The Bible refers 50 times to Jesus Christ as “the Son of God.” This title, 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” (John 3:18). “Begotten” has some important implications, such as:
That Jesus came forth from the being of the Father,
That Jesus had a beginning. There never was a time when Jesus was not, but He still had a beginning, for time began when Jesus was “begotten” of God. Of God, in contrast, we can say no such thing, for God does not exist in time. Rather, time exists somewhere within God.
That, if Jesus was “begotten,” He was not created.
That Jesus, since He came forth from the being of the Father, is subordinate to the Father.
“Only begotten” implies that He is the only One ‘born’ of God. In other words, He is the Father’s only true family.
More recently, however, 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.” This translation takes away the concept that the Son came forth from the being of the Father or that He had a beginning. This article argues that:
- Translations such as “the One and Only” are inadequate, that
- Monogenēs refers to an only child and that
- It should be translated as “only begotten.”
(a) Mono means “only” and genes means “born.” Monogenēs, therefore, at least originally, literally meant “the only one born.”
(b) Mono means “only.” If monogenēs also means “one and only,” then the ending -genēs is redundant.
(c) If monogenês purely means “only,” then Jesus is God’s “only Son” (e.g., John 3:18). But Jesus is not God’s “only Son,” for God has many other (created) sons (e.g. Matt 5:9).
(d) The first meaning of monogenēs in Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon is a single child.
(e) Of the 20 examples of the ancient uses of monogenês that are analyzed below:
- 14 use monogenês for a literal only child,
- 17 imply that the child or something else was generated, and
- none of them have the meaning of purely “only.”
(f) The Nicene Creed of the year 325 defines monogenēs as “only-begotten.”
(g) Monogenēs was always translated as “only-begotten,” even in the Latin translations that preceded the first English Bible.
(h) Elsewhere, Jesus:
- Is “born of God” (1 John 5:18),
- Lives “because of the Father” (John 6:57), and
- “Proceeded … from God” (John 8:42).
(i) John 1:14 refers to Jesus simply as “the monogenēs from the Father.” To give meaning to this statement, translations are forced to add the words “son” (NIV) or “begotten” (NASB).
– END OF SUMMARY –
Jesus is the Son of God.
The Bible refers 50 times to Jesus Christ as “the Son of God.” For example:
The angel said to Mary, “the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
At His baptism, God referred to Jesus as “My beloved Son” (Matt 3:17).
Jesus claimed, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36; cf. Matt 16:16, 17; 27:43; Luke 1:35; John 1:34; cf. 1 John 5:5; 9:35-37; 10:36).
Paul referred to Jesus as “His beloved Son” (Col 1:13).
John explains the purpose of his gospel as “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
Believers are sons of God.
The title “Son of God,” by itself, does not mean that Jesus is God, for believers are also 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; Rom 8:14).
In the Old Testament, both Israel (Exo 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:”
“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).
“As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12; cf. Luke 20:35-36; 1 John 3:1; Phil 2:15; John 1:12; Matt 5:9; Rom 8:14, 19 and Gal 3:26).
The Only Begotten
But Jesus is not only the Son of God; He is “the only begotten Son of God:”
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, therefore, is 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” by the NIV,
“The Only” by the ESV, and as
“The unique” by the ISV.
This translation of monogenēs takes away the implications that Jesus came from the being of the Father, or that He had a beginning.
Other scholars disagree and propose a third option, namely that monogenēs, when used of people, has 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;
- An 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 also 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. It is 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, namely that Monogenēs:
1. Means more than simply “unique” or “only,”
2. Includes the concept of a child.
3. Means more than “only child,” and
4. Means “only begotten.”
1. Monogenēs does not mean purely “only.”
This is argued as follows:
1.1 Mono means “only.” If monogenēs also means “one and only” or “unique,” then the ending –genēs is redundant.
1.2 None of the examples of the ancient uses of monogenês, on Wikipedia’s page on monogenēs, have the meaning of purely “only.” See the analyses below. 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 If monogenês means “only,” then Jesus is God’s “only Son” (e.g., John 3:18). But Jesus is not God’s “only Son,” for God has many other (created) sons (e.g. Matt 5:9). Monogenês, therefore, must mean something more specific than “only.”
1.4 “Unique” is only the second meaning of monogenēs in Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. The first meaning is “only child.”
