March 28, 2003
When the RSV first came out (many decades ago) one of the many criticisms leveled against it was the way in which they translated the Greek word "monogenes." They dropped the familiar "begotten" and instead just used the word "only." They were immediately accused of denying the virgin birth and were condemned as "puppets of Satan." They were further charged with everything from being Communists (McCarthyism) to denying the deity of Christ Jesus. In the years since, many other translations also dropped the word "begotten," although some, like the NASB, retained it. Why? Were these modern versions trying to undermine God's Word? Were these translators the "spawn of Satan" who were seeking to deny the deity of Christ or His virgin birth? Or, were there other, more rational, explanations?!
The Greek word "monogenes" is actually a combination of two words: "monos" which means "only" or "alone," and "genos" which means "of the same nature, kind, sort, species" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT); "race, stock, class, kind" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature). It literally means "only one of its kind," and with reference to an individual it signifies that person to be a unique and one-of-a-kind being. Hugo McCord defines it as "a lone being, a unique existence, the only one of its kind, that which has no duplicate" (Gospel Advocate, 3/20/86). Jesus Christ is the unique, only one of His kind, Son of God. This is the meaning of "monogenes," and this is how it is translated in many of the more modern translations, which realize the true meaning of this word. Yes, we are all "sons of God" in a very real sense, but none of us are a son of God in the same sense that Jesus is. He is most definitely a "unique, one of a kind" Son of the Living God!!
So where did the idea of "begotten" come from?!! PART of the confusion here has arisen from the failure of some ancient translators to correctly recognize the root word of "genes" (which is "genos" = "unique in kind"). Instead, they incorrectly selected the root as "gennao" = "to beget." If this was the correct root, then an additional "n" would need to be added to "monogenes" --- "monogenNes." Hugo McCord, who used to advocate the "only begotten" translation, writes, "I, too, was in the same error. I did not realize I had to add to the Greek to get 'only begotten' into the New Testament. One added letter in a word lowers Jesus from being the only Son of God to being only a son of God" (Gospel Advocate, 3/30/86).
It is for this reason (to have a correct translation) that the more recent versions have dropped the idea of "begotten." The concept is simply NOT there. The NEB has "only Son" ..... Phillips has "only Son" ..... NIV has "one and only Son" ..... LB as "only Son" (with a footnote saying, "the unique Son of God") ..... Even the NASB, which retains "only begotten" in the text, has a footnote which states the literal translation is "unique, only one of His kind."
Did this idea of "only begotten" have any other origin (other than simple misidentification of the root word)? Very likely. It may well be a by-product of the doctrine of the eternal generation of Jesus, which arose to combat an early heresy (one which is still in existence in some religious groups). "At least one religious group -- the Mormons -- teach that this phrase ('only begotten Son') means that Jesus originated by birth from God" (Ed Boggess, Gospel Advocate, Dec. 3, 1981). The Mormon scholar James Talmage, in his "Articles of Faith," says that Jesus was merely the firstborn "among the spirit-children of Elohim." Brigham Young, in his "Journal of Discourses," wrote that Jesus was "begotten ... after the same manner as the ... sons and daughters of Adam and Eve." In other words, there was no eternal nature for Jesus; He was "begotten" by God, and thus did not exist prior to His physical birth.
Lewis Kash, in an article which appeared in the December, 1988 issue of Gospel Advocate, did an excellent job of discussing this whole concept and its history and impact upon the early translations. He writes, in part, "The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son first was taught in the third century by Origen. It was advanced by Jerome and others in the fourth century to combat the Arian heresy, and was used in later times to oppose erroneous subordinationist theologies that deny that the Son is coeternal and coequal with the Father. But the problem with the eternal generation is that it stresses an aspect of sonship that is not a biblical emphasis." In other words, it teaches that that part of the Godhead which is the Son, was actually CREATED (or "begotten"), and thus was never actually co-eternal or co-equal or co-existent with the Father. In their effort to refute the heresy that the Son did not exist prior to His earthly birth, but that He was "begotten from everlasting," they still promoted (unknowingly) the idea of His ORIGIN or BEGATTING, and thus that He was NOT co-eternal or co-existent with the Father. In a very real sense, the phrase "only BEGOTTEN" borders upon a DENIAL of the deity of Christ Jesus!!
