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The One and Only Son

Richard Longenecker


From the article by Longenecker in Barker, Kenneth, The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, Zondervan, pp. 119-126, 165-166.

   Two matters that are joined in John’s Gospel and Letters have become bones of contention among Christians and require great care on the part of translators. The first has to do with how to translate monogenēs, which in christological contexts the KJV rendered “only begotten” and the NIV expresses as “one and only.” The second concerns the nuancing of huios (“son”) when used of Jesus, particularly in light of the fact that Christians are commonly referred to in the New Testament as huioi theou (“sons of God”).

The adjective monogenēs appears in the New Testament nine times, either with a noun or as a substantive: three times in Luke, once in Hebrews, four times in John, and once in 1 John. Thus it appears only in the later writings of the New Testament and on the part of authors who seem to be most conversant with Hellenistic modes of expression. In Luke it is used of a widow’s son (7:12, “the only son of his mother”), of Jairus’s daughter (8:42, “his only daughter”), and of the son of an unnamed man in the crowd (9:38, “he is my only child”). In Hebrews it is used of Isaac, who was ton monogenē of Abraham (11:17). Only in John’s Gospel and First Letter is it used to describe the relation of Jesus to God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).1

    The synoptic Gospels (particularly Matthew) frequently refer to Jesus as huios theou (e.g., Matt. 14:33; 16:16; 28:19; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:32, 35) and to Christians as huioi theou (e.g., Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35). And so do the letters of the New Testament (e.g., “Son of God” in Rom. 1:3, 4, 9; 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32 et al.; Heb. 1:2, 8; 4:14; 5:8 et al.; “sons of God” in Rom. 8:14, 19; 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:26; 4:6-7). In the Johannine writings, however, the pattern is somewhat different; for there (1) huios theou is used with even greater frequency for Jesus (e.g., John 1:49; 3:16-18, 35-36; 5:19-26; 6:40; 8:35-36 et al.; 1 John 1:3, 7; 2:22-24; 2 John 3, 9), and (2) huios is reserved for Jesus alone. Whereas elsewhere in the New Testament Christians are commonly referred to as huioi theou (“sons of God”), in the Johannine writings they are called tekna theou (“children of God,” John 1:12; 11:52; 1 John 3:1, 2, 10; 5:2)—huios theou being reserved for Jesus alone.

This is not to suggest that there was little difference between the sonship of Jesus and that of Christians for the synoptic evangelists, or for Paul, or for the other writers of the New Testament. They had other ways of signaling the uniqueness of Jesus’ sonship vis-à-vis that of Christians. It is, however, to point out that John more clearly emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus’ sonship in his frequent use of “Son of God” for Jesus and his consistent use of “children of God” for Christians. And it is to note that the Johannine formula monogenēs huios was what the early church—from at least Irenaeus on—found to be both illuminating and easily remembered, and that under the influence of the Latin translation unigenitus it became almost sacrosanct in the creeds and Christian theology as “only begotten Son.”

    The question, however, is, What does “only begotten Son” mean? If it has to do with origin, derivation, or descent, how does that square with the Son’s eternality? And if uniqueness is the dominant connotation of the word, how does that relate to the Son’s oneness with believers? It is in the Johannine writings that these issues are focused. And it is to these issues that all translators of the New Testament must speak—first by way of linguistic usage and conceptual backgrounds, and then in terms of the New Testament’s own christological perspectives.

Linguistic Usage

    The word monogenēs, with its variants mounogeneia (an early feminine poetic form) and mounogonos (a later masculine form), occurs first in extant Greek literature in the writings of the eighth-century B.C. poet Hesiod. Thereafter it appears in the work of such diverse authors as Parmenides, Aeschylus, Plato, Herodotus, Apollonius Rhodius, and Antoninus Liberalis, as well as in the Orphic Hymns. It also appears in a number of Greek papyri and inscriptions.2 Literally monogenēs means “sole descent” or “the only child of one’s parents.” It is a stronger term than the simple monos, for it denotes that the parents have never had more than this one child. This is one way it was used by Hesiod (Works and Days 376; Theogony 426), Plato (Critias 113d), Herodotus (History 7.221), and Antoninus Liberalis (Mythographi Graeci, ed. F. Martini, II [1896], 32:1).

