Only Begotten

The expression “only begotten” with reference to Jesus Christ as the Son of God occurs five times in the KJV New Testament (all in the Johannine literature: John 1:14 and 18, 3:16 and 18, and 1 John 4:9), nine times in the Book of Mormon (beginning with 2 Nephi 25:12), 13 times in the Doctrine & Covenants (beginning with D&C 20:21), and a remarkable 25 times in the Book of Moses. (Joseph also added the expression to 1 Timothy 2:4 in the JST: “who is the Only Begotten Son of God.”) The New Testament preserves four other uses of the word where it is not predicated of Jesus: a widow’s son (Luke 7:12), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:42), the son of an unnamed man in a crowd (Luke 9:38), and Isaac, as the son of Abraham (Hebrews 11:17). It also appears a number of times in the Septuagint, and in classical literature beginning with Hesiod.

The expression “only begotten” in the KJV is a mistranslation of monogenes, which derives from monos “only” and the root GEN, which can refer to either descent or type. Note, for instance, that the English words “kin” and “kind” both derive from this same Greek root. Thus, if in context monogenes means the only number of a kin, the sense is “sole descent, the only child of one’s parents.” Conversely, if in context the word means the only one of a kind, in a qualitative sense, the connotation is “only, peerless, matchless, unique, of singular importance, the only one of its kind.” If the word specifically were meant to convey the connotation “only begotten,” it would be monogennetos, from the verb gennao “to beget.” The fact that monogenes has only one “n” in the second half of the word and not two is a clear indication that it is not derived from gennao.

The Old Latin manuscripts had translated monogenes correctly into Latin with unicus, meaning “only,” but Jerome in the Vulgate generally changed this translation to unigenitus, “only begotten.” This appears to have been influenced by the Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus, who, in discussing the eternal relation between the Father and the Son, spoke of the Father as gennetor “begetter” and the Son as gennema “begotten.” This was a response to the Arian argument that Jesus was not begotten, but rather made.

William Tyndale, the first to translate the New Testament from Greek into English, corrected this in some (but not all) passages with “only sonne.” The KJV, however, showing the strong influence of the Vulgate, reverted to “only begotten son,” which became the normative English rendering until the rise of modern translations.

John did not refer to Jesus as God’s “only begotten” son, because he designated all who received Jesus as being spiritually begotten of God. See, for example, John 1:12-13:

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born [i.e., begotten], not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

I have always found the expression of this concept in 1 John 3:9 quite striking:

“Whosoever is born [begotten] of God doth not commit sin; for his [i.e., God's] seed [Greek sperma] remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born [begotten] of God.”

The use of “only begotten” in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Book of Moses is simply a reflection of the English translational tradition. We are not particularly concerned with the theological battle that gave rise to this translation many centuries ago. Although it is a mistranslation, it is not that far removed from the correct meaning, as the suggestion of being begotten is to some extent inherent in the designation “son” (huios) itself.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, in the first paragraph where I start to talk about other uses of the “word,” I am talking about the Greek monogenes, not the English only begotten. Just wanted to clarify that.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    But there are theological battles about elaborations on the concept of “only begotten” arising from literally minded people like, say, Brigham Young, not that I want to start that topic again. I think most people want that to just go away.

    What light do you think this sheds on early adoptionist points of view, ie, that Jesus, at the time of his baptism became the “adopted Son of God”?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    “Only begotten” only works for us theologically with the qualifier “in the flesh” (since in LDS thought we are all spiritually begotten sons and daughters of heavenly parents). Here’s an interesting exercise: do a search on the exact phrase “only begotten in the flesh” at the Scriptures page at lds.org. You’ll find all sorts of references in scripture helps, but that expression itself does not appear in the scriptures.

    Yes, this starts to bleed into all sorts of other topics, such as the mechanics of that begetting, the Mormons’ literal understanding of begotten as opposed to the traditional Christian concept of the Son as “eternally begotten” (which seems utterly oxymoronic to a Mormon mind), and the various early adoptionist views of Jesus. Feel free to comment wherever the spirit listeth.

