Μονογενής = ‘only begotten’?

So says Charles Lee Irons, “Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten,’” Gospel Coalition website, 23 Nov 2016: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-go-back-to-only-begotten#_ftn3

Irons begins by noting that in the KJV there are five Johannine passages that speak of the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1.14, 18; 3.16, 18; 1 John 4.9). He then notes that in the modern era there has been a broad scholarly consensus that μονογενής means ‘one of a kind.’ He then accurately represents the rationale for this consensus: “Scholars have argued that the compound Greek adjective is not derived from monos (‘only’) + gennao (‘beget’) but from monos (‘only’) + genos (‘kind’). Thus, they argue, the term shouldn’t be translated ‘only begotten’ but ‘only one of his kind’ or ‘unique.’”

Irons offers as his first argument that μονογενής means ‘only begotten’ in some passages. This presumably means that there is no noun like ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ in the context to already suggest birth, though he does not say this. It is certainly what I expected in order for his argument to make much sense, however. Otherwise, ‘one and only son/daughter’ makes perfectly good sense, which would defeat his point.

Irons begins by citing one reference from Plato—Critias 113d: μονογενῆ θυγατέρα ἐγεννησάσθην. Here not only is ‘daughter’ mentioned explicitly, but also that she had been ‘born.’ If μονογενής here means ‘only begotten’ then an awkward tautology occurs: “They begot an only-begotten daughter.” (The Attic aorist middle dual is here used.)

Further, I was surprised to read his three biblical examples:
Luke 7.12: μονογενὴς υἱός—here ‘son’ is explicit.

Luke 8.42: θυγάτηρ μονογενής—again, explicit.

Luke 9.38: διδάσκαλε, δέομαί σου ἐπιβλέψαι ἐπὶ τὸν υἱόν μου, ὅτι μονογενής μοί ἐστιν. But here ‘son’ is already mentioned, so the ‘one and only’ [son] is simply good economical Greek style.

Thus, Irons’s approach so far is simply question begging.

He follows this up with 1 Clement 25.2 [Irons says it is 25.1], which speaks of the Phoenix as ‘one of a kind’ using μονογενής. He also mentions an unidentified text (‘an ancient treatise’) that speaks of trees as ‘in one kind.’ But he adds, “these are uniformly metaphorical extensions of the basic meaning…” That, too, is begging the question, because he is assuming that the essential idea of μονογενής has to do with birth.

Second, he says that “careful examination of the word list of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae reveals at least 145 other words based on the –genēs stem.” This is a more significant argument, but I would need to see his evidence before recognizing its validity. He also adds that “fewer than a dozen have meanings involving the notion of genus or kind.” To argue from other words that have the –γενής stem as though they must inform the meaning of μονογενής may seem to be imbibing etymological fallacy, especially since there are some –γενής words that have the force of ‘kind’ or ‘genus.’ However, if ‘begotten’ is the routine meaning diachronically, and especially synchronically during the Koine period, Irons may well have a point.

He does seem to engage in etymologizing, however, when he says that γενός and γεννάω “both genos and gennao derive from a common Indo-European root, ǵenh (‘beget, arise’).” He finishes his arguments by again claiming that –γενής essentially has to do with birth. The BDAG lexicon allows for the meaning ‘only begotten’ for μονογενής but seems to view this meaning as secondary. In addition, they note that in the Johannine literature “The renderings only, unique may be quite adequate for all its occurrences here.”

 All in all, Irons is right to focus on the data provided in TLG for this certainly expands our knowledge base of the term. But that he seems to have focused on cognates that have the morpheme –γενής rather than the specific usage of μονογενής, both diachronically and synchronically, is a weakness in his argument.

 

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16 thoughts on “Μονογενής = ‘only begotten’?

  1. “One of a kind,” when monoGENES is used, deals with the taxonomy of Yeshua—-His classification (ex. domain–>kingdom–>phylum–>class–>order–>family–>genus–>species), upon incarnation. John is telling us that, due to virgin conception by the Holy Spirit, Yeshua Nazaret is a completely different and unique kind of creature. He is within the human family but of an entirely unique genetic platform. Yeshua’s genome is “of the Father.” This interpretation sustained by textual data (context as well as lexical value & and usages), both inside the holy Writ and in contemporaneous ‘secular’ texts. It also satisfies both Iron’s and Wallace’s findings and allows for (but limits) the logical ramifications of both sets of findings.

