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Bible Q

“Only begotten Son” or “only begotten God”? (John 1:18)

Should John 1:18 read?

  • “only begotten Son” (KJV), “the one and only Son (WEB)
  • “only begotten God” (NASB), “the one and only God” (NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV)

The ESV has footnotes as follows:

John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, [4] who is at the Father’s side, [5] he has made him known.

[4] 1:18 Or the only One, who is God; some manuscripts the only Son
[5] 1:18 Greek in the bosom of the Father

There are two ways to answer this question. One very simple, and conclusive, one very complex, and less conclusive.

The simple answer

1. the context of the sentence.

The subject is clearly Jesus,

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, [4] who is at the Father’s side, [5] he has made him known.

so the argument about “only begotten God” or only begotten Son” comes down to an argument about whether Jesus can be called “only begotten God”.

2. The textual problem

In a small number of manuscripts the text here is damaged and does not agree with the majority read “only begotten son”.  Due to the controversies of the 3rd-5th Centuries (at exactly the time when manuscripts were being copied), this is a question about early Christian politics as much as a normal textual issue, we have no sure way of knowing what the original text was. But we do know what the rest of the NT teaches:

3. The rest of the NT says

However we do still have the other three instances of “only begotten son” which are not controverted in any manuscript.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

1 Jn 4:9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

4. What the rest of the NT does not say

We also have the fact that no other NT verse contains anything approaching the following:

No one has ever seen God [= the first God];
the only God [=the second God], who is at the Father’s side,
he [= the second God] has made him [= the first God] known. (ESV)


A small number of damaged manuscripts, copied during  the heat of 3rd-4th Century controversies are not enough to alter a reading consistent with the majority of manuscripts and the other “only begotten Son” verses.

That was the simple version, now more detailed notes, for the technically minded.

Appendix 1. Textual problem

The UBS TCGNT (1998)  has the following comment:

‘1:18 μονογενὴς θεός {B}
With the acquisition of P66 and P75, both of which read θεός, the external support of this reading has been notably strengthened. A majority of the Committee regarded the reading μονογενὴς υἱός, which undoubtedly is easier than μονογενὴς θεός, to be the result of scribal assimilation to Jn 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9. The anarthrous use of θεός (cf. 1:1) appears to be more primitive. There is no reason why the article should have been deleted, and when υἱός supplanted θεός it would certainly have been added. The shortest reading, ὁ μονογενής, while attractive because of internal considerations, is too poorly attested for acceptance as the text. Some modern commentators4 take μονογενής as a noun and punctuate so as to have three distinct designations of him who makes God known (μονογενής, θεός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς …).\  [It is doubtful that the author would have written μονογενὴς θεός, which may be a primitive, transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition (Υς/Θς). At least a {D} decision would be preferable. A.W.]’  Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 169–170.

Three members of the committee (Bruce Metzger, Kurt Aland, Carlo Martini) have taken “only begotten God” as original since they judge that scribes could have more easily made a copying mistake to “only begotten son” to agree with Jn 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9., than make a mistake in the other direction. Under the normal rules of textual criticism this would be a sound argument. The question is whether the normal rules-of-thumb still apply when a verse is the focus of the heat of Christological disputes – as John 1:18 was in the time the manuscripts were copied.

The 4th member of the committee (Allen Wikgren) has written a minority opinion in closed brackets, “[It is doubtful..]”. His opinion is based on the ease of confusing the common scribal practice of abbreviating God (theos) to Th-S (theta-sigma Υς) , and abbreviating Son (uios) to U-S (upsilon-sigma  Θς) in the Greek manuscripts.  Because of these abbreviations, called nomina sacra abbreviations, copying errors of “God” to “Son” and “son” to “God” are frequent in early manuscripts.

Manuscript evidence:

The majority of ancient texts have the reading “only begotten Son”

  • most Greek manuscripts (except the below)
  • Old Latin
  • Syriac

Three early manuscripts have “only begotten God”

  • P66
  • P75
  • Sinaiticus

These three are of the same family.

Early Christian evidence.

The phrases “only begotten Son” (Arian) and “only begotten God” (Trinitarian) are found on both sides during the Christological debates of the 3rd and 4thC. The following is a reference to the phrase used in the Creed of Lucian of Antioch (died AD311)

II. The creed which goes by his name and was found after his death, is quite orthodox as far as it goes, and was laid with three similar creeds before the Synod of Antioch held a.d. 341, with the intention of being substituted for the Creed of Nicaea. 1508. It resembles the creed of Gregorius Thaumaturgus, is strictly trinitarian and acknowledges Jesus Christ “as the Son of God, the only begotten God, 1509

τὸν μονογενῆ θεόν. Comp. the Vatican and Sinaitic reading of John 1:18, μονογενὴς θεός (without the article), instead of ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός . The phrase, μονογενὴς Θεός was widely used in the Nicene age, not only by the orthodox, but also by Arian writers in the sense of one who is both θεὸς (divine) and μονογενής. See Hort’s Two Dissertations on this subject, Cambr., 1876. In the usual punctuation of Lucian’s creed, τὸν μονογενῆis connected with the preceding τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, and separated from θεὸν, so as to read “his Son the only begotten, God, ” etc.

(P. Schaff  History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325 § 194. Lucian of Antioch).

This shows that theological concerns, more than normal scribal error, were active about this phrase before the manuscripts.

