In Christian Biblical criticism and theology, there have been disputes about the meaning and usage of "monogenes". Does the word mean "only begotten", as it is as traditionally rendered, or does it merely mean "only" or "only one"? Does the word mean "only, single, or unique" son, or "special, privileged, favorite, or legitimate" son? Related text-critical issues to John 1:18 (and John 3:16, etc.).
Monogenes has two primary definitions, "pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship" and "pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind". Thus monogenēs (μονογενὴς) may be used both as an adjective monogenēs pais, meaning unique and special. Its Greek meaning is often applied to mean "one of a kind, one and only". Monogenēs (μονογενὴς) may be used both as an adjective monogenēs pais, only child, or only legitimate child, special child, and also on its own as a noun; o monogenēs "the only one", or "the only legitimate child".
It can be applied to an only child, or only legitimate child, special child, and also on its own as a noun; o monogenēs "the only one", or "the only legitimate child". The word is used in Hebrews 11:17-19 to describe Isaac, the son of Abraham. However Isaac was not the only-begotten son of Abraham, but was the chosen, having especial virtue.
The term is notable outside normal Greek usage in two special areas: in the cosmology of Plato and in the Gospel of John. As concerns the use by Plato there is broad academic consensus, generally following the understanding of the philosopher Proclus (412–485 AD).
- 1 Lexical entry
- 2 Usage in Greek texts
- 3 Interpretation of New Testament usage
- 4 References
- 5 Further Reading
- A. the only member of a kin or kind: hence, generally, only, single, "child" (pais, παῖς) Hesiod, Works and Days 376; Herodotus Histories 7.221; cf. Gospel of John 1.14; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 32.1; Hesiod Theogony, concerning Hecate.
- 2. unique, of (to on, τὸ ὄν), Parmenides 8.4; “εἷς ὅδε μ. οὐρανὸς γεγονώς” Plato Timaeus.31b, cf. Proclus Institutio Theologica 22; “θεὸς ὁ μ.” Friedrich Preisigke's Sammelbuch 4324.15.
A typical example:
- "The Egyptians told me that Maneros was the only son of their first king, who died prematurely, and this dirge was sung by the Egyptians in his honor; and this, they said, was their earliest and their only chant." (Herodotus Histories 2:79)
But note that this example does not necessarily rule out sons by concubines.
Usage in Greek texts
Classical Greek texts
The following examples are taken from the Greek text uses of monogenēs in the Perseus database.
- Hesiod, Theogony 426 "Also, because she is an only child (monogenēs), the goddess Hecate receives not less honor, … 446 So even though she is her mother’s only child (monogenēs) "Hecate is honored amongst all the immortal gods."
- Hesiod, Works and Days 375 "There should be an only son (monogenes) to feed his father’s house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old."
- Herodotus 2.79.3 "Maneros was the only-born (monogenes) of their first king, who died prematurely,"
- Herodotus 7.221.1 "Megistias sent to safety his only-born (o monogenes, as noun) who was also with the army."
- Plato, Laws 3, 691e: The Athenian stranger to Megillus and Clinias: "To begin with, there was a god watching over you; and he, foreseeing the future, restricted within due bounds the royal power by making your kingly line no longer single (monogenes) but twofold. In the next place, some man, (Lycurgus) in whom human nature was blended with power divine, observing your government to be still swollen with fever, blended the self-willed force."
- Plato, Critias 113d, The Story of Atlantis: "Evenor with his wife Leucippe; and they had for offspring an only-begotten (monogene) daughter, Cleito."
- Plato, Timaeus 31b "one only-begotten Heaven (monogenes ouranos) created."
- Plato, Timaeus 92c "the one only-begotten Heaven (monogenes ouranos)."
- Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3:1007: "And propitiate only-begotten Hecate, daughter of Perses"
An exhaustive listing of monogenēs can be found in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database.
Parmenides The reference above found in Liddell Scott, and therefore in other lexicons, and unquestioned in Christian commentaries, to a use of monogenes by Parmenides has more recently been shown to probably be incorrect. The text of Parmenides 8. 4 is "unusually corrupt". Plutarch read the text as holomeles (οὐλομελές, "whole-limbed"). The original reconstruction by H. Diels (1897) left the text open. Later editions of Diels-Kranz defer to Plutarch's reading in the reconstructed Greek text. Others since reconstructed the text as monogenes (only-begotten) but John R. Wilson (1970) argues that this is inconsistent with context and suggests the text as monomeles (one-limbed). The inconsistency is accepted by H. Schmitz (1988) but Schmitz proposes instead a return to holomeles (οὐλομελές, "whole-limbed").
