The "Only Begotten" Son?

The Greek word MONOGENHS (monogenes) is composed from two smaller Greek words 'mono' (one or only) + 'genos' (family or kind). It appears nine times in the New Testament: John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18, Hebrews 11:17, and 1John 4:9, where some translations (notably the King James) render it "only begotten" and then also in Luke 7:12, 8:42, and 9:38, where most translations (including the King James) render it "only".

The Greek word translated "beget" (be the father or mother of) is spelled with a double-nu (corresponding to the English letter "N"), but 'genos' and 'monogenes' have only a single nu (in that part of the word); it cannot have been constructed from the verb meaning "beget". The difference is clearly seen in John's first epistle (here from the KJV), chapter 4, where both words are used in the Greek text only two verses apart:

4:7  ...and every one that loveth is born [begotten=gegennetai, double nu] of God...
4:9  ...God sent his only [begotten? =monogene, single nu] Son into the world...
If the Greek word 'monogenes' is about begetting, as some people argue, then these two verses in close context contradict each other. There is no contradiction in the Greek, one is about begetting (giving birtth to) and the other is about uniqueness. If the Greek word 'monogenes' is about begetting, why is "begotten" omitted in the KJV translation of the work in all three Luke verses? The logical reason for that is that (in English) an "only son" (or daughter) is obviously "begotten" (naturally born) or else adopted (which is irrelevant here by its rarity). The point Luke is making is that the child has no siblings, is unique, and the translators obviously agreed. These three verses are not about being "begotten".

The flip side of the question is Hebrews 11:17, where the KJV uses the phrase "only begotten" in a case where that is clearly not true. Isaac had seven brothers, at that time only his older brother Ishmael, but later also Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah (by Abraham's second wife Keturah). They were all "begotten" from Abraham, but Isaac was distinctive, he was the "son of the promise." So in that verse, "only begotten" is a mistranslation; Isaac was "unique" but not "only begotten" in its etymological sense that he was the son of Abraham with no brothers.

Now we are ready to consider the five verses written by John, where 'monogenes' is attached to Jesus, and the KJV again translates it "only begotten." Is this like the Luke usage, where there are no siblings, or is it more like Hebrews, where there are siblings, but Jesus is unique and different from them all? Recall from John's epistle (two verses before 4:9) that every person who loves is "begotten" of God. The KJV didn't use the English word "begotten" there, but it did in 5:1 for the same verb (that same verb occurs three times in the Greek of 5:1, but the KJV translates one of them as "born" and the second  as "begat"). We do not use the Olde English verb "beget" in modern speech, but all three words in that KJV verse were reasonable translations of their respective Greek forms more than 400 years ago when it was translated. So we know from the immediate context of 4:9 that Jesus Christ had many "begotten" siblings, far more than Isaac did in the Hebrews verse. We also know and believe that God did not have a sex act with Mary, that Jesus was "begotten of his Father before all worlds." Oh wait, that line is not in the Bible, it's in the Nicene Creed. More on that later. We do know that the Word was with the Father "in the beginning" and participated with the Father in the creation of everything (John chapter 1), long before there was a Mary to have sex with. So the point of 'monogenes' in 1John 4:9 is not the "begetting", and not the "only", but rather the uniqueness of Jesus -- the same way that Isaac was unique in Hebrews, only more so.

Some people claim that "only begotten" is a necessary translation of 'monogenes' to show the Father-Son relationship, but that is not true. All but one of the nine places where this Greek word is used in the New Testament it is connected in the immediate context with a family-relational word (six times "son", one "father", and one "daughter"; in Hebrews it is implicit in the story). So it is not necessarily there for that purpose. Furthermore, Greek often omits redundant words except for emphasis. For example in the third Captious Question (about the resurrection, [Mark 12:26]) Jesus makes the case there in Mark that God is the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, that he is the God of the living, not the dead, and we are to see this based on the tense of the verb that isn't even there in the Greek! (The verb does appear in Matthew's account, but not Luke's.) In Matthew's parable of the Two Sons, the KJV has the second son replying "I go, sir," but the Greek text omits the verb. Look at your King James Bible, anywhere: see all those italicized words? They are not in the Greek (and Hebrew) text, because they were not needed to understand it. Both Greek and Hebrew omit unnecessary words, probably because of the high cost of writing and paper, of which we moderns have no experience. The "begotten" (the alleged father-child relationship) part of "only begotten" is superfluous in every one of the nine places where it occurs, and if that were an intrinsic part of the meaning of 'monogenes', at least some of them would have used 'monos' alone with the family relationship word already there. The fact that they did not strongly suggests that "begotten" is not a significant part of the meaning of the Greek word (if at all). In every case "unique" is the key element of the meaning, and most modern translations -- except the ones trying to hang onto the sonorous feel of the KJV -- correctly translate 'monogenes' as "only" or "unique."