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  2. Hi, Dan!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Great article! In light of this research, will the translation notes in all related verses in the New English Version be updated to reflect this? The current notes appear doubtful of this stance, at least when I look at John 1:14 in Lumina. https://lumina.bible.org/bible/John+1

    Thanks! Scott Hayes Eagan, MN

    On Thu, Nov 24, 2016 at 5:06 AM, Daniel B. Wallace wrote:

    > Daniel B. Wallace posted: “So says Charles Lee Irons, “Let’s Go Back to > ‘Only Begotten,’” Gospel Coalition website, 23 Nov 2016: https://www. > thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-go-back-to-only-begotten#_ftn3 Irons > begins by noting that in the KJV there are five Johannine passages ” >

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  7. Y33sha

    Hello. Sorry to intrude, I’m a usually silent reader.
    I’m not sure I understand some of the points you make in this article.

    “This presumably means that there is no noun like ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ in the context to /already/ suggest birth, though he does not say this. It is certainly what I expected in order for his argument to make much sense, however. Otherwise, ‘one and only son/daughter’ makes perfectly good sense, which would defeat his point.”

    1° How would it defeat his point? I don’t see the difference between “one and only son” and “only-begotten son”: both refer to an only child, i. e. without brothers and sisters. “One of his kind”, however, means something entirely different, that sets the person apart from all others, irrespective of his having brothers and sisters or not.

    2° Do you mean that the translation “only begotten” cannot be accepted on the grounds that it would be redundant with the use of “son” or “daughter”? It seems like a convoluted argument.
    Take for example Matthew 2:10: “ἰδόντες δὲ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα.”
    Clearly the words “great joy” are “an awkward tautology”: if the Magi “rejoiced greatly”, you don’t need to be told that they “rejoiced greatly with a great joy”. Pleonastic expressions like these are commonplace in the Bible and elsewhere, I could cite hundreds of them. Therefore I don’t see any problem with “They begot an only-begotten son/daughter”.

    3° On the contrary, the existence of other occurrences of μονογενεῖς sons and daughters apart from Jesus (and Isaac), in Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38, shows that this phrase is idiomatic, and was commonly understood to mean “without brothers and sisters”, therefore “only child in the family”, and not “one of his kind, special in some unique way”, even less “a unique kind of creature”. Which is why, when the exact same phrase is applied to Jesus without further comment, there’s no reason to adopt an entirely different translation than the usual and obvious one. (Although in the case of Jesus, it is true that this phrase also conveys a sense of uniqueness, albeit indirectly: being the “only-begotten son of God” sounds pretty unique to me.)

    “Scholars have argued that the compound Greek adjective is not derived from monos (‘only’) + gennao (‘beget’) but from monos (‘only’) + genos (‘kind’). Thus, they argue, the term shouldn’t be translated ‘only begotten’ but ‘only one of his kind’ or ‘unique.’”

    Isn’t that also etymological fallacy? Maybe it originally derived from “genos”, but was later generally understood as having to do with birth, due to the similar pronunciation. Etymology souldn’t determine translation, in one way or the other.

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    1. Good points. Just responding to your point 3. μονογενής is often used, as you point out, to refer to a child with no siblings. But it is also used to refer to things that aren’t children, like one’s soul, personified wisdom, kingship or heaven (Ps 21:21, 24:16, 34:17 LXX, Wis 7:22; Plato Laws 691e, Tim 31b, 92c), and even to unique children who have multiple siblings (Heb 11:17, Josephus Ant. 1.222, 20.20).

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  10. Ze Zawng

    Thank you sir. This article is absolutely thought-provoking and especially I am made more convinced to have the deeper exploration of the Koine Greek. Indeed, I am studying a Greek text book by you.

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  11. But “only-begotten” is theological terminology. When you encounter it, unless you’re an idiot, you think of the Nicene Creed. It enables you to understand what verses they were referencing. Replacing it with “unique” or “one of a kind” or worse of all “only” is therefore stupid. The Bible is above all else a historical book, and a key to understanding history. This is destroyed with these pointless revisions.

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