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Text of the New Testament

Saturday Series: John 1:18 (continued)

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Last week I looked at John 1:18, and the three textual variants (or variant readings) in the verse: monogen¢s theos, monogen¢s huios, and monogen¢s . A consideration of these different readings is essential for a correct understanding of this key verse, which is the climactic declaration of the Prologue of John, 1:1-18. But which reading is most likely to be the original? We can probably eliminate monogen¢s alone as a candidate. While attractive as an explanation for the rise of the other two readings, the lack of manuscript support makes it difficult to accept as original. This would leave the readings which include theos (“God”) or huios (“Son”). As I indicated last week, there is strong evidence for each of these.

In textual criticism, there are two aspects which must be considered: (1) the external evidence for a reading, and (2) the internal evidence. By “external evidence” is meant the actual documents in which the particular reading appears (especially the earliest Greek manuscripts). By “internal evidence” we mean all of the various factors which make a particular reading more or less likely to be original. There are three main factors to be considered: (a) transcriptional probability (that is, the tendencies of copyists), (b) the overall style of the author, and (c) the context of the particular passage. The external evidence for these two readings is fairly evenly divided:

  • monogen¢s huios (“only Son“) is read by the majority of manuscripts and versions, etc, spanning a wide (geographic) range by the 3rd century A.D., and including several of the major (early) manuscripts.
  • monogen¢s theos (“only God [born?]”) is the reading of some the “earliest and best” Greek manuscripts, including the Bodmer Papyri (66 and 75).

So, we turn to the three main kinds of internal evidence:

a. Transcriptional probability. When considering the tendencies of copyists, the question must be asked whether a change from one form of the text to another—i.e. from “God” to “Son” or vice versa—occurred by accident or was intentional. For those interested, I have posted a special note discussing the possibility of an accidental change. However, if the change was conscious and/or intentional, we must ask in which direction this most likely occurred. Here, too, the evidence is divided:

  • On the one hand, copyists were more likely to “correct” the text from the rare/difficult reading to one which is more familiar or easier to understand. Here, the choice is obvious: monogen¢s huios (i.e. “only son”) is by far the more natural and straightforward expression, while monogen¢s theos (“only [born?] God”) is quite unusual and rather difficult to interpret.
  • On the other hand, Christian scribes were always much more likely to alter the text to present a more exalted view of Christ, rather than the other way around. From this standpoint, a change from “Son” to “God” is more probable than from “God” to “Son”.

b. The Author’s style and usage. The word monogen¢s, “only (one born)” occurs three other times in the Gospel of John; twice in the discourse of chapter 3:

  • “For God loved the world this (way): so (that) he (even) gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
  • “…the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18)

In these two references, monogen¢s is used together with huios (“son”), in order to refer to Jesus as the “only Son” of God (i.e. God’s only Son). The other occurrence also comes from the Prologue (1:14):

“And the Word [Logos] came to be flesh and put down a tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked/gazed (upon) his splendor—(the) splendor as of (the) only (born Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth”

Here monogen¢s is used alone, as a kind of substantive—”the only (one)”, “the only (son)”. The reference to “a father” (or “the Father”), would seem to indicate that the word “Son” is implied in context. If there were better manuscript support for monogen¢s alone in verse 18 (see above), it might be confirmed by this usage in v. 14.

We should also note 1 John 4:9, similar in thought and wording to Jn 3:16, which uses huios (“son”) with monogen¢s. Elsewhere in the New Testament, monogen¢s likewise occurs with “son” (or “daughter”)—Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38.

From this standpoint, the internal evidence would overwhelmingly favor monogen¢s huios (“only Son”) in 1:18.

c. The context of Jn 1:1-18. Finally, we must consider carefully the context of the Prologue as a whole. Its basic theme is theological and Christological—identifying Jesus as the eternal, pre-existent Word (Logos) of God (v. 1) who comes to be flesh (v. 14), that is to say, he is born as a human being. The basic structure of the Prologue may be outlined as follows:

  • Vv. 1-4—Christ as the divine, eternal Word and Light; the symmetry of this section may summarized:
    • The Word (v. 1)
      —the life-giving creative power [of God] (vv. 2-3)
    • The Light (v. 4)
  • Vv. 9-13—The Light comes into the World, among his own (people)
  • Vv. 14-17—The Word comes to be (born) as flesh (a human being), dwelling among his people
  • V. 18—Christ as the only Son who reveals the Father

Verses 2-17 certainly describe a process—of revelation (and incarnation)—which becomes increasingly more specific. This is indicated by the distinctive use of three verbs:

  • The divine Word/Light is (eimi [verb of being])—vv. 1-4
  • He comes (erchomai) into the world—vv. 9-13
  • He comes to be [born] (ginomai) as a human being—vv. 14-17
    (Note the same three verbs used in sequence in vv. 15, 30)

The word monogen¢s is first used in v. 14, which clearly refers to Christ (the Word) coming to be born (as a human being). But what is the precise sense of monogen¢s here? There would seem to be two options:

  1. The emphasis is on God being born, i.e. as a Son. This would assume that the fundamental etymology of monogen¢s—as the only one (who has) come to be (born)—is in view.
  2. What is emphasized is Jesus as the only/unique (Son) of God. This is the more natural/common meaning of monogen¢s.

