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After reading a lot about John 1:18 lately I wondered if the verse could be translated/understood as:

God no one has ever seen; the uniquely divine begotten/born one.

I thought this way it could fit the image of Mary; she was found to be carrying a child, given by the Holy Spirit. That what was received [what was conceived] in her was [received] from the Holy Spirit.

I would also really appreciate it if someone could help me explain how to read the different Greek variants (root texts) of this verse; why should they be translated in a certain way and why can’t they be translated in another way (language wise)?

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  • Welcome to the site, Noah. You've asked a profound Q which I'd like to answer, but that will take a little bit of time. With Qs of this nature, if it's left open for at least a week, you will get a good variety of answers from which to select a Best Answer (should there be one - and I'm confident there will be!)
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 10:13
  • See the answer hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/69716/…
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 12:05
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    It was not a spirit which was within Mary. She was 'great with child'. Therefore God manifest in flesh is the manifestation of the only begotten. Thus the 'only begotten' expresses the Son of God prior to manifestation. Nowhere is Jesus said to be 'begotten' of Mary.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 15:27
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    @Nigel J I didn’t say that! what I meant was that she had not received the fruit in her by intercourse, but by God placing it in her (i.e. it was given to her) by the Holy Spirit.
    – Noah
    Commented Oct 13, 2021 at 11:06

5 Answers 5

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The Greek text for John 1:18 says:

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο (TR)

Let's break that down, word-by-word, in order to help understand it.

Greek Word Transliteration Strong's # Grammatical Notes Meaning
θεὸν Theon G2316 N-AMS God
οὐδεὶς oudeis G3762 Adj-NMS no one
ἑώρακεν heōraken G3708 V-RIA-3S has seen
πώποτε pōpote G4455 Adv ever yet
ho G3588 Art-NMS the
μονογενὴς monogenēs G3439 Adj-NMS only begotten
υἱός huios G5207 N-NMS Son
ho G3588 Art-NMS the
ὢν ōn G1510 V-PPA-NMS being
εἰς eis G1519 Prep in
τὸν ton G3588 Art-AMS the
κόλπον kolpon G2859 N-AMS bosom
τοῦ tou G3588 Art-GMS of the
πατρὸς Patros G3962 N-GMS Father
ἐκεῖνος ekeinos G1565 DPro-NMS He
ἐξηγήσατο exēgēsato G1834 V-AIM-3S has made [Him] known

Now, as you look at each of the words in the table above, which are listed down in the same order they appear in the Greek, you will see that in places they appear to be switched around as compared to an English translation. That is because Greek words have grammatical forms, called declensions, which indicate the role of the word in the sentence. English is always SVO (subject-verb-object) in basic sentence structure and order; but Greek can put the object first, or place the words in a different order, because each word indicates whether or not it is the subject, the object, etc. Verbs and adjectives also indicate the same declensions, and can be tied to the noun or pronoun for which they are applied. Verbs, like in Latin languages, carry the pronoun/person of their subject as well.

It so happens that the first word of this verse actually is an object. "Theon" is the "accusative masculine singular" noun for God, and "accusative" means it is the object of the verb.

The adjective which follows is in "nominative masculine singular" form, with "nominative" applying to the subject. Greek does not need to repeat subjects, or even supply their place with a pronoun, if the subject can already be inferred from a prior mention, etc. In this case, this clause of the verse has no subject, but the verb, together with this adjective, imply the subject as "no one."

When we get to the next noun, notice the sequence of definite article, adjective, and noun, ALL three of which indicate "NMS" (nominative masculine singular). This indicates plainly that these three are all part of the nominative clause--they are together: "the only begotten Son."

This is then followed by another definite article of the same form, but which must be assumed to apply to a new noun. However, that noun is not present. This is because Greek grammar does not require the noun to be repeated if the same one as was just addressed is still in focus. We can understand, therefore, that it is the Son still being referenced. In English, this might be translated as an appositive, or as a dependent clause based on the earlier noun with a word like "who" or "which" so as not to repeat the word "Son" when it has not been explicitly repeated in the Greek.