If there were other NT verses that said Christ was “God, who is at the Father’s side” then fair enough. But as it is, it seems more likely that as Allen Wikgren supposes an original reading the first letter of “Son” (upsilon-sigma, Υς) was changed to the first letter of “God” (theta-sigma Θς )  in P66 and P75, either for theological reasons, or simply as a copying error.

Appendix 2. monogenes

This relates to why some versions have “only” some have “only begotten”. The question is whether the Greek word monogenes, although it is made up the stem “only” (mono-) + “begotten” (-genes) really actually means that in NT times, and Jewish usage. The word does not mean just “only” “unique” since in Greek

that is monos :

  • John 5:44 the only God (ho monos theos)
  • John 17:3 the only true God (ho monos alethinos theos)
    compare Rom. 16:27; 1 Tim. 1:17; Jude 25
  • Jude 1:14 the only Ruler, God (ho monos despotes, theos)

Instead monogenes usually means “only-born” (when used as an adjective with nouns like son, daughter, child) or “the only child” (when ho monogenes used alone as a noun). But it is evident from Heb.11:17 and the story of pagan King Monobazus’ favourite son Izates (below), that the sense “favourite son” or “legitimate heir” can also apply in some cases. There is also a figurative use of “only child” relating to one’s own soul in Psalms:

Greek OT and NT uses of monogenes are:

  • Judges 11:34 she was  his only child (he monogenes)
  • Ps. 22:20 deliver my soul from the sword, my only begotten (= my only life) from the hand of the dog.
  • Ps. 25:16 I am an only child (monogenes) and poor.
  • Ps. 35:17 deliver my soul from their mischief, my only begotten (= my only life) from the lions.
  • Jer. 6:26 as one mourns for an only child (monogenes)
  • Luke 7:12  her only son (ho monogenes uios)
  • Luke 8:42  only daughter (he monogenes thugater)
  • Luke 9:38 only son (ho monogenes uios)
  • John 1:18 ————————–
  • John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son (ho monogenes uios)
  • John 3:18 he has not believed in the name of God’s only son (ho monogenes uios)
  • Heb.11:17 only-legitimate son (ho monogenes uios) – since Abraham also fathered Ishmael from the slave girl Hagar
  • 1 Jn 4:9 God sent his only Son (monogenes uios) into the world

A selection of non-Biblical texts. This list is representative:

  • Hesiod, Theogony 426 – Also, because she is an only child (monogenes), the goddess Hecate receives not less honor, … 446 So even though she is her mother’s only child (monogenes) Hecate is honored amongst all the immortal gods.
  • Hesiod, Works and Days 375 – There should be an only son (monogenes) to feed his father’s house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old.
  • Herodotus 2.79.3  – Maneros was the only-born (monogenes) of their first king, who died prematurely,
  • Herodotus 7.221.1 – Megistias sent to safety his only-born (ho monogenes, as noun) who was also with the army.
  • Josephus, Antiquities 2.181 – Dan had an only child (monogenes paidos), Usi.
  • Josephus, Antiquities 2.263 – Jephtha’s daughter, she was also an only-born (monogenes) and a virgin
  • Josephus, Antiquities 20.20  – Monobazus, the king of Abiadene…  had an elder brother, by Helena also also, as he had other sons by other wives besides. But he openly placed all his affections on this his favourite son (monogenes) Izates, which was the origin of the envy which his other brethren, by the same father, bore to him;  and on this account they hated him more and more, and were all under great affliction that their father should prefer Izates before them.
  • Tobit 8 .17 –  they were both an only child (duo monogeneis) of two different parents
  • Wisdom of Solomon 7 .22 – there is in her a spirit quick of understanding, holy, as an only child (monogenes), manifold
    ~ this is a 1stC Jewish text, personifying Wisdom as valuable as an only daughter, or as precious as “my only begotten” (= my only soul), in Ps 22:20, 35:17 above.
  • Clement of Rome 25 – “the phoenix is the only one [born] (monogenes) of its kind”

The discussion (among Trinitarians) of when monogenes is used as a noun “the only begotten one “, and when an adjective “only begotten-“, has some bearing on whether the text was orginally “the only begotten, God” or “only begotten God”.


The readings “special son”, “only son”, “favourite son”, are probably to be preferred — firstly because of Isaac and Izates, secondly because they are more modern English than  “only begotten son” , nevertheless the emphasis on begettal and only-child status is demonstrated from all the references, even in figurative use of the soul personified or Wisdom personified.

The conclusion of Appendix 2 reinforces the conclusion of Appendix 1, that the combination “only-child god” “only begotten god” in relation to Jesus is without precedent in the OT or NT.

One Reply to ““Only begotten Son” or “only begotten God”? (John 1:18)”

  1. “We also have the fact that no other NT verse contains anything approaching the following:
    No one has ever seen God [= the first God];
    the only God [=the second God], who is at the Father’s side,
    he [= the second God] has made him [= the first God] known. (ESV)”
    Rather than the pejorative “first God” and “second God” how about “God” (in toto) and “second person of God” God (the Son) reveals God. What’s wrong with that possibility? The Son is at the Father’s side, but the Father is not synonymous with God in this case. The Son reveals God, and the Son is at the Father’s side–a pretty good vantage point by which to reveal God–as He is a member of the Trinity and in close fellowship with the Father.