‘Only begotten God’ or ‘Only begotten son’ (John 1:18)

“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God (or Son)…” John 1:18a


John 1:18 contains a rather significant textual variant, where the evidence it pretty evenly divided between two primary choices. There are some less-frequent variants, but the two primary considerations are as follows:

-only begotten God (the more difficult textual reading)

-only begotten son (the easier textual reading)

For the last ten years, I resolved in my mind that one might never get back at what the original reading was. On one hand, scribes during the first few centuries after the composition John’s Gospel were certainly theologically motivated to alter the reading, if it originally read ‘son,’ to a higher christological title like ‘God.’ On the other hand, scribes were also known to conform difficult readings to look like their counterparts, such as John 3:16 (where the reading is “only begotten son”). In light of those considerations, I left John 1:18 as an unknown.

A few points have recently led me to reconsider the stalemate in my mind. In particular, many of the early Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertullian, quoted the version of the text which read “son.” Tertullian’s attestation is most noteworthy, since he was an ardent defender of the literal ‘incarnation’ (God becoming a human being, therefore Jesus would be God without reservation). If Tertullian quoted a version which read “only begotten son”, then this makes a strong case for being the original reading.        

The early manuscripts of 1:18 which read “God” are all of the Alexandrian textual type. On the other hand, nearly every other textual tradition (Western, Byzantine, Caesarean) read “son.” This likely indicates, if there was a change from “son” to “God,” that the change and reduplication of such traditions occurred in one geographical region.

If the original read “God,” then it is best interpreted in light of the remainder of the verse (1:18) which states that Jesus has ‘exegeted’ (explained) the Father. In other word, the exalted title indicates the function of the son in revealing the Father to the world. 

If the original read “son,” then it fits with other like references to the “only begotten son” (cf. John 3:16). One does need to have a solid answer for addressing the nature of the word “begotten,” which refers to one who has been brought into existence. This raises the question of the validity of speaking of any literal sort of pre-existence (how can you exist prior to being brought into existence?).   

I recently picked up a new commentary in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series. Urban C. von Wahlde wrote a three-part series dealing with the origins of the Fourth Gospel/Johannine letters (vol. 1), the Fourth Gospel (vol. 2), and the Letters of John (vol. 3). You too can own the set for about $120 (or if you think like me, that means giving up 35 cups of Starbucks). In the second volume,  Commentary on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), von Wahlde makes the following case for the “son” reading: 

The UBS and Nestle texts prefer “the unique God.” Textual attestation is strongest for theos…This, in addition to the general principle that “the more difficult reading is to be preferred,” has led the editors to prefer that reading. However, B. Ehrman (Corruption 78-82) has recently argued persuasively that huios…is to be preferred…The notion of “unique God” (monogenes theos) so close to the mention of the Father as “God” is so difficult as to be meaningless. Ehrman thus argues that theos is in fact an “orthodox corruption” of the text, i.e., that it was meant to affirm the divinity of Jesus in the face of attempts to subordinate Jesus to the Father. -p. 16
I feel, in light of the above considerations, that the reading “only begotten son,” is more likely to be the original reading of John 1:18. 
Below is p66, where the reading is theos (note the abbreviated Greek reading of the word in question):

12 thoughts on “‘Only begotten God’ or ‘Only begotten son’ (John 1:18)

  1. Dear Dustin, my Greek scarcely embraces the greek alphabet. Can I ask you the favour of updating the above image with an arrow at the monogenos Ths? This would be of great value as I review Tuggy’s episode 70 with a friend tonight (European time!). No worries if not. Thanks.

      1. Thanks! Man, that is so hard, I had spent ages trying to find it, but with those two letters actually being closer to the surrounding letters than each other, it made me wonder if those scribes were deliberately making it harder for later generations!!

        During our theological chat last night, my friend and I touched on the subject of inerrancy. Are there people you know who are fully aware of the textual unknowns and hold strictly to inerrancy, and how do they hold that in balance?

      2. Some who know them dont want to “hurt the faith” belinging to their audience, so they are hush hush concerning the variants and the discrepencies. For me, honesty is the name of the exegetical game, not harmonization.

  2. You are wrong about Irenaeus. In AGAINST HERESIES, BOOK 4, CHAPTER 20, PARAGRAPH 11 He quotes “only begotten God in the bosom of the Father”

    1. I checked this and it is true, assuming the translation is correct: although he appears to quote both variations of the same text:
      for all things learn through His Word that there is one God the Father, who contains all things, and who grants existence to all, as is written in the Gospel: “No man has seen God at any time, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father; He has declared [Him].” John 1:18

      1. and the other quote on the same page is ….But His Word, as He Himself willed it, and for the benefit of those who beheld, did show the Father’s brightness, and explained His purposes (as also the Lord said: “The only-begotten God, which is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared [Him];” and He does Himself also interpret the Word of the Father as being rich and great);

  3. Here’s what Tertullian believed about Christ’s divinity.

    Tertullian continued (Against Praxaes)

    Chapter 2. The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity and Unity, Sometimes Called the Divine Economy, or Dispensation of the Personal Relations of the Godhead

    In the course of time, then, the Father forsooth was born, and the Father suffered, God Himself, the Lord Almighty, whom in their preaching they declare to be Jesus Christ. We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or οἰκονομία, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her— being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead;

    1. I should have prefaced this with some commentary in case someone does not know that Tertullian introduces this paragraph, continuing from the previous one, speaking of Praxaes’ heresies and he starts out stating what they say… and then switches, notice, to what the church believed back then. Also ignore the TITLE that was crafted by the Catholic church, not Tertullian.

  4. Dustin, may I ask what are what are your credentials? Specifically, what is your level of the Greek Hebrew and Aramaic languages and where did you learn them if at all?

  5. Monogenes, a title of Isaac in Genesis (LXX), for Israel in apochrycal Esdras (RSV). Like “firstborn” implies being chosen. Not a product of a unique act of seminal (auto)fertilization and later intrauterine labour before the creation…

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