- Parmenides B.8:4 "[..] being unborn is undestroyable, for it is holomeles/monogenes/monomeles and unshakable and endless;"
Interpretation of Classical Greek usage
- Timaeus 31b, "In order then that [the world] might be solitary, like the perfect animal, [the creator] made not two worlds (cosmos) or an infinite number of them; but there is and ever will be one only-begotten heaven (ouranos) created."
- Timaeus 92c "We may now say that our discourse about the nature of the universe has an end. The world has received animals, mortal and immortal, and is fulfilled with them, and has become a visible animal containing the visible-the sensible God who is the image of the intellectual, the greatest, best, fairest, most perfect-the one only begotten heaven.
The subject is the creation, or begetting, of heaven (ouranos) as a unique birth, not the birth of more than one cosmos. Comparison is also made with the begetting of animals and birds from the souls of "light-minded men".
Greek Old Testament usage
The word occurs five times in the Septuagint:
- Judges 11:34 "she was his (i.e. Jephtha's) only child (e monogenes, female)"
- Psalm 22:20 "deliver my soul from the sword, my only begotten (life?) from the hand of the dog."
- Psalm 25:16 "I am an only child (monogenes) and poor."
- Psalm 35:17 "deliver my soul from their mischief, my only begotten (life?) from the lions."
- Jeremiah 6:26 "as one mourns for an only child (monogenes)"
- Tobit 8.17 "they were both an only child (duo monogeneis, of two different parents)
- Wisdom of Solomon 7:22 "there is in her (i.e. Wisdom) a spirit quick of understanding, holy, as an only child (monogenes), manifold."
Interpretation of Greek Old Testament usage
 Psalm 22:20, 35:17 and Wisdom 7:22 appear to be personifications of the soul (in Hebrew a masculine noun) and wisdom (feminine noun) as an "only son" and "only daughter" respectively.
There is an increase in the use of monogenes in later versions of the Septuagint. Gen 22:2 "the beloved one whom you have loved" (ton agapeton, on egapesas) in Aquila's Greek translation uses monogenēs to translate yachid, the common Hebrew word for "only".
Greek New Testament usage
The New Testament contains 9 uses, all adjectival:
- Luke 7:12 "her only son (o monogenes uios)"
- Luke 8:42 "only daughter (e monogenes thugater)"
- Luke 9:38 "only son (o monogenes uios)"
- John 1:14 "only begotten" (monogenes)
- John 1:18 textual variation in manuscripts: a. "only begotten" God (monogenes theos / b. "the only begotten Son" (o monogenes uios)
- John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son (o monogenes uios)"
- John 3:18 "he has not believed in the name of God’s only son (o monogenes uios)"
- Heb.11:17 "only-legitimate son (o monogenes uios)" – since Abraham also fathered Ishmael, from the slave girl Hagar, and six other sons, from Keturah.
- 1 John 4:9 "God sent his only Son (o monogenes uios) into the world"
Hellenistic Jewish usages
- Josephus, Antiquities 2.181 "Dan had an only child (monogenes pais), Usi."
- Josephus, Antiquities 2.263 "Jephtha’s daughter, she was also an only-born (monogenes) and a virgin"
- Josephus, Antiquities 20.20 "Monobazus, the king of Abiadene… had an elder brother, by Helena also, as he had other sons by other wives besides. But he openly placed all his affections on this his favourite son (monogenes) Izates, which was the origin of the envy which his other brethren, by the same father, bore to him; and on this account they hated him more and more, and were all under great affliction that their father should prefer Izates before them."
- Psalms of Solomon 18:4 : "Thy chastisement comes upon us (in love) as the first born (prototokos) and the only begotten son (monogenes)."
Early Patristic usage
- Clement of Rome 25 – "the phoenix is the only one [born] (monogenes) of its kind"
- Nicene Creed - "And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God."
- Macarius Magnes 403AD. The Monogenes, title of a treatise.
Gnosticism and magic texts
Platonic usage also impacted Christian usage, for example in Gnosticism. In Tertullian's Against the Valentinians, he gives the name to one of their thirty aeons as monogenes in a syzygy with makaria, Blessedness.
- Friedrich Preisigke's Sammelbuch (1922) 4324,15 contains a 3rdC. AD magic invocation by an Egyptian girl called Capitolina placing a papyrus in a box to invoke various gods, pagan, Jewish and Christian, including "Iao Sabaoth Barbare..., God in Heaven, the Only-Begotten" to help her cast a love potion on a young man called Nilos:
- "I summon you divinities by the bitter necessities that bind you and by those carried away by the wind IO IOE PHTHOUTH EIO PHRE. The Greatest Divinity YAH SABAOTH BARBARE THIOTH LAILAMPS OSORNOPHRI EMPHERA, to God in the heavens, the only-begotten (ho Monogenes) who shakes the depths, sending out the waves and the wind. Thrust forth the spirits of these divinities wherever the box... "
Similar content is found in:
- Karl Preisendanz Greek Magical Papyri (1973) Vol.1 p124.