1.5 Some variants of verse 18 of John 1 (John 1:18) describe Jesus as monogenês theos (god). If this is what the author originally wrote, then it must mean more than merely “only God,” for Jesus is not the only God.
Monogenês, therefore, includes the concept of “only,” but means something more specific than purely “only.”
2. Monogenēs means only child.
This is based on the following arguments:
2.1 The first meaning of monogenēs in Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon is a single child.
2.2 The Greek text of John 1:14 describes Jesus as “the monogenēs from the Father” without the word “son.” To translate John 1:14 as “the only from the Father” is not meaningful. Something must be added. Following the instances where Jesus is described as “monogenēs son” (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), the NIV adds the word “son.” The NASB adds “begotten.” In both translations, the concept is that of an only child.
2.3 In Hebrews 11:17, monogenēs, without the word “son,” explicitly refers to Abraham’s son Isaac; symbolically his only son.
2.4 Fourteen of the 20 examples of the ancient uses of monogenês (see analysis below) refer to a literal only child.
3. Monogenēs means “only begotten.”
3.1 Jesus is God’s “monogenês son” (e.g., John 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9). If monogenês already means “only child,” then John repeated the same concept in two consecutive words, which is unlikely.
3.2 Mono means “only” and genes means “born.” Monogenēs, therefore, originally literally meant “the only one born” which is the same as “the only-begotten.” The question is whether the meaning of the word has changed by the time when the New Testament was written.
3.3 Monogenēs was always translated as “only-begotten.”
This was the case even before the first English Bible. It was translated in this way in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which translated monogenēs as unicus (only) when the word does not refer to Christ. However, in the six verses where monogenēs does refer to Christ, Jerome rendered it unigenitus (only-begotten).
Forananswer argues that Jerome probably followed Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 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). But it is also 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.
3.4 The Nicene Creed of the year 325 defines monogenēs as “only-begotten.”
The last part of the creed condemns their Arian opponents and gives an overview of what the Arians believed, namely that:
There was a time when Jesus did not exist,
He was created,
He was made out of nothing, and
He is not of the same substance or essence as God.
To counter these claims, the Nicene Creed 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 defines monogenēs, when applied to Jesus, as “begotten, not made.” For that reason, the creed ventured to say that Jesus is “of one substance with the Father.”
3.5 – Jesus is “born of God.”
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 question is, to whom does the second “born of God” refer?
If both instances of the phrase “born of God” refer to ordinary believers, then the believer keeps “himself.” That is how this verse is sometimes translated, for example, in the ASV. But no man is able to keep himself.
The NASB capitalizes the “He,” indicating that the translators believed that the second “born of God” refers to Jesus.
In support of this translation, John 10:27-28 also says that Christ keeps His people (cf. John 17:15 and 2 Thess 3:3).
Other statements by Jesus support this concept:
“As … I live because of the Father,
so he who eats Me,
he also will live because of Me” (John 6:57).
“I proceeded forth and have come from God” (John 8:42).
3.6 Ancient usage
Seventeen of the 20 examples of the ancient uses of monogenês analyzed below implies generation:
Fourteen of them refer to a literal only child.
Three of the other examples imply generation. One of these 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. On 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 equals. 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 says 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 its meaning:
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 as 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 a synonym for “my soul” which may be understood as “my only life.”
Conclusions from these ancient examples
Since Hebrews 11 can be ignored, there are 20 usable examples. Fourteen refer to a literal only child. Three carry the meaning of beloved. Two mean “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 includes generation. All examples, therefore, have the implication of generation and begetting.
Available Articles – Christology
Specific Bible Books
Specific Bible Passages
The origin of the Son
Christ is subordinate to God.
Christ is equal to God.
Jesus is called God.
- Overview – Overview of the verses that refer to Jesus as theos.
- Theos – The meaning of theos – the word translated “God.”
- John 1:18 – The original text of this verse is in dispute.
- John 20:28 – Did Thomas say that Jesus is God?
- John’s gospel – Discussion of theos in this gospel.
- Romans 9:5 – The translation depends on punctuation.
- Hebrews 1:8 – The next verse says that God is His theos.
The translation of John 1:1
If you are interested in Christology, I recommend Dale Tuggy’s podcasts, even though he understands Christ as merely a human being while I think the Bible declares that God created all things – even time – through His Son.
Other Articles Series
Other Key Articles
For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.