Jesus is the “Son of God.” That does not mean that He is God, for believers are also called sons of God. But Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.
The Greek word translated “only begotten” is monogenēs. Recently scholars argue that monogenēs means “unique.” For example, the NIV translates monogenēs as “the One and Only.” This article argues that monogenēs is correctly translated as “only begotten:”
The word monogenēs cannot mean only “only” because:
1. Mono itself means “only;”
2. None of the ancient examples of monogenês mean “only.”
3. Jesus is monogenês huios, but He is not God’s “only Son.”
4. Liddell and Scott do not define monogenēs as “unique.”
5. Jesus is monogenês theos, but He is not the “only God.”
Monogenēs includes the concept of a child.
As per Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon;
As all translations render monogenēs in John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:17;
As per the ancient uses of monogenês;
Monogenēs therefore means “only child,” but means more than that when Jesus is monogenês huios.
Monogenēs means “only begotten” because:
1. Mono means “only” and genes means “born.”
2. Monogenēs was always translated as “only-begotten.”
3. Monogenês includes the concept of a child.
4. That is how the Nicene Creed defined monogenēs.
5. Jesus “was born of God” (John 5:18).
6. He “live because of the Father” (John 6:57).
7. He “proceeded forth and have come from God” (John 8:42).
8. Seventeen of the 20 ancient examples of monogenes imply generation.
9. Jesus is both “first born” and monogenes.
If monogenēs means “only begotten,” then monogenēs contains the notion of derivation or begetting. This means that Jesus:
Was generated from the being of the Father;
Is the only One born of God; and
Is the Father’s only true family.
The above will now be discussed in more detail:
Jesus is the Son of God.
In the Bible the title “Son of God,” for Jesus Christ is found 50 times. For instance:
The angel said to Mary, “the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
God referred to Jesus as “My beloved Son” (Mat. 3:17). This was at His baptism.
Jesus claimed, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36; cf. Mat. 16:16, 17; 27:43; Luke 1:35; John 1:34; 1 John 5:5; 9:35-37; 10:36).
Paul referred to Jesus as “His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).
John explains the purpose of his gospel as: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
The title “Son of God,” by itself, does not mean that Jesus is God, for believers are also sons of God:
Believers are sons of God.
Adam is called the son of God in both the Old and New Testaments (Gen. 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Luke 3:38; Romans 8:14).
In the Old Testament both Israel (Ex. 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1) and the king (Psalm 2:7) were called God’s son.
The New Testament many times refers to believers as “sons of God.” All four Gospels record Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peace-makers; they will be called sons of God.” “All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). See also Luke 20:35-36; 1 John 3:1; Phil. 2:15; John 1:12; Mat 5:9; Romans 8:14; Romans 8:19 and Galatians 3:26.
But Jesus is not only the Son of God; He is the only begotten Son of God:
The Only Begotten
The apostle John wrote of Jesus as “the only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14; cf. 1:18; NASB):
“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world” (1 John 4:9; cf. John 3:16, 18; NASB).
The Greek word translated “only begotten” in the NASB is monogenēs. When applied to Jesus, “begotten” has some important implications, such as:
That Jesus came from the being of the Father,
That Jesus had a beginning, and
That Jesus is therefore subordinate to the Father.
The one and only
More recently scholars argue that monogenēs is not related to the verb gennao (“begotten“), but to ginomai (“to be“). Monogenēs would then not mean the “only begotten” and will not have any implication of generation, but means “only unique” or “one of its kind.” This understanding has been adopted by many modern versions. For example, monogenēs in John 1:18, referring to Jesus, is translated as:
The One and Only (NIV)
The Only (ESV)
The unique (ISV)
Other scholars disagree and argue that monogenēs, when used of persons, hs the meaning of an only child. It is therefore possible to identify three possible senses of the word monogenēs:
One of a kind: meaning unique;
Only child, which means one of a kind within a parent-child relationship;
Only begotten, which additionally carries with it the concept of begetting or generation. This implication is already present in the meaning “only child,” but is much stronger in “only begotten.”
Arguments for Only-Begotten
To prove or disprove that Jesus was brought forth from the being of the Father is very important for our understanding of who Jesus is. Some propose that if John thought that Jesus had been begotten by God, he would have said much more about is. It is nevertheless proposed here:
That to limit monogenēs to meaning “unique,” as for instance in the NIV translation of monogenēs as “the one and only,” is not justified.
That monogenēs does contain the notion of derivation or begetting, and should be translated as “only begotten.”