  4. he power to become the sons of God

    In the critical edition it’s “children of God,” not “sons” in John 1:12. Matthew and Paul both call men “sons,” but John retains the expression “son” for Jesus.

    On the other hand, it is the Johannine literature that makes it most clear that we are now the children of God. See also 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t have a critical text handy at work, but I don’t think it is a matter of variants in the Greek text, but rather the KJV being a poor translation here. That is, I think the Greek text simply reads tekna theou without a variant, and the KJV improperly rendered that as “sons of God,” where it should have been rendered “children of God.” You are right, that even though the expression huioi theou “sons of God” appears elsewhere in the NT, for John it is always tekna theou (or the diminutive, teknia theou) “children of God”), since he reserves usage of huios theou “son of God” for Jesus as the Son of God.

  6. The phrase, “only begotten in the flesh” is an interesting thing. It shows up fairly late, 1879 is the earliest that I saw with only a few occurances in the next 30 years. Then the Origin of Man is issued which employed the language and Talmage champions it to a certain extent; but it is McConkie that uses it like crazy. I think that its colloquial primacy is rather odd seeing that it has no real foundation in scripture or revelation.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the history of the expression, J. I was surprised when I learned it was not scriptural; I just always assumed it was in there somwhere. (grin) I guess this is another example of what Nibley used to call a “parascripture”: something the Saints wrongly start to assume is in the scriptures that isn’t really there.

  8. All I have is the NGT, so I wondered if it was a typo. ;)

    not a matter of variants

    Yes, and I think that’s kinda odd in and of itself, which is why I brought such a minor point up in the first place. Beyond that, it reinforces your original point about Jesus’ status as the relationship between Word and God shifts into its human expression as Unique Son and Father

  9. The phrase “in the flesh” plays an important role in the reasoning of those who claim that Adam is physically the son of God. How then can Jesus be the only begotten? Easy, he was the only begotten “in the flesh”–meaning mortality. (see “Son of God” in Mormon Doctrine, for example.)

    I also was surprised when I learned that it is not in the scriptures.

  10. Jared E. says:

    Fascinating post Kevin. I have a question…
    Are there any real doctrinal implications from the above? Kevin, do you think that Church leaders have the right idea, and their superimposing their idea on the scriptures? Do you think that they could have the wrong idea, which has propagated through Mormon theology due to bad scriptural assumptions?

  11. I’m glad you brought this up. I was so freaked when I found out there was no “begotten” in the “begotten” in the Bible.

    I’ve heard it argued since then that monogenes means “designated heir.” Is that legit, or adding to the meaning?

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    While an “only” son would normally be the heir, to say monogenes means “designated heir” is to say too much, I think.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared E.,

    I don’t think our theology of divine begetting is very well worked out.

    First, you’ve got spiritual begetting. That is, Heavenly Father sires and Heavenly Mother bears our spirits in the preexistence. Exactly how is that done? Is it a sexual process, or asexual? How does this relate to the concept of (a) preexisting intelligence? Is that intelligence individuated from all eternity, or is it a primordial unindividuated soup?

    Second, you’ve got literal begetting. The big issue here is the conception of Jesus in mortality. What is clear in Mormon thought is that in Mormon thought he was physically the literal Son of God (half his chromosomes come from the Father); what is not clear is the process by which that came about. Again, was it sexual or asexual, like a divine in vitro fertilization?

    Third, you’ve got metaphoric begetting, as in the Johannine literature. We accept John within our canon, and he talks about people becoming the children of God by accepting Christ. So how does that fit into our literal paternalism that we are all from birth children of God in a very literal, if spiritual, sense?

    The questions are legion, and I don’t have any answers. Like most Mormons, I’m not very good at systematic theology.