The Septuagint ("LXX") is the Old Testament translated into Greek about 200BC, and therefore a good source of information about obscure word meanings; it used this word four times. I found the Greek+English online, and saw that the Greek-speaking Jews at that distant time seemed to consider 'monogenes' to be a good translation of a Hebrew word that emphasizes uniqueness but not begottenness at all. Here are the four places (note that the chapter and verse numbers are sometimes different between the Hebrew and English Bibles), with the Hebrew word and the KJV English of that Hebrew:

Reference Hebrew KJV translation in context Remarks
Judges 11:34 yechidah
...his daughter came out to meet
him with timbrels and with dances: 
and she was his only child
The (feminine) Hebrew adjective is 
about uniqueness, not kinship 
(which is elsewhere in the verse)
Psalms 21:21
"I alone"
"my precious"
Deliver my soul ... my darling
from the power of the dog.
The same Hebrew word, with the
1st-person pronoun suffix added;
note that the Hebrew poetic form 
equates "my soul" = "my darling"
Psalms 24:16
for I am desolate and afflicted. The same (masculine) Hebrew 
adjective with no suffix
Psalms 34:17
"I alone"
"my precious"
...rescue my soul ... my darling
from the lions.
Essentially the same construction
as 21:21
The Hebrew root meaning is "one" and this adjective occurs twelve times in the Hebrew Old Testament, but only these four times was it translated into Greek using  'monogenes' -- usually "beloved" (some form of 'agape'), once "solitary" ('monotropos'). Curiously, 'monogenes' is never used in the Genesis story cited in Hebrews 11:17.

So where did this "begotten" come from? It appears to have conceptually turned up first in the Nicene Creed more than 200 years after the Bible was completed, and where 'gennthenta' ("begotten") and 'monogenes' are together in the second sentence of the Creed as both applying to Jesus Christ. The (original Greek) Creed does not define them as equivalent, that happened later, possibly Athanasius in his defense (I don't have access to see what he actually said), but apparently a later revision or commentary explicitly linked the word 'gennthenta' to John 1:14 'monogenes'. The Latin version of the Creed translates 'monogenes' as "unigenitum" (meaning "only begotten"), and all subsequent Latin translations of the New Testament -- especially including Jerome's Vulgate -- preserve that equivalence.

It is important to recognize that the equivalence connecting 'monogenes' to "begotten" is an invention of the Latin translation of the Creed, it is not inherent in the original Greek text of the Creed, nor (as some slanderously claim) in the writings of Arius, against whose teachings the Nicene Creed was designed. We have the Greek text of (a portion of) the letter from Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, which he quoted (presumably accurately) in his Panarion half a century later. It is important not to trust the translations of the Panarion, because the translators are all motivated by their love for the Nicene Creed -- for example the translation into English I saw on the Lutheran web site re-arranged the text and left out significant portions, so that the clause 'pleres theos monogenes' ("fully [and] uniquely God") came out instead as three separate phrases "full <of grace and truth,> God, the only-begotten,..." Arius believed his theology was consistent with Scripture, and he was was using 'monogenes' in John 1:14 to show that the deity of Christ was indeed unique and eternal, just not the same as God the Father. Arius used the word "born" ('gennethe') later in the same sentence, in no way parallel to the uniquenes asserted by  'monogenes.' [See "Going Beyond Scripture" below]

I did a search on Old Latin (VL = "Vetus Latina" in Latin) Bible text, and found one site listing a dozen or more different VL manuscripts for the Gospel of John, and showing the text transcriptions of each version for each verse (sorry, no link: it's not browser-friendly). The two earliest manuscripts (VL2 = Codex Palatinus, and VL3 = Codex Vercellensis) consistently translated 'monogenes' as a (properly inflected) form of "unicus" (English: "unique" or "only"); later manuscripts consistently used "unigenitus" as apparently influenced by the Nicene Creed. Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation came after the Creed, but predates many of the later manuscripts. It appears that he relied heavily on the older Latin texts, except for 'monogenes,' which he replaced with "unigenitus" following the Creed. Although there seem to have been many Old Latin translations, most of them were heavily "corrected" over the years to resemble more closely the Vulgate (or at least the Creed, which was recited every week at Mass), so that the original text is lost from the late copies we have.

