John 10 records one of the angry disputes between Jesus and the Jews. In response to His question, the Jews said,
“For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:33).
The purpose of the current article is to ask a related question, namely, did Jesus claim to be God? The purpose of this article is still to answer this question from John’s gospel specifically, for the ultimate purpose is to understand the meaning of John 1:1c, where Jesus is identified as theos.
Jesus did not claim to be God.
Jesus did not claim to be God; He claimed to be the Son of God, as indicated by the following:
1.In response to the Jews’ accusation—quoted above—Jesus explicitly stated “I said, ‘I am the Son of God” (John 10:36).
2.John 5 records another heated interaction after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. Jesus explained, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” This made the Jews even more angry. They said that Jesus “was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:16-18). In other words, assuming that the Jews correctly understood what He said, Jesus did not claim to God; He called “God His own Father,” which is equivalent to claim, “I am the Son of God.”
3.When the Jews accused Jesus before Pilate, they did not say that He claimed to be God. They said, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (John 19:7).
4.In the conclusion of his gospel John explains the purpose of his gospel as follows: “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
For similar statements in the other gospels, see Luke 22:69-70.
If Jesus claimed to be God, this fact would have been very important and would have been repeated frequently and clearly. But Jesus never claimed to be “God.” He claimed to be the Son of God.
The Jews did not say that He claim to be God.
It is further proposed that it is not correct to translate John 10:33 as “You … make Yourself out to be God.” This is shown by Jesus’ response to the accusation in 10:33:
“34 … Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’?35“If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came …36do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
Jesus’ defense is based on Psalm 82. He interpreted that Psalm as saying that people, “to whom the word of God came,” are called “gods.” To refer to people that are called “gods” would not have been a logical defense against an accusation that He made Himself out to be “God.”
The Greek of John 10:33 simply reads theon, which is the same as theos, but with a different word ending. Word endings do not change the meaning of words, but simply explain whether the word is the subject or object of the sentence. Theon and theos can be translated as “God” or “god,” depending on further identification in the context. It is proposed that the context required theon to be translated as “god” in this verse.
The Jews responded aggressively.
The Pharisees responded strongly to Jesus claim to be the Son of God:
“The Jews answered him (Pilate), “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7)
They said that Jesus “was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (5:16-18).
Were the Jews exaggerating when they interpreted Jesus, calling “God His own Father,” as claiming to be equal to God?
The Son of God
Today we are quite used to Christians being called sons of God. The people who will be resurrected from the dead (Luke 20:34-36; Romans 8:19), peacemakers (Mt. 5:9) and believers (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14, 16; Gal. 3:26; 4:6; 1 John 3:1-2; Phil. 2:15) are all called “sons of God:”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).
“All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
“The anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26).
We therefore might find the strong reaction of the Jews strange. However, Jesus did not claim to be a son of God; He claimed to be the Son of God. As John wrote; “the only begotten Son of God” (3:18). The NIV translates this as “the one and only Son of God.”
The devil tempted Jesus, saying to Him, “If You are the Son of God” (Mt. 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9).
Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:11; Luke 4:42)!
The Son of God is the Messiah.
The question is then, who did the Jews understand the Son of God to be? The following verses identify the Son of God as the “Christ:”
Lazarus’ sister “said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world’” (John 11:27).
John concluded his gospel as follows: “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
The high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63; cf. Mark 1:1).
“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew title Messiah, as also indicated by the following:
“He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which translated means Christ)” (John 1:41 ).
The Son of God is the King of Israel.
Nathaniel answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49).
“The chief priests also … were mocking Him and saying, He is the King of Israel let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; let God rescue him now, if He delights in him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God” (Mt. 26:42-43).
The “magi from the east” asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Herod then asked the chief priests and scribes “where the Messiah was to be born” (Mt. 2:1-5). This confirms that the Messiah was understood to be the King of Israel.
