Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

monogenes: only begotten

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son …” (John 3:16 KJV)

Arguably, one of the most critical words in Christology, the study of the person and work of Christ, is the Greek word monogenēs. In the past, this adjective has been translated into English as “only begotten.”

The connotations of “only begotten” are slightly ambiguous because “begotten” is no longer part of everyday English and is unfamiliar to modern readers. Furthermore, “begotten,” as in, “brought into existence by means of procreation,” may not be the primary sense intended in John 3:16.[1]

The NIV translates monogenēs meaningfully as “one and only.” John 3:16 in the NIV reads “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son …” The CEB, NLT, CSB, and the ESV likewise have “one and only Son,” or simply “only Son.”

The word monogenēs is used only a few times in the New Testament. Luke and the author of Hebrews use this word about certain people always to emphasise that the person was an only or unique child. The word is not used to emphasise, or refer to, the “begetting” of these children. See Luke 7:12 (the Widow of Nain’s son); Luke 8:42 (Jairus’ daughter); Luke 9:38 (a boy tormented by an evil spirit); Hebrews 11:17 (Isaac).[2]

Monogenēs also occurs a few times in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. In Judges 11:34 it is used for Jephthah’s daughter, an only child. It is used three times in the Psalms, apparently with the senses of “only” and “alone”: “only life” in Psa. 22:20 (LXX 21:21), “alone” in Psa. 25:16 (LXX 24:16), and “only life” in Psa. 35:17 (LXX 34:17). And it occurs in Tobit 3:15 which says, “… I am my father’s only child; he has no other child to be his heir …”

John is the only New Testament author to use monogenēs to describe Jesus. (See John 1:14 & 18, 3:16 & 18, and 1 John 4:9.) He used the word to highlight the unique relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. Like the other New Testament authors, John may not have used the word to refer to “begetting” (generation by procreation).

Monogenēs is made from two Greek words. Monos means “alone, only, sole.” Genos has a range of meanings: “offspring, family, relation, lineage, race, kind, species,” etc.[3] However, etymology does not determine a word’s meaning; the way a word is used is what counts. Accordingly, the Greek-English lexicon BDAG define monogenēs as something “that is the only example of its category.”[4] Put more simply, monogenēs means “one of a kind.”

It seems the real implication of this word is that Jesus Christ is God’s “one and only, unique” Son. As such, Jesus shares divinity with the Father in a unique way (Col. 2:9 cf. Heb. 1:3).[5]


Footnotes

[1] Michael S. Heiser writes,

[Monogenēs] doesn’t mean “only begotten” in some sort of “birthing” sense. The confusion extends from an old misunderstanding of the root of the Greek word. For years monogenes was thought to have derived from two Greek terms mono (“only”) and gennaō (“to beget, bear”). Greek scholars later discovered that the second part of the word monogenes does not come from the Greek verb gennao but rather from the noun genos (“class” or “kind”). The term literally means “one of a kind” or “unique” without connotation of created origin.
Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2015) (Google Books)

[2] According to the Old and New Testaments, as well as Jewish and Christian tradition, Isaac was regarded as Abraham’s only child even though Ishmael has been physically begotten of Abraham before Isaac was born. When Isaac was a grown man, Abraham had even more children with his wife Keturah, including six sons (Gen. 25:1-2). Isaac was Abraham’s uniquely beloved son (Gen. 22:2), the son of a covenant with God (Gen. 17:18-21), and Abraham’s sole heir (Gen. 25:5-6).

[3] Other suggestions for the word behind the gen stem are ginomai or gennaō. (See footnote 1.)

[3] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, by Walter Bauer, revised and edited by F.W Danker, 2000. (Known as BDAG for short; an acronym of the four authors who have worked on it: Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich.)

[4] Amazingly, when we become followers of Jesus we too can share in his glorious inheritance as adopted sons and daughters (Rom. 8:14-17; Eph. 1:5).

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Status of Jesus and Mary, photo taken by P. Bernfeld (Pixabay)


Related Article

John’s Prologue – John 1:1-18

9 thoughts on “Monogenēs: Only Begotten?

  1. “In the beginning was the Word” (The Son first existed only in the thoughts of God the Father.), “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (This Word of the Father became a facsimile of the Father, not a creation as such but another part of the Father, a new free thinking mind, but still with no conceivable beginning to our finite minds. This new mind became another person like the Father: The Father’s Son.) “He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through Him,” (through the Father and the Son’s pure and perfect love for each other they began creating everything whilst showing and giving that love to all who they created.) “without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:1-3.

  2. Hi Rob,

    I understand that according to the thinking of certain Greek philosophers logos tou theou “word of God” can refer to the mind of reason of God. I’m wondering whether “thoughts” adequately conveys this understanding.

    I have written about the Jewish and Greek understanding of “Word of God” here: https://margmowczko.com/bible-study-notes/johns-prologue-john-1v1-18/

  3. Mono can also mean “single” or “unmarried”. “genes” is a suffix here which means “originated (from the prefix)”. Hence “monogenes” means “originated from single or unmarried”. The Greek word “homogenes” means “originated from the same family” or simply “same race”.

