“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. 16I 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):