This explains the strong reaction of the Jews; Jesus was claiming to be the King of Israel. But at the same time He acted contrary to their expectations. As the two disciples walking to Emmaus said, they “were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” They expected the Messiah to free Israel from the Roman dominion. Contrary to their expectation, He worked to free Israel from its sin. The Jews therefore concluded that He is not the Messiah, but an impostor, and told Pilate, “He ought to die because He made Himself out to bethe Son of God”
The constant message and purpose of John’s gospel is to announce Jesus as the Messiah; the Son of God. Jesus did not claim to be God.
After Jesus rose from death, He appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he refused to believe them. But a few days later Jesus again appeared to them. This time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, the doubting Thomas exclaimed with great joy: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus did not rebuke Thomas.
This event occurred between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as reflected in the gospels, and His disciples would soon start to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts. We may therefore evaluate Thomas’ words by asking:
1. Did Jesus teach that He is God? 2.Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God? 3.Did the disciples afterwards preach that Jesus is God? 4.What did Thomas mean with the words ho theos?
Proof of the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ
Many people understand the phrase “my Lord and my God” as clear proof of the Deity of Christ. The Pulpit Commentary describes these words as the climax of the Gospel. For Spurgeon this is a most plain confession of Jesus’ Deity. This view is supported by the following:
The words “my Lord” can only refer to Christ (compare with John 20:13). The natural meaning of the word words “My Lord and my God” is therefore that his Lord was also his God.
David used similar words to describe Jehovah: “My God and my Lord” (Psalm 35:23). Thomas, as an Israelite, knew this and would never have applied these words to any person whom he did not believe to be God.
If Jesus were not God, the Lord Jesus would have corrected Thomas. But the Lord said, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed” (John 20:29 KJV).
There is really no significant question as to how the original text reads.
But Thomas did not refer to Jesus as God.
If the remainder of the New Testament confirmed that Jesus is God, we would grant Spurgeon his point, but strong circumstantial evidence exists that Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as God:
1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.
2. The events in the immediate context of John 20:28 show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.
3. The events in the book of Acts began a few weeks after Jesus appeared to Thomas. If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in Acts, but such a statement is never found in Acts.
4. Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic Christ-events and to teach the church through his letters. He did not teach that Jesus is God.
5. Only about seven verses in the entire New Testament are interpreted by some as saying that Jesus is God, but each and every one of them are disputed; either the original text or the interpretation. Brian J. Wright—a Trinitarian—after a detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testament that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God.
6. Prominent Trinitarians admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.
These points are discussed below in more detail.
1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.
After Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus responded, “because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.” What did Thomas not believe before he saw Jesus alive? Did he not believe that Jesus is God?
Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) was the foundation of Judaism. It would require some effort to convince him that Jesus is God.
Jesus never taught His disciples that He is God.
Jesus never used the term θεός (theos = god) for Himself (Wright p.230), but rather described Himself as the Messiah and as the Son of God. Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God. For example:
A little time before He appeared to Thomas, Jesus, in prayer, referred to the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). In using the word “only,” Jesus excluded Himself as “true God.”
A few days before He appeared to Thomas, He said to Mary Magdalene “go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’” (20:1, 17).
Why would John report that the Father is “the only true God” and then a little later write that Thomas said that Jesus is God?
Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John summarized his gospel as follows:
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
In other words, Jesus identified Himself as Christ; not as God.
Son of God
Some people, when they read the words, “Son of God,” understand this to mean “God the Son,” but the latter title is never found in the Bible. An analysis of all the “Son of God” passages in the Bible indicate that this is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one.” The following verses contain the title “Son of God,” but also a second title, which indicates what “Son of God” means:
Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” (1:49)
She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (11:27).
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).
The high priest said to Him, “Tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63).
The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus is.
None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. John 1:1 does use the word θεός to describe Jesus, but this gospel was written much later than the others. The sublime things which John wrote was revealed to John and Paul through the Holy Spirit decades after the events of John 20:28. When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out. The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. Thomas had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal to John. It is unthinkable that Thomas, when He saw the risen Jesus, thought of Him as the same as or equal to the Only True God (John 17:3).