The conclusion of this article is that Jesus came forth from the being of the Father. This is already implied by the Father-Son relationship which one finds everywhere in the New Testament. But this article particularly argues that monogenēs must be translated as “only begotten.” This is done in four steps:
1. The NIV interprets monogenēs to mean “only,” butmonogenēs must mean more than that.
2. Monogenēs includes the concept of a child.
3. Monogenēs means more than “only child:”
4. Monogenēs means “only begotten.”
1. Monogenēs means more than simply “unique” or “only:”
1.1 Mono means “only.” If monogenēs also only means “one and only” or “unique,” then the ending –genēs is redundant.
1.2 Below this article analyses the examples of the ancient uses of monogenês, both from the Bible and otherwise, on Wikipedia’s page on monogenēs. None have the meaning of “only.” Wikipedia concludes: Of the Liddell Scott references for “unique” (monogenes being used purely as monos) that leaves only Parmenides, which is no longer considered a likely reading of the Greek text.
1.3 The New Testament refers to Jesus as monogenês huios (son). If monogenês means “only,” then this phrase means “the only Son.” But Jesus is not God’s “only Son,” for God has many other (created) sons, as discussed above. Monogenês huios must mean something more than “the only Son.”
1.4 Only the second meaning of monogenēs in Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon is “unique.” (The first meaning is “the only member of a kin or kind: hence, generally, only, single child.”)
1.5 Some variants of John 1:18 read monogenês theos (god). This must mean more than merely that “only God,” for the Father is the only true God (John 17:3).
2. Monogenēs includes the concept of a child:
2.1 The first meaning of monogenēs, in Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon, is generally, a single child.
2.2 The Greek of John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:17 does not contain the word for “son,” but even the NIV has to insert “son” to fairly reflect monogenēs in these verses, given the context. E.g. John 1:14: “The one and only Son, who came from the Father.”
2.3 Fourteen of the 20 examples of the ancient uses of monogenês (see below) refer to a literal only child.
3. Monogenēs means more than “only child:”
Based on the arguments above, monogenēs could mean “only child,” but it means more than “only child:”
3.1 The New Testament refers to Jesus as monogenês huios (John 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9 and in some variants of John 1:18). Huios means “son.” If monogenês means “only child,” and if monogenês huios also means “only child,” then huios is redundant.
4. Monogenēs means “only begotten:”
4.1 Above it was argued that monogenês includes the concept of a child. Monogenês therefore implies a single child that was begot.
4.2 Etymological origin
Mono means “only” and genes means “born.” Monogenēs therefore originally literally meant “the only one born” or “the only-begotten.” The word therefore did had the meaning of begetting. The question is whether the etymological origin was still “live” as part of the meaning when the New Testament was written, or whether semantic shift has occurred.
4.3 Traditional translation
Monogenēs was always translated as “only-begotten,” even before the first English Bible. This translation can be found in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. It translated monogenēs as the Latin unicus (only) when the word does not refer to Christ. However, in the six verses where monogenēs refers to Christ, Jerome rendered it unigenitus (only-begotten).
Forananswer argues that Jerome probably followed Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 329 – 390), who sought to counter the Arian claim that Christ was a created being by arguing that Jesus was “begotten of the Father” (Nicene Creed). It is alternatively possible that Jerome simply understood the correct meaning of the word monogenês.
From the Latin, “only begotten” entered into the English Bible. Wycliffe’s Bible (1395 AD) reads:
John 3:16 For God lovede so the world, that he yaf his oon bigetun sone, that each man that bileveth in him perishe not, but have everlastynge lijf.
4.4 Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed (325AD) shows that the Church Fathers in the fourth century understood monogenēs as “only-begotten.” The last part of the creed condemns their Arian opposition and gives us an overview of what the Arians believed, namely:
That there was a time when Jesus did not exist,
That He was created,
That He was made out of nothing, and
That He is not of the same substance or essence as God.
To this the Nicene Creed responded and described Jesus as,
“monogenēs; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
This phrase implies that monogenēs, when applied to Jesus, means “very God of very God, begotten.” For that reason is Jesus “of one substance with the Father.” This shows that the Church Fathers understood monogenēs as meaning that Jesus came forth from the being of the Father; “very God of very God.”
4.5 – 1 John 5:18
1 John 5:18 in the NASB reads, “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” The phrase “born of God” appears twice in this verse. It is possible to read both as referring to ordinary believers. But the NASB capitalized the “He.” This indicates that the translators believed that the second “born of God” refers to Jesus. In support of this view:
Jesus keeps His people. He said, “My sheep hear My voice … they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand“ (John 10:27-28; cf. John 17:15 and 2 Thess. 3:3).
If both instances of the phrase “born of God” refer to ordinary believers, then the believer keeps “himself,” as this word is translated, for instance, in the ASV. But no man is able to keep himself.
4.6 Jesus also said:
“As … I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me” (John 6:57), and, “I proceeded forth and have come from God” (John 8:42).
4.7 Ancient usage
Fourteen of the 20 examples of the ancient uses of monogenês (see below) refer to a literal only child. 3 of the other examples implies generation. Seventeen of the 20 therefore implies generation. One of the examples even refers to Jesus as both first born and monogenes.
