted θεός it would certainly have been added. The shortest reading, ὁ μονογενής, while attractive because of internal considerations, is too poorly attested for acceptance as the text. Some modern commentators take μονογενής as a noun and punctuate so as to have three distinct designations of him who makes God known (μονογενής, θεός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς …). [It is doubtful that the author would have written μονογενὴς θεός, which may be a primitive, transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition (Υς/Θς). At least a {D} decision would be preferable. A.W.] -- Metzger, B. M., United Bible Societies. (1994). A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (pp. 169–170). London; New York: United Bible Societies.

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Why does the ESV contradict itself in John 1:18 versus John 17:3?

The ESV contradicts itself because it has an unabashed 'Trinitarian' bias, as do many a translation with us today. Their translation of the original Greek, in John 1:18, is 'gross', to put it bluntly. They not only remove 'begotten' when translating 'monogenes', which is best translated as 'only begotten', but they also upgrade the Son's divinity, so as to make him equal with the Almighty God. Consequently, we should not be reading:- ...the only God, who is at the Father's side, but should in fact be reading:- ...the only begotten (g)od, who is at the Father's side. We are talking about the 'uniqueness' of the Son's relationship to the Father after all.

I talked about the above meaning of 'monogenes' in much greater length last June, which I produce again here for greater benefit:-

..."Even though now an out moded expression, the most accurate translation of the Greek, here in question in John 1:18, is "Only Begotten" which is adjectival to the second "theos". In the NT it appears 9 times (more often in the Septuagint). It's meaning is archaic (of a child) being the single of it's kind, "only" offspring of it's father. In this case the "Father". In Heb, 11:17 we see that the "OB" is used in respect of the covenantal son Isaac, of Abraham, even though Abraham had previously fathered Ishmael, and later would father several sons through Keturah. God's covenant, however, was established only through Isaac and who was the only son in his father's household at the time Abraham offered him up.

More often than not, when one thinks of the "only begotten", one usually perceives that the person being talked about is the spiritual personage of Jesus (another only begotten covenantal son) and indeed this is the case in John 1:14; 3:16,18 and 1 John 4:9 but possibly not so much in John 1:18. The Greek word for the "OB" is "Monogenes" and the often question is: Are we talking about a Monogenes "theos", or a Monogenes "huios"? (God/god, or, Son), as some "MSS", ancient and more modern, invoke Son rather than God/god in John 1:18. Dan Wallace prefers god (with a small "g"). The "KJV" begs to differ and prefers Son, and the "NASB" prefers God (with a capital G), so it's irresolute. The weightier "MSS" support is towards "theos", rather than "huios", being more for the sake of deity, which is after all more contextual when one really get's down to determining true meaning. So, are we talking "God" here, or, are we really talking in respect of "a god". The word "Monogenes", also expresses "uniqueness" as opposed to mere "sonship". Here we have the son revealing the Father and we are being reminded of the son's covenantal role as the soon to be mediator of salvation. One should note that the declension of the second theos here is declined the same as the second theos in John 1:1c, again we have an anarthrous pre verbal noun , not having an article/determiner, so neither definite or indefinite, although in John 1:1c, an indefinite article is thought to be implied, resulting in an "a god" translation, in non-trinitarian circles at least, but not to the exclusion of deity. It's the quality of Jesus' deity that's in question in both John 1:1 and John 1:18. What's also in question, in respect of both verses, is as to whether we are talking about an indefinite Jesus, or a qualitative Jesus. Is one talking about Jesus as one of a class of others, or are we talking about his essence/nature. Even if either one were to be fact, I don't think, when giving the two context's all due consideration, that we should be equating Jesus with the Almighty.... What we are talking about is the "only begotten" Son of God; the firstborn; the "covenantal" Son; in the bosom position of (with) the Father; occupying a special place of favor with that one; who had to be "begat/created"; whereas the Almighty already "WAS"...

As to which ESV translation is correct? I find nothing wrong with their rendering of John 17:3.

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Why does the ESV contradict itself in John 1:18 versus John 17:3?

Clearly the interpretive translators have lost the plot and desperately hope no one will notice. These additions and alterations only serve to prop up a frail construct of a tripart God or a, not as popular, bipart God.

Which of the two wordings is correct? One doesn't need to be a Greek scholar to note the unswerving and consistent delivery of a 'One (singular) God' narrative throughout both the OT and NT. Confirmed by Jesus himself on several occasions stating that he has the same God we do. Further confirmed by the Apostles in their teaching and writing.

Whenever there seems to be a contradiction, we must assume we have got something wrong, or, the bible truth has been misrepresented. Sadly, the latter is often the cause of having it wrong in the first place. How many still quote 1 John 5:7 as the foundation of all truth? Either oblivious to its radical inclusion or knowing it is fake and using it anyway - hoping no one will notice.

From the same author,

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son.

Clearly John is not confused. He understands that this son must be tempted and die - how could he possibly be God too?

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent John 17:3

If the 'only true God' is doing the sending, then the one sent cannot be God. He can be the image and have the form of God - but this expressly makes him not God! God does not have the image of God or the form of God - He just IS God.