    The word, however, was also used by Hesiod (Works and Days 374; Theogony 448) and the writers of the Orphic Hymns (29:2; 32:1; 40:16) in the sense of “peerless,” “matchless,” “unique,” “of singular importance,” or “the only one of its kind,” which ideas have more to do with quality than derivation or descent. The sixth-fifth century B.C. philosopher Parmenides spoke of Being as “ungenerated [agenēton], imperishable, whole, unique [monogenēs], and without end” (Frag. 8.3-4), thereby ignoring—particularly in parallel with agenēton—any idea of generation in the word as might be found etymologically in genos. In the early fifth century, Aeschylus has Queen Clytaemestra, in mocking welcome, hail her husband, King Agamemnon, as monogenēs teknon patri (Agamemnon 898)—which must mean something like “the favored or chosen child of his father,” Atreus—and not the only child of Atreus, since Menelaus was also a son of Atreus, and Agamemnon’s brother. Plato, in arguing that the Creator (ho poiōn kosmous) did not make two or more heavens but one heaven only, strengthens his insistence on “one” by writing heis hode monogenēs ouranos (Timaeus 31b). And in the magical papyri, the term monogenēs often appears as part of the title of the deity invoked: theos, ho monogenēs or ho heis monogenēs, which translates as “God, the Incomparable One” or “The One Incomparable”—though, as is evident from the context, not a god who is alone of its kind.

    Likewise the LXX and various Jewish writings in Greek use monogenēs in more than one way. The LXX translates yāhîd in Judges 11:34 by monogenēs, and so identifies Jephthah’s daughter as Jephthah’s only child. And this stress on “sole descent” or “the only child of one’s parents” is uppermost in the use of the word for Raquel’s daughter in Tobit 6:14 and 8:16 (cf. Pseudo-Philo 39:11). But the idea of sole descent gave rise to more general meanings for the term as well, depending on the context. So in Psalms 25:16 and 68:6 (Lxx) the idea of “the only one” is nuanced to mean “desolate” or “solitary” or “all alone” (NIV, “lonely”); while in Psalms 22:20 and 35:17 (Lxx), tēn mnonogenē mou is set in parallel fashion to tēn psychēn mou to signify one’s “priceless and irreplaceable” life (NIV, “my precious life”).

    Further, in Genesis 22:2, 12, 16, and Jubilees 18:2, 11, 15 (possibly also Jos. Antiq. 1:222), monogenēs is used of Isaac in the sense of Abraham’s “favored,” “chosen,” or “unique” son, vis-à-vis Ishmael. It is also used in Josephus (Antiq. 20:20) in this manner of Monobazus’s son Izates (vis-à-vis Monobazus’s many other children), in 1 Baruch 4:16 of a widow’s son (vis-à-vis anything else). In Psalms of Solomon 18:4 and Ezra 6:58, Israel is referred to as both God’s prototokos and God’s monogenēs (cf. also Pseudo-Philo 39:11), which hints in something of an overlap of meaning between the two terms. And since the LXX also renders yāhîd by agapētos (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16; Prov. 4:3; Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10), there is the suggestion that monogenēs may also carry the idea of “beloved” or “best-loved.”3

    Writing about the same time as the fourth evangelist (i.e., A.D. 95-96), Clement of Rome (1 Clement 25) spoke of the Phoenix, that mysterious bird of the East, as monogenēs—that is, as “unique” or “the only one of its kind”:

    Let us consider the marvellous sign which is seen in the regions of the east, that is, in the regions about Arabia. There is a bird, which is named the Phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind (touto monogenēs hyparchon), lives for 500 years; and when it reaches the time of its dissolution that it should die, it makes for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, into which in the fulness of time it enters and then dies. But as the flesh rots, a certain worm is engendered, which is nurtured from the moisture of the dead creature, and puts forth wings. Then when it has grown lusty, it takes up that coffin where are the bones of its parent, and carrying them, it journeys from the country of Arabia even unto Egypt, to the place called the City of the Sun—and in full daylight and in the sight of all, it flies to the altar of the Sun and lays them on it. And this done, it then returns. So the priests examine the registers of the times, and they find that it has come when the five hundredth year is completed.4