God’s only true family
There therefore seems to be sufficient support for the translation “only-begotten.” “Begotten,” in human language, means that God gave birth to Him. “Only begotten” implies that He is the only One born of God. He was not literally born, but “begotten” implies that Jesus came forth from the being of the Father; born out of the Father.
Some think of Christ as God’s first creation. But, as argued by the Nicene Creed, since He was “begotten,” He was not created. To the contrary, God created “all things” through Him (Col. 1:16-17). See God created all things through His Son.
Jesus Is the only One born of God. He is God’s Son in a unique sense. As Son of God, He has no brethren. Humans are adopted as sons, but Jesus is God’s only true family; infinitely above created beings.
Jesus had a beginning.
“Begotten” also implies that Jesus had a beginning. The Nicene Creed condemns “those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not’.” The 381 decree elaborates and say that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons).”
If we accept that there never was a time when Jesus was not, then Jesus still could have had a beginning, for time itself had a beginning. It is possible that Jesus was born of God when time started, or rather, time started when Jesus was born of God. God, in contrast, had no beginning: God does not exist in time, rather time exists somewhere in God.
Wikipedia, on its page on monogenēs, provides examples of the use of monogenēs from antiquity. What is important in these examples is not so much how the word has been translated, for these translations were made relatively recently. What is important is the context in which we find the word, from which we attempt to reconstruct the meaning of the word:
Of the seven Classical Greek examples, six refer to a literal only child. The seventh is from Plato’s Timaeus, where he referred to the “monogenēs and created Heaven.”
Of the five examples from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), three refer to a literal only child (Judges 11:34; Psalm 25:16; Jer. 6:26). The other two use monogenēs in parallelism as a synonym for “my soul” (Psalm 22:20; 35:17), which can be understood as “my only life.” E.g. “deliver my soul from the sword, my only begotten (life?) from the hand of the dog.” Later Jewish Septuagint revisions contained more examples of monogenēs and Wikipedia mentions two, both of which describe Isaac as Abraham’s only son (Gen 22:2, 12).
The New Testament contains 9 examples. Five describe Jesus as the Father’s only Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 3:18; 1 John 4:9). Three refer to a literal only child (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). Lastly, Hebrews 11:17 refers to Isaac as Abraham’s monogenēs.
Wikipedia lists four examples of Hellenistic Jewish usages. Two refer to a literal only child. One refers to Jesus as the first born (prototokos) and the monogenēs. The fourth is translated as “his favourite son.”
Analysis of these ancient examples
In summary, of these 27 examples of monogenēs, 6 refer to Jesus. Since we are trying to understand what these six mean, we are only really interested in the other 21:
14 of the 21 refer to a literal only child.
Three refer to Isaac. Abraham also fathered Ishmael, from the slave girl Hagar, and six other sons, from Keturah. Isaac therefore was not Abraham’s only son. The monogenēs in Hebrews 11 can be ignored because it is probably simply a quote from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The two in Genesis 22:2 and 12 translate the Hebrew yachid. While the LXX renders yachid as “beloved” (Greek: agapētos), Aquila renders it as monogenēs in Genesis 22:2. “Beloved” is therefore perhaps one of the nuances of monogenês.
Once monogenēs is translated as “favourite son.” The context confirms this meaning. This may be combined with Aquila’s rendering of yachid in Genesis 22:2 as “beloved.”
One refers to “only-begotten and created Heaven.” The subject is the creation, or begetting, of heaven as a unique birth, as opposed to the birth of more than one cosmos.
Twice monogenēs is used as synonym for “my soul” which may be understood as “my only life.”
Conclusion from these ancient examples
Since Hebrews 11 can be ignored, there are 20 usable examples. 14 refer to a literal only child. 3 carry the meaning of beloved. 2 means “my only life” and the last one refers to the creation of the heavens. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in one of the quotes, is referred to as first born (prototokos) and monogenes.
It is therefore concluded:
That the translation used by the NIV (“one and only”) does not have any support from these examples.
17 of the 20 refer to a parent-child relationship. Monogenês should therefore at least be translated as “only child.”
But “only child” implies begetting or generation. “My soul” may also be understood as the life that was created for me. The example of the created heavens also include generation. All examples therefore have the implication of generation and begetting.
Articles in the series: Is Jesus God?
1. The three views of the Son
2. Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God.
3. Jesus in Colossians
4. Did Jesus empty Himself of equality with God?
5. Who is the Word in John 1:1?
6. The New Testament uses the title “God” only for the Father.
7. God is the Head of Christ.
8. In the Bible Jesus is called God.
9. Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God. Current article
10. God created all things through His Son. Next
11. We worship Jesus.
12. Jesus has equality with God.
13. Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles
14. Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?