Since Jesus did not teach that He is God, where would Thomas have learned that Jesus is God? Rather, when Jesus was killed, the disciples doubted “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” When He was raised to life again, they believed; not that He is God, for they were never taught that He is God, but that He is the Christ.
2. The disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.
The events of that time show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God. If they believed that Jesus was God, they would not have “all fled” just a few days earlier. when Jesus was arrested.
The confession of the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus demonstrated the thoughts of Jesus’ followers at that time. Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just a traveler, they described Jesus as “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God…and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).
And, as we have seen, just three verses later John summarizes his message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
3. Jesus is not proclaimed as God in the book of Acts.
John 20:28 and the book of Acts are chronologically separated by only the few weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension.
If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message in Acts, but in the book of Acts the apostles never proclaimed Jesus as God. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus. Rather, they consistently proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes that:
“God raised him up” (Acts 2:24),
“God raised up this Jesus” (v.32),
“You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15), and
“God raised up his servant” (v.26).
Thus Acts continues to make a distinction between God and Jesus, for if God raised Jesus up, then the Father only is called God. If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?
4. Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.
Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic events of the first century and to teach the church through his letters. And Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.
If Jesus was God, Paul’s letters would have taught this explicitly. An explicit statement would be something like, “Yes, Thomas, I am your Lord and your God”. While the New Testament never explicitly says that Jesus is God, the Old Testament explicitly and repeatedly announced Yahweh as God, for instance: “I am Yahweh your God” (Ex. 6:7; 16:12; 20:2). Yahweh is identified as God about 400 times in the Old Testament (phrases such as “Yahweh God – Yahweh, God of heaven – Yahweh your God – Yahweh, God of Israel – Yahweh our God – Yahweh, God of compassion”), but not once do we find an equivalent explicit statement in the New Testament, saying that Jesus is God.
To the contrary, like the gospels, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus. For example, similar to what Peter said in Acts, Paul wrote that God raised Jesus from death:
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
According to some translation of Romans 9:5 Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9:5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.
5. Only John 20:28 refers to Jesus as God.
There are about seven verses that are sometimes interpreted as saying that Jesus is God, but in each in every case either the original text or the interpretation is in dispute. Brian Wright, himself a Trinitarian, after careful and detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testament that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God. (And then the current article also disputes that this verse proves that Jesus is God.)
Some Trinitarians consequently admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.
Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher at Oxford, wrote a book titled, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press). In it he searches the Bible and church doctrine for evidence that Jesus is God. Swinburne concludes with cautious uncertainty that “it is very probable that Jesus was God,” but he offers no explicit proof from the Bible. He finds more evidence for Jesus’ deity in the teachings of the Church Fathers. He admits that some NT passages “deny this doctrine” of “the divinity of Jesus.” He says, “It is undisputed that Jesus did not teach this doctrine” of the Trinity. This is quite a concession from a brilliant Trinitarian. Swinburne does believe that Jesus is God; not because that is what the Bible teaches, but on the basis of reason only.
The trinitarian Brian J. Wright, after in depth study, admitted:
No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.
The immediate and wider context therefore prevents us from interpreting theos in John 20:28 as describing Jesus as God. It forces us to consider alternative interpretations. Three options are proposed below. Two are alternative meanings of the word theos, namely:
1. Mandated by God to represent Him, and 2. God-like
The third alternative proposes that theos, in this verse, does not refer to Jesus, but to the Father.
To understand these alternative meanings requires a short explanation of the Greek word Θεός, which is transliterated theos, often translated “God.” Strong defines theos to include the following four meanings:
1. A deity – (a god) 2. Especially (with ho) the supreme Divinity – (the God) 3. A magistrate; 4. Godly
Today we use “God” as a personal name for the supreme Divinity, similar to the names John and Paul. The Greek of the New Testament has no word exactly equivalent to “God,” for it did not differentiate between lower case and capital letters. The Greek word theos is therefore actually equivalent to our word “god,” with a small g. As stated by Strong, depending on the context, theos can be translated “God” or “god” or “Godly.” Even a person appointed by God as magistrate may be called theos. In the New Testament theos was, for instance, applied to:
The gods of the nations (1 Cor. 8:5);
The Roman governor (Acts 12:22);
The Devil (2 Cor. 4:4); and
People who received divine authority from God (John 10:35);
To translate theos as “God” requires additional information in the context to identify the supreme Deity. The circumstances surrounding John 20:28, as described above, do not justify theos to be translated as “God.”