    The only second-century Christian writings to use monogenēs of Christ are Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (105), the Martyrdom of Polycarp (20.2), and the apology called the Epistle to Dionetus (10.2). Martyrdom of Polycarp (20.2), for example, is a doxology: “Now unto him who is able to bring us all by his grace and bounty unto his eternal kingdom, through his one and only Son Jesus Christ (dia paidos autou, tou monogenous Iēsou Christou), be glory, honor, power, and greatness for ever.” But while these second-century ascriptions presuppose a recognized semantic range of meaning for the word monogenēs. they do not aid us in determining what that meaning was. For this we must turn back to the New Testament itself and study the epithet in light of then current usage and the New Testament’s own christological perspectives.

Conceptual Backgrounds

    In the Old Testament and the literature of Second Temple Judaism, the Jewish people are often spoken of in terms of sonship (e.g., Exod. 4:22-23; Isa. 1:2; 30:1; 63:16; Jer. 3:19; Hos. 11:1; Ecclus. 4:10; Pss. Sol. 13:9; 17:27-30; 18:4; Jub. 1:24-25). They were the sons of God in a manner not true of any other nation or people because of their election by God and God’s establishment of his covenant with them. In that relationship God pledged himself to them, and they were expected to respond in loving obedience. Together with this corporate understanding of sonship, there also exists in the Old Testament the concept of the king, who was God’s anointed representative, as God’s son (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:14; Pss. 2:7; 80:26-27), so that it may be said that in first-century Judaism ideas of Israel as God’s son and the anointed king as God’s son existed side by side. In addition we now know from the Dead Sea scroll 4QFlorilegium, in its comment on the words “I will be his father, and he will be my son” of 2 Samuel 7:14a—”The ‘he’ in question is the Scion of David who will reign in Zion in the Last Days, alongside the Expounder of the Law”—that the category of sonship was beginning to be extended to the Davidic Messiah in at least one Jewish group prior to the advent of Christianity.5 In all these cases, whether corporately or individually understood, “Son of God” must be seen as an epithet to designate one whose relationship with God can be characterized as one of loving obedience.

    It is in light of this conceptual background that the title as applied to Jesus must initially be seen. “Son of God” cannot be understood simply in terms of popular religious notions that were circulating in the Greek world.6 Contrary to the assumption of an origin in Hellenism, it is in the literature of the Jewish mission of the early church that the ascriptions “Son of God” and “the Son” are most prominent, and not, it should be noted, in those canonical writings that represent the Gentile cycle of witness. It is Matthew among the synoptic evangelists who gives increased prominence to the sonship of Jesus,7 the writer to the Hebrews who begins on this theme and continues it throughout his letter (see esp. 1:1-5; 2:10-18; 4:14-16; 5:7-9), and John who makes the sonship of Jesus the high point of his christology (see esp. John 20:31; 1 John 4:15; 5:5). Paul, of course, highlights the sonship of Christ, for he finds in Christ’s response of loving obedience the basis for our acceptance by God (cf. Gal. 4:4-7). In comparison to Matthew, Hebrews, and John, however, Paul’s use of “Son of God” only three times and “the Son” twelve times seems rather surprising.8 Likewise Mark and Luke unquestionably believe Jesus to be the Son of God. But when they speak in such a manner, they seem, with the possible exception of Mark 1:1, to be only repeating traditional wording. Their omission of the title in Peter’s confession (Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20; cf. Matt. 16:16) and in the rulers’ taunt (Mark 15:30; Luke 23:35; cf. Matt. 27:40, 43)—together with Luke’s treatment of the centurion’s claim (Luke 23:47; cf. Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39)—are more likely due to a desire to downplay distinctive Jewish motifs in the Gentile mission than to an expansionist policy on Matthew’s part.9

    Probably the earliest Jewish believers, in explicating their conviction regarding Jesus as Messiah, used “Son” and “Son of God” as epithets for Jesus in a functional manner to denote Jesus’ unique relationship to God and his response of loving obedience to the Father’s will. Just as Israel and her sons were uniquely God’s own among all the people of the earth, and just as the anointed king was God’s son, so Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, who united in his person both the corporate ideal and descent from David and who exemplified in his life an unparalleled obedience, was the Son of God par excellence.

