Jesus
The Only Begotten Son of God

(What does ‘μονογενης υιος’ mean?)
Introduction

Discussion

Begotten Or Not Begotten, That Is The Question

Reasons why monogenes should not be translated as only begotten
Reasons why monogenes may be translated as only begotten

What Makes Jesus Unique?

Jesus is The Way
Jesus was tempted, yet without sin
Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient

Further Reading


Introduction

To understand what motivates this article, you must read another one:

The Qur'an Attacks ... Christianity?

How am I supposed to reply to that? From those verses it is reasonable for Muslims who have not read the Bible to have certain pre-conceived ideas and expectations about how the Bible describes Jesus using the words begotten and son.

There is only one well-known verse in the Bible that discusses begotten and son in the context of Jesus.

This article talks about the meaning of these words in that context.

Discussion

For God so loveth the world,
that he hath given his only son,
that none that believe in him,
should perish:
but should have everlasting life.

—John 3:16, Tyndale translation, 1534 version (modern spelling).

Perhaps you know this verse from the Bible. Notice the words only son are emphasised. That is because they are the subject of this article. In the original Greek, that's μονογενης υιος, or monogenes huios, transliterated.

It is not generally known that ninety percent of the 1611 King James Version is from Tyndale's translation, which I quoted from above. Now, it just so happens that part of the ten percent where they differ is here in the words only son.

For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish
but have everlasting life.

—John 3:16, King James Version (KJV), 1611.

The King James Version (KJV) was so influential that it became the standard translation for the next 300 years. And it is still in widespread use.

So where did this word begotten come from? The word that is being translated as only begotten by the KJV is monogenes. The KJV translators liked to translate word-for-word when it was possible. So when they came to monogenes they translated mono as only and genes as begotten. That is easy.

Can the word Son have a symbolic meaning? Yes. The word υιος (or huios, word #5207 in Strong's Concordance) has been used in a symbolic sense in these passages, among others:
to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder
—Mark 3:17

Adam, the son of God.
—Luke 3:38

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus
—Galatians 3:26

Currently the best-selling English translation of the Bible is the New International Version (NIV). Here is how the NIV renders John 3:16:

For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish
but have eternal life.

—John 3:16, New International Version (NIV), 1973.

The NIV adds as a footnote,
         3:16 Or his only begotten Son

So now begotten is in the footnote and not in the main text. Why?

Begotten Or Not Begotten, That Is The Question

Reasons why monogenes should not be translated as only begotten:

The word monogenes also appears elsewhere in the New Testament:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only [monogenes] son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
—Hebrews 11:17-19 (NIV)

This time the NIV (1973) does not have an explanatory footnote offering only begotten as an alternate rendering, as it does for John 3:16, but it is the same Greek word monogenes. To say Isaac was Abrahamís only-begotten son would make no sense since according to the Bible, Abraham begat Ishmael as well as Isaac. But "one of a kind", "one and only", or "unique" would fit because Isaac was special. Abraham's wife, Sarah, was too old to have a child but she nevertheless became pregnant.

Dr. James R. White notes,

The key element to remember in deriving the meaning of monogenes is this: it is a compound term, combining monos, meaning only, with a second term. Often it is assumed that the second term is gennasthai/gennao, to give birth, to beget. But note that this family of terms has two nuís, νν, rather than a single nu, ν, found in monogenes. This indicates that the second term is not gennasthai but gignesthai/ginmai, and the noun form, genos. G. L. Prestige discusses the differences that arise from these two derivations in God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952), 37-51, 135-141, 151-156.

Genos means "kind or type", ginomai is a verb of being. Hence the translations "one of a kind," "one and only," "of sole descent." Some scholars see the -genes element as having a minor impact upon the meaning of the term, and hence see monogenes as a strengthened form of monos, thereby translating it "alone," "unique," "incomparable."

An example of this usage from the LXX is found in Psalm 25:16,

turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely (monogenes) and afflicted:
(NASB)

(White, The Forgotten Trinity [Minneapolis, MN, Bethany House Publishers, 1998], pp. 201-202, fn. 27)

Note that the so-called LXX (mentioned above) is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that existed in Jesus' day. Sometimes we can gain insight into Greek New Testament words by how Hebrew words were translated into Greek by the Jewish scholars. In this case, the Hebrew word for lonely was translated into Greek as monogenes. So this helps us justify that monogenes means "alone," "unique," or "incomparable."

Reasons why monogenes may be translated as only begotten:

From the discussion above, we see that the seemingly obvious translation of monogenes to only begotten may not be the most accurate. However, the Greek word monogenes does not have a single equivalent corresponding word in English.

I personally used to think that only begotten was just a reference in passing to the virgin birth. That surely makes Jesus special, unique, one-of-a-kind. So in a round-about way, only begotten may be as good as any other translation, for those who interpret these words in the context of the Bible, without pre-conceived ideas.

What Makes Jesus Unique?