I also searched for other pre-Nicene translations of the New Testament. The most common early translations were Coptic and Syriac (Aramaic), but I could not find any Coptic texts online. Tatian's Diatessaron was a Syriac harmony translated about 150 years before the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately we have it only in translation to Arabic, and parts of it embedded in commentaries. I found a website with a fairly complete translation of the Diatessaron into English, and 'monogenes' is consistently rendered as "only Son" in each of the four verses in John. However it is not possible to determine if that is a result of the translator's anti-orthodox bias (he dates some of the New Testament well into the second century), or if it accurately reflects the original Syriac. A footnote in an academic treatment of Tatian's Christology mentions "Only-Begotten" in the Diatessaron's John 1:18, but that was not his topic and may only represent established church dogma.

The Peshitta (Aramaic Bible) was more fruitful. They showed the original Aramaic text of John's gospel, with a very literalistic translation into English. Each of the four occurances of 'monogenes' was translated as "Only-Begotten" but two of them added the parenthetical note "{lit. The One}" to clarify that the original Aramaic did not use the word "begotten." Using their popup "study tool" it was obvious that all nine verses (including Luke, Hebrews and 1John) translated 'monogenes' into the same root word "yachid" as the Hebrew (which is closely related to Aramaic) word in Psalms translated into 'monogenes' in the LXX. There is no "begotten" (Semitic root "yalad") in the Aramaic translation of 'monogenes' anywhere!

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, is often mentioned as an early witness to "unigenitus" as a valid translation of 'monogenes' but the claim is false. Irenaeus wrote in Greek (only a few fragments remain), and somebody else translated it into Latin. The Encyclopedia Britannica website says "Against Heresies is now known in its entirety only in a Latin translation, the date of which is disputed (200 or 400?)." The ambiguity of the translation date is probably significant, suggesting that both dates are accurate, the first being when it was originally translated (about the time of his death), and the second when it was "corrected" to conform to the Vulgate derived from the Nicene Creed. Consequently, without access to the original Greek, we can know nothing at all about what Irenaeus himself actually thought concerning 'monogenes.' If anything, the fragmentary evidence we have from Irenaeus argues (but not conclusively) against Only-Begotten-ism: the guy evidently refused to have his work translated into Latin (otherwise why is the earliest claimed translation date so close to his death?), and after the Latin was altered to conform to the Latin text of the Creed, all contrary copies of his original Greek they could find were destroyed. Church people do things like that -- otherwise the name Irenaeus would never show up in this debate at all.

One person mentioned that Tertullian cited Irenaeus (which is true), proving a Latin translation around 200 -- except that Tertullian never explicitly quoted Irenaeus that I could tell. He is mentioned by name only at the beginning of Adversus Valentinianos, where he gives credit to Justin, Miltiades, Irenaeus, and Proculus for his information. All eight instances of "Monogenes" (Latinized Greek, not actual Greek) in that Latin text appear to be the (untranslated) name of one of some thirty deities venerated by Valentinians, mostly named as abstract virtues (like "Wisdom" at the beginning of Proverbs). It is possible that Tertullian understood the Greek word 'monogenes' to mean "only begotten" because he quips that this deity should have been named "Protogenes" because he was born ("genitus") first, but I doubt that should necessarily be taken as a correct understanding of 'monogenes' in the Greek Bible. I did find "unigenitus" in two other writings, most notably Adversus Praxean, where it appears three times as quotes (or paraphrases) of Biblical verses and/or the Nicene(!) Creed. Given that the earliest manuscripts of Adversus Praxean are 11th century, it cannot be ruled out that the text had been altered some time during the intervening eight centuries to conform to the Creed. Another polemic Scorpiace makes the Son out to be "filium primogenitum et unigenitum sophia diuina," translated on this website as "divine Wisdom [has murdered even her own proper,] first-born and only Son." Note that the translator did not render "unigenitum" as "only-begotten" because that would make the text self-contradictory ("first-born" implies a second-born, which denies only-born). Apparently not all translators are driven by a commitment to the Latin Creed. The only two copies of Scorpiacedate to the ninth century. Because Tertullian's association with the Montanist heresy, his works were all marked as condemned in the 6th Century. If any alteration happened to bring his writings into conformance with the Creed, it must have happened before that time, since any motivation after condemnation would have been in the other direction (to make him more heretical, not less).