One of the alternative meanings of theos is a person who is mandated by God to speak and act for Him (Strong’s magistrate). For instance, Jesus referred to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (John 10:35). This is a quote from Psalm 82:6 and probably refers to the judges of the Old Testament. Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as theos in this sense, namely that He has been mandated by God to represent Him.
Option 2: Godlike
Another possible meaning of theos, mentioned by Strong, is “Godlike.” This is a qualitative use of the word, as opposed to a definite (the god) or indefinite (a god) use.
John, in the prologue, after years of meditation, in the first verses of his gospel declared that “ the Word (Jesus) was theos” and the Creator of all things. It is possible that John 1:1 uses theos in the same sense as in John 20:28. In a series of articles on the translation of John 1:1, it was concluded that John 1:1c should not be translated “The Word was God” for the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that verse. In other words, it should be translated as “the Word was Godlike,” or, using words from Philippians 2, “the Word was in the form of God and had equality with God.”
It is therefore possible that Thomas used theos to describe Jesus as God-like.
Option 3: “My God” refers to the Father.
Since the Greek word theos is used for all gods, the writers of the New Testament generally identified the supreme Deity by adding the definite article “ho” before theos. (See Strong’s definition above.) The phrase ho theos is translated “God.” (Translators drop the definite article and capitalize the G.) “God,” in the New Testament, except for a handful of disputed instances, always identifies the Father. (See The NT distinguishes between God and Jesus.)
In the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos mou, literally “the god of me.” This has some problematic implication, and can be understood in at least three different ways:
(A) Only Jesus is God.
In other words, the Father is not God.
To show that this may be the implication, consider the words of CK Barrett, a well-known trinitarian scholar. He comments as follows on John 1:1, which lacks the article before theos: “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true; if ὁ θεὸς [ho theos] had been written, it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity.” (The Gospel According to St. John)
In other words, if ho theos is applied to Jesus, it means that only Christ is God and the Father is not God. This is obviously not true.
(B) Jesus is the Father.
There are people who believe this, namely that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one Person, appearing in three different modes. This is called Modalism or Sabellianism. This view is rejected by most, for there are many indications in the Bible that the Father and Son are different Person. For instance, Jesus prays to the Father, and at His baptism God speaks from heaven.
(C) John referred to the Father when he wrote ho theos.
The previous two possible explanations link theos to Jesus, but are not acceptable. The only remaining possibility is that Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, exclaimed “my God” as a praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus. In other words, that he blurted out something like “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father). Since ho theos always refers to the Father, it should also have that meaning in John 20:28.
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that Godraised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Could Thomas’ confession be explained by this verse? Both words “Lord” and “God” appear in this verse, but “God” is identified as the Father.
After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His disciples. When Thomas saw Him, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus did not rebuke Thomas. Many people understand this as clear proof of the Deity of Christ.
The events of John 20:28 occurred in time between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as captured in the gospels, and soon His disciples will start to preach through the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts. We can evaluate Thomas’ statement by asking four questions:
Did Jesus teach that He is God? Jesus did not teach that He is God, but always maintained a clear distinction between Himself and God. None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Him. John summarized Christ’s message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God? If they did, they would not have run away a few days earlier when Jesus was arrested. The two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, lamenting Jesus’ death, said that Jesus “was a prophet.”
Did the disciples afterwards teach that Jesus is God? If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in the book of Acts, but such a statement is not once even found in Acts. To the contrary, they consistently taught that God raised Jesus from death, thus making a distinction between God and Jesus.