Lewis Kash continues, "'Only begotten' is a phrase that was 'begotten' by the Christological controversies of the fourth century. It comes not from the pen of the apostle John, but from the pen of Jerome." In so doing, this false "translation 'only begotten' makes John 3:16 conform ... to the doctrine of the creeds," rather than to biblical truth!!
Lewis Kash also writes, "The translators of the King James Version (1611) were Anglican churchmen and theologians who subscribed to the doctrines of the 39 Articles of the Church of England (1563), which state that the Son was 'begotten from everlasting of the Father' (Art. II). 'Begotten from everlasting' is a clear reference to the doctrine of the eternal generation. In 1604, the same year in which the translators for the KJV were selected, all English clergymen were required 'by His Majesty's authority' to pledge, 'I ... do willing and from my heart subscribe to the 39 Articles of Religion.' When King James appointed his translators to revise the Bishops' Bible of 1568, he gave them instructions to make as few changes as possible, to keep 'the old ecclesiastical words,' (such as 'church') and, 'when any word hath divers significations,' to keep that 'which hath been most commonly used by the most eminent fathers.'"
Thus, the Son of God is GIVEN AN ORIGIN, and in so doing it denies His eternal coexistence with the Father ... and in a way denies His very deity!! Hugo McCord writes, "Anyone who gives Him an origin fails to enhance the deity of Jesus." Hugo then points out: "The Jehovah's Witnesses give Him an origin!" (Gospel Advocate, 3/30/86). Guy N. Woods, at a Freed-Hardeman College lecture, stated, "He who was in the beginning when the beginning began could not have begun with the beginning." Or, as Ed Boggess phrases it, "Jesus had no beginning, no origin; He is eternal!" (Gospel Advocate, Dec. 3, 1981). Hugo McCord phrased it this way: "Deity is unbegotten" (Gospel Advocate, 3/20/86).
Jesus was NOT the "only begotten" Son of God. However, He most definitely IS the unique, one of a kind, Son of God!! As Hugo McCord correctly states, "No begettal is in monogenes" (Gospel Advocate, 3/20/86). The word itself says nothing about begetting, only uniqueness! This was clearly understood in the early translations of Scripture, by-the-way! "The second century Old Latin version faithfully translated the nine NT occurrences of monogenes as UNICUS = 'unique.' However, Jerome (in his Latin Vulgate of 380-385) in six instances (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Hebrews 11:17; I John 4:9) ADDED a word to unicus, making it UNIGENITUS = 'only begotten.' No man has the right to add a word to the New Testament. 'Jerome's jumble' (as B.F. Westcott, 100 years ago, described Jerome's ADDITION to the NT) was perpetuated in the King James Version and in the American Standard Version. The result is that now many thousands of innocent people do not know that in their Bibles, six passages have been ALTERED" (Hugo McCord, Gospel Advocate, Feb. 6, 1986).
Dr. Jack P. Lewis (who was head of the Bible Dept. at Harding Graduate School of Religion) wrote, "The earlier Latin Bible had used UNICUS to translate monogenes, and the earliest creeds had so used UNICUS. The word UNIGENITUS then entered into theological discussion and became a vested interest to theologians" (Gospel Advocate, May 1, 1986). William Tyndale in 1526 and 1534, in his translation, corrected Jerome and used "only" in John 3:16, 18. The word "monogenes" does NOT convey the idea of begetting (and it especially does not do so with the LORD JESUS). As Dr. Jack P. Lewis says, "To introduce the idea of 'begetting' into the text is an error into which the early English translation (KJV) led us -- an error which should be obvious" (Gospel Advocate, May 1, 1986).
The idea of "only begotten" is not even in the word "monogenes." Rather, it speaks of one who is unique in some very special way; different from all others; one of a kind. Josephus, for example (in his Antiquities) used "monogenes" for Izates, who had a brother older than himself and who had other younger brothers! Hardly only "begotten." But, then, that is NOT the meaning! It simply highlights the uniqueness of someone or something; set apart from all others; unique of its kind.
