The Only Begotten Son

06 Jun

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

The words only begotten are a translation of the single Greek word monogenes (G3439). The Greek word is used only nine times in the New Testament. It is used in Luke 7:12 for the widow of Nain’s only son who had died, and whom Jesus raised from the dead. It is used again in Luke 8:42 for Jairus’ one only daughter who was 12 years old and had died. Jesus raised her from the dead. In Luke 9:38 it is used for a young boy, dumb and schizophrenic, who was the only child of a man who came to Jesus. He healed the boy. In Hebrews 11:17 it is used of Isaac, the only begotten son of Abraham by Sarah, his wife. The remaining five times it is used of the Lord being the only begotten of the Father, which we shall quote shortly.

First, let’s consider these places where the word is used of others, because the Biblical Unitarians (hereafter (BU)[1] say the term only begotten is a mistranslation, and should be translated unique. Technically, I see no problem in translating the Greek word into unique, because the unique means “only one of its kind; sole, single etc.” The problem I see is: the BUs are trying to say that the word unique does not mean only begotten. If such were true, how would this make a difference in the Scriptures referred to above, and would a watered down version of the meaning of the word unique make them clearer? For example, I have two daughters. Each one in her own way is unique to me. I am the eldest of eight siblings. My mother often told us that each of us was unique in our own way. In such a case, the word unique would mean something other than “only one of its kind, sole or single” daughter or son. It would have to do with an attribute of our character or some such thing. I believe it is something like this that the BUs have in mind when they claim that “only begotten” is a mistranslation. Therefore, since they argue that only begotten does not mean unique, I must argue for the term only begotten against the term unique even though I agree with Webster that unique means “only one of its kind; sole, single…”

Considering the widow of Nain, it would seem that the Lord had compassion on her not simply because she lost her unique son, but because she lost her only means of support, making her destitute. How would the word unique make the Scripture clearer? In what way could it be said that this widow’s son is unique? The term only begotten might be used of her deceased husband, but this phrase wouldn’t fit well for her, so the word, only (KJV), is used. Is it also a mistranslation?

In Luke 8:42 a ruler of a synagogue, Jairus, came to plead for his one only (KJV) daughter who was near death. Would the word unique be a better translation here? If so, how would it make the Scripture clearer? In what way was this 12-year old girl unique? It seems that the words one only fit well for saying she was Jairus’ only daughter, possibly his only child for no other child is mentioned in the account. As we shall see, being his only child is probably the truth.

In Luke 9:38 a man came to Jesus pleading for his only child (KJV). How would unique be a better translation here? How would it make the Scripture clearer? In what way would this one be unique? If he had other children why would the term unique be used at all? Are we not each of us unique in our own way? However, no other children are mentioned. What would lead us to say that this child is unique? It seems to me that only child expresses a meaning that fits the context. As we shall see, it is very probable that it is the best translation.

Concerning Isaac in Hebrews 11:17, we may certainly say that he is not the only begotten of Abraham, but he is the only begotten (KJV) of Abraham through his wife Sarah. For the time to which this Scripture refers, Sarah was Abraham’s only wife. He had sent away Hagar and her child Ishmael. In this sense, Isaac was indeed Abraham’s only child for he had disinherited Ishmael. Would unique be a better translation? I believe unique could be used, but I don’t believe it is clearer than only begotten. It is clear just as it is, because it expresses the fact, as far as the promises are concerned, Isaac is the only begotten of Abraham. None of his other children, Ishmael or those Abraham fathered after the death of Sarah, would be like Jacob’s children and share in the inheritance. Isaac is the only begotten in that sense. Unique? Yes, but unique does not express why Isaac is exclusive, while only begotten does a better job.

In the Septuagint this same word, monogenes (G3439), is used in Judges to describe Jephtah’s “only child,”

Judges 11:34 NET  When Jephthah came home to Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, dancing to the rhythm of tambourines. She was his only child; except for her he had no son or daughter.  (emphasis mine)

This Scripture makes it very clear that monogenes (G3439) means Jephthah’s only child. Unique would not tell us why she was exceptional. Certainly, if a parent has only one child, that child is unique or exceptional to that person, but the word unique does not give us the full meaning.