What did Thomas mean by the words ho theos? In the New Testament ho theos (the god) always refers to the Father.
The contextual evidence does not allow for the interpretation of John 20:28 as saying that Jesus is God. Above three alternative interpretations are offered. Which of them is correct, is not important. One day soon we will be able to ask Thomas exactly what he meant. What is more important is that John 20:28 cannot be taken as proof that Jesus is God.
In the Bible the title “Son of God,” for Jesus Christ is found 50 times. This, by itself, does not mean that Jesus is God, for believers are also sons of God. However, Jesus is not only the Son of God; He is the only begotten Son of God. “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.
More recently scholars argue that the word translated “only begotten” (monogenēs) means “only unique” or “one of its kind.” For example, John 1:18 in the NIV reads, “the One and Only.” Monogenēs then does not have the implication of a generation or a beginning. The purpose of this article it to show monogenēs should be translated as “only begotten.”
This means, in human language, that God gave birth to His Son. He was not literally born, but “begotten” implies that Jesus came forth from the being of the Father. “Only begotten” implies that He is the only One born of God. He is the Father’s only true family.
Some think of Christ as God’s first creation. But, since He was “begotten,” He was not created.
“Begotten” also implies that Jesus had a beginning. There never was a time when Jesus was not, but He still had a beginning, for 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.
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 angelsaid 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).
Paulreferred 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 mean “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)
Monogenēs then does not have the implication of a generation or a beginning.
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.”
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 monogenêshuios (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. Monogenêshuios 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).
2.2 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:”
3.1The 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:”
4.1Above it was argued that monogenês includes the concept of a child. Monogenês therefore implies a single child that was begot.
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.
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.
“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.
4.6Jesus 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.
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 yachidin 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.
Some people propose that the Son of God is a created being. Others say that He was derived from the Father. A third view is that He always existed;co-equal with the Father. When He became a human being, He emptied Himself of wisdom, power, knowledge. He became a helpless human baby.
Created – Some people propose that the Son of God is a created being; the first created being, who created all other things, yet still a created being.
Derived – A second view, held for instance by the Fathers of the Christian church, is that the Son of God, as to His divine nature, was not created, but was “derived” from the Father; eternally generated by God the Father; came forth from the being of God. Hence, the Nicene creed speaks of him as:
“Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made”.
Co-equal – A third view is held by those who hold that a derived being cannot in any proper sense be “God.” They argue that His Son always existed; co-equal with the Father.
This discussion is complicated by the information that, when He became a human being, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6-7). He emptied Himself of the form of God and of equality with God. He became fully and truly human, having to learn like any other human being. But although He emptied Himself of supernatural powers, He remained the same Person as before. We need to keep these things in mind when we think about Him. For instance, He said that He only does what the Father tells Him to do. If that was because He “emptied Himself,” then His dependence on God does not help us to understand Who He eternally is.
This subject requires humility, for humans are not able to understand God. “His judgments are unsearchable and His ways are unfathomable” (Rom. 11:33). The Lord warned:
“as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
We must accept that “we know in part … see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:9-12). It is our privilege to study about Him, but we must do it with humility, for “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons” (Deut. 29:29).Even with what is revealed in the Scriptures, we may feel frustrated because we do not understand, but we need to accept our inability to understand with joy, for then we also realize a little bit of His greatness. If we were able to understand Him, then He would have been a very small God indeed.
We do understand to some extent, and in the new heavens and new earth we will always continue to learn more and more about Him, but there will always remain an infinity beyond. That may scare us, but let us rejoice that God has revealed Himself in Jesus as trustworthy and merciful.
We must not use logic to supply that which the Bible does not reveal. Human logic will only serve to lead us away from the truth.
Summary: The three views of Jesus Christ
Created: Some propose that He is a created being; the first created being, who created all other things, yet still a created being.
Derived: The Fathers of the Christian church proposed that He was eternally generated by God the Father; that He came forth from the being of God; begotten not made”.
Co-equal: A third view is that He always existed; co-equal with the Father.