Making Sense of John 1:18 – “God” or “Son?”

My friend Dan Gill recorded and edited a short video discussion involving myself in which we talked about the finer details of the textual variant in John 1:18. I think it turned out really well. Interestingly enough, on this point Bart Ehrman and I are actually in agreement (see his discussion in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 78-82). See also Urban C. von Wahlde’s three volume contribution on The Gospel and Letters of John in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (2:16).


13 thoughts on “Making Sense of John 1:18 – “God” or “Son?”

  1. I am surprised that you did not discuss the view of the majority of contemporary textual critics who see the “begotten God” reading in John 1:18 as the oldest, most difficult, and superior — and who note that the confusion of one similar Greek letter (changing theos to uios) betrays a copyist error, rather than a theologically-motivated, deliberate change.

    And I was surprised that you take the word “seen” in this verse to be comprehended as — or at least inclusive of — a literal, visual viewing of God. The common theological explanation — that is surely right — is that, as Calvin put it, “When [John] says that no one has seen God, it is not to be understood of the outward seeing of the physical eye. He means that, since God dwells in inaccessible light, he cannot be known except in Christ…”

    With this understanding of “seen,” the latter term in the verse, “reveals,” may be thought of as in the same category of thought, yielding a balancing literary effect: “On their own, no one can know the Father; but the unique One, who is God [following the view of the majority of textual scholars], makes him known.” Similarly, Matthew 11:27 reads, “…no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” So we can take both John and Matthew as uttering a spiritual and theological truth that still holds true: God cannot be “seen” unless he is revealed; and Jesus — as God and as the Son — is the means of that revealing.

    I understand your point of view, but isn’t it significant to you that a number of competent scholars disagree and can give substantive reasons for their disagreement?

    I struggled, for a long time, with the idea that Jesus is God, but among many other reasons for recognizing this as the apostolic view, was, for me, a close reading of John 19:28. The expressions of the verse follow this sequence:

    (1) “Answered Thomas” (where the word “answered” is in the emphatic position and is the standard indication of a response to what has just preceded, which is, in this case, the stern rebuke of Jesus for Thomas’ lack of faith)

    (2) “and said to him” (indicating that Thomas’ words are addressed directly to Jesus)

    (3) “the Lord of me and the God of me” (leaving no doubt that Thomas intended to acknowledge the full deity of Christ).

    Then in the next verse, Jesus receives Thomas’ utterance as an acceptable expression of faith.

      1. I wrote to say to Dustin that I was genuinely surprised at two lines of thought he had taken in his video discussion and to suggest that — in John’s Gospel — there is at least one particular exchange between Jesus and a disciple that seems to be a straightforward declaration of Jesus’ deity.

        I was not being facetious; and I was not interested in getting into a meandering discussion about the meaning of the Greek word, monogenes, that is used in John 1:18 — which the majority of scholars deny has anything to do with being born.

        If Dustin wishes, he can respond to what I have written; and if he doesn’t want to do that, I hope he at least reflects deeply on my comment.

    1. Bobby

      How do you know Thomas was “leaving no doubt that Thomas intended to acknowledge the full deity of Christ”??

      How do you know exactly what Thomas meant???

      If you want to exegete Thomas’ statement – why don’t you stick with the a) the Book of John and b) the NT Canon – RATHER THAN anchronistically add your own presupposition to the text.

    1. Please look into scholarly discussions of the meaning of monogenes. Most recent Greek scholars think the word conveys, not the idea of “birth,” but of “uniqueness.”

      They are not saying that the Son was not born, but that this word is not referring to his or, in other places, anyone else’s birth.

      This is my last comment on the issue you have raised.

  2. Great discussion, thanks Dustin. James McGrath indicated that even with the unintelligible monogenes theos variant, monotheism is maintained by allowing for the usage of bestowing of God’s name upon an agent (someone distinct and ontologically not-God).

    The variant readings are troublesome here. Bart Ehrman and Margaret Davies have demonstrated that monogenes was likely the original rendering which later got tampered with.

    As has been demonstrated by text critics, oldest is not necessarily best. Both P75 and P66 show inferior readings in other areas such as in 5:44 and 10:33. Mikeal Parsons has also demonstrated overwhelming doctrinal Tendenz in P75. Only Evangelicals are infatuated with this papyrus these days. Others have moved on.

    1. Yet, he remains a staunch trinitarian:

      ““From a theological perspective, the idea of the Trinity is an extremely helpful one in maintaining something that all monotheistic traditions have claimed to be true: that God is eternal and that God’s nature is love. How can one person alone, a monad, be intrinsically loving? It is hard to imagine. The doctrine of the Trinity avoids the lonely solitude of oneness and the exclusiveness of the relationship between two, and incorporates into the very nature of God the idea of interpersonal relationships of love. This was not part of the thinking of either early Judaism or earliest Christianity. However, it is a spectacularly helpful and inspiring development which may therefore be justified, if not on biblical grounds, then on its necessity for maintaining the intelligibility of certain other key concepts about the divine that are intrinsic to both Judaism and Christianity.”
      J. McGrath, The One True God, p. 101.

      1. James McGrath’s statement re “the poor lonely mondal God is so painfully sickening and disgusting that it takes all I can to respond…..

        What a pathetically human and derogatory comment…

        I have ZERO respect for this anti-Christ.

    2. “The variant readings are troublesome here. Bart Ehrman and Margaret Davies have demonstrated that monogenes was likely the original rendering which later got tampered with.”

      While you are correct in reference to Margaret Davies (see Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 123, 124), Ehrman argued that the original reading was ho monogenes huios. In his “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” he begins his discussion of John 1:18 by stating that:

      “I will instead develop my reasons for thinking that the majority of manuscripts are right in ending the prologue with the words: ‘No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son ([ho monogenes huios]) who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.” (p. 78)


      “Given the fact that the established usage of the Johannine literature is known beyond a shadow of a doubt, there seems little reason any longer to dispute the reading found in virtually every witness outside the Alexandrian tradition. The prologue ends with the statement that ‘the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.'” (ibid, p. 82)

      There are good arguments for favoring the majority reading at John 1:18, but I tend to agree with Margaret Davies in thinking that the original reading was monogenes, which functioned as a substantivized adjective, with “one” implied.

      IMO, however, this is a case where good arguments can be offered for all three readings (or is it four?), and all of them are in harmony with a unitarian concept of God and Jesus.

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