There are three reasons given above why monogenes should be translated unique, or some similar word. So why is Jesus unique?

Jesus is The Way

Jesus answered,

"I am

    the way

and

    the truth

and

    the life.

No one comes to the Father
except through me."

—John 14:6

If you don't know why Jesus is called unique, then I would suggest you should go read the Bible for yourself.

Whether you go to heaven or hell is more up to you than it is up to God:

God provided the way (Jesus said I am the way), but He can't make you take the way. God gave the gift of life (He gave His only begotten son, so that you should not perish, but have eternal life), but He cannot make you receive the gift. You must take it for yourself. God is not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, people do perish in hell. But it is not God's will.

If I were in a tall building and I heard someone shout "Fire! Fire! Fire!", then, well, I would not believe it just because someone said it, but I nevertheless would walk down the stairs and look around and convince myself that there is, or is not, a fire.

But you, and I, are in danger of a fate that is worse than a burning building. Jesus, the main prophet of the world's largest religion, warns of hell,

the eternal fire
    prepared for the devil and his angels,

the darkness,
    where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,

where their worm does not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.

Therefore I would suggest you read the Bible for yourself.

Jesus was tempted, yet without sin

The Bible says that Jesus was

tempted in every way,
just as we are—yet was without sin.

(Hebrews 4:15)

In fact, Jesus probably faced greater temptation than anyone else. He was hungry but refused to eat a bite of bread outside the will of God. He refused the riches of this world, and the adoration of men, that God did not provide. Jesus was tempted, yet was without sin because of his determined attitude of obedience to God.

The devil could find no fault in Jesus, although he tried:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."

Jesus answered, "It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ "

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."

Jesus answered, "It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ "

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. For it is written: " ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ "

Jesus answered, "It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ "

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
—Luke 4:1-13

Jesus' opponents, the religious leaders, could find no fault in Jesus, although they tried:

The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest [Jesus] immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
—Luke 20:19-20

They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
—Luke 20:26

And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
—Luke 20:40

The temple guards found no fault in Jesus:

Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why didn't you bring him in?"

"No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared.
—John 7:45-46

Judas, a close associate who betrayed Jesus for money, declared him innocent:

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood."
—Matt 27:3-4

Pontius Pilate could find no fault with Jesus:

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"
—Matt 27:23-24

God was pleased with Jesus:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven:

"You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased."
—Luke 3:21-22

 
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said,

"This is my Son, whom I love;
with him I am well pleased.
Listen to him!"
—Matthew 17:5

Therefore

could find fault with Jesus.

That makes Jesus unique!

Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient

Finally, I would like to leave you with the passage from the Bible that most clearly describes the relationship between God and Jesus.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God
   something to be grasped, but

made himself nothing,
   taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to death—
   even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him
   to the highest place

and gave him the name
   that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

—Philippians 2:5-11

Why was Jesus exalted to the highest place? Because he was a special person?

No. Jesus is a special and unique person, but was exalted to the highest place because

he humbled himself,
and became obedient.

But the purpose of these verses is to instruct you to be as Jesus was. As it says,

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Therefore you should humble yourself, and become obedient to God, as Jesus did. You should live blamelessly before God, man and the devil, as Jesus did. You should be steadfastly determined to resist temptation and sin, as Jesus did.

We may fail, but we must try and keep trying.
Jesus never failed, because Jesus is unique!


Further Reading

The best "further reading" is the Bible itself.

Does the Bible say "Begotten"? is another short article on this same topic.

To learn more about Tyndale's translation, visit http://www.tyndale.org. The claim that ninety percent of the 1611 edition of the King James Version is from Tyndale is found in Richard T. A. Murphy's book, Background To The Bible, Servant Publications, 1978.

By the way, as I wrote at the top of this article, the influential 1611 King James Version (KJV) brought the traditional translation of only begotten son to English for centuries. In contrast, the German equivalent of the KJV (Luther's translation) says eingeboren (only-born) son, where the English KJV says only begotten son (John 3:16). This whole begotten issue does not exist in German, because there is not one translation that says so.

I have attempted to answer the central mystery of Christianity in the following article: Did Jesus have to die to forgive sin? The questions that are raised in that article are difficult to solve in any religious context. In a sense, the Bible exceeds expectations by addressing and resolving the mystery in the first four chapters.

I hope this article has been helpful to you.


God gave His son that you should
not
perish
but have everlasting life.
622. Απολλυμι ap-ol’-loo-mee; from 575 and the base of 3639; to destroy fully (reflex. to perish or lose), lit. or fig.:—destroy, die, lose, mar, perish.
-- Strong's Concordance

Jesus warned of hell:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

Rather than being offended, as some people, let us determine to diligently seek God, and share what we know. God rewards those who earnestly seek him. Those who have gone before remain in whatever state they are in; they cannot be helped or hurt by what we say or do. Not so for us who live; our eternal destiny is still at stake.



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