- R. Wunsch Antike Fluchtafeln (Ancient Curse Tablets, 1912) 4,36.
The problem with magical inscriptions, on papyri, walls or ostraca, is firstly dating the source, secondly that magical spells by their nature tend to be syncretic. In the example above lovestruck Capitolina summons "all the divinities" to release the spirits of "all who drowned in the Nile, the unmarried dead" etc. to sway the heart of her young man, yet she may not have known enough about Judaism or Christianity, or even Gnostic Christianity, to know whether "YAHWEH SABAOTH" and "the Only-Begotten" were the same god or not.
Later uses in Christianity
- a troparion, O Monogenes Yios, "Only Begotten Son," ascribed to Justinian I (527 - 565)
- in Latin: Unigenitus, a papal bull issued by Pope Clement VI in 1343.
Interpretation of New Testament usage
Some aspects of the meaning, or range of meanings, of monogenēs in the New Testament are disputed. Lexicons of the New Testament both reflect and determine debate:
The entrance of "only begotten" into the English Bible was not directly from mono-genes but from the Latin of the Vulgate, which had uni-genitus (one-begotten):
- John 3:16 sic enim dilexit Deus mundum ut Filium suum unigenitum daret ut omnis qui credit in eum non pereat sed habeat vitam aeternam. (Latin Vulgate)
- John 3:16 God lufede middan-eard swa þæt he sealde hys akennedan sune þæt nan ne for-wurðe þe on hine ge-lefð. Ac habbe þt eche lyf. (Hatton Gospels c.1160 AD)
- John 3:16 For God lovede so the world, that he yaf his oon bigetun sone, that each man that bileveth in him perishe not, but have everlastynge lijf.(Wycliffe's Bible 1395 AD)
The meaning of monogenēs was part of early Christian christological controversy regarding the Trinity. It is claimed that Arian arguments that used texts that refer to Christ as God's "only begotten Son" are based on a misunderstanding of the Greek word monogenēs and that the Greek word does not mean "begotten" in the sense we beget children but means "having no peer, unique".
Alternatively in favour that the word monogenēs does carry some meaning related to begetting is the etymological origin mono- (only) + -genes (born, begotten). The question is whether the etymological origin was still "live" as part of the meaning when the New Testament was written, or whether semantic shift has occurred. Limiting the semantic change of monogenes is that the normal word monos is still the default word in New Testament times, and that the terms co-exist in Greek, Latin and English:
- Greek monos → Latin unicus → English "only"
- Greek monogenes → Latin unigenitus → English "only-begotten"
Also there is a question about how separate from the idea of -genes birth and begetting the cited uses of monogenes in the sense of "unique" truly are. For example the ending -genes is arguably not redundant even in the sense of "only" as per when Clement of Rome (96 AD), and later Origen, Cyril and others, employ monogenes to describe the rebirth of the phoenix. At issue is whether Clement is merely stressing monos unique, or using monogenes to indicate unique in its method of rebirth, or possibly that there is only one single bird born and reborn. Likewise in Plato's Timaeus, the "only-begotten and created Heaven", is still unique in how it is begotten, in comparison to the begetting of animals and men, just as Earth and Heaven give birth to Ocean and Tethys. Of the Liddell Scott references for "unique" (monogenes being used purely as monos) that leaves only Parmenides, which (as above) is no longer considered a likely reading of the Greek text.
Additionally the New Testament frame of reference for monogenes is established by uses of the main verb "beget", and readings of complimentary verses, for example:
- Heb. 1:5 "For unto which of the angels said he at any time, "Thou art my Son (uios mou ei su), this day have I begotten thee (ego semeron gegenneka se)"? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?" (citing Ps.2:7, also cited Acts 13:33, Heb.5:5)
- 1 John 5:18 "We know that everyone who is begotten of God does not sin" or
- 1 John 5:18 "We know that the One who is begotten of God does not sin" 
This issue overlaps with, and is interrelated with, the question of begetting above. Interpretation of the uniqueness of monogenes in New Testament usage partly depends on understanding of Hellenistic Jewish ideas about inheritance. Philo stated:
- On Abraham 194: "In the second place, after he [Abraham] had become the father of this [Isaac] his loved-and-only (agapetos kai monos) son, he, from the moment of his birth, cherished towards him all the genuine feelings of affection, which exceeds all modest love, and all the ties of friendship which have ever been celebrated in the world." 
