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Chapter 10. John 1:18 – The Only Begotten God or the Only Begotten Son?

– Chapter 10 –

John 1:18: The Only Begotten Son or the Only Begotten God?

English Bibles disagree over John 1:18

ESV and HCSB, two modern Bibles that were first published at around the same time, give conflicting trans­lations of John 1:18:

ESV: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

HCSB: No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him.

Which is correct, ESV or HCSB? ESV has “the only God,” a trinit­a­rian render­ing that makes Jesus the only God, whereas HCSB has “the One and Only Son,” a non-trinitarian ren­dering that makes Jesus the Son of God.

These repre­sent two camps. One camp includes HCSB, CJB, KJV, NJB, RSV, REB, which prefer the non-trinitarian “the only Son” or var­iat­ions such as “the one and only Son”. The other camp in­cludes ESV, NASB, NIV, NET, which prefer the trinita­rian “the only God” or variat­ions such as “the only begotten God”.

In the “only God” camp (the trinitarian), there is further different­iation between “the only God” and “the only begotten God” as seen in ESV versus NASB (italics added):

ESV No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

NASB No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

ESV’s rendering is problematic in both logic and theology. What sense do we make of “the only God”? If Jesus is the only God, then Jesus must be invisible in some concrete sense, for the verse says that “no one has ever seen God”. Worse yet, if Jesus is the only God, that would ex­clude the Father as God, a conclusion that would be blas­phemous even to trinitarians; it would also con­tradict John 17:3 which says that the Father is the only true God.

The external evidence

These two camps represent two opinions on which Greek text-type is to be used for translating this verse: the Byzantine versus the Alexan­drian. To put it simplistically, the “only Son” ren­dering is based on the Byzantine text-type (popular­ly known as the Majority Text), which is the text-type with the widest attest­ation (textual support) among all known Greek manuscripts. On the other hand, the “only God” is based on the Alexandrian text-type which is represented by manu­scripts which, though fewer, are generally of an earlier date and usually given more weight in UBS5 and NA28.

The criterion of early date is reasonable but does not by itself take into account the fact that even early manu­scripts can have errors (e.g., a misreading of the Aramaic, as we will see). Responsible NT exegesis takes into con­sideration both the Majority Text and the UBS5/NA28 critical text, supplemented with educated assessment, so it is not a matter of choos­ing the one to the exclusion of the other.

The Greek text underlying the “only begotten God” translation is the Novum Testament­um Graece (NA27/NA28) and the United Bible Societies Greek NT (UBS4/UBS5).

The compan­ion vol­ume to UBS4, A Textual Com­ment­ary on the Greek NT (2nd edition), explains on pp.169-170 that manu­scripts P66 and P75 were what influenced the “majority” of the UBS editorial committee of five scholars to prefer “the only begotten God”.

But one of the five, Allen Wikgren, a distin­guished Greek and NT textual expert, registered his ob­jection to the commit­tee’s decision in a note that is included in the commentary in which he says that monogenēs theos (the only begotten God) “may be a primitive [early] trans­cript­ional error in the Alexandrian tradit­ion” — the trad­ition that asserted Jesus’ deity and later triumphed at Nicaea.

Wikgren adds, “At least a D decision would be prefer­able.” When a text in UBS4 is classified as {D}, it means that “there is a very high degree of doubt concerning the reading se­lected for the text”. In fact there is already slight doubt for this reading in UBS4 and UBS5 where the classifi­cation is {B}, indicating that the textual evid­ence favors monogenēs theos (the only begotten God), but not overwhelm­ingly so.

Another committee member, Matthew Black, in his book An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, cites with appro­val anoth­er Aramaic scholar’s assessment that:

… one of Burney’s most valua­ble obser­vations of this kind [a misread­ing of the Aramaic] is that the disputed monogenēs theos in John 1:18 mis­translates yehidh ‘elaha, “the only-begotten of God” (p.11).

In other words, some early copyists misread “the only be­gotten of God” as “the only begotten God”! It is alarming that the de­cision of a “majority” of the five-member committee has resulted in millions of copies of the Bible being printed with “the only begotten God” rather than “the only be­gotten of God”. Most Bible read­ers don’t know the story behind this reading.

The internal evidence

Here is the situation so far: The manuscript evidence for John 1:18 is divided between “the only begot­ten Son” and “the only begotten God”. The divergence is seen in the lack of consensus within the UBS commit­tee — hence the {B} level of uncertain­ty in favor of “the only begot­ten God” — but also in the divergence among mainstream Bibles, some of which prefer the trinitar­ian reading (ESV, NASB, NIV, NET) and some the non-trinitarian (HCSB, CJB, KJV, NJB, RSV, REB). Hence the textual evidence does not, by itself, settle the issue. So what about the inter­nal evidence?

In the New Testament, monogenēs (“only” or “unique,” BDAG) is used of Jesus only in John’s writings. More­over, the five instances of mono­genēs in John’s writ­ings all refer to Jesus and to no one else.