The ISBE (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3) reads: "Scholars are divided over the legitimacy of the AV rendering 'only begotten' in the six passages mentioned above. The position against the AV translation was stated clearly by D. Moody, who insisted that 'monogenes' means 'one,' 'only,' or 'unique' rather than 'only begotten.' Moody's major arguments include the following: (1) The standard lexicons support this meaning!! (2) The Old Latin MSS rendered 'monogenes' by the Latin 'unicus' ('only') rather than 'unigenitus' ('only begotten'). In the Vulgate Jerome CHANGED 'unicus' to 'unigenitus' for theological reasons. The Vulgate exercised a formidable influence on the AV and subsequent English translations. (3) The LXX (Septuagint) use of 'monogenes' for the Hebrew 'yahid' and NT usage of the term in Lk. 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb. 11:17 clearly support the meaning 'only.' (4) The reference in I Clement 25:2 to the phoenix bird (which in mythology was neither born nor begotten) as 'monogenes' demands the meaning 'only one of its kind.'"
The ISBE continues: "Although 'genos' is DISTANTLY RELATED to 'gennan,' 'to begat,' there is little Greek justification for the translation of 'monogenes' as 'only begotten.' The word describes Jesus' uniqueness, not what is called in Trinitarian theology His 'procession.'" Again, this highlights the fact that deity is NOT begotten, rather deity IS ... and always WAS. The ISBE concludes: "In conclusion, assessment of the linguistic evidence seems to indicate that 'only' or 'unique' may be an adequate translation for all occurrences of monogenes in the Johannine literature." "The RSV and NEB render 'monogenes' by 'only' --- a translation supported by the use of 'monogenes' in the LXX." In Dr. James Hasting's Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Vol. II), he writes, "When Christ is designated 'monogenes uios,' the emphasis is laid not on the fact that He as Son was 'born' or 'begotten,' but that He is the 'only' Son, that as Son of God He has no equal. The Latin translators were quite right when originally they rendered the expression 'uios monogenes' simply by 'filius unicus,' NOT by 'filius unigenitus.' It was the dogmatic disputes as to the inner essential relations between Christ and God, especially those raised by Arius, which first gave occasion for emphasizing the point that Christ as the Son of God was a 'begotten' Son. After that it became a general custom to render 'monogenes' by 'unigenitus,' 'only begotten.'"
Let's assume for a moment that "monogenes" DOES signify a "begetting." IF this is true (which, of course, it is NOT), then notice the following: Heb. 11:17 (KJV) reads, "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his ONLY BEGOTTEN (monogenes) son." According to this passage in the KJV, Isaac is the ONLY BEGOTTEN son of Abraham. We certainly know that Abraham BEGAT Isaac (see Matt. 1:2 and Acts 7:8 -- where we find the word "gennao" = "to beget"). But, if Isaac is the ONLY son BEGOTTEN by Abraham, then how does one explain Gal. 4:22-23?!! "For it is written, that Abraham had TWO sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman WAS BORN (from the word "gennao" = "to beget") after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise." Notice also vs. 29: "But as then he that WAS BORN ("gennao") after the flesh persecuted him that WAS BORN after the Spirit, even so it is now." Ishmael was BEGOTTEN by Abraham!! Thus, Isaac was NOT the ONLY begotten son of Abraham. The KJV actually has Scripture contradicting itself!!
The problem is easily cleared up, however, when one realizes that "gennao" (to beget) is NOT the root used in "monogenes." Thus, the word "monogenes" does NOT refer to a begetting, but rather to the fact that one is unique, one of a kind. Isaac was NOT the only son begotten by Abraham (contrary to the teaching of the KJV in Heb. 11:17), however, Isaac WAS the UNIQUE and ONE OF A KIND son of Abraham. Unique in what way? Isaac was the "son of promise!" Ishmael was not! THIS is what Heb. 11:17 is actually teaching!! Again, notice Hugo McCord's observation: "The word ('monogenes') can refer to Isaac, but NOT as 'only begotten,' which phrase Jerome and the KJV and ASV INSERTED in Hebrews 11:17. That insertion makes the writer of Hebrews contradict Moses, who wrote that Abraham had at least seven other sons besides Isaac. But the writer of Hebrews makes clear how Isaac was a monogenes -- a unique person" -- he was the only son of promise!! (Gospel Advocate, 3/20/86).