There are no early copies of translations of 'monogenes' anywhere that I could find or know of, that connect  it to "begotten;" all the translation copies we have that make that connection came after everybody at Nicea died and could no longer contradict the connection. We do have (copies of) early translations clearly making it mean "unique" -- and being "Scripture" they are inviolate, not subject to intentional change by later copyists. Other than Jerome's "new" translation of the Gospels, all other translations and copies originally connecting 'monogenes' to "begotten" are of polemic documents themselves lacking the authority of Scripture, and therefore also lacking the prohibition against "correcting" presumed errors of the original author.

The King James translators could have done the same thing as Jerome, because their "translation" was largely a revision of an earlier translation, the Geneva Bible, but they "corrected" it to conform more closely with approved ecclesiastical tradition (including the Roman Catholic translation). Although the Geneva Bible was a Protestant translation based on Tyndale's original translation from the Vulgate, most Protestants at that time still accepted the ancient Creeds, and 'monogenes' is translated "only begotten" in John's epistle (and probably also the Gospel, but it's only available in PDF, which is too slow for ready access). So essentially, "only begotten" in the King James Bible is derived from the Nicene Creed, and not from the most sensible meaning of the Greek text itself. Which is sort of funny, given that many of the most ardent supporters of Only-Begotten-ism claim to "have no creed but the Bible." Scripture should drive our creeds, not the other way around.

There is a "meta-question" (in the sense of "meta-physics," a question about the process rather than the facts) which occurs to me at this time: "Begotten" is not a modern English word, it is not in the language of the people. Today we use "born" to mean what "begotten" meant when it first showed up in the English Bible more than 400 years ago. So why is it that the Only-Begotten-ists are not arguing for the translation of 'monogenes' as "only born"? I think the answer is obvious: If they did, then the readers would laugh them out of court, because "the only born Son of the Father" sounds foolish. I think the modern translators saw that, and replaced that goofy-sounding phrase with the obvious "only Son of the Father," which is what you see in their translations. And because the whole "only born Son" sounds goofy in English, I'm inclined to think the original Author(s) of the New Testament would have thought the same thing of it in Greek, that is to say, "only born" or "only begotten" is not a reasonable translation of the 'monogenes' they did use.

So I asked the Bible study leader, "What modern American-English word or phrase would you use to translate this Greek word?" He had no answer. He was not arguing that "begotten" means the same as all the "begat"s in Matthew 1 (translated "was the father of" in the NIV), he wanted "only-begotten" to encompass all the theology of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ that it took him over two hours to explain, and which could best be summarized by the single modern (and ancient) word "unique," but he didn't want to use that word, and he had no reason he was willing to tell us why. I think he grew up on the sound of "begotten" in John 3:16 of the King James Bible, and that resonant sound has become more important to him than whether people understand what it means. So it would appear that people who want to preserve the archaic "begotten" in their translations are doing the very same thing they criticize the King James translators of doing with the Greek word 'baptizo' (meaning "dunk"), by using a non-English word to prevent lay readers from realizing that their current ecclesiastical practice was unBiblical. It's not a "translation" if the intended readers do not understand what it means.

It now seems to me that the King James Bible (and not the best reading of the Greek text) has become the "creed" that drives Only-Begotten-ism. If not, then why are they trying so hard to preserve it? A few weeks ago the Bible study leader at the church I attend announced his intention to argue for "begotten" but deemed it important first to present the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. OK I get that, it's all through the Bible, especially the first half of Hebrews. But how is that relevant, except to argue against Only-Begotten-ism? I want to ask him: What important Biblical doctrine is lost by translating 'monogenes' as the contextually consistent and etymologically correct "unique" instead of as "only begotten" introduced to the church in Nicea? If such a doctrine cannot be found in the Bible apart that translation anomaly, why would anybody consider it to be "Biblical"? Isn't that circular reasoning? This fellow did not do that, he argued for the uniqueness of Christ apart from 'monogenes' and I agree. Compare the doctrine of the Trinity, also first clearly expressed in the Nicene Creed, and also implicitly taught in the Bible apart from the Creed. The Father-Son relationship is clearly taught in Scripture without mistranslating 'monogenes' or adding "begotten" to the kinship word already there in each context (read for example, the NIV), and the uniqueness of the Son is much better expressed by the word "unique" (which we all use and understand in modern speech) than by an archaic term long gone from it. What else is there?