    That a corporate understanding of sonship was understood to be fulfilled and heightened in Jesus is suggested by the retention in the tradition of the argument in John 10:34-36, where, by means of an a minori ad maius inferential approach, Jesus is presented as saying: “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?’10 And that a fulfillment in terms of royal sonship was understood as well is indicated in the application of 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7 to Jesus at Acts 13:33 and in Hebrews 1:5; 5:5.11 In Jesus, therefore, whether or not they had ever been so united before, the corporate and royal Son-of-God motifs were brought together.

    The New Testament, however, also indicates that, while originally understood primarily in functional ways to denote Jesus’ unique relationship to God and his loving obedience to the Father’s will, “Son of God” very soon came to signify divine nature. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and forced to think more precisely because of circumstances, the church’s understanding of the person of its Lord grew, and further significance was soon seen in the title Son of God. So, it seems, while early Christian tradition spoke in primarily functional ways of Jesus as “the Son of God” and of believers in Jesus as “sons of God,” John, whose writings reflect a more deliberate christological nuancing, prefers to reserve “Son of God” for Jesus alone and to use “children of God” for Christians.

Christological Perspectives

    Undoubtedly sonship meant for Jesus, first of all, all that it had come to mean in the sacred and devotional literature of the Jews: His life’s purpose was to do the Father’s will and to offer unto God the perfect response of loving obedience. He was, as our canonical Gospels portray him, the Jew standing on behalf of all his fellow Jews and the Man representing all men, who offered in fullest measure that loving obedience that is rightfully due God the Father—and, therefore, he has the greatest right to the title “Son of God.” But more is involved than this. For by the manner in which he spoke of God as his Father and of himself as God’s Son, Jesus signaled a consciousness of filial relationship with God that is not just quantitatively to be distinguished from all others. His references to God as “my Father,” for example, suggest an intimacy with God that surpasses the heights of Jewish piety, for the usual manner of addressing God by Jews was to use the corporate and formal “our Father” (as even Jesus taught his disciples to do).12 And his frequent equation of himself with the Father (e.g., Mark 2:1-12; 12:1-9; John 5:17-18; 14:8-11) highlights such a qualitative difference as well.

    For the early Christians the confession of Jesus as Messiah involved also the acclamation of Jesus as the Son of God. The titles are brought together as being roughly synonymous in a number of New Testament passages (e.g., Matt. 16:16; 26:63; Mark 1:1; Luke 4:41; John 11:27; 20:31; Acts 9:20-22). Indeed, as God’s Anointed One, Jesus was God’s Son par excellence, offering to the Father the response of loving obedience that is God’s due. But he was also, as the early Christians came to realize more and more by the Spirit’s direction, God’s Son because of who he was. So Jesus’ sonship came to be viewed not only in functional terms but also in ontological terms, with both understandings being depicted in the canonical writings of the apostolic church.

    It seems best, therefore, to understand in a more functional way the christological use of “Son” and “Son of God” where early Christian tradition is being reported (though always with the realization that in the substrata of that tradition were theological affirmations of an ontological nature that were bursting to come to the fore) and to acknowledge a more explicit nuancing of the titles in the more avowedly theological writings. Thus in the synoptic Gospels sonship is attributed both to Jesus and to believers in a manner that is primarily functional, with that of Jesus being set off from others by the addition of the adjective agapētos (“beloved,” “best-loved”)13 or its variant eklelegmenos (“chosen”);14 whereas in John’s Gospel and Letters “Son” and “Son of God” are reserved for Jesus alone and the adjective monogenēs is used to Support the noun huios.15


    Contemporary Greek usage allows for monogenēs to be understood more broadly as an adjective stressing quality, rather than derivation or descent. And John’s nuancing of “Son” in his Gospel and Letters lends support to such an understanding. We must conclude, therefore, that the translation “only begotten Son,” though venerable, fails to capture adequately John’s point in his use of monogenēs huios (or monogenēs theos in John 1:18), particularly because it leaves open the possibility of an etymological emphasis on genes (the idea of generation), because it neglects then current usage for the word, and because it fails to set the determination of meaning in the context of John’s avowedly heightened christological perspective. Rather, we must insist that in Johannine usage monogenēs is an adjective connoting quality, which should be translated in a manner signaling primarily uniqueness, and that huios as a christological appellative in John’s Gospel and Letters connotes primarily divine nature. So, to be true to John’s intent, monogenēs huios is best translated into current English as “one and only Son.”

