When John wrote John 1:18, did he refer to Jesus as theos (god) or huios (son)?

Synopsis

Many versions of John 1:18 refer to Jesus as “God,” but the original text is in dispute.  Many of the ancient manuscripts, containing this verse, refer to Jesus as huios (son) and not as theos (god).  Most modern scholars believe that theos is more likely to be the original, but according to the external and internal evidence, both are possible.  In any case, the word “God” is an interpretation based on the translator’s understanding of who Jesus is, for there is no word in the ancient Greek with that exact meaning.  The word often translated “God” is theos, which is roughly equivalent to our word “god.”

The Father is called God.

John 1:18 in the NASB reads as follows:

No one has seen God at any timeThe only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

Jesus similarly said:

Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46).

Another verse that describes God as invisible is Colossians 1:15; “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, “whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16).  Since God is invisible, while Jesus was seen, the implication is that the New Testament does not call Jesus God.

The One who is called “God” at the beginning of John 1:18 is called “the Father” at the end of it.  This identifies the unseen God as the Father.  John 20:17 is another example of this principle:

I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.

This confirms that, in the New Testament, it is the Father who is called God; not Jesus.

Jesus is called God.

John 1:18, as quoted above from the NASB, also describes Jesus as “God.”  But not all translations agree.  Some versions do not refer to Jesus as “God,” but as the “Son,” for instance:

The only begotten Son (KJV)
The only Son (RSV)

Textual Variants

The translations differ because the source texts differ.  Of the thousands of early Greek New Testament manuscripts, there are four principal textual variants of this phrase:

1.   ho monogenês
2.  ho monogenês huios
3.  monogenês theos
4.  ho monogenês theos

The meanings of these Greek words are as follows:

Ho is the Greek definite article, equivalent to our “the.”

Huios is the Greek word for “son.

Theos basically has the same meaning as our word “god,” with a lower “g.”  When the New Testament uses this word to the refer to the only true God, then it provides additional identification.  Many times that additional identification is by preceding theos with the Greek definite article ho.  In other instances theos is used for false gods and even for exalted humans.  The context must clarify the meaning.  See the article Meanings of the word theos.

Monogenês is another complex word.  According to Wikipedia it means to be “the only one of its kind,” but can also more specifically mean “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship,” such as the only child.  In the first variant listed above monogenês is a noun.  In John 1:14 monogenês is also a noun, and is translated as “only Son” in translations such as the ESV, ISV and the RSV.  In the other variants above monogenês is used as an adjective.

Why do manuscripts differ?

After a group or person received an original gospel or letter, copies were made in order to make them accessible to a wider audience.  Unfortunately, the scribes did not always copy these documents accurately.  Most of the inconsistencies happened by mistake, but some changes were made on purpose.  Somewhat similar to translators who today inevitable translate the Bible according to their understanding of doctrine, these scribes changed the text according to what they believe to be truth.

Textual criticism

Textual criticism is the study of surviving copies in order to determine the probable wording of the original autograph.  This task is important because we do not have any of the original manuscripts, and the copies we do have differ from one another.

Textual critics use external and internal evidence to establish which text probably represents the original.  External evidence consists of examining all available manuscripts to see which variants may be the earliest, has the greatest manuscript support or could have been more easily changed into another wording.  Only if external evidence is not conclusive will textual critics turn to internal evidence, namely considerations such as context, authorial style and word usage.

External evidence for John 1:18

John 1 18 KJV
KJV

According to the majority of modern scholars the external evidence favors theos as the original text.  But many scholars disagree, for the theos reading exists primarily only in one of the text-types (the Alexandrian).  Textus Receptus – the manuscript tradition behind the KJV and many other Bibles – reads ho monogenês huios.  This reading ranks second in terms of the number of manuscripts containing it, and has a wider distribution.  The external evidence is therefore not conclusive.

Internal evidence

One-time occurrence

John, in three other places, describes Jesus as “ho monogenês huios” (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).   If monogenês theos was the original text of John 1:18, it would be a one-time occurrence in the NT, and textual critics prefer readings that are not unique.

Immediate context

The question here is whether theos or huios fits the context better.  The point of the entire verse is that Jesus is able to explain the unseen “Father.”  This context seems to fit “Son” better.  The first part of the verse reads, “No one has seen God at any time.”  This make a distinction between God and Jesus, which would be contradicted if the next phrase also refers to Jesus as God.

On the other hand, John 1:1 is very similar to John 1:18.  Both make a distinction between God and Jesus and both say something about Jesus.  Since John 1:1 refers to Jesus as theos and since this is not disputed, for John 1:18 to describe Jesus as theos would fit the slightly wider context.

Easier to change

The more difficult reading is always more likely to be the original, for a scribe would generally be inclined to “smooth out” difficult readings, rather than to create them.  Furthermore, a “difficult reading” in a manuscript is more likely to be detected, whereas a “smoothing” might go undetected and ultimately replace the original.

In John 1:18 theos is the more difficult reading, for the New Testament reserves the title “God” for the Father, except for a handful of disputed exceptions.  This supports the proposal that John originally wrote theos.  Many scholars consider this consideration decisive.

However, John 1:1, also ascribes the title theos to Jesus, and the Nicene Creed described Jesus as “True God from True God.”  So perhaps theos was not such a difficult reading.

Conclusion

The point is that neither the external nor the internal evidence are conclusive.  Some conclude that theos is more likely to be the original reading, but it is not possible to say that with certainly.  Therefore John 1:18 cannot be used as valid evidence that Jesus was called God.

In any case, the word “God,” as we use it today, does not appear in the original Greek text, for the ancient Greek language did not have capital letters.  What we find in the Greek is the word theos, which can also mean “god” or “divine.”  This word theos is only translated as “God” when additional identification indicates that the Most High is intended.  See The Meanings of the Word THEOS. The translation of theos as “God,” when referring to Jesus is therefore an interpretation based on the translator’s understanding of who Jesus is.  Since John 1:18 refers to the Father as God, this might be seen as an invalid interpretation.

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