- On Sacrifice X.(43): "And he [Jacob] learnt all these things from Abraham his grandfather, who was the author of his own education, who gave to the all-wise Isaac all that he had, leaving none of his substance to bastards, or to the spurious reasonings of concubines, but he gives them small gifts, as being inconsiderable persons. For the possessions of which he is possessed, namely, the perfect virtues, belong only to the perfect and legitimate son;"
In his 1894 translation of Philo Charles Duke Yonge rendered "loved-and-only son" (agapetos kai monos uios) as "only legitimate son", which is not unreasonable given Philo's parallel comments in On Sacrifice X.43. It also parallels Josephus' use (see above 20:20) for a legitimate son of the main royal wife.
Likewise in the later Jewish Septuagint revisions:
- Gen 22:2 of Aquila "take your son Isaac, your only-begotten (monogenes) son whom you love"
- Gen 22:12 of Symmachus "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only-begotten (monogenes) son, from me.”
In contrast in Proverbs 4:3 Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion all have monogenes of a mother's only-begotten son where legitimacy is not an issue.
Textual issues in John 1:18
- monogenes theos Sinaiticus, P66, Vaticanus etc.
- o monogenes uios Alexandrinus, Textus Receptus, Peshitta etc.:
This textual issue is complicated by the scribal abbreviations of nomina sacra where "G-d" and "S-n" are abbreviated in the Greek manuscripts by ΘΣ and ΥΣ (theta-sigma vs upsilon-sigma) increasing the likelihood of scribal error.
- John V. Dahms, "The Johannine Use of Monogenes Reconsidered," New Testament Studies 29 (1983) 222-32.
- As in the King James Version, Revised Version, New American Standard Bible and the Revised Standard Version - Second Catholic Edition
- Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition)
- White, The Forgotten Trinity [Minneapolis, MN, Bethany House Publishers, 1998
- Richard Murphy, Background To The Bible, Servant Publications, 1978.
- LSJ Dictionary Entry
- Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.
- Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 10 & 11 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967 & 1968.
- Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.
- John R. Wilson Classic Quarterly article
- Diels, Hermann. Parmenides Lehrgedicht: griechisch und deutsch Berlin, Reimer. 1897.
- Diels-Kranz Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker
- J.R. Wilson. Parmenides, B8.4, in Classical Quarterly n.20 (1970) p32-34
- Schmitz, Hermann. Der Ursprung des Gegenstandes. Von Parmenides bis Demokrit. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1988
- Guido Rappe Archaische Leiberfahrung. der Leib in der frühgriechischen Philosophie und in aussereuropäischen Kulturen. 1995, Akademie Verlag p.149
- [31b] ἵνα οὖν τόδε κατὰ τὴν μόνωσιν ὅμοιον ᾖ τῷ παντελεῖ ζῴῳ͵ διὰ ταῦτα οὔτε δύο οὔτ΄ ἀπείρους ἐποίησεν ὁ ποιῶν κόσμους͵ ἀλλ΄ εἷς ὅδε μονογενὴς οὐρανὸς γεγονὼς ἔστιν καὶ ἔτ΄ ἔσται.
- Timaeus Parallel English-Greek text 31b
- μέγιστος καὶ ἄριστος κάλλιστός τε καὶ τελεώτατος γέγονεν εἷς οὐρανὸς ὅδε μονογενὴς ὤν.
- [Parallel English-Greek text 92c]
- T. K. Johansen Plato's natural philosophy: a study of the Timaeus-Critias 2004 Page 190
- Proclus, edition Dirk Baltzly Commentary on Plato's Timaeus: Book 3, Part 1 2007
- Lust, J., Eynikel, E., & Hauspie, K. (2003). A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint: Revised Edition. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart: "μονογενής,-ής,-ές+ A 0-2-0-3-9=14 Jgs 11,34; Ps 21 (22),21; 24 (25),16; 34 (35),17 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 Cf. HARL 1960=1992a 206–207; 1986a 192; LARCHER 1984, 482–483; →MM; NIDNTT; TWNT"
- Journal of Biblical literature, Volumes 70-72 1970 p217
- Büchsel TDNT notes 4 Esdras 6:58 :With this may be compared 4 Esr. 6:58 : 'But we, thy people, whom thou hast called the first born, the only begotten, the dearest friend, are given up into their hands.'" Here Büchsel is referring to the Latin text of Fourth Esdras (also called Second Esdras), a book for which there is no extant Greek text.
