Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Word Magazine # 56: Text Note: John 1:18 "only begotten Son" or "only God"?

Note:  I posted to sermonaudio.com today WM # 56:  Text Note:  John 1:18 "only begotten Son" or "only God"?  

The Issue:

The textual issue here is of Christological significance.  Should it read “the only begotten Son [ho monogenes huios]” (as in the TR) or “only God [monogenes theos]” (as in the modern critical text)?

Compare the KJV and ESV translations:

KJV John 1:18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

ESV John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only God,[a] who is at the Father's side,[b] he has made him known.

ESV Footnotes:
a.     John 1:18 Or the only One, who is God; some manuscripts the only Son
b.     John 1:18 Greek in the bosom of the Father

External Evidence:

The TR reading [ho monogenes huios] is supported by the following Greek mss:  Codices A [Alexandrinus], C [Ephraemi, 3rd corrector], Kappa, Gamma, Delta, Theta, Psi, family 1, family 13, etc.  It is the reading of the Majority Text.  With regard to versions it is the reading of the Old Latin, the Curetonian Syriac, and the Harklean Syriac.

The modern critical text reading [monogenes theos] is supported by four Greek mss:  p66, Sinaiticus [original hand], Vaticanus, and C [original hand].  Among the versions, it is the reading of the Peshitta Syriac and a marginal reading in the Harklean Syriac.

A variation of the modern critical text reading includes the article:  ho monogenes theos.  This reading is found in three Greek mss: p75, the first corrector of Sinaiticus, and 33.

In his Commentary, Metzger notes that with the acquisition of p66 and p75, the modern reading is “notably strengthened” (this and all citations below, p. 198).  Even this, however, is a reminder that the TR reading was abandoned in the nineteenth century modern text of Westcott and Hort primarily on the basis of the twin heavyweight uncials Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.

Internal Evidence:

Which reading fits best and makes most sense within the context of John?

Metzger assumes that the “Son” reading “undoubtedly is easier” than “God” here.  He suggests it is “the result of scribal assimilation to Jn 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9.”

One wonders, however, why he does not conversely consider that the TR reading may be distinctively Johannine given the usage in John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9.

With regard to the alternative reading found in p75, Metzger argues that if the article were original then there is no good reason it would have been deleted.  He suggests that the anarthous use of theos (as in John 1:1) “appears to be more primitive.”  He suggests the article was only added as “Son” began to replace “God.”

We should note that in Metzger’s Commentary, this reading is given only a {B} reading. It also includes a minority report from Alan Wikgren, one of the five members of the UBS Greek NT committee.  Wikgren asserts that the modern text reading is “doubtful” He suggests it “may be a primitive, transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition” due to confusion over nomina sacra where “Son” would have been abbreviated as upsilon sigma and “God” as theta sigma.  Wickgren says “at least a D decision would be preferable.”

Christological concerns:

This text difference is important due to the use of a Christological title for Jesus.  Did the original refer to Jesus as “the only-begotten Son” (as in the TR) or as the “only God” (as in the modern critical text).  Note:  Some have suggested that the modern critical text could be translated as two terms [the only one, who is God] rather than one [the only God].

One might even suggest that the modern critical text is a valuable reading in support of the deity of Jesus, as he is explicitly described as theos (much as defenders of the TR wish to retain the reading “God” in 1 Tim 3:16).

On the other hand, the Majority Text’s tenacious retention of the reading “Son” rather than “God” might well argue for its originality, perhaps indicating that the tradition was so committed to the preservation of the original text that it was unwilling to alter it even for what might seem to be a Christological “improvement.”

Hills, following Burgon, suggests that the modern reading might be traced back to the heretic Valentinus who wanted to deny that the “Son” was the “Word” (see Hills, The KJV Defended, pp. 133-134.  If this is true the theos reading, far from being intended to affirm the deity of Jesus, might have been intended to deny it!


The traditional reading has ancient and widespread attestation.  It was the prevailing reading of the Majority Text.  The modern reading has ancient support, but it is limited to a handful of Alexandrian (Egyptian) mss.  Wikgren has provided  a reasonable transcriptional possibility for the modern reading due to confusion over the nomina sacra.  The change might also have its roots in Christological controversy, the terms of which are no longer clear to us.  There is no compelling reason to abandon the confessional text of John 1:18.



A. J. MacDonald, Jr said...

Very informative podcast and post. I appreciate your work on the traditional text. When is your book coming out?! It seems the so-called modern critical text is little else than the ancient heretical sect text, which was rejected by the Church long ago.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Thanks for your encouragement AJ. The book is in the research stage. Maybe one day....

A. J. MacDonald, Jr said...

Have you read Bruce Metzger's, “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance” (Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1997)? I was going through it recently and found some interesting passages relating to what I call the ecclesiastical text-canon. I think the more we link text with canon the less our opponents will be able to gainsay.

Anonymous said...