The second is to be preferred. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the Son”, in relation to the Father. It is an essential relationship, which is not necessarily determined by his time on earth (as a human being). We can fairly assume that the same meaning of monogen¢s is in view in verse 18. However, first consider the way verses 14-17 are framed (note the words in italics):

  • “The Word came to be flesh…and we looked upon his splendor [i.e. like Moses looked upon God], the splendor as of an only (Son) of the Father, full of favor and truth” (v. 14)
  • “…we have received out of his fullness…for the Law was given through Moses [i.e. who looked upon God’s splendor], but favor and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)

This is a powerful dual-statement regarding how the glory and truth of God have been manifest (revealed) in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. So now we come to the concluding declaration of verse 18, which I take to be parallel with verses 1-4. I we may discern a certain kind of relationship with verse 1 in particular:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [literally, toward] God, and the Word was God” (v. 1)
  • “…the only [Son/God]—the one being in [literally, into] the lap of the Father—that (one) brought him out to us” (v. 18)

The first portion of verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”) connects immediately back to vv. 16-17 and the motifs of Moses and the possibility of seeing/beholding the glory of God. The remainder of v. 18 may be intended to mirror v. 1; I suggest the possible parallels:

  • The Word was in the beginning (with God)
    —The Word was facing/looking toward God
    ——The Word was God
    ——The Only Son (of God), i.e. the reflection of the Father
    —The Son is facing[?] into the lap of the Father (i.e. essential Sonship)
  • The Son brings out (reveals) the Father to us.

There is no way to decide with absolute certainty, but, all factors considered, I would give a slight edge to monogen¢s huios (“Only Son“) as the original reading of verse 18. It is possible that monogen¢s theos (“Only God“) may have been introduced as an attempt to explain (ho) monogen¢s huios in context, much like the conflated reading ho monogen¢s huios theos (“God [who is] the Only Son”). However, one cannot be dogmatic about such things. Indeed, I suggest it is important to keep both readings in mind when you study this extraordinary passage. It is almost as if the declaration in verse 18 is too momentous and powerful to be contained by a single form of the text. The Gospel (and Prologue) of John expresses clearly that Jesus is both God and the Son (of God). Can these two truths ever really be separated from one another?

I would ask that you continue to study and meditate upon this passage, and at the same time, begin to consider the next verse—also from the first chapter of John—which we will be studying in this Series. It is the declaration by the Baptist in Jn 1:34, and, again, an important variant reading is involved:

  • “and I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is…”
    • “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)
    • “…the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)

I recommend you continue reading carefully, from the Prologue all the way through to 1:34… and I will see you next Saturday.

Special Textual Note on John 1:18

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This note is supplemental to the current Saturday Series study on John 1:18. There I mentioned the possibility that the main variant readings—monogen¢s theos (“only [born] God”) vs. monogen¢s huios (“only [born] Son”)—could have been the result of a scribal mistake, an accident. At first glance, this might seem unlikely. Yet, even if you do not read Greek, I suspect you may have already noticed the general similarity of form between the nouns qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”). It is not out of the question that a careless scribe might copy one in place of the other, especially if he has the terminology (and Christology) of Jn 1:1-18 in mind (esp. verse 1).

This becomes more likely when one considers the special scribal practice of using abbreviations to render the word qeo$ (theos), the name Ihsou=$ (I¢sous, “Jesus”), along with “divine names” and titles such as kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”), ui(o$ (huios, “Son”), xristo$ (christos, “Anointed One / Christ”), and the like. This was typically done by shortening the word to include only the first and last letter, and marking it with a horizontal line or ‘bar’ over the top. For example, in the uncial manuscripts (i.e. those written in “capital” Greek letters) where this practice was used, the word kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”) in capitals is KURIOS, which, in the uncial lettering looks like kurios. When it is abbreviated using the “sacred names” (nomina sacra) scribal technique, it becomes +k+s.

Now, using this same technique, in the manuscripts, in a verse such as John 1:18, qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”) would look like +q+s and +u+s, respectively. While this technique protected the divine names/titles from being confused with other common words, it resulted in no small amount of scribal confusion between the different abbreviations themselves. Differences between names and titles—such as between “Christ/Christos” (+c+s) and “Lord/Kyrios” (+k+s)—appear quite frequently in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. Thus there is the distinct possibility that the change between “God” and “Son” (or vice versa) in Jn 1:18 could be the result of a copyists’ error, and may represent a primitive corruption at that level.

Saturday Series: John 1:18

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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.

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

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Textual Variants — How Important Are They?

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The question of textual variants (or “variant readings”) cannot (or, at least, should not) be ignored. For an overview and explanation of the subject, I recommend consulting the three-part introductory article “Learning the Language” (see Parts 1, 2, and 3). But, just how important are these differences in the manuscripts? To give a simple answer, one might say that anything involving the text of Scripture is very important. If one hopes to understand properly, and to be guided by the Scriptures, it is vital to know what they actually say.