One last quote from Hugo McCord: "The HUMANLY ADDED word 'begotten' by Jerome and by the KJV and ASV in six of the nine places where monogenes appears leaves one wondering why it was not added in the other three occurrences of the word! With all the scholarship back of Jerome, the KJV and the ASV, I AM STUNNED that they INSERTED the word 'begotten' in Hebrews 11:17, when its omission would have left Scriptural harmony instead of a contradiction. Further, the insertion of the phrase 'only begotten' not only fails to 'enhance the deity of Jesus,' but DENIES IT, for deity is unbegotten. What would 'enhance the deity of Jesus' is to translate monogenes in all its fullness. Its fullness includes not only the 'monos,' that He is the only Son of God, but also the 'genes,' that He is the only one of His kind, the unique one, the UNBEGOTTEN, the unparalleled, the irreplaceable, the incomparable, the peerless, the unequaled, the matchless, the non-duplicable, and any other word that describes superlative and exclusive excellency. May all you men of God rise to the occasion of proclaiming the fullness of monogenes, not a limited 'begotten' meaning that brings Him down to our level. If He were begotten, He is not monogenes, the only one of His kind. No one who uses the phrase 'only begotten' is speaking as the oracles of God (I Peter 4:11), for the inspired writers did not use it" (Gospel Advocate, 3/20/86).
The word "begotten" in John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Hebrews 11:17; I John 4:9 is eliminated (1) for the sake of accuracy and (2) for the sake of the honor that belongs to Isaac and to Jesus. Many Christians (of whom I was one) were brought up to believe that Jesus is dishonored if one does not call him "only begotten" (though somehow we did not take up for Isaac).
As for accuracy, in none of the six citations mentioned above did the infallible Holy Spirit cause monos gennetheis ("only begotten") to be written, but in every instance the word written is monogenes ("the only one of a kind, the unique one").
It would have been inaccurate for the Holy Spirit to describe Isaac as moledeth badad, monos gennetheis ("only begotten") for Abraham his father begat seven sons (Genesis 16:15; 25:2) beside Isaac. Accordingly, Isaac was not an only begotten (as some translations call him in Hebrews 11:17), but God called him a yachid (Genesis 22:2), a unique being, one of which no duplicate existed, a solitary person (cf. Psalm 68:6). The inspired writer of the book of Hebrews explained in what way Isaac was a yachid, a monogenes: he was the only son of promise, not the only begotten of Abraham (Hebrews 11:17).
Similarly, it would have been inaccurate for the Holy Spirit to speak of Jesus as a monos gennetheis (an "only begotten") for he was not the only begotten either of God (I John 5:1; II Corinthians 6:18) or of Mary (Mark 6:3). Actually, to call the Logos (the "Word") who "was God" (John 1:1), a begotten being, is to deny his eternity (Micah 5:2), is to demote him to creature-status (as some have done: the Arians, the Unitarians, the Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.), whereas he is the Creator (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). This is true because no begotten being can be as old as his father. The "Son" designation then, though important and precious, cannot be literal.
Physically he was begotten of Mary (Luke 1:35), but actually, as the Word, always existing, he was never begotten. Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians in A.D. 110 that Jesus was gennetos kai agennetos --- "begotten and unbegotten" (Bauer-Gingrich-Danker, p. 156). Figuratively he was begotten (Psalm 2:7) in his being raised from the dead and in his being made king and priest (Acts 13:32-33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5), but in no sense does the Bible call him an "only begotten."
Bauer-Gingrich-Danker, p. 527, simply define monogenes as "only, unique." In the first three occurrences of monogenes in the New Testament (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38) there is an "only" person described (son, daughter, son) who is compared with no other, and therefore any other word of definition would be "redundant" (Dr. Jack Lewis). But in the last six occurrences of monogenes in the New Testament (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Hebrews 11:17; I John 4:9), neither Isaac (with seven brothers --- Genesis 16:15; 25:2) nor Jesus (with many brothers --- Mark 6:3; Hebrews 2:11) was an "only" son. Therefore, the word "only," as a translation of monogenes in regard to both Isaac and Jesus would be inaccurate. However, the word "unique" is accurate and precise, and is followed in this translation.
Most people do not know Greek and they have to trust the translators. "Woe to the world because of the stumbling blocks! For the stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes" (Matthew 18:7). Translators have within their power to destroy a "brother for whom Christ died" (I Corinthians 8:11). So, if translators are not dedicated to accuracy, they had better quit. One is not perverting James 3:1 to make it read: "Be not many of you translators, my brothers, knowing we shall receive greater condemnation."
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