Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
My question is related to John 3: 16. In the King James Version Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son.” In the New International Version He is called “his one and only Son.” Why?
Most recent Bible versions avoid the translation “only begotten” in order to better represent the basic idea of the Greek term monogenēs. In answering your question we will examine the meaning of that word and its biblical usage and significance.
1. Meaning of the Term: Most words have a root meaning that is useful in understanding its usage in a sentence. The Greek word monogenes is formed by a combination of two words, monos (“single, only”) and genos (“kind”). It designates the only member of its kind. One could argue that the “only begotten” is the only member of its kind. But that translation is questionable because another Greek term has that meaning, monogennētos. This term is formed by the combination of monos (“single, only”) and the verb genaō (“to beget”). The translation “only begotten” is based on the influence of the Latin translation of the New Testament. Ancient Latin manuscripts correctly translated mongenēs as unicus (“only”), but during the early Christian controversies concerning the divine nature of Christ the translation unigenitus (“only begotten”) was introduced into the Latin Version to indicate that Christ was not a created being. From there it passed on to other modern languages, including English.
2. General Usage of the Term: The word monogenēs is used nine times in the New Testament. In four of them it designates the relationship between parents and a particular child. The son of the widow of Nain is described as “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow” (Luke 7:12, NIV). The text emphasizes that this child was the only companion or family member this woman had, not that he was her only begotten son. In this case “only” or “one and only” son would be adequate. The same applies to the case of Jairus and “his only daughter, a girl” (Luke 8:42, NIV). The emphasis was not on the fact that she was his “only begotten daughter,” but on the fact that she was his only daughter and the tragedy of losing her. The child possessed by a demon was described by the father as his “only child” (Luke 9:38). He was precious because he was the only child he had and he didn’t want him to suffer. Finally, in Hebrews 11:17 Isaac was described as Abraham’s monogenēs, that is, “his one and only son” (NIV). Isaac was not, strictly speaking, Abraham’s only begotten son (cf. Gen. 16:3, 11; 25:1), but his only son through whom God’s promises would be fulfilled. The Greek term expresses the idea of Abraham’s “unique” son.
3. Christ as God’s Monogenēs: When the term is used to describe Jesus, it simply means “unique,” or “one and only.” It describes the uniqueness of His nature: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NIV). There is no other like Him in that He came from the Father and possesses the glory of the Father. John 1:18 is particularly difficult because the manuscripts provide .at least two different textual variants. Some argue that the original text reads “only Son” and others that the original is “only God.” If one accepts “only God,” then monogenēs could refer to the uniqueness of Christ as God and as God’s means of revelation (cf. verse 14). If we accept the reading “only Son,” His uniqueness as a revealer of the Father would be emphasized.
Monogenēs also identifies Jesus as the only and unique means of salvation. John wrote, “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, NIV). The relationship between Christ and the Father is unique: He is God’s one and only Son, and He is God’s only means of salvation. The same is found in 1 John 4:9, where John wrote that the Father loved us and sent “his one and only [monogenēs] Son into the world that we might live through him” (NIV). God gave us the most precious gift He had, His only and unique Son to redeem us. Based on the root meaning of the term and the context in which it is used, one could suggest that the most probable translation is “unique, one and only.”