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The Only Begotten Son: A Defense of the King James’ Rendering of John 1:18

Here is how John 1:18 reads in the Authorized King James Version (AV) of the Holy Bible:

“No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son (ho monogenes hyios), which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

However, many of the modern English versions go with a different reading, one that is found in the two oldest extant papyri which contain John 1:18:

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God (monogenes theos) and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” New International Version (NIV)

In this post I will reproduce renowned Bible critic and NT textual scholar Bart D. Ehrman’s lengthy discussion of these two variants since he does a superb job of highlighting the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the reading of the AV. The following somewhat lengthy excerpt is taken from Ehrman’s book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament [Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993], 2. Anti-Adoptionistic Corruptions of Scripture, pp. 78-82. All bold emphasis will be mine.

Christ, Designated as God: John 1:18

A comparable corruption appears in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, although here the issues are far more complicated and have generated substantially more debate and indecision. I will not give an exhaustive study of all the issues surrounding the text of John 1:18; these are competently handled in the commentaries and in several recent studies.157 I will instead develop my reasons for thinking that the majority of manuscripts are right in ending the prologue with the words: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son (ho monogenes hyios) who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.” The variant reading of the Alexandrian tradition, which substitutes “God” for “Son,” represents an orthodox corruption of the text in which the complete deity of Christ is affirmed: “the unique God [(homonogenes theos] who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”158

External Evidence

It must be acknowledged at the outset that the Alexandrian reading is more commonly preferred by textual critics, in no small measure because of its external support. Not only is it the reading of the great Alexandrian uncials (א B C), it is also attested by the earliest available witnesses, the Bodmer papyri p66, and p75, discovered in the middle of the present century. It would be a mistake, however, to consider this external evidence compelling in itself. For in actual fact, contrary to widely held opinion,159 the discovery of the early papyri has done very little (in this instance) to change the character of the documentary alignments. This is due to the peculiar character of the verse’s attestation: even before the discovery of the papyri, scholars realized that the bulk of the Alexandrian tradition attested the reading, including witnesses that date back to the beginning of the third century.160 This means that we already knew that it must have been preserved in early Greek manuscripts of Alexandria-even before we had access to any of them. The chance discovery of two such witnesses has consequently done nothing to change the picture, but has simply demonstrated that our theories about transmission are essentially correct.161

Here it must be emphasized that outside of the Alexandrian tradition, the reading monogenes theos has not fared well at all. Virtually every other representative of every other textual grouping-Western, Caesarean, Byzantine-attests ho monogenes hyios. And the reading even occurs in several of the secondary Alexandrian witnesses (e.g., C3 ψ 892 1241 Ath Alex.). This is not simply a case of one reading supported by the earliest and best manuscripts and another supported by late and inferior ones, but of one reading almost exclusively in the Alexandrian tradition and another found sporadically there and virtually everywhere else. And although the witnesses supporting ho monogenes hyios cannot individually match the antiquity of the Alexandrian papyri, there can be little doubt that this reading must also be dated at least to the time of their production. There is virtually no other way to explain its predominance in the Greek, Latin, and Syriac traditions, not to mention its occurrence in fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertullian, who were writing before our earliest surviving manuscripts were produced.162 Thus, both readings are ancient; one is fairly localized, the other is almost ubiquitous. This in itself does not demonstrate that ho monogenes hyios is original, but it does show the error of automatically accepting the external attestation of the Alexandrian reading as superior.

Intrinsic Probabilities

It is on internal grounds that the real superiority of ho monogenes hyios shines forth. Not only does it conform with established Johannine usage, a point its opponents readily concede, but the Alexandrian variant, although perfectly amenable to scribes for theological reasons, is virtually impossible to understand within a Johannine context. As we shall see, these points are best treated in conjunction with the one another rather than independently, for here again arguments of transcriptional and intrinsic probabilities make a rather formidable coalition.

