"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 phrase in question is "the only begotten Son." There are two variants here: one with the Greek text and the other with the translation. The Greek of the Traditional Text reads, "o monogenes eos" (the only begotten Son). The Greek of the Alexandrian Text reads, "o monogenes theos" (the only begotten God). Additionally, the Greek word "monogenes" is no longer looked upon as being translated as "only begotten" but is now considered better translated as "unique" or "one and only."
Dr. Edwin H. Palmer, who served as the executive secretary of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version, had this to say concerning this passage.
"A striking case of where the KJV, following bad Greek copies of the original text, changed the original is John 1:18. The KJV says, '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 1:18, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, is one of those few clear and decisive texts that declare that Jesus is God. But, scripts, altered what the Holy Spirit said through John, calling Jesus 'Son.' Using the archaic language of the KJV, the verse should read: 'No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten God, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.' Or to say it in a modern and elegant way: 'No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [Son], who is at the Father's side, has made him known' [NIV]." (The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, Kenneth L. Barker editor, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986], 143).
The statement by Dr. Palmer is interesting on several levels. First there is the question on the textual level. The phrase "monogenes theos" is found in P66 and P75, as well as Codex Vaticanius and Codex Sinaiticus (and a few other manuscripts). The reading, "monogenes eos" is found in the vast majority of Greek witnesses and ancient translations. This is a classic example illustrating the two lines of manuscripts. What is interesting is that Dr. Palmer refers to the line of manuscripts which support the reading found in the NIV and NASV as being "inspired". If those of us who support the Greek text of the Authorized Version referred to it as being the correct text because this was, "a striking case of where the NIV, following bad Greek copies of the original text, changed the original in John 1:18," or, "John 1:18, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, is one of those clear and decisive texts that declare that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God," we would be ridiculed for calling the Greek text of the KJV inspired and original. However, when they do this very thing it is considered "scholarship."
Secondly, it is interesting that Dr. Palmer attacks the KJV for using "archaic language" and yet does not cite any archaisms for this verse. Is there anything in the passage which one cannot understand because of the antiquated language of 1611?
Finally, in relation to Dr. Palmer's quote, while he accuses the KJV of using "archaic language" he then offers a reading from the NIV which the NIV no longer contains. Within the first five years of the translation, the NIV changed the passage. It use to read, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [Son], who is at the Father's side, has made him known". It now reads, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." Thus, the NIV has revised itself and omitted [Son].
Placing Dr. Palmer's comments aside, we are still left with the change of "only begotten" to "One and Only." Jack Finegan cites Dr. Dale Moody of Southern Seminary as evidence for the change of English words.
"This English translation (i.e. "Only begotten God") corresponds literally to the Greek, but may not bring out the full meaning of the sentence. Note that "monogenes" ("only begotten") may also be translated "only" or "unique" (cf. Dale Moody in JBL 72 , pp. 213-219), and that the following word "Theos" ("God") is without the article." (Encounting New Testament Manuscripts: A Working Introduction to Textual Criticism, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974], 125).
Dr. Moody argues that the word is better translated as "unique" and thus the passage in John 1 is simply claiming Christ as a unique God and not a created god. Moody explains,
"The word translated 'only' . . . is monogenes, from monos (single) and genos (kind). Since Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1886) students have known that monogenes meant 'single of its kind, only' and that the term denotes 'the only son of God' in the Johannine writings."(God's Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 In the Revised Standard Version [Journal Of Biblical Literature, Vol 72, 1953], 213.)
There have been many translations since Thayer (1886), however, which translated monogenes "only begotten." All one need do is consult the American Standard Version (1901), The Revised Berkely Version (1959), The New American Standard Version (1960), and The New King James Version (1979) to see that "only begotten" is still in vogue. Secondly, the translators of the King James Version were not unaware that monogenes can be translated as "only" for they did so in Luke 7:12; 8:42; and 9:38, all of which refer to an only child and thus they were the only begotten, not an unique child.
The Old Latin manuscripts of John 1:18 read, "deum nemo uidit umquam. unigenitus filius. qui est in sinu patris. ipse narrauit." The word "unigenitus" means, "only begotten, only; of the same parentage." (Dr. John C. Traupman, Latin Dictionary, 323).
In 202 AD, Irenaeus wrote,
"For 'no man,' he says, 'hath seen God at any time,' unless 'the only-begotten Son of God, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared [Him].' For He, the Son who is in His bosom, declares to all the Father who is invisible."(Against Heresies, 3:11:6)
In 324 AD, Alexander of Alexandria wrote:
"Moreover, that the Son of God was not produced out of what did not exist, and that there never was a time when He did not exist, is taught expressly by John the Evangelist, who writes this of Him: 'The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father.' The divine teacher, because he intended to show that the Father and the Son are two and inseparable from each other, does in fact specify that He is in the bosom of the Father." (W.A. Jurgens, The Faith Of The Early Fathers, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, p. 300)
The Nicene Creed (344 AD) states:
"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, . . . And in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, by whom all things were made, in heaven and on the earth, visible and invisible . . ." (as cited from Athanasius: De Synodis, II:26).
Athanasius (373 AD) states,
"If then He is Only-begotten, as indeed He is, 'First-born' needs some explanation; but if He be really First-born, then He is not Only-begotten and First-born, except in different relations; that is, Only-begotten, because of His generation from the Father, as has been said; and First-born, because of His condescension to the creation and His making the many His brethren." (Discourse II, XXI:62)
Ambrose (397 AD) writes,
"For this reason also the evangelist says, 'No one has at any time seen God, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him.' 'The bosom of the Father,' then, is to be understood in a spiritual sense, as a kind of innermost dwelling of the Father's love and of His nature, in which the Son always dwells. Even so, the Father's womb is the spiritual womb of an inner sanctuary, from which the Son has proceeded just as from a generative womb."(The Patrarches, 11:51).
Finally, Augustine (430 AD) wrote:
"For Himself hath said: No man hath seen God at any time, but the Only-Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him. Therefore we know the Father by Him, being they to whom He hath declared Him."(Homilies On The Gospel According To St. John, XLVII:3)
The list could go on. The point is that most of the early Theologians in the Church not only recognized that monogenes means "only begotten," and defined it as such, but that the popular reading was "only begotten Son."
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