- Andrew Phillip Smith A Dictionary of Gnosticism 2009 Page 163
- "285. Charm to bind Capitolina's lover Nilos to her" PGM XV1-21 Provenance unknown 3rd Century AD. Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt: a sourcebookBy Jane Rowlandson p.360
- "Λαιλαμψ Oσορνοφρι Βαρβαρε εν τω ουρανω θεος, ο μονογενης" F. Büchsel, Hinweis auf einen Liebeszauber ThWNT IV p746.
- "εισακουσον μου, ο εις, μοvογενης"
- Strecker G. Die Johannesbriefe p.233 "ορκιζωσε τον θεον... τον μονογην τον εξ αυτου αναφανεντα"
- Arndt, W., Danker, Friedrich W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (658). Chicago: University of Chicago Press: "See also Hdb. on vs. 18 where, beside the rdg. μονογενὴς θεός (considered by many the orig.) an only-begotten one, God (acc. to his real being; i.e. uniquely divine as God’s son and transcending all others alleged to be gods) or a uniquely begotten deity (for the perspective s. J 10:33–36), another rdg. ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός is found. MPol 20:2 in the doxology διὰ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ τοῦ μονογενοῦς Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Some (e.g. WBauer, Hdb.; JBulman, Calvin Theological Journal 16, ’81, 56–79; JDahms, NTS 29, ’83, 222–32) prefer to regard μ. as somewhat heightened in mng. in J and 1J to only-begotten or begotten of the Only One, in view of the emphasis on γεννᾶσθαι ἐκ θεοῦ (J 1:13 al.); in this case it would be analogous to πρωτότοκος (Ro 8:29; Col 1:15 al.)."
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Gerhard Kittel, English edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 737-41. Hermann Martin Friedrich Büchsel on μονογενής (and 1 of 14 footnotes)
- Balz, Horst R., & Schneider, Gerhard. (1990-). Vol. 2: Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament (440). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans: "Μονογενής means only in all the Lukan passages. In 7:12 (L) it is used of the son born to the widow of Nain. The Gospel writer has inserted μονογενής in 8:42 in the account of the healing of Jairus’s daughter (cf. Mark 5:23: τὸ θυγάτριόν μου) and in 9:38 in the pericope on the epileptic boy (cf. Mark 9:17: τὸν υἱόν μου). In these passages μονογενής intensifies the significance of Jesus’ miracles."
- Friberg, Timothy, Friberg, Barbara, & Miller, Neva F. (2000). Vol. 4: Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament library (266). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books: "μονογενής, ές of what is the only one of its kind of class unique; (1) an only child born to human parents one and only (LU 7.12; 8.42); substantively only child (LU 9.38); (2) as a child born in a unique way; (a) used of God’s Son Jesus only, only begotten; substantively (JN 1.14); (b) used of Abraham’s son Isaac only; substantively ὁ μ. his only true son (HE 11.17)"
- David Ewert A general introduction to the Bible: from ancient tablets to modern translations 1990 p230
- Wayne A. Grudem, Jeff Purswell Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith 1999- Page 113
- Richard Abanes Today's Mormonism: Understanding Latter-Day Saints 2007 Page 191
- Edward L. Dalcour A definitive look at oneness theology: defending the tri-unity of God 2005
- Kenneth L. Barker, Edwin H. Palmer The NIV: the making of a contemporary translation 1986 p121
- Kittel TDNT Büchsel on μονογενής Op. cit. "It is not wholly clear whether μονογενής in Jn. denotes also the birth or begetting from God; it probably does, Jn. calls Jesus ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ, 1 Jn. 5:18. Though many will not accept this, he here understands the concept of sonship in terms of begetting. For him to be the Son of God is not just to be the recipient of God's love. It is to be begotten of God. This is true both of believers and also of Jesus. For this reason μονογενής probably includes also begetting by God. To be sure, Jn. does not lift the veil of mystery which lies over the eternal begetting. But this does not entitle us to assume that he had no awareness of it. Johannine preaching and doctrine is designed to awaken faith, 20:30 f., not to give full and systematic knowledge. Hence it does not have to dispel all mysteries."
- Philo On Abraham
- Philo On Sacrifice
- Raymond E Brown Introduction to the New Testament Christology 1994 Page 179
- Allen Wikgren footnote in Metzger A Textual Commentary on The Greek New Testament United Bible Societies 2nd ed. p. 170."It is doubtful that the author would have written monogenes theos which may be a primitive transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition ΘC/ΥΣ. At least a 'D' decision would be preferable. A.W."