I begin with the question of intrinsic plausibility. One of the insurmountable difficulties of accepting the Alexandrian reading as original involves ascertaining what it might mean for a first-century document to say that Jesus is “the unique God” ([homonogenes theos). The problem exists whether or not one chooses to read the definite article-although if external support is considered decisive, the article is probably to be preferred.163 If so, then the problem of translation is simply made more acute, not created, since in some sense the meaning of monogenes itself embodies the notion of exclusivity conveyed by the use of the article. By definition there can be only one monogenes; the word means “unique,” “one of a kind.”164 The problem, of course, is that Jesus can be the unique God only if there is no other God; but for the Fourth Gospel, the Father is God as well. Indeed, even in this passage the monogenes is said to reside in the bosom of the Father. How can the monogenes theos, the unique God, stand in such a relationship to (another) God?165

The problem is avoided, of course, with the reading that is more widely attested. Not only does this reading avoid the contradiction implied by the other, however, it also coincides perfectly well with the way monogenes is used throughout the Johannine literature. In three other Johannine passages monogenes serves as a modifier, and on each occasion it is used with hyios (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). Proponents of the Alexandrian reading, of course, have often turned this argument on its head by claiming that scribes already conversant with Johannine usage disposed of the more difficult phrase ho mongenes theos by conforming it to the standard expression. This is certainly a possibility; but in fact, the phrase that proves difficult for John was not a problem for Christians in the second century and beyond, who, with their increasingly paradoxical understandings of Christology, could conceive of ways for Christ to be the unique God himself.166 It would be a mistake, however, to read these sophisticated forms of Christology back into the pages of the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is on par with God (see John 10:30, 33), and so can be addressed as God (20:28, perhaps 1:1), but is never identified as “the one and only God” himself.167 One is left, then, with the problem of how to understand [homonogenes theos in the Johannine world if it were accepted as original.

Scholars who prefer the reading generally escape the difficulty by proposing alternative ways of construing its meaning or syntax. One common expedient involves claiming that monogenes itself connotes the idea of “sonship,” so that the word hyios is to be understood even when it is not expressed.168 In this case, the conflate reading found elsewhere in the tradition (ho monogenes hyios, theos), although corrupt in wording, is correct in meaning: the Alexandrian text (ho monogenes theos) should then be understood to mean “the unique Son who is God.”

The difficulty with this view is that there is nothing about the word monogenes itself that suggests it. Outside of the New Testament the term simply means “one of a kind” or “unique,” and does so with reference to any range of animate or inanimate objects.169 Therefore, recourse must be made to its usage within the New Testament. Here proponents of the view argue that in situ the word implies “sonship,” for it always occurs (in the New Testament) either in explicit conjunction with hyios or in a context where a hyios is named and then described as monogenes (Luke 9:38, John 1:14, Heb 11:17). Nonetheless, as suggestive as the argument may appear, it contains the seeds of its own refutation: if the word monogenes is understood to mean “a unique son,” one wonders why it is typically put in attribution to hyios, an attribution then creates an unusual kind of redundancy (“the unique-son son”). Given the fact that neither the etymology of the word nor its general usage suggests any such meaning, this solution seems to involve a case of special pleading.

The more common expedient for those who opt for [ho] monogenes theos, but who recognize that its rendering as “the unique God” is virtually impossible in a Johannine context, is to understand the adjective substantivally, and to construe the entire second half of John 1:18 as a series of appositions, so that rather than reading, “the unique God who is in the bosom of the Father,” the text should be rendered “the unique one, who is also God, who is in the bosom of the Father.”170 There is something attractive about the proposal. It explains what the text might have meant to a Johannine reader and thereby allows for the text of the generally superior textual witnesses. Nonetheless, the solution is entirely implausible.

For one thing, it posits that the “natural” meaning of the Johannine text was not understood by a number of scribes who found it so peculiar that they sought to modify it to establish Johannine usage. How is it that modern critics of the German- and English-speaking worlds can make ready sense of a passage that seems to have struck Greek-speaking scribes as so perplexing? Moreover, a moment’s reflection shows that the proposed construal is not at all the most natural. It is true that monogenes can elsewhere be used as a substantive (= the unique one, as in v. 14); all adjectives can. But the proponents of this view have failed to consider that it is never used in this way when it is immediately followed by a noun that agrees with it in gender, number, and case. Indeed one must here press the syntactical point: when is an adjective ever used substantivally when it immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection? No Greek reader would construe such a construction as a string of substantives, and no Greek writer would create such an inconcinnity. To the best of my knowledge, no one has cited anything analogous outside of this passage.