Until this month, my only exposure to this question was my Greek teacher in seminary explaining the double- vs single nu. I was unable to find any scholarly documentation about the etymology of 'gennao' ("beget") that explained where the double nu came from, nor even that cited any sources older than 200 years, other than the King James Bible. That somehow seems significant.

I Googled the larger question and turned up several interesting articles, one of them quite scholarly (see links below). In it Michael Marlowe cites a lot of references, but comes down solidly in favor of Only-Begotten-ism, and I was prepared to switch sides -- until I read through his presentation more carefully and evaluated his arguments logically. He makes numerous lengthy ad-hominem attacks on people defending the other side, and although I try to ignore that kind of illogic, it did not help convince me. It seems his strongest argument is that it could be translated "begotten" in each case, but not that it must be so in any of them. After considerable evaluation, I now consider Hebrews 11:17 to be the strongest argument against Only-Begotten-ism, and 1John 4:7,9 tied with the pre-Nicene LXX, VL and Peshitta usage for second. I do not know enough about ancient Greek morphology to know how much stock to put in the double-nu issue. I wish I knew (and had access to) Coptic, so I could compare also that ancient translation, but life is too short. It's probably not even worth fighting over [Rom.14:13,22], because it doesn't affect any essential doctrine, only the readability of our translations. The King-James-Only crowd are not going to be convinced by any logic I can muster, and Only-Begotten-ism is part of their package. It has nothing to do with accuracy and everything to do with preserving the warm fuzzies. They have their reward.

Tom Pittman
2016 May 30, slightly revised (additional paragraphs added) June 1,6


The Only Begotten Son -- by Michael Marlowe, arguing for "begotten" (see comments above).

The Only Begotten Son of God -- (unsigned) argues against "begotten" in a somewhat more readable way.

The Qur'an Attacks ... Christianity? -- (unsigned, but apparently the same author) argues vigorously that insisting on "begotten" makes evangelizing Muslims much more difficult, because they understand that word (as explained in the Qur'an) to mean that God had sex with Mary. While we should not let unbelievers or social issues drive our translations, it seems curious -- nay, rather Providential -- that the pressure here is toward what good scholarly thinking already found.

Jesus: Born, but Not Begotten -- by Bob Williams, argues that translating it as "begotten" in effect adds (an extra letter) to Scripture, and leads to unwarranted heresies like Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Going Beyond Scripture

Scripture is repeatedely very clear [Deut.4:2,12:32, Prov.30:5,6, Rev.22:18,19 and others like 1Cor.4:6], that we are not to "add to God's Word," but the temptation seems to many people irresistable. Logically, there is no meaning for "before time" and Scripture does not contradict that. "In the beginning" God created the universe (presumably including time), and "in the beginning" the Word already was, and was God. That is all that can be said about it. Arius tried to go beyond Scripture by claiming something that has no meaning, that "before time and before eternity...before [the Son] was born or created or forseen or established, he was not." There is no such thing -- there cannot be any such thing -- as something happening "before time and before eternity," and Scripture makes no such claim, and that should have been how the Nicenes answered him.

But instead the council at Nicea committed the same logical error and went beyond Scripture in the other direction. "Begotten of his Father before all worlds" also attempts to say something about which nothing can be said. Scripture tells us, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father" [oNIV Psalm 2:7, quoted in Acts 13:33 and Heb.1:5, 5:5; KJV: "begotten thee"]. "Today" is a point in time, of which fact we are reminded in Hebrews 4:7. There is no "today" before time and before eternity. The Word pre-existed time and participated in the creation of time and space, but the Word became flesh (changed to a new state) after time began. That much we know and can understand.

In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter what did or did not happen in the non-existent "before time and before eternity," and it certainly does not affect our salvation or eternal destiny -- there is no Scripture anywhere that requires correct theology (other than confessing Jesus as LORD and believing God raised him from the dead) to be saved. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word became subject to the limitations of time at a particular point in time (after the "beginning") so that we creatures inherently limited to time and space can be reconciled to God our Creator, but we do not need to understand it. We probably cannot understand the whole of it. We have been given work to do here in time and space, and we should focus our efforts on doing that. What did or did not happen "before time" is both irrelevant and nonsensical.

Tom Pittman
2016 June 11