The word "being" is the verb here. It is "present participle active - nominative masculine singular." Remember, verbs carry their subject pronouns with them, so we know that the subject must be masculine (grammatical gender) and singular--and the word "Son" certainly fits this.

Next comes the object, indicated by the "accusative" words "the" and "bosom."

The following definite article is of a different declension: it is genitive. This means one of several things, but usually it implies possession or belonging and is translated with "of" in English, in addition to the word with which it is associated--in this case the article (the), which is why the translation is rendered as "of the." The genitive noun to which the article corresponds also indicates its grammatical use in the sentence, completing the expression "of the Father."

Finally we have a demonstrative pronoun in nominative masculine singular form, where, again, the "nominative" indicates the word is a subject.

The final verb is in a special Greek form that has no English equivalent. It is the aorist indicative middle voice, third-person singular. While it could apply to either gender, we are already given the masculine gender explicitly in the prior word, so we know that it applies to a he/him. This Greek verb can be translated to a reflexive verb in English (which is why the "him" appears in brackets), even though it's technically not the same thing in Greek. There is no direct translation possible when one language lacks the same grammatical form.

If I were to summarize this translation, and render it in my own words, I would read it as:

No one has yet seen God. The only begotten Son, being in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed Him.

As you can see, the Greek grammar fairly tightly controls how it can be read or interpreted. There is much more degree of detail to its grammar than we would have in English. Even then, ambiguities can sometimes exist, but in this particular passage, it would be difficult to point to any ambiguity of significance.

That said, there is a Greek variant text which uses a different word in one place, replacing the word "Son" with the word "God" (Theos). To my understanding, that was a scribal error, because God is uncreated and was never born as a son. Numbers 23:19 makes it clear that God is not a son.

"God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19, KJV)

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    Excellence - precision and clarity. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 15:43
  • @Polyhat you answered my question in a really good and understandable manner. Thank you so much.
    – Noah
    Commented Oct 13, 2021 at 11:10
  • I see that you have gone with 'huios', rather than 'theos', for the second rendering of 'God/god', which is fine, as we are talking about the 'only begotten' Son of God, here after all, i.e. 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". Great understanding/presentation of the Greek rendering, as to grammar/declensions and subsequent meaning. Upvoted + 1. Commented Oct 13, 2021 at 11:35
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The biggest "problem" in John 1:18 is the dispute about its text. For a complete list of what MSS support each text variation, see UBS5. The two main types are listed below (with my overly literal translation):

UBS5/NA28/ W&H, etc

Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς Θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ Πατρὸς, ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. [= God, no one has ever seen. The unique God, the one in thy bosom of the Father, that one explained/revealed Him.]

Byzantine, Orthodox, TR, etc

Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός, ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. [= God no one has ever seen. The unique Son the one in the bosom of the Father, that one explained/revealed Him.]

Note that the main difference between these two versions is whether we have God vs Son as highlighted above.

The other matter here is the translation of the word μονογενὴς (monogenes) which BDAG defines as:

pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind) of something that is the only example of its category ... the renderings only, unique may be quite adequate for all its occurrences here, eg, John 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9, etc.

See the appendix below for more detail about this word. The point being that the unique Son/God (depending on which text is used) existed before Jesus' incarnation on earth. No birth is mentioned and there is not mention of Mary either. {Indeed, Mary is first mentioned in the Gospel of John in John 11:1.]

APPENDIX - Monogenes

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.