The result is that taking the term monogenes theos as two substantives standing in apposition makes for a nearly impossible syntax, whereas construing their relationship as adjective-noun creates an impossible sense. Given the fact that the established usage of the Johannine literature is known beyond a shadow of a doubt, there seems little reason any longer to dispute the reading found in virtually every witness outside the Alexandrian tradition.171 The prologue ends with the statement that “the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”

Transcriptional Probabilities

Why then was the text changed? It is striking that Christ as the Logos is called “God” in verse 1 of the prologue and that the burden of the passage is that this pre-existent divine being has become flesh. The word theos itself occurs seven times in the passage, the word hyios never. It may be that the context has decided the issue for the scribes, who conformed the passage to the terminology ad loc. But one must still ask what would have motivated them to do so. Here the character of our witnesses cannot be overlooked. In the early period, when the reading was beginning to establish itself in the Alexandrian tradition, it is found not only in Greek manuscripts, but also among a variety of Alexandrian writers, both orthodox and Gnostic. The presence of the reading in authors of a wide range of theological persuasion has actually served to throw investigators off the scent of its genesis; for it has been assumed that if both orthodox and Gnostic writers attest the text, it must have not been generated out of theological concerns. But the key point to register is that all those who support the text attest a “high” Christology: Alexandrians from Clement and Origen to Ptolemy and Heracleon could all affirm that the monogenes was God. The solution to the problem of the origin of the variant lies not in the orthodox-Gnostic controversy, but in that of both the orthodox and Gnostic Christians against the adoptionists.172 The variant was created to support a high Christology in the face of widespread claims, found among adoptionists recognized and opposed in Alexandria,173 that Christ was not God but merely a man, adopted by God. For the scribe who created this variant, Christ is not merely portrayed as the “unique Son.” He himself is God, the “unique God,” who is to be differentiated from God the Father, in whose bosom he resides, but who nonetheless is his co-equal.174 The Alexandrian reading derives from an anti-adoptionistic context, and therefore represents an orthodox corruption.175

  1. Among all the witnesses, p75 is generally understood to be the strongest; p66, which supports the shorter text, is notoriously unreliable when it comes to articles and other short words, so that the omission here simply corroborates what one finds elsewhere throughout the manuscript. Thus Colwell, “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits.” See further, pp. 265-66…
  2. This cannot be construed as meaning that the reading is more likely original because it is “difficult.” In fact, it was not difficult for scribes, who embraced it as a useful statement of Christ’s full deity. See notes 172 and 173…
  3. A final argument has occasionally been adduced in support of monogenes theos, namely, that the literary structure of the prologue more or less requires the reading, because the three statements of the opening verse are paralleled, in inverse order, by the final verse. Thus “the Word” (v. 1) is echoed by “that one has made him known” (v. 18; both relating to Christ’s revelatory function); “was with God” by “in the bosom of the Father” (both explaining his relation to the Father); and “was God” by “the unique God” (both affirming his divine character). This is an interesting argument, but one that fails to persuade me–not because the parallels do not in fact exist, but because of the way they are effected. In neither of the first two instances are the statements of verse 1 actually repeated in verse 18. As there is no reason to think that the author has changed his style with regard to the final element, the reader should expect an equivalent term, not a repetition. And that is precisely what one does find in the phrase ho monogenes hyios, a phrase that affirms Christ’s unique divine character, without stating that he is the one and only God himself (which not even v. 1 asserts, because theos lacks the article).
  4. McReynolds (“John 1:18,” 115) chides M.-E Boismard (St. John’s Prologue, 65) for drawing this conclusion, but misses the point when he argues that the Gnostics would have been particularly inclined to the text. Naturally they would have been, but they are not the ones the reading functions to oppose. It is also pointless to argue that the more commonly attested reading does not fit well into an anti-Arian context (cf. Brown, The Gospel According to John, 17); clearly both readings were well worn before Arius arrived on the scene.
  5. Compare Origen, Dialogue with Heraclides, 128, which condemns the “blasphemous doctrine which denies the deity of Chrst,” as well as Hom. In Luke, 17, and in Epistula ad Titum, which speaks of the Ebionites who say that Christ was born of a man and woman like everyone else, and was, as a consequence, only human…
  6. Why was this the only occurrence of ho monogenes hyios to be changed in the textual tradition of the Fourth Gospel? The answer may lie in the central position it occupies within the prologue, setting the stage for the Christology of the rest of the Gospel. (Ibid., pp. 112-113)

