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Saturday Series: John 1:18

This is the first installment of the the new Saturday Series on this site. Each Saturday I will focus on a specific Scripture passage or area of study, with the intention of providing guidance for those who wish to learn the value of an in-depth critical-exegetical approach to studying Scripture, and how one might begin to go about it. As previously mentioned in the introduction to this Series, it is necessary to begin with the original text of Scripture—in the case of the New Testament, this means the original Greek. However, before one can do that, one must first know just what that text is. As you may be aware, no two manuscripts (hand-copies) of the New Testament are exactly alike; the copies contain many differences between each other. Most of these differences are slight and rather insignificant—i.e., variations of spelling, obvious copying mistakes, etc. However, others are more substantial, and some genuinely affect the meaning of a passage. In such cases, it is necessary to determine, as far as one is able, what the most likely original form or version of the text is.

This part of Biblical study (criticism) is called Textual Criticism—analysis of the text, its variants (differences) and determination of the original form (when possible). I have devoted an introductory article, in three parts, to this subject, which I recommend you read; it is entitled “Learning the Language” (Parts 1, 2, 3). In most English Bible translations (the reputable ones), substantial differences, or variant readings in the text are indicated by footnotes. The most likely original reading (according to the translators) appears in the main portion, while other known readings are given in the footnotes. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore or gloss over these textual footnotes; but I would urge you to get in the habit of paying attention to them and examining them. This is one of the first steps toward an in-depth study of the Scriptures.

Occasionally a situation arises where the evidence in favor of certain textual variants (variant readings) is more evenly divided. In such cases, it can be most difficult to determine which form of the text is more likely to be original. Here the student and commentator of Scripture (let us begin with the New Testament) must proceed carefully, considering all of the possibilities. To demonstrate this, I will use two examples from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. I like to use the Gospel of John, and the first chapter especially, because it tends to make the theological significance of the textual variants more readily apparent.

John 1:18

The first example comes from the famous “Prologue” to the Gospel (1:1-18)—indeed, from the climactic final statement in it. Here is verse 18, in a literal rendering, followed by a more conventional English translation:

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only <..> (who has) come to be—the (one) being in the lap of the Father—that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only[-born] <..>, who is in the lap of the father, he has revealed him (to us).”

The words in parentheses technically are not in the text, but have been added to fill out the passage to make it more readable and intelligible in English. The angle brackets represent the point where the key textual variant occurs. There are three versions of this textual unit (in italics above):

  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)
  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)

All three versions contain the word monogen¢s, which happens to be quite tricky to translate. Literally, it means something like “(the) only one (who has) come to be”. Sometimes this specifically refers to a person coming to be born (i.e. a child or son); but often it means simply “only one, unique, one-of-a-kind”, or the like. The second version above is the most straightforward, as it essentially means “only son”, i.e. the only son born (to a mother/parent). This is presumably also the meaning where monogen¢s is used alone—”only (son)”. The first version above is more difficult, and has been translated three different ways:

  • monogen¢s theos =
    • “(the) only/unique God”
    • “(the) only-born [or only-begotten] God”
    • “God the only(-born) Son”

Which reading more likely represents the original text? And is there any significant difference between them? Let us address the first question, considering the arguments in favor of each reading, in reverse order from how they are listed above.

  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)—”only (one) [born]”
    There is essentially no Greek manuscript support for this reading; it is attested in the writings of several early Church Fathers (commentators/theologians such as Origen, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria). However, it is attractive as a way to explain the other two readings (with “God” or “Son”). If the text originally read just monogen¢s, scribes (copyists) and commentators would have been inclined to explain it, expanding the text, more likely (and often) by adding “Son” as the natural meaning in context (“[the] only Son [born]”).
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)—”only Son [born]”
    This is the most common and widespread reading, including that of some important early manuscripts (such Codex Alexandrinus [A]). It also happens to make the most sense. Jesus refers to himself (or is referred to) as “(the) Son [huios, ui(o/$]” quite often in the Gospel of John, and almost always in relation to (God) the Father. The word monogen¢s is used in this context earlier in the prologue (verse 14); moreover, elsewhere in the New Testament it is almost always used in combination with “son” (or “daughter”)—see Luke 7:12; 8:42; John 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17; 1 John 4:9.
  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)—”only God [born]” or “God the only [born Son?]”
    This is the reading of some of “the earliest and best” manuscripts, including the early (Bodmer) papyri 66 and 75, Codex Vaticanus [B] and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]. It must also be considered the most difficult reading—what exactly does the expression “only (born) God [theos, qeo/$]” mean? An important principle in textual criticism follows the saying difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). The idea is that copyists would be more likely to change the text (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to a reading that was easier to understand or which made more sense. As noted above, “only (born) Son” is a much more natural expression.

I would ask you to consider and to meditate upon these three different readings, in the context of John 1:18 (and the Prologue as a whole—read through it carefully). Do you see any difference in meaning or emphasis, in terms of what the author may be trying to convey? If so, what are the differences? Next Saturday I will follow up on this discussion, by examining briefly certain details in verse 18 which I believe are essential to a proper understanding of the passage. At the same time, we will consider our second example from the Gospel of John.

Help from PC Study Bible
If you are a user of the PC (and Mac) Study Bible programs, and wish to learn more about a critical study of Scripture, and of Textual Criticism, in particular, Biblesoft offers a number of resources dealing with the subject, including two introductory textbooks you may find helpful:

A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis: Taking the Fear Out of the Critical Method, by Richard J. Erickson

A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, by Paul D. Wegner

If you own a OneTouch Professional Series or Professional Reference Library (Version 5), you already have these two resources at your fingertips!

Join the discussion One Comment

  • David says:

    Really enjoyed this (Mar 9) discussion. It’s a powerful passage that I’ve often meditated on. Well done! thank you so much. I also forwarded a link to several friends.

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