The translation of the Greek word monogenes has been discussed for several years now. Should the word be translated “only begotten” pertaining to Jesus as the only begotten Son of God (cf. John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16; 3:18; 1 John 4:9)?
We also find another instance of the word monogenes being translated “only begotten” in the KJV, with regard to Abraham and his son Isaac, who was the “only begotten son” of Abraham through whom the promises would come (Hebrews 11:17). And, in three instances monogenes is translated “only” in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). In these cases perhaps Bible translators believed it was simply not necessary to stress the “only begotten” relationships of the children to the parents, and deferred to the lesser translation of “only” and “only one.”
Concerning Christ, modern translations of the New Testament will render monogenes as “a unique one” or the “unique Son.”
What Is the Issue?
Words convey ideas. The words we choose convey the ideas we desire. God chose certain words to express His truth concerning His Son. These are the words of God and they must be honored.
We must always look for the most accurate way to translate God’s words into any language. Such an effort will be a safeguard against any mistranslation and will honor the idea God originally intended to be expressed.
What Is the Meaning of the Word?
Monogenes is a compound word. Mono means one or only, and genes means born, or begotten. While it can convey the idea of being “one of a kind” the literal translation is “only begotten.”
Jesus is not simply the unique Son of God, for we are all unique. He is the only begotten Son of God. He is the only Son of God that can lay claim to the relationship He had with the Father before the world began; and He is the only Son of God that can say He was born of the Spirit into this world. He is both Son of God and Son of Man.
I am thankful for the work that was done by Robert R. Taylor, Jr. and J. Noel Merideth in answering this question as it appeared before brethren in the 1980s. These brethren appeared on a television program sponsored by the Green Plain church of Christ in Hazel, Kentucky, titled Searching the Scriptures. Gilbert Gough was the host. (The transcript of this program may still be available by contacting the Green Plain congregation.)
The transcript contains a letter that was written to the Hellenic College of Brookline, Massachusetts. Brother David Amos asked them about the translation of monogenes and if “unique” or “beloved” are suitable translations.
Aristotle Michopoulis, the Greek Studies Director, replied by stating:
“Yes! The “only begotten” is indeed the translation of the word monogenes.
“Unique. No, I wouldn’t opt for the use of this word, because it carries a different “tone” than the original. “Unique” has a different connotation in English. The meaning of “birth”, (i.e. mono – genes = only – born) is completely lost in unique; don’t you think so?
“Beloved. That is an extremely loose translation. Better than the “unique” above, but definitely not a close translation.
“The Greek monogenes carries within it the meaning of “precious”, “beloved”, “valuable”; all related to the “high value, price” of something (someone, in this case) that is the only one. As a matter of fact a translation of “the only one” is the second best after the present “only begotten”. All in all the “current” translation of “only begotten” is the most accurate one and the closest to the original. The “only born” might be another good alternative, but it lacks in “class”, compared to “only begotten”.
To the testimony of this native Greek scholar many preachers, commentators, word studies, and lexicons agree.
The Significance of the Issue
What then, might we say is the significance of this discussion? In my opinion, the translation of this word does not necessarily represent one’s conviction for the deity of Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (so-called), who deny the deity of Christ vehemently, translate monogenes as “only begotten” in their New World Translation. If they believed the translation “only begotten” was a threat to their doctrine, and upheld the deity of Christ, they surely would have translated monogenes otherwise.
Again, in my opinion, the significance of this discussion is two-fold. In the first place, it is a matter of translating the Greek into English as accurately as possible. And those who have forgotten more Greek than many of us will ever know believe the word is best translated “only begotten.”
In the second place, and just as important, by accurately translating the word, we preserve the pre-eminence of Christ as conveyed by His Father in the Holy Scriptures.
Jesus Christ is not the “only Son” of God (cf. Hebrews 2:10; 12:5). He is not the only “unique” Son of God. But, He is all of these things plus.
He is in this way the only One who can rightfully be called “only begotten.” By using the word monogenes the Holy Spirit selected a word that speaks to the uniqueness, preciousness, beloved-ness, value, virgin birth, and preeminence of Christ.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:15-18).
Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God.