Begotten – John 3:16

John 3:16: Only begotten?

…he gave his only-begotten Son… (KJV)
…he gave his one and only Son… (NIV)

Some Bibles say “one and only Son” in John 3:16, and some say “only-begotten”. Why is the idea of begetting present in the one version, and not the other? It is not a slight difference: the idea of the Son being eternally begotten, the eternal generation of the Son, is a weighty theological doctrine and it would make a tremendous difference to the content of the Lord’s Prayer if it were mentioned.

The reason some say only-begotten and some say one and only depends on a certain understanding, or some might say misunderstanding, of the underlying Greek. The word John uses for one and only, or only-begotten, is monogenḗs. This word comprises two elements. The first is mono-, which we know from English has the connotation of one-ness, singleness. The second, crucial one is -genḗs. It is on the translation of -genḗs where the controversy hinges.

The word looks like it might come from words meaning “to beget”, which in Greek is gennáō, with the gen- element clearly present; we may think also of English words like generate, generation, and be convinced the word contains the idea of begetting, giving birth to.

That is how it seems the King James translators went about translating monogenḗs. But that would be to misunderstand the Greek word. The -gen- element in monogenḗs does not derive from the word for ‘beget’, gennáō, at all. It derives from génos, which can mean ‘birth’, but here means ‘kind’, whose associated verb is our old friend gínomai, ‘I am’, ‘I become’, ‘I happen’.

So the word monogenḗs means “the only one of its kind”, “unique”. John is saying Jesus is unique; God’s one and only Son, he is one of a kind.

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