No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.John 1.18, AV
The opening verses of the gospel of John are some of the most beautiful and astounding words of the New Testament. One of the key themes of this passage is the deity of Christ and the work of Christ manifesting God to his people. Christ is identified as the logos, the Word, who is distinct from the theos, the God, yet one with the theos. The logos was made flesh, and, John writes, we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father. Finally, in verse 18, John tells us that no one has ever seen God, but that the only begotten Son declares or manifests the Father to men. Yet modern translations of this verse tell a different story. The ESV, for example, reads, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” This may seem like a small difference, but the contrast between these two readings (“only God” vs. “only begotten Son”) is quite significant. The purpose of this article is two-fold: 1) to demonstrate that the proper translation of monogenēs is “only-begotten,” and; 2) to demonstrate that the proper reading of the text is huios and not theos.
The Translation of Monogenēs
The first point of controversy concerning this verse is the word monogenēs. Monogenēs is a Greek word whose translation, as noted above, has been disputed in modern times. The traditional translation of the word, as demonstrated in the AV reading, has been “only-begotten;” but modern translations render the word as “only,” “one and only,” or “unique.” This translation conundrum provides us with a significant doctrinal issue. By leaving out the concept of “begottenness” in their translation, modern English texts do away with one of the foundational texts supporting the historic, orthodox doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.
There are three pieces of evidence I would like to consider to demonstrate that the proper translation of the word is “only-begotten.” First, the lexical (dictionary) meaning of the word is “only-begotten.” Second, the word composition demands the translation “only-begotten.” The word monogenēs is a compound word composed of the Greek words monos and genos. The word monos means one, or only, and the word genos means descent. It is true that the word genos can refer more generally to a race or a genus, but its fundamental meaning refers to biological descent. The root of the word genos is genō, from which we get the verb for becoming or begetting (gignomai). Third, the early Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, translated this word with unigenitus, which means “only-begotten.” This indicates that the early church understood the word monogenēs to mean “only-begotten.”
There is a reason the ESV only translates half of the word monogenēs. J.I. Packer was the general editor of the ESV; Wayne Grudem was also on the translation committee. According to Dr. Grudem, both he and Dr. Packer hold to the view known as the Eternal Subordination of the Son. This is a heterodox view to say the least. By translating monogenēs as “only,” the editors of the ESV made a conscience interpretive decision to leave out the semantic conception of “begotten.” Therefore, the ESV rendering is not truly a translation, but an interpretation founded on the Trinitarian presuppositions of the editors. The reading “only begotten” in the AV is the correct translation of the word monogenēs.”
Theos or Huios?
The second point of controversy concerning this verse is whether the reading theos or huios is the original reading. To demonstrate that the correct reading is huios, I will present three different arguments in reverse order of priority; that is, the arguments will be presented from least important to most important.
1. The external evidence supports the originality of huios. The overwhelming majority of extant Greek manuscripts contain the reading huios; in fact, the reading huios is used in the Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine Text. The reading is also supported by two early codices: A and C3. The huios reading is also supported by the Latin Vulgate and the Old Latin tradition, as well as containing support from the Syriac Harklean translation of the early seventh century. In contrast, the reading theos (including with and without the definite article) is only supported by seven manuscripts: two papyri (P75 and P66) and five codices. The modern critical reading of theos is not founded on the papyri support, for the reading was adopted by Westcott and Hort prior to the discovery of those particular papyri. Rather, the modern reading is founded on the support of codices Sinaiticus (Aleph) and Vaticanus (B). In other words, the reading theos is adopted due to the bias of modern critical advocates toward codices Aleph and B. The overwhelming support of the Greek textual tradition is for huios.
2. The early extra-biblical citation history of this text supports the reading huios as original. NA27 cites Clement (an early church father) in support of both readings. Both Basil of Caesarea and John of Damascus cite the passage with the huios reading. Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who apostatized and wrote against Christianity, cited John 1.18 with the huios reading in the early fourth century. Consider also the words of the Athanasian Creed: “The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.” The Son is the only-begotten of the Father.
3. Finally, let us turn to internal evidence, which is the most conclusive in my opinion. The reading theos is in fact a heterodox reading. This reading conflates the logos with the theos, dismantling the distinction which John was careful to make in the preceding verses. Thus it presents a modalistic view of the Trinity, which is heretical. This reading is also very difficult in terms of logical coherence: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (ESV). If no one has seen God (theos), how can the theos make the theos known? This verse also points back to verse 3, where the logos is said to be with (pros) the theos. The theos is not with the theos, but the logos is with the theos. So why then would John later say that the theos is at the Father’s side, when earlier he had said that the logos is at the Father’s side? It is an incoherent reading. Lastly, the huios reading magnifies the deity of Christ by distinguishing the Son from the Father. Since the Son is the logos, and the logos is distinct from the theos yet one with the theos, the Son is distinct from the Father yet one with the Father. This is a key theme in the Johannine theology, especially his gospel.
Based on everything above, the AV translation and the TR reading of John 1.18 are the correct translation and the correct reading of that verse. This is one of my favorite verses to discuss the issue of our position on the text of Scripture. I believe this verse provides a clear example of the tremendous effects which can be seen from whether or not one holds to the modern critical text or the confessional text position. The doctrine of the Trinity is at stake in this verse. The issue of translational philosophy is at stake. This verse helps demonstrate the detrimental effects that result in adopting non-orthodox views of Scripture. Let us hold fast to that faith which was once delivered, and let us cling to God’s miraculous preservation of his word, which he kept pure in all ages so that his saints might be made perfect in godliness. “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1Ti. 1:17).