  14. Jared E. says:

    I guess this ties in with the current ‘was Jesus married’ thread…
    Since Mormons are not very good at systematic theology, what do you tell people who are frustrated with the fact that it is near impossible to nail down what LDS doctrine really consists of? I know a couple of people who are really frustrated with having recently found out many of their assumptions about LDS doctrine, and how it is conceived are wrong.

  15. Since Mormons are not very good at systematic theology, what do you tell people who are frustrated with the fact that it is near impossible to nail down what LDS doctrine really consists of?

    I’m sorry, but that is just the way it is.

    We accept John within our canon, and he talks about people becoming the children of God by accepting Christ. So how does that fit into our literal paternalism that we are all from birth children of God in a very literal, if spiritual, sense?

    Though it has died out, this was a very strong theme in early Mormon (mid-late 19th century, mostly as a fuction of the Temple) thought as well. John Taylor frequently mentioned the topic, e.g.:

    It was not a law of carnal commandments and ordinances, but “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which makes us free from the law of sin and death;” the law of the Gospel whereby men were adopted into the family of God, and became “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ,” that “if we suffer with him,” as he once said, “we shall also reign with him, that both may be glorified together.” It was a thing that adopted them into the family of God, and made them heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ his Son (JD 14:326)

  16. Jared E. says:

    J.
    I realize that is just the way it is, and I really have no problem with it. But is that what you tell people who are truly struggling with this? What would you tell your 17 year old son or daughter who is doubting their testimony?

  17. What would you tell your 17 year old son or daughter who is doubting their testimony?

    I would tell them something on the lines of this.

  18. Jared E. says:

    Yes, I have read and contributed to that post…

    I have a younger brother who see arguments of that nature as too convenient. Haven’t you anything else?

  19. Alas, that is all there is I believe. But as I study the history and from my limited interaction with those in authority, it is fairly acurate.

  20. Jared E. says:

    Yes, I agree. But to the young skeptic who does not yet posses a testimony based on more than girls camp and EFY, it is lacking.

  21. Jared, theology is no substitute for experience and a testimony based upon personal study, prayer, and practical application of belief. No external structure is going to accomplish what you think your younger brother needs.

  22. Jared E. says:

    What I think my younger brother needs is to gain some personal experience from which he can grow his testimony. Before a person is willing to take such a risk, they need to be able to trust that it will be fruitful. Knowing of the disingenuous propagation of supposed ‘doctrine’ in the church does not instill such trust.

  23. I can’t speak for you or your younger brother, Jared, but the fruits of the spirit, have been for me, quite within reach during the skeptical times. I agree with Steve and am sorry if your brother isn’t finding his path.

  24. Jared E. says:

    I agree with the both of you, and too am sorry…

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a nice little essay, J. We have a problem as a church, in that so many of our people have what I call “fundamentalist” (small f) assumptions, by which I mean that people think that nothing ever changes, that the church today is entirely consistent with the church of the 19th century (and all prior dispensations), that our leaders are infallible, our scripture inerrant, humans have very little to do with it, it is all orchestrated directly by God, and God doesn’t make mistakes, and God doesn’t change. And we have a tendency to encourage these beliefs over the pulpit. But these beliefs simply are not true, and a person who naively holds to them had better not examine anything in the church too closely, or he is going to be deeply disappointed.

    I think there is a virtue in having low expectations. Our leaders are fallible human beings, good men who try their best, but they make mistakes. Our scriptures do not come directly from the finger of God, but they are mediated through fallible human beings, and so they too contain errors. Our leaders, like all humans, are culturally conditioned, and sometimes they express their own views as if they were binding on the Church, when they are not (or at least shouldn’t be).