    1. Hi Arthur, –genēs, from the noun genos, isn’t really a suffix. It’s half the word and a main part of it.

      I haven’t seen monos (or mono) with the meaning of “unmarried, single” referring to marital status. Have you got a citation for this idea?

      Paul used the noun agamos four times in 1 Corinthians 7 when speaking about being “unmarried, single”: a = “un” + gamos from the verb gameō = “marry.”

      (Even in Modern Greek, agamos can mean unmarried, single, a bachelor, or celibate. The word “free,” eleutheros, is also used for unmarried, single people.)

      Anandros (literally “without a husband”) was a more common way to say “unmarried, single” for women (widows and virgins) in ancient Greek. (In Modern Greek it’s anupandros.)

      Monogenēs says nothing about someone’s, including a parent’s, marital status. As I explain in the article, monogenēs typically means “only child” in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is God’s one and only, unique Son. (Monos often means “only.”)

      Isaac is called a monogenēs in Hebrew 11:17 and we know who both his parents were: Abraham and Sarah. (A single parent is monogoneikes.)

      The word homogenēs has limited use in helping to understand monogenēs.

      As always, context and usage is key in determining the meaning of words.

      1. Throughout the New Testament, we see “our Father”, not “my Father” when Yeshua was referring to “YHWH”. In Gnostic Gospels, you often see the implication that everyone can be sons of YHWH.

        Matthew 6:9 says, “Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name”

        Luke 11:2 says, “When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.”

        Gospel of Thomas say, “…, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”

        Gospel of Philip 2 says, ” A slave can hope only to become free. A slave cannot expect to inherit the estate of the master. Yet a son is not only a son, but also a Co-owner
        of His Father’s estate. A son of God-the-Father, coessential to Him, is a coowner of His property” (translated by Vladimir Antonov in Russian and then to English)

        You will have a hard time understanding the Gospel of Philip if you insist in believing that Yeshua is the ONLY son of YHWH. It is telling us that everyone can be a son of YHWH. We can all share His kingdom.

        I believe people are just biased because of the trinity theory cooked up by the Roman Church. It is hard to unlearn something that you have learned. People will justify the original translation by all means. If you translate the text the first time, without all the bias, you will translate “monogenes” based on the translation of the word “homegenes”. At least that’s what most linguists will do.

        There are examples on the internet about the problem of the “only begotten son” argument. It was about Abraham or something. I don’t recall. And I am not a linguist. So, I used wikitionary to compare the meanings of “monogenes” and “homogenes”.

        1. You’ve not responded to anything I wrote in my comment above. You’ve ignored it and just given more of your own ideas. That is not courteous and that’s not how a discussion works. My previous comments were in direct response to your statements.

          The following is also given in direct response to your statements.

          Not only in the Gnostic Gospels, but also in the New Testament is the message that we can all be sons of God. (See footnote 4.) Nevertheless, Jesus is the son of God in a unique way which is why he is described as monogenēs in John’s Gospel. (See John 1:14 & 18, 3:16 & 18, and also 1 John 4:9.)

          The Canonical Gospels, Matthew and Luke in particular, tell us that God is Jesus’s father and Mary is his mother, but Jesus invites us to accept God as our father also. Jesus is our older brother (Matt. 12:46ff; Mark 3:34-35; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11ff).

          Also, Jesus refers to God as “my father” several times in the Gospels. Here’s one example:

          All things have been entrusted to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal him (Matt. 11:27; cf. Matt. 7:21; 10:32-33; etc).

          Us belonging to God and being God’s sons does not change the meaning of monogenēs as “one of a kind.” And this article is about the meaning of monogenēs and how it is used in the New Testament and Septuagint. However, I’ve linked to Liddell, Scott and Jones’s respected lexicon (LSJ) for more accurate and founded information on how this word is used in ancient Greek texts.

          There is no evidence that monogenēs means “originated from single or unmarried” which is your claim. Did you make up this idea? How does this apply to people other than Jesus who are described as monogenēs? You seem to indicate that you don’t actually know and read ancient Greek. If that’s the case, it is unwise to make assertions about Greek words. (I do read ancient Greek.)

          Whatever one’s view of Jesus as God’s son, it doesn’t change the meaning of monogenēs. And this article is primarily a word study, it’s not a discussion on the “Trinity.” This isn’t the place to critique the theological views of others. Accurate and founded statements about monogenēs are welcome.

          My website, which I pay for, is not the place for you to broadcast your own theological ideas. You can do that on social media or start your own website.

          1. Hi Marg:
            I thank you for your commentary. I was preparing for Bible Study tonight. I have been trained in Greek and Hebrew. I must admit I was confused by the comments of the originator. When I did my studies of monogenes it did not disclose anything about single or married, but a child’s relationship with parents. That said, I have not finished studying so I will look into it further. But thank you.

          2. Arthur’s comments have no merit whatsoever. His assertions are incorrect and his methods are flawed. I’ll remove his comments shortly so they don’t confuse other people.

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