Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 21

Was Jesus “Begotten” or "Unique"? (John 3:16)

“Begotten” is the KJV translation of μονογενής in John 3:16. It describes the unique relationship of Jesus to the Father. However, the KJV “begotten” is based on a misunderstanding of how the word was formed. μόνος conveys the idea of “one and only” (“being the only entity in a class,” BDAG) and γενός refers to a specific “class” or “kind.” From γένος, English derives its word “genus,” i.e., “species.”

For μονογενής to convey the idea of “begotten,” μονογενής would have had to be formed from γεννάω (with two nu’s). But μονογενής has a single nu, which means it is formed from γίνομαι, which is formed from the root γεν, which is visible in its cognate noun γένος.

The mistaken translation may have been influenced by the Latin Nicene Creed which uses unigenitum, “only-begotten.” It appears to be an ecclesiastical term and not one in general use.

γένος does have a range of meaning that might prove confusing to some. It can mean “ancestral stock,” hence descendant, even “a relatively large people group,” hence nation, people (BDAG). But this is not the same as “Son,” and the other meaning of γένος is “entities united by common traits,” hence class, kind (BDAG). Commentaries are unanimously agreed that in John 3:16 the word places its emphasis on uniqueness. Translations likewise translate the phrase as “(one and) only Son.”

You can see the sense of uniqueness when μονογενής is used to describe an only child:

  • “only son” (μονογενής υἱὸς, Lk 7:12);
  • “only daughter” (θυγάτηρ μονογενής, Lk 8:42);
  • “my only child” (μονογενής μοί, Lk 9:38, note that there is no specific word for “child”).

It is used of Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” in the sense of the single one through whom the promises of God would be fulfilled (μονογενῆ, Heb 11:17). The NASB apologetically adds the footnote, “i.e., only son through Sarah,” i.e., the son of the promise. The NET footnote comments, “it was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clement 25:2).”

The other uses of μονογενής are in John’s writings:

  • ”the only Son from the Father,“μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός (Jn 1:14);
  • “only God” (μονογενής θεός, Jn 1:18);
  • “his only Son” (μονογενής θεός, Jn 3:16, no specific word for “Son”);
  • “only Son” (μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ, Jn 3:18);
  • “his only son” (τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ; 1 Jn 4:9).

Certainly in John 1:8, μονογενής cannot mean “only begotten” since it describes Jesus as “God.” It would make no sense to describe Jesus as the only begotten God.

This unique relationship between God and Jesus is seen elsewhere in God being the Father and Jesus the Son, the Beloved (Matt. 3:17), and in Jesus’ differentiation between his disciples and himself. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn 20:17).

I know that it is hard to see a traditional translation changed, but better to get it right than stick with an inaccurate tradition.

Comments

¶ If merely "unique," then the reader could fall back to the Arian heresy that Jesus was created, not begotten. Jesus "unique"? What would that imply, with respect to Jesus in John 3:16? We are all "unique" and distinct from one another. Why bother saying that? It provides no useful information. ¶ I think that the problem is another English-ism. We have the words "born" and "beget," as contrasted to "generate" or "create." But they didn't have a word, "born" or "begotten." A person "generated" a child. There were other words for "make," or "create." If Jesus was "generated," then it had to have been as a function of life generating life, our word "beget." Also note that English "born" refers to coming out of the womb, nine months after conception. We know that human life begins at the point of conception, not nine months later when the baby comes out. ¶ Yet with my last sentence we have come full circle. For, in English, "conceive/conception" is a general word that is much broader than of the conception of a baby inside a mother's womb. ¶ Yet, if John 3:16 was translated "only-conceived," that would not be specific enough. Jesus was "conceived" of the Holy Spirit, his father being God (the Father), and his mother being human (Mary). He is the only one who came to be in the flesh that way. There were none before nor after. You could say that he was the "only-conceived" son of God, "conceived" referring to his "conception" inside Mary's womb. But, you see, "conceived" in English is too general. Jesus was not "conceived" as an idea. As a career engineer in a design/development capacity, I conceived, designed, and saw the production of many engineering products, from initial idea to final implementation. ¶ Checking both the LSJ and Brill, which are secular (!), classical dictionaries, they are in agreement that γενος has as its first definitions that of the procreation of living beings. "Class, kind" are way down there in the definition, yet still refer to the procreation of living things and, in the rare case they deviate from that, it is by analogy to the procreation of living things. How is it that you get a secular definition from BDAG, a Christian dictionary, and yet I get the meaning of "derived from life" from the secular dictionaries? ¶ You object that John 1:18 "cannot mean 'only begotten,' since it describes Jesus as 'God,'" but Jesus was, is, and always will be God. That (God) the Son was "begotten" of the virgin Mary in the flesh is foundational to Christian doctrine, and why Arianism was declared heresy in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. ¶ So, in conclusion, "only-begotten" is the best translation. It is not "tradition." It is what they meant when they used the root γεν_/γιν_, (with two "Nu" characters or one), because that is how they used the word γενος.

I want to clarify a sentence I may not have phrased quite right, "That (God) the Son was "begotten" of the virgin Mary in the flesh is foundational to Christian doctrine, and why Arianism was declared heresy in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD." I said "begotten...in the flesh" but his physical conception in the flesh is not specifically what Arius had a problem with, of course. Arius used Col 1:15 πρωτοτοκος πασης κτισεως "firstborn of all/every creation," the same way that Jehovah's Witnesses do today, to claim that this means that Jesus was created. However, that is not how the word πρωτοτοκος is used. Arius misunderstood πρωτοτοκος to mean πρωτοκτιστος, "first-created," a word that could have been used but wasn't. It has been established in orthodox/mainstream Christian doctrine (affirmed in 325 AD) that Jesus is eternally the "firstborn" with no beginning or end, the αρχη, "origination," of the creation of God (Rev 3:14). Again, the mistranslation of μονογενη to mean "unique" means nothing, whereas "only-begotten" is what the word means. It is true that Jesus is "unique" in that he was the only one "begotten" of the Father, whereas we were all "begotten" of men, and are adopted sons of God, not begotten sons of God. But he is more than "unique." He is the only-begotten Son of God. ¶ μονογενη...προτοτοκος...αρχη.... We have to get these words right in translation.

What a thought provoking article! Thank you! I am in an MTS program right now and just wrote a paper that touched on Arianism. The question I have regards the findings of Alexander of Alexandria and his successor Athanasius. They both understood from Scripture that Jesus was begotten. In fact, it seems that Arius’s wayward Christology might have been founded upon this meaning. Begotten = created = not timeless = mutable = capable of sin and not God by nature. I am new to commenting here, but if you are in the habit of commenting back, I am curious as to how you would balance this? I’ve greatly enjoyed your work and blog. Thank you!

Have you interacted with any of Charles Lee Irons arguments to the contrary? I would love to see that. Here the popular version: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-go-back-to-only-begotten/

Have you read any of Grudem's second edition of his systematic theology? He touches on this translational issue and actually comes down on the side of γενναω based on recent scholarship, so I'd be curious to see if you find his argument persuasive.

Dr Mounce, thank you for sharing this. I have always found your explanation of μονογενής helpful. I did notice however, that you said this: “his only Son” (μονογενής θεός, Jn 3:16, no specific word for “Son”) -- ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν -- It does appear that this portion of John 3:16 does mention the specific word for "Son". Was this a typo in the article?

Bill, can you please clarify what you are trying to say regarding John 20:17 in this instance? Thank you