Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.
The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).
Eternal generation says that:
- the Son was generated by the Father,
- in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
- and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
- in a way we can’t ever understand
- but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created
This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!
Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.
Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …
The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.
- BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique”
- Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ
- Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”
- Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”
- LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22
Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX. The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.
Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.
The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.
Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.
Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”
Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor
The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.
Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.
Unique, one and only, special.
Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …
Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).
Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.
One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.
Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”
One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!
Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son …
One and only, special, precious.
New Testament Usage
The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.
Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.
One of a kind, as in “an only child.”
Usage Related to Jesus
With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.
John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth
The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.
John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.
John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.
1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him
See the comments at John 3:16 (above).
Apostolic Father’s Usage
There are no new surprises here.
1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years
Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones
One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.
Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.
This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.
So, What’s It Mean?
Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).
Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”
It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”
In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.
The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.
 BDAG, p. 658.
 Abbott-Smith, p. 296.
 Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417.
 Louw-Nida, §58.52.
 Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).
 The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
 I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.
 My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).