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No discrepancy if one sees what the term "God" means in this context of the Biblical theology. To give an analogy: "Bob is the only father in our football team", this necessarily implies that Bob has also a child, for the fatherness of Bob necessarily entails him having a child. Similarly, the only God according to the Gospel is the Father, which means that since He is eternally God-the Father, He also eternally has His Son, the only begotten Logos. Thus, the Father's "only Godness" implies that for this "only Godness" of the Father necessary and essential is the Son; now, who is essential and necessary for God is also God. The created universe is not necessary to God, who created it out of His free will and benevolence. The Son through whom God created the universe is essential and necessary for Him, therefore, also God. And this is not a polytheism, for there is a Monarchy of the Father in one Godhead.

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    "The Son through whom God created the universe". Right...
    – steveowen
    Aug 23 at 6:53
  • @user48152 "Right"? Yes, right 100%: the Son-God without whom the Father-God is completely impotent to do anything, as the sun-disc is impotent to enlighten without the sun-radiation. There is nothing between binary opposition God vs. creation; if Logos is on the left side of this opposition, then He is God, no less God than the Father. I am not concerned about your "-" a least, but wish you to embrace truth with all my heart. Aug 23 at 7:09
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The commentators have refuted the idea that the phrase "only true God" excludes the other forms or personifications of the same one God, that is the Word and the Spirit. Thus, there is no contradiction between stating the Son or the Father as only true God or the only savior. It is not said in contrast and exclusion to the other persons or personifications of God, but to the false gods, idols etc. Compare: RV 1 John 5:20

And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.

Haydock Catholic commentary:

And may be in his true Son.[7] This is the true God, and eternal life. Which words are a clear proof of Christ's divinity, and as such made us of by the ancient Fathers.

In vero Filio ejus, hic est verus Deus, Greek: en to alethino uio autou, outos estin o alethinos Theos, with the Greek article. St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Hilary, St. Augustine, St. Cyril by this sentence prove Christ truly God. See Petavius, lib. 2. de Trin. chap. ix. num. 8.

The NET Bible translation notes, gives a long explanation in favor of their reading of only God or "himself God" in John 1:18: No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.

tc The textual problem μονογενὴς θεός (monogenēs theos, “the only God”) versus ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός (ho monogenēs huios, “the only son”) is a notoriously difficult one. Only one letter would have differentiated the readings in the mss, since both words would have been contracted as nomina sacra: thus qMs or uMs. Externally, there are several variants, but they can be grouped essentially by whether they read θεός or υἱός. The majority of mss, especially the later ones (A C Θ Ψ ƒ M lat), read ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός. P א 33 have ὁ μονογενὴς θεός, while the anarthrous μονογενὴς θεός is found in P א* B C* L. The articular θεός is almost certainly a scribal emendation to the anarthrous θεός, for θεός without the article is a much harder reading. The external evidence thus strongly supports μονογενὴς θεός. Internally, although υἱός fits the immediate context more readily, θεός is much more difficult. As well, θεός also explains the origin of the other reading (υἱός) because it is difficult to see why a scribe who found υἱός in the text he was copying would alter it to θεός. Scribes would naturally change the wording to υἱός however, since μονογενὴς υἱός is a uniquely Johannine christological title (cf. John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). But θεός as the older and more difficult reading is preferred. As for translation, it makes the most sense to see the word θεός as in apposition to μονογενής, and the participle ὁ ὤν (ho ōn) as in apposition to θεός, giving in effect three descriptions of Jesus rather than only two. (B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 81, suggests that it is nearly impossible and completely unattested in the NT for an adjective followed immediately by a noun that agrees in gender, number, and case, to be a substantival adjective: “when is an adjective ever used substantivally when it immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection?” This, however, is an overstatement. First, as Ehrman admits, μονογενής in John 1:14 is substantival. And since it is an established usage for the adjective in this context, one might well expect that the author would continue to use the adjective substantivally four verses later. Indeed, μονογενής is already moving toward a crystallized substantival adjective in the NT [cf. Luke 9:38; Heb 11:17]; in patristic Greek, the process continued [cf. PGL 881 s.v. 7]. Second, there are several instances in the NT in which a substantival adjective is followed by a noun with which it has complete concord: cf., e.g., Rom 1:30; Gal 3:9; 1 Tim 1:9; 2 Pet 2:5.) The modern translations which best express this are the NEB (margin) and TEV. Several things should be noted: μονογενής alone, without υἱός, can mean “only son,” “unique son,” “unique one,” etc. (see 1:14). Furthermore, θεός is anarthrous. As such it carries qualitative force much like it does in 1:1c, where θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (theos ēn ho logos) means “the Word was fully God” or “the Word was fully of the essence of deity.” Finally, ὁ ὤν occurs in Rev 1:4, 8; 4:8; 11:17; and 16:5, but even more significantly in the LXX of Exod 3:14. Putting all of this together leads to the translation given in the text.

As translators, we must never succumb to our theological bias, but try to ascertain the more probable reading; nor should bother to give those "early" Gentile believers any special authority over theology, when they were completely ignorant of the Jewish religion. Here it seems to be the case that later scribes changed it to "only son" either by mistake of reading the nomina sacra acronyms, or it was a deliberate orthodox corruption by the anti-Trinitarians who deliberately reduced the divinity of the Messiah, under the Roman influence of ignorance of the scripture after the 3rd century. It is another topic to study the corruption and heresies of the so-called Orthodox theologians and scribes who believed in a subordination heresy, which saw it uncomfortable to read the explicit deity of Christ. The seeming contradiction is purely superficial resulted from lack of theological understanding of the complex and fluid nature of the One true God of Israel.

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