Monogenes: One and Only or Only Begotten?

My friend David Harrison returns to the blog discussing the translation of one of the most beloved verses in the Bible.

dfgvbrgfJohn 3:16 shows up 95,100,000 times in the Google search engine.  This verse appears on bumper stickers, billboards, shirts, even band aids. Why is this verse so important to so many? For one, John 3:16 perfectly summarizes God’s love for the world. Furthermore, it demonstrates how God loves us (by giving up His only begotten Son for us). For many, John 3:16 is the theme verse of the Bible. It points to eternal life through Christ. However, some words in John 3:16 can be misleading. This blog will focus on a specific phrase in the verse, namely: only begotten Son (KJV). What does it mean for the Son to be begotten? To understand this concept, the etymology of the word begotten is needed.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word begotten as: to procreate, to generate. The term was formed in English in the 12th century and has Germanic roots. It is a variation of biyeten which means: to get, acquire. While some recent bible translations leave out the word begotten, the KJV uses this term to refer to God’s only Son. Does the English definition of the word begotten take away from Christ’s eternality? Is the Son procreated from the Father? Does Jesus have a beginning or has He always existed? These are important theological implications one must consider if the Oxford English Dictionary is correct. However, there might be another alternative.

vdfgvfdThe Greek word for only begotten in John 3:16 is μονογενής (monogenēs). For many years it was thought that this word came from two other Greek words: μόνος (monos), meaning “only,” and γεννάω (gennaō), meaning “beget,” or “bear.” However, this is a misunderstanding of the two Greek terms. Modern linguistic research has shown that “gennaō” comes from the word γένος (genos) and means “class,” or “kind.”[1] Other lexicographers agree with this conclusion.[2] For the word to be translated in English as only begotten, the Greek word would have been μονογέννητος (monogennetos) instead of μονογενής (monogenes). Therefore, it is more accurate to translate μονογενής as only, one of a kind, or unique rather than only begotten.

dfgbfgbFurther support of this idea can be found in the New Testament’s use of this word. The word μονογενής appears nine times in the New Testament. Luke uses this term three times (7:12, 8:42, 9:38), John four times as a designation of Jesus’ relationship to God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), and the author of Hebrews uses this Greek word once (Heb. 11:17). In the Luke passages, μονογενήςis translated as only by most English translations. A clear meaning of this word can be found in Heb. 11:17. Here Isaac is said to be Abraham’s only begotten (μονογενής) son. However, Abraham had other children as well (Ishmael, Midian, Jokshan, Ishbak, Medan, Shuah, and Zimran). Therefore, Isaac was unique (μονογενής) in the sense that he was the child of the promise and the others were not. In this context, μονογενής does not mean that Isaac was Abraham’s only begotten son (as defined by OED), but rather that he was the only unique son of Abraham. The fact that Christ is God’s only begotten Son does not imply a beginning of His Sonship but unoriginated relationship with the Father. “Christ did not become, but necessarily and eternally is the Son”.[3]

In conclusion, the phrase only begotten is apparently based on the word’s supposed etymology.  It is a mistake to base the understanding of a word’s meaning on its etymology (rather than its usage), especially if the etymology is wrong, as is the case of the translation “only begotten”. Monogenes does not mean only begotten neither in its etymology nor its usage and therefore only confuses the reader when reading it as such. Having a correct etymological understanding of the word “monogenes” helps the reader from falling into dangerous and serious theological flaws concerning the deity of Christ.


[1] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 658.

[2] See Moulton, Milligan, Thayer, and Abbott-Smith

[3] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Jr., vol. 2, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996), 447.

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