Last week I looked at John 1:18, and the three textual variants (or variant readings) in the verse: monogen¢s theos, monogen¢s huios, and monogen¢s . A consideration of these different readings is essential for a correct understanding of this key verse, which is the climactic declaration of the Prologue of John, 1:1-18. But which reading is most likely to be the original? We can probably eliminate monogen¢s alone as a candidate. While attractive as an explanation for the rise of the other two readings, the lack of manuscript support makes it difficult to accept as original. This would leave the readings which include theos (“God”) or huios (“Son”). As I indicated last week, there is strong evidence for each of these.
In textual criticism, there are two aspects which must be considered: (1) the external evidence for a reading, and (2) the internal evidence. By “external evidence” is meant the actual documents in which the particular reading appears (especially the earliest Greek manuscripts). By “internal evidence” we mean all of the various factors which make a particular reading more or less likely to be original. There are three main factors to be considered: (a) transcriptional probability (that is, the tendencies of copyists), (b) the overall style of the author, and (c) the context of the particular passage. The external evidence for these two readings is fairly evenly divided:
- monogen¢s huios (“only Son“) is read by the majority of manuscripts and versions, etc, spanning a wide (geographic) range by the 3rd century A.D., and including several of the major (early) manuscripts.
- monogen¢s theos (“only God [born?]”) is the reading of some the “earliest and best” Greek manuscripts, including the Bodmer Papyri (66 and 75).
So, we turn to the three main kinds of internal evidence:
a. Transcriptional probability. When considering the tendencies of copyists, the question must be asked whether a change from one form of the text to another—i.e. from “God” to “Son” or vice versa—occurred by accident or was intentional. For those interested, I have posted a special note discussing the possibility of an accidental change. However, if the change was conscious and/or intentional, we must ask in which direction this most likely occurred. Here, too, the evidence is divided:
- On the one hand, copyists were more likely to “correct” the text from the rare/difficult reading to one which is more familiar or easier to understand. Here, the choice is obvious: monogen¢s huios (i.e. “only son”) is by far the more natural and straightforward expression, while monogen¢s theos (“only [born?] God”) is quite unusual and rather difficult to interpret.
- On the other hand, Christian scribes were always much more likely to alter the text to present a more exalted view of Christ, rather than the other way around. From this standpoint, a change from “Son” to “God” is more probable than from “God” to “Son”.
b. The Author’s style and usage. The word monogen¢s, “only (one born)” occurs three other times in the Gospel of John; twice in the discourse of chapter 3:
- “For God loved the world this (way): so (that) he (even) gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
- “…the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18)
In these two references, monogen¢s is used together with huios (“son”), in order to refer to Jesus as the “only Son” of God (i.e. God’s only Son). The other occurrence also comes from the Prologue (1:14):
“And the Word [Logos] came to be flesh and put down a tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked/gazed (upon) his splendor—(the) splendor as of (the) only (born Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth”
Here monogen¢s is used alone, as a kind of substantive—”the only (one)”, “the only (son)”. The reference to “a father” (or “the Father”), would seem to indicate that the word “Son” is implied in context. If there were better manuscript support for monogen¢s alone in verse 18 (see above), it might be confirmed by this usage in v. 14.
We should also note 1 John 4:9, similar in thought and wording to Jn 3:16, which uses huios (“son”) with monogen¢s. Elsewhere in the New Testament, monogen¢s likewise occurs with “son” (or “daughter”)—Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38.
From this standpoint, the internal evidence would overwhelmingly favor monogen¢s huios (“only Son”) in 1:18.
c. The context of Jn 1:1-18. Finally, we must consider carefully the context of the Prologue as a whole. Its basic theme is theological and Christological—identifying Jesus as the eternal, pre-existent Word (Logos) of God (v. 1) who comes to be flesh (v. 14), that is to say, he is born as a human being. The basic structure of the Prologue may be outlined as follows:
- Vv. 1-4—Christ as the divine, eternal Word and Light; the symmetry of this section may summarized:
- Vv. 9-13—The Light comes into the World, among his own (people)
- Vv. 14-17—The Word comes to be (born) as flesh (a human being), dwelling among his people
- V. 18—Christ as the only Son who reveals the Father
Verses 2-17 certainly describe a process—of revelation (and incarnation)—which becomes increasingly more specific. This is indicated by the distinctive use of three verbs:
- The divine Word/Light is (eimi [verb of being])—vv. 1-4
- He comes (erchomai) into the world—vv. 9-13
- He comes to be [born] (ginomai) as a human being—vv. 14-17
(Note the same three verbs used in sequence in vv. 15, 30)
The word monogen¢s is first used in v. 14, which clearly refers to Christ (the Word) coming to be born (as a human being). But what is the precise sense of monogen¢s here? There would seem to be two options:
- The emphasis is on God being born, i.e. as a Son. This would assume that the fundamental etymology of monogen¢s—as the only one (who has) come to be (born)—is in view.
- What is emphasized is Jesus as the only/unique (Son) of God. This is the more natural/common meaning of monogen¢s.
The second is to be preferred. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the Son”, in relation to the Father. It is an essential relationship, which is not necessarily determined by his time on earth (as a human being). We can fairly assume that the same meaning of monogen¢s is in view in verse 18. However, first consider the way verses 14-17 are framed (note the words in italics):
- “The Word came to be flesh…and we looked upon his splendor [i.e. like Moses looked upon God], the splendor as of an only (Son) of the Father, full of favor and truth” (v. 14)
- “…we have received out of his fullness…for the Law was given through Moses [i.e. who looked upon God’s splendor], but favor and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)
This is a powerful dual-statement regarding how the glory and truth of God have been manifest (revealed) in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. So now we come to the concluding declaration of verse 18, which I take to be parallel with verses 1-4. I we may discern a certain kind of relationship with verse 1 in particular:
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [literally, toward] God, and the Word was God” (v. 1)
- “…the only [Son/God]—the one being in [literally, into] the lap of the Father—that (one) brought him out to us” (v. 18)
The first portion of verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”) connects immediately back to vv. 16-17 and the motifs of Moses and the possibility of seeing/beholding the glory of God. The remainder of v. 18 may be intended to mirror v. 1; I suggest the possible parallels:
- The Word was in the beginning (with God)
—The Word was facing/looking toward God
——The Word was God
——The Only Son (of God), i.e. the reflection of the Father
—The Son is facing[?] into the lap of the Father (i.e. essential Sonship)
- The Son brings out (reveals) the Father to us.
There is no way to decide with absolute certainty, but, all factors considered, I would give a slight edge to monogen¢s huios (“Only Son“) as the original reading of verse 18. It is possible that monogen¢s theos (“Only God“) may have been introduced as an attempt to explain (ho) monogen¢s huios in context, much like the conflated reading ho monogen¢s huios theos (“God [who is] the Only Son”). However, one cannot be dogmatic about such things. Indeed, I suggest it is important to keep both readings in mind when you study this extraordinary passage. It is almost as if the declaration in verse 18 is too momentous and powerful to be contained by a single form of the text. The Gospel (and Prologue) of John expresses clearly that Jesus is both God and the Son (of God). Can these two truths ever really be separated from one another?
I would ask that you continue to study and meditate upon this passage, and at the same time, begin to consider the next verse—also from the first chapter of John—which we will be studying in this Series. It is the declaration by the Baptist in Jn 1:34, and, again, an important variant reading is involved:
- “and I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is…”
- “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)
- “…the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)
I recommend you continue reading carefully, from the Prologue all the way through to 1:34… and I will see you next Saturday.