Your discussion did not include "the only begotten God" of my pastor's NASV, I being a KJV user and a friend of the late Ted Letis. A year or so ago when I showed him my copy of my grandfather's Finnish Blble (a TR Bible - 1776 I think), he specifically wanted to see John 1:18. He was disappointed to see poika - son, rather than Jumala - God. Why do newer versions avoid "only begotten" and change it to "only" or "one and only"? I appreciate your Word Magazine series and wait for each new episode!

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

AJ, I have not yet read Metzger's canon book. It is on my list. I agree that the there is a link between text and canon often overlooked by those who have embraced the modern text. Canon is not just a matter of which books are authoritative but also what texts of those books are authoritative.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Anon, my guess is that the reading "only begotten God" would just be a variation on the translation of the modern text. Rather than render "monogenes" as "only" it renders it as "only begotten." Yes, I'm sure all the old translations, including the Finnish, followed the TR. BTW, I hear Finnish is close to Hungarian, a language I studied when I lived in Budapest. Glad to hear you enjoy the WMs. This motivates me to want to do more!

Phil Brown said...

I have a question regarding Patristics and this verse. I also apologize if you have addressed this elsewhere. I wasn't able to find a reference. There are two quotes. One is from Ignatius of Antioch, who is an Apostolic Father from my understanding. The second is from Irenaeus, who's an Ante-Nicene Father. Both translations are from the Greek from my understanding. I am told the Latin reads like the Traditional Text. Someone pointed these out to me some time ago, and I've been meaning to get your take. Ignatius wrote:

If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such an one is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men.

Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 83–491.

Irenaeus wrote:

But His Word, as He Himself willed it, and for the benefit of those who beheld, did show the Father’s brightness, and explained His purposes (as also the Lord said: “The only-begotten God, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared [Him];” and He does Himself also interpret the Word of the Father as being rich and great); not in one figure, nor in one character, did He appear to those seeing Him, but according to the reasons and effects aimed at in His dispensations, as it is written in Daniel.

Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 491.

I can think of a few explanations for this, but none seem to be in favor of the Traditional text. I'm hoping you may have some insight. Thanks.

Phil Brown said...

I did run across a helpful article from the Trinitarian Bible Society. While it doesn't answer all of my questions, it is helpful somewhat. I presume from this that the "Only begotten God" readings came from Egypt and are suspect to the author. The Trinitarian Bible Society article reads thus:

"V. The ‘Fathers’

It has been said that the entire text of the New Testament could be recovered from quotations in the works of early Christian writers. If a writer in the second century comments upon a verse which later writers were inclined to omit or radically alter, it may be assumed that the ancient commentator had in his possession a Greek copy containing the disputed verse. The second century copy has not survived, but the commentary demonstrates that it was familiar to the writer. In John I. 18 ‘Son’ is attested by the following ancient authorities: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Synodical Epistle of the Council of Antioch, Archelaus, Eustathius, Alexander of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Phoebadius, Victorious of Rome, Hilary, Ambrosiaster, Athanasius, Ambrose of Milan, Titus Bostra. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine of Hippo, Chrysostom, Synesius, Theodoret, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nonnus, Proclus, Vigilius. These writings span the period from the second century to the end of the fifth century.

Less evidence for the alternative reading ‘God’ The variant MONOGENES THEOS, God adopted by some of the modern versions is not so well attested, the authorities being papyrus 66, the uncials Aleph, B, C*, L, some of the Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopic versions, and some quotations by Theodotus, Va1en-tinians, Ptolemy, Diatessaron, Heracleon, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hilary, Basil, Apostolic Constitutions, Didymus, Gregory Nyssa, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Arius, and Synesius. Papyrus 66 introduces a sixth sub-division of the ancient evidence, the papyrus fragments surviving from the 2nd-7th centuries.

The antiquity of some of these fragments is no guarantee of their reliability. Most of them were made and preserved in Egypt and exhibit the same deficiencies as those which characterise later copies originating and circulating in that part of the world. In many instances the variants of Papyrus 66 are rejected by modern editors and translators, but are regarded as respectable if they agree with Codex Vaticanus. It is a mistake to suggest that ‘only-begotten God’ renders more honour to Christ than ‘only-begotten Son’, for the innovation can be used to support the dangerous error that Christ’s Godhead was inferior to that of the Father, that His Godhead was not eternal and essential, but subordinate and derived. It was no doubt for this reason that Arius adopted the incorrect reading because it was more favourable to his heretical view of the Person of the Son of God. For the same reason Jehovah’s Witnesses approve this reading. The true reading relates ‘only-begotten’ to His Sonship, not to His Deity, and is truly and accurately rendered in the Authorised Version, with the support of the overwhelming mass of the ancient documentary evidence."

This article was first published in 1972 in Quarterly Record 441. Edited for online publication in January 2023. Link: https://www.tbsbibles.org/page/TheOnlyBegottenSon?&hhsearchterms=%22john+and+118%22