Hence we only need to focus on John’s writings for our analysis. Here are the four verses in the New Testament outside John 1:18 in which monogenēs is applied to Jesus (all verses are from NASB):

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we be­held His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not be­lieve has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

1 John 4:9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.

We make a few observations:

  • The last three verses in this list are outside John’s Prologue, and all three speak of the “only begot­ten Son”. Hence, outside the Pro­logue, when­ever mono­genēs is used of Jesus, it always refers to him as the only begot­ten Son and never the only begotten God.
  • The first of these four verses, John 1:14, has neither “Son” nor “God,” so for our purposes it constitutes “neutral” evidence for decid­ing between “the only begotten Son” and “the only begotten God”.
  • If we read the debated John 1:18 as “the only begotten God” (the trinit­ar­ian reading), it would contra­dict all the other verses in John’s writings that speak of “the only be­gotten Son”. The fact is that the phrase “only begotten God” ap­pears nowhere in the NT outside the debated John 1:18. Why would John be in­con­sistent with himself, using “only begotten Son” consist­ently except in John 1:18? If we detach this verse from the rest of John’s writings by making it say “only begot­ten God,” it would be left without parallel anywhere in John’s Gospel or even the NT. We must bear in mind that John applies mono­genēs to Jesus with careful deliberation because he applies it to no one else.
  • But if we read John 1:18 to say “the only begotten Son,” all five verses would harmon­ize.
  • Not surprisingly, of the five verses, only John 1:18 has signifi­cant textual issues. The other four have no textual problems and are given zero commentary in UBS5’s criti­cal appar­atus.

One could, however, argue as a basic principle of textual criticism that since “the only begotten God” is the more diffi­cult read­ing than “the only begot­ten Son,” it is more likely that the former was changed to the latter to smooth out the diffi­culties. This could be so, but the fact remains that the textual issues for John 1:18 are not doctrin­ally neutral, unlike some other verses which are doctrin­ally neutral despite hav­ing textual issues. An example is the verse just after it, John 1:19, which has textual variations in the clause, “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem,” but is doctrinally neutral.

Doctrinal forces are a crucial factor because the pro­cess of deify­ing Jesus started before A.D. 200. If indeed “the only be­gotten God” was the established reading in the early man­uscripts already in circul­ation around A.D. 200, wouldn’t it be quickly adopted by the Gen­tile church leaders who were by then already elevating Jesus to deity? Yet the fact remains that the majority of NT texts have “the only begotten Son”.

That is why Allen Wikgren, whom we quoted, says that the “only begotten God” reading may be an early “trans­criptional error in the Alexan­d­rian tradition,” i.e., it is the result of early trinit­arian influences.

James F. McGrath, in his book, The Only True God: Early Christian Mono­theism in Its Jewish Context, makes some striking com­ments on John 1:18, including the observation that manu­scripts P66 and P75 (regarded by some as tipping the balance in favor of “the only begotten God”) contain evid­ence of trinita­rian influence. For example, both P66 and P75 delete the word “God” from John 5:44 to avoid saying that the Father is “the only God”; the Father is now simply “the only,” making it possible to include Jesus as God. P66 adds “the” to “God” in John 10:33 to make Jesus “the God” rather than “god” in the reduced sense of Psalm 82:6 (“you are gods”). Here is an excerpt from McGrath’s book:

The attestation of two early Alexandrian papyrus manuscripts of the Gos­pel, known as P66 and P75, is frequently given more weight than it deserves. P75 is indeed a very early text, but it frequently gives a reading which is generally ac­cepted to be in­ferior, and in a few instances shows signs of conscious add­itions or alterations having been made. Also signi­fi­cant is the agree­ment of these two manu­scripts in omitting the word God in John 5:44, which almost all scholars agree was part of the original text. Beasley-Murray regards this as accidental, but it may equally be the case that the scribes who copied these manu­scripts had difficulty refer­ring to the Father as the only God, since the Logos can also be spoken of as “God.” Also significant is that P66* adds the definite article before the word “God” in John 10:33. There are thus indi­cations that the copyists of these manuscripts had a particular the­ological view which their trans­cription reflects. Both of these manu­scripts preserve inferior readings in abundance … (p.65, footnotes omitted)

Philip W. Comfort, in his ardently trinitarian textual com­ment­ary, A Commentary of the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament, says on p.248 that “the only begotten God” is the probable reading for John 1:18 for aligning with the rest of John’s Prologue in pro­moting the deity of Christ, and is a mirror of John 1:1 and a fitting conclusion to the Prologue. But this argument is uncon­vincing not only because of its circular reasoning (it presupposes the deity of Christ while trying to argue for it), but also because the evidence could equally ar­gue for the opposite by exposing an obvious trin­ita­r­ian motive for giving John 1:18 a trin­itar­ian read­ing, a factor that cannot be ignored because of the rising deification of Jesus in the early church.

Bart D. Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus, p.162) says that the original wording of John 1:18 is more likely to be “unique Son” than “unique God” because the alterat­ion of “unique Son” to “unique God” is plausi­bly accounted for by the preservation of “unique” in both. The point is that if a copy­ist had, for doctrinal reasons, changed the unproblem­atic “unique Son” to the pro­blematic “unique God” (prob­lem­atic because it would exclude the Father as God), then by failing or forget­ting to remove the accompanying word “unique,” the scribe exposed his own alterat­ion and defeated his own efforts.

In the final analysis, irrespective of what may be the external or internal evid­ence, the end result is that Bibles such as CJB, KJV, NJB, HCSB, RSV, REB, despite their trinitarian leanings to one degree or another, have chosen to translate John 1:18 in a non-trinit­arian way. By con­trast, ESV gives John 1:18 a trin­itarian reading despite the immense difficulties that it creates. It makes John contra­dict himself and implies that Jesus is “the only God” to the exclusion of the Father as God.

Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon on monogenēs rejects the “only be­got­ten God” reading for John 1:18 because it is incongru­ous with John’s way of thinking and may have been doctrinally motivated:

The reading monogenēs theos (without the article before monoge­nēs) in John 1:18, which is supported by no inconsid­erable weight of ancient testimony … is foreign to John’s mode of thought and speech (John 3:16,18; 1John 4:9), disso­nant and harsh — appears to owe its origin to a dogmatic zeal which broke out soon after the early days of the church.


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