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  • The Nicene Creed seems to use the two roots interchangeably. Ke is éna Kírion, Iisoún Hristón, ton Ión tou Theoú ton monogení, ton ek tou Patrós gennithénta pró pánton ton eónon. Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 22:09
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    @MartinHemsley - and that is one of its difficulties. I prefer the meanings in the NT and LXX. The Nicene Creed came 300 years later.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 22:10
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A key point in your question that strikes me as most important to deal with is your correct view that the child Mary was carrying was given by the Holy Spirit. This is critical in order to establish what the text means by this one being "the uniquely divine begotten one".

John 1:18 uses the word monogenēs to tell us about the divine relationship of Father and Son, in one Holy Spirit. It does not tell us anything about birth. Nor does it tell us anything about the one called 'monogenēs' being God. There are some modern translations that change the text to μονογενὴς θεὸς = 'monogenēs Theos', making the translation read 'only-begotten God'. This is a different Greek variant (root text) of this verse that you ask about.

Its introduction goes back to the late 1800s when Dr Hort influenced a translation committee to go by a variant manuscript so as to make this change, and it undermines the unique, divine, relationship of the Father and Son, in one Holy Spirit. It is only several modern translations that make this change, based on that variant text. Few people even notice this, but God the Father was never 'only-begotten', only the Son holds this unique, relational position in the Godhead.

As an excellent explanation has already been given of how this verse must be translated the way it is, without that variant, and how intricate rules of Greek grammar apply so that there is no room for manoeuvre, I will say no more on that.

It only remains to point out that John 1:18 never says this only-begotten Son was born, nor does it say he is God. He was in the bosom position with God the Father, then had human nature (via Mary) added to his divine nature (via the operation of the Holy Spirit). That accounts for the uniqueness of this Holy One! The Prototokos was brought forth of Mary. He was The Son of her. And Joseph, as commanded by an angel, called his name Jesus. And this One alone could walk amongst us and declare and reveal the Father to us, because of their unique relationship in one Holy Spirit. Awesome!

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Polyhat and Anne have given their excellent answers already. Here, I'll supplement a little.

After reading a lot about John 1:18 lately I wondered if the verse could be translated/understood as:

God no one has ever seen; the uniquely divine begotten/born one.

It's fine for some readers but I would replace the semicolon with a colon.

Why should they be translated in a certain way and why can’t they be translated in another way (language wise)?

There is no one-to-one correspondence between the Greek manuscript and the English translation. Translators are humans subject to their human strengths and weaknesses. I always prefer to read multiple versions when doing a Bible study.

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Modern Greek lexicons has μονογενής (monogenēs) having two primary definitions:

(i) pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship and. (ii) pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind"

(Source: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition)).

This was the definition present in the one of the ancient versions (Latin). The extant Vetus Latina (Old Latin) manuscripts had μονογενης as "unicus" ("the only one" in the sense of "unique") whilst the Latin Vulgate had "unigenitus" (only/uniquely begotten).

It is commonly said that the rendering of μονογενης as unigenitus only started in the fourth century. However, we have evidence that μονογενης was understood as ''only begotten/uniquely begotten'' in the second century in Greek and in Latin:

Native Greek speaking Christians in the second century C.E. understood γενής in μονογενής as "begotten''.

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).

The second century Greek church fathers spoke of Jesus as ''only begotten'' before all creatures/ before the ages. In this case, μονογενες is accurately understood as ''only begotten'' because no other son is begotten of God from eternity (John 1:1-3, 1:18).

However, in the Gospel of John, μονογενες (1:14, 1:18) occurred in close proximity with other sons who were also described as ''begotten'' (ἐγεννήθησαν) of God (John 1:12-13). In this case, μόνος in μονογενες should be seen as ''unique'' (i.e. the only one of its kind, alone of its kind, single in category): ''uniquely begotten.''


conclusion

μονογενης θεος can be translated as:

  • uniquely begotten God (compare to only begotten God, NASB)
  • unique God (compare to only God, ESV)
  • unique One, who is himself God (NLT)
  • unique One, One who is divine (θεος being anarthrous and referring to the qualitative sense of "God").

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