    1The synoptic Gospels portray God as identifying Jesus as ho huios mou, ho agapētos at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22) and at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; cf. ho huios mou, ho eklelegmenos of Luke ); Paul uses ho heautou huios (Rom. 8:3), ho idios huios (Rom 8:32), morphē Phil. 2:6), eikon (Col. 1:15), and prētotokos (Rom. 8:29; Col 1:15, 18) in speaking Christ’s relation to God. Only John uses monogenēs as an adjective or substantive in depicting that relationship.

    2For the relevant literature, see F. Kattenbusch, “Only Begotten,” in Dictionory of Christ and the Gospels, edited by J. Hastings (1908), 2:281-82.

    3F. Buchsel plays down this overlapping of ideas by saying, “If the LXX has different terms for yāhîd, this is perhaps because different translators were at work” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, edited by G. Kittel and translated by G.W. Bromiley [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967], 739). Admittedly a number of translators were involved. Yet the fact that yāhîd can be translated by both monogenēs and agapëtos suggests something of the roughly synonymous notations associated with these two Greek words.

    4Roman poets spoke of the Phoenix as an “unica” or “semper unica” bird; later Greek Christians (e.g., Origen, Cyril, the Apostolic Constitutions 5.7) continued to refer to the Phoenix as monogenēs.

    5Cf. also 1 Enoch 105:2, though this is probably a Christian interpolation, and 4 Ezra 7:28-29; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9, though 4 Ezra dates from the first part of the second century A.D.

    6Contra G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, translated by D. M. Kay (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909), 271-72; W. Boussett, Kyrios Christos (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1913), 53-54; and R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, translated by R. H. Fuller (London: Thames & Hudson, 1956), 176-77.

    7W. Kümmel points out that a major interest of Matthew is “the proof that Jesus is ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (16.16)” (Introdoction to the New Testament, translated by A.J. Mattill, Jr. [Nashville: John Knox, 1965], 83).

    8“Son of God”: Rom. 1:4; 2 Cor. 1:19; Gal. 2:20; “the Son” (or, “his Son”): Rom. 1:3, 9; 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32; 1 Cor. 1:9; 15:28; Gal. 1:16; 4:4, 6; 1 Thess. 1:10. W. Kramer observes: “In comparison with the passages in which the titles ‘Christ Jesus’ or ‘Lord’ occur, this is an infinitesimally small figure” (Christ, Lord, Son of God, translated by B. Hardy [London: SCM, 1966], 183). Kramer further notes “Paul’s use of the title ‘Son of God’ depends primarily on external factors, in that it is prompted by what has gone before” (ibid., 185).

    9Contra G. Dalman (Words of Jesus, 274-75) and others. Likewise the separation of the titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in Luke 22:67-71 and Acts 9:20-22 may be similarly understood.

    10Cf. also the quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15.

    11Cf. E. Lövestam, Son and Saviour: A Study of Acts 13:32-37, translated by M. J. Petry (Lund: Gleerup, 1961), who argues in the body of his book (1) that “the covenant promise to David of permanent dominion for his house and its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah has a dominating place in Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:16ff” (p. 84), and (2) in an appendix on “‘Son of God’ in the Synoptic Gospels” that “the royal aspect plays a very important role in the designation of Jesus as ‘God’s Son’ in the Synoptics” (p. 110).

    12Cf. J. Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1965), 9-30; idem., The Prayers of Jesus, translated by J. Bowden (London: SCM, 1967), 11-65; idem., New Testament Theology, I: The Proclamation of Jesus, translated by J. Bowden (London: SCM, 1971), 61-68.

    13Baptism: Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; Transfiguration: Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7.

    14Luke 9:35 (Transfiguration).

    15Or theos in John 1:18, which is externally better attested (P66, p75, Aleph, B, C et al.) and corresponds internally to John’s use of huios to signal primarily Jesus’ divine nature.