  26. We accept John within our canon, and he talks about people becoming the children of God by accepting Christ.

    Bruce R. McConkie talks about it too in the Promised Messiah. It does get a little confusing. If you put McConkie’s views together, I think you get something like the following (from my memory, I don’t have sources with me):

    We were born as spirit children to God. Adam and Eve were literally born as physical children of God. The Fall (even though it was a good thing) got them kicked out of God’s family. By accepting Jesus (who was the only begotten “in the flesh,” as mentioned above), he becomes our “spiritual” father until one day we are adopted back into the Father’s family, becoming sons and daughers of God. We are therfore simultaneously children of God and NOT children of God depending on what sense and in what context you mean the words “child” and/or God.

    I’ll check my sources when I get the chance, but I don’t think I’ve taken any liberties in that summary.

  27. Jared E. says:

    If Adam and Eve were “literally born as physical children of God” then how could Jesus be “the only begotten of God in the flesh”? After all, Bruce R. loves the “only begotten of God in the flesh” statement, but this seems to contradict the Adam and Eve scenario.

  28. Jared E.,

    As stated in #9 above, he uses the term “flesh” as a synonym for “mortality.”

  29. Jared E. says:

    aaaahhhh, the semantics were lost on me. That makes the argument much more convincing…

  30. Kevin: Given that Heb 11:17 uses the same term to describe Isaac, who wasn’t literally an only child, shouldn’t the connotation of menogenes be something closer to “beloved” (cf. LXX Gen 22:2, 12, 16 in reference to Isaac) or “firstborn”? This would obviate the need for the parascriptural “in the flesh” phrase.

  31. I seem to remember at least one BYU religion prof arguing (in a book) that modern translations that have “only son” rather than “only begotten son” are theologically driven and that they are evidence of modern attacks on Christ. I’ll have to go back and check, but it would seem that his charges of theologically driven translating are a bit ironic.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Robert C., yes, I think in the case of Isaac we have to look at the qualitative prong of meanings for monogenes, since as you rightly point out he was not an only son, but according to the perspective of the story (and contra the Muslim understanding), he was Abraham’s unique son, the son of the covenant.

  33. Bob Martin says:

    Hope I am not coming too late to this discussion. I have sometimes wondered about the coincidence of the Firstborn turning out to be the one chosen to be the Savior and wondered also how it was, if it is the right of the Firstborn to be the Savior, that Lucifer even had an audience for a competing plan. “Only Begotten” has similarly perplexed me since, as I understand it, Christ was not the only begotten, whether in the spirit or the flesh (I too have searched and concluded that “Only Begotten in the flesh” is not scriptural). It has occurred to me recently that both “Firstborn” and “Only Begotten” are titles conferred on Christ and not descriptions of his birth order or unique paternity: ““For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” (Heb. 1:5). That sounds to me like the conferral of a title, not a declaration of natural paternity. It occurs to me that the titles “Firstborn” and “Only Begotten” express Christ’s designation as the heir and only heir of God the Father of Spirits (the God who is designated Elohim in the 1916 Doctrinal Exposition), at least with respect to this earth and its heavens. Those titles effectively disinherit the rest of us unworthy creatures. The rest of us become “joint heirs” with Christ, if at all, only by accepting Christ and obeying the law of the gospel, since the entire inheritance is Christ’s, and it is Christ’s right to share the inheritance with whom he will. When we, by entering into a covenant relationship with Christ, become begotten sons and daughters of Christ (Mosiah 5:7), I believe we are “begotten” in the same manner as Christ became the “Firstborn” and the “Only Begotten”–by acknowledgment and declaration of inheritance. We are “named in the will,” so to speak.

    I see no conflict between doctrines of inheritance and literal paternity. I believe we are all literally spirit children of God the Father of Spirits but that our inheritance in the Kingdom of God depends upon our entering into a covenant relationship with Christ and becoming HIS begotten sons and daughters.

  34. Bob Martin says:

    I should probably clarify that I do not mean to deny that Jesus Christ was divinely begotten in the flesh as the Son of God. I believe he was. My point is simply that the titles “Firstborn” and “Only Begotten” (which, according to the Book of Moses, predate his mortality) may refer to his rights of inheritance.

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