Here is what Ehrman writes elsewhere:

We will conclude this part of the discussion by looking at one other such change. Like 1 Tim. 3:16, this one involves a text in which a scribe has made an alteration to affirm in very strong terms that Jesus is to be understood completely as God. The text occurs in the Gospel of John, a Gospel that more than any of the others that made it into the New Testament already goes a long way toward identifying Jesus himself as divine (see, e.g., John 8:58; 10:30; 20:28). This identification is made in a particularly striking way in a passage in which the original text is hotly disputed.

The first eighteen verses of John are sometimes called its Prologue. Here is where John speaks of the “Word of God” who was “in the beginning with God” and who “was God” (vv. 1-3). This Word of God made all things exist. Moreover, it is God’s mode of communication to the world; the Word is how God manifests himself to others. And we are told that at one point the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, God’s own Word became a human being (v. 14). This human being was “Jesus Christ” (v. 17). According to this understanding of things, then, Jesus Christ represents the “incarnation” of God’s own Word, who was with God in the beginning and was himself God, through whom God made all things.

The Prologue then ends with some striking words, which come in two variant forms: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son/the unique God who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known” (v. 18).

The textual problem has to do with the identification of this “unique” one. Is he to be identified as the “unique God in the bosom of the Father” or as the “unique Son in the bosom of the Father”? It must be acknowledged that the first reading is the one found in the manuscripts that are the oldest and generally considered to be the best–those of the Alexandrian textual family. But it is striking that it is rarely found in manuscripts not associated with Alexandria. Could it be a textual variant created by a scribe in Alexandria and popularized there? If so, that would explain why the vast majority of manuscripts from everywhere else have the other reading, in which Jesus is not called the unique God, but the unique Son.   

There are other reasons for thinking that the latter reading is, in fact, the correct one. The Gospel of John uses this phrase “the unique Son” (sometimes mistranslated as “only begotten Son”) on several other occasions (see John 3:16, 18); nowhere else does it speak of Christ as the “unique God.” Moreover, what would it mean to call Christ that? The term unique in Greek means “one of a kind.” There can be only one who is one of a kind. The term unique God must refer to God the Father himself–otherwise he is not unique. But if the term refers to the Father, how can it be used of the Son? Given the fact that the more common (and understandable) phrase in the Gospel of John is “the unique Son,” it appears that that was the text originally written in John 1:18. This itself is still a highly exalted view of Christ–he is the “unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father.” And he is the one who explains God to everyone else.

It appears, though, that some scribes–probably located in Alexandria–were not content even with this exalted view of Christ, and so they made it even more exalted, by transforming the text. Now Christ is not merely God’s unique Son, he is the unique God himself! This too, then, appears to be an antiadoptionistic change of the text made by proto-orthodox scribes of the second century. (Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why [HarperOne, 2005], 6. Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text, pp. 161-162; bold emphasis ours)

Further Reading

In the following article, “The Text and Grammar of John 1:18” (, Noted Evangelical New Testament (NT) scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace has attempted to refute Ehrman’s claim that there is no example from the NT where an adjective that immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection is used substantivally.

However, in a post titled “Bart D. Ehrman, Daniel B. Wallace, and the Syntax and Meaning of John 1:18” (, leading Arian and anti-Trinitarian apologist Gregory Stafford has responded to Wallace’s blogpost. Stafford has shown  that none of the examples cited by Wallace meet Ehrman’s challenge to show an adjective used substantivally when it immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection. Therefore, Ehrman’s point still stands since nothing that Wallace cited refutes Ehrman’s actual objection. Yet this doesn’t mean that Stafford’s arguments which he offers in defense of his post-biblical, heretical Arian beliefs are correct. All this means is that Wallace’s reply is simply wrong since it fails to adequately refute Ehrman’s objection.

I also recommend the following post, which is an excerpt from Dr. Thomas Holland’s excellent defense of the King James Version titled Crown With Glory: The Bible from Ancient Text to Authorized Version.

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