The Septuagint also uses this same word in the Psalms,

Psalms 22:19-20 KJV  But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.  (20)  Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

The words “my darling” come from monogenes (G3439) and refers back to the LORD in the previous verse. The NASB translates this word into “my only (life),” but that does not express the true meaning of the Scripture. Remember that the Psalms are poetry. They say one thing is one verse or phrase and say the same thing, but in a different way, in the next verse or phrase. Therefore, my darling or my only One would be a better translation than my only (life). This would show how the LORD is unique. He is not merely a unique God, but he is his precious only God. There is an attachment between the two that is not expressed in the word unique.

The other places in Scripture where the Greek word, monogenes, appears all refer to Jesus. They are:

John 1:14 KJV  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

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

John 3:16 KJV  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 3:18 KJV  he that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

1 John 4:9 KJV  In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.

Indeed, Jesus is unique, but how does the watered down version of the word unique explain what these verses are really saying about him. If we would read these verses to someone who never heard of Jesus and substituted unique for only begotten, in what way would this one understand that is Jesus unique?

A modern Biblical scholar who holds a low view of Jesus is J.A.T. Robinson. He claims that monogenes (G3439) should be translated as “one of a kind.”[2]

In what manner is Jesus “one of a kind?” Is he “one of a kind” because he is a God-man? That is, God is certainly responsible for the Mary’s pregnancy. Yet, if this is what “one of a kind” means, it certainly contradicts the doctrine of the BUs and the low view in which Mr. Robinson holds Jesus.

In what way, therefore, is Jesus “one of a kind?” The word monogenes (G3439) is taken from (monosG 3441), meaning only, and genos (G1085), meaning stock (i.e. family, race, nationality, species etc.).

Concerning genos (G1085), Acts 17:28 refers to mankind as the family or offspring of God in that he created everyone. Revelation 22:16 refers to the individual being the spiritual offspring or child of God. In Galatians 1:14 Paul refers to the Jewish nation as his family heritage (cp. Philippians 3:5). Peter uses the term chosen generation in reference to Christians in 1Peter 2:9, and in 1Corinthians 12:10, 28 Paul uses genos (G1085) for different kinds of tongues or languages, referring to races of people. In Matthew 13:47 the same word is used for kind or species of fish.

Therefore, if we consider how genos (G1085) is used above, perhaps we may be able to tell how monogenes (G3439) means unique or one of a kind. If we consider Acts 17:28 above we can know that Jesus is not the offspring of God by creation. God did not create Jesus, because Jesus is “one of a kind.” Neither is Jesus merely the spiritual offspring of God (1Peter 2:9; Revelation 22:16), because Jesus is “one of a kind” in this respect as well. Certainly God is our Father, but for Jesus the term has a special meaning (John 20:17) in the sense that a natural son is different from an adopted son. Legally they are the same, but according to nature, the one is unique indeed. Knowing that this same word also expresses race, nationality, and species in the above Scriptures, what does this say about Jesus being “one of a kind?”

On cannot just say that Jesus is “unique” or “one of a kind,” unless one describes how those words show that he is so special. The English words used by themselves (because of watered down sense attributed to them by the BUs) just do not express in our language what the Greek would convey. Merely using this English word unique to say that no man was ever like Jesus just does not do justice to the translation. Simply saying that Jesus was better or more moral than anyone else or was more powerful in the Spirit, doing miracles that no other person has done, just does not say what monogenes (G3439) says in the Greek language. In fact, using the watered down sense of unique or one of a kind to translate monogenes (G3439) does more to hide how Jesus is distinctive or exceptional than to clearly reveal him. I believe this would be shameful. Jesus is the ‘only begotten’ son of the Most High God. There is no better way to say it. Re-defining the word ‘unique’ only hides the meaning in the Greek. Jesus was and remains the only begotten Son of God.

[1] The Biblical Unitarian website can be found HERE (

[2] Robinson, op. cit., Priority, p. 397, n.156.

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Posted by on June 6, 2010 in Godhead, Religion


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