It is sometimes claimed that these textual differences do not affect Christian doctrine or theology. This may be intended to reassure believers, but the claim is, at best, misleading. To begin with, it is true that, of the many thousands of variant readings, most are negligible or insignificant—clear scribal errors or singular readings (I do not even count simple spelling differences as variants). Again, of the remaining substantive or significant variants, a large percentage do not fundamentally alter the sense of the passage. However, this rather depends on how much weight one places on individual words—their morphology and syntactical connections. If the basic sense is preserved, how much do the literal differences matter? Beyond this question, there still remain a fair number of substantive variants that are theologically or doctrinally significant.

Points of doctrine, of course, do not exist in a vacuum—from whence are they derived ultimately, if not from the text of Scripture? All of the standard tenets of orthodoxy (with the exception, perhaps, of Christ’s “descent” into Hell/Hades), are the result of centuries of theological reflection, and do not rest upon one or two individual verses. However, our understanding and insight may surely be altered or shaped, even slightly, by a careful analysis and understanding of the variant readings. One ought, I think, to recognize the following areas of emphasis:

  1. The nature of the variant. Especially to note are possible intentional or purposeful scribal changes—how or why were these made? In the New Testament, many of these are of Christological significance—which are certainly important indeed, and not to be ignored.
  2. The location of the variant. I would maintain that variant readings generally, when they occur in a passage of special doctrinal significance, become, by definition, significant. For more on this, see below.
  3. The application of the variant. Variant readings have been, and continue to be, a part of the living and ongoing formation of doctrine. This was perhaps more true in the early centuries of the Church—a careful perusal of the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, for example, reveals the citation and reference to a good number of variants (as we regard them today) in the context of their disputes with “gnostics” and “heretics” on theological (and Christological) points. Even today, variants play a role in theological discussion. See below for at least one key example.

Let us take a look at some of the variant readings which occur in the so-called Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18). It would be hard to find a more theologically significant (or influential) passage in the entire New Testament. Many thousands of pages have been written commenting and expounding upon these marvelous words. I will limit any points of wider interpretation to the variation-units being discussed. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.

John 1:3-4:

Here the variants themselves are not so important; but, rather, the variants reflect a particular difficulty in interpreting the passage. The problem involves the words o^ ge/gonen, “(that) which came to be”—how is one to parse this phrase? Does o^ ge/gonen belong properly to the previous or suceeding words? Below are the two ways vv. 3 and 4 may be divided; I translate with a period (full stop), but punctuation even in the Greek is not certain:

  1. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n o^ ge/gonen. e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing) which has come to be. In him was life…”
  2. kai xwri$ au)tou= e)ge/neto ou)de e%n. o% ge/gonen e)n au)tw=| zwh h@n: “…and apart (from) him came to be not (even) one (thing). (That) which has come to be in him was life…”
    This second interpretation can again be understood several different ways:
    a) “That-which-has-come-to-be, in him, was life…”
    b) “That-which-has-come-to-be, was life in him…”
    c) “That-which-has-come-to-be-in-him was life…”

Each of these has had its proponents, from ancient through modern times. Arguments in favor of reading #1 are:

  • It seems to provide a clearer sense and structure: v.3—creation (“coming to be”), followed by v.4—life/light which “is” and shines in creation. What exactly does the alternate (“that which has come to be in him was life”) mean?
  • The simpler, more direct idea of “life in him” can be found elsewhere in the Gospel (e.g., John 5:26, 39; 6:53)
  • Johannine style: beginning a sentence (or clause) with the preposition e)n + a pronoun.
  • The alternate (o( gegonen as beginning v.4) may have arisen in the early centuries under “Gnostic” influence—i.e., a cosmogonic “coming to be” of the Ogdoad and the Aeons. Irenaeus cites this (Against Heresies I.8.5) as the Valentinian interpretation.

In favor of reading #2 would be:

  • The step or “staircase” parallelism of the passage seems to require it. (Assuming a hymnic/poetic structure for the prologue)
  • It is the interpretation accepted by perhaps the majority of Church Fathers, including a number of early Greek Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (see Paidagogos II.9), Origen (Commentary on John, Against Celsus VI.6, and many other references), Eusebius, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril, etc.
  • Even though this reading may seem awkward or obscure, many of the early (Greek speaking) Fathers seem to have had no trouble understanding it—that which came to be was “living”, i.e., had life in him (cf. Acts 17:28).
  • As, perhaps, the more “difficult” reading, it is to be preferred.
  • When Arians and so-called Macedonians began using this interpretation in support of the idea that the Holy Spirit was a created being, reading #1 may have developed as a way to avoid this.

Commentators today are divided, though most modern translations opt for #1. So does Bruce Metzger, in his dissenting opinion to the UBS Committee’s decision (see his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 167-8). The UBS and Nestle-Aland critical texts use #2. I would, by a narrow margin, choose #1, though I find #2 most intriguing.

While here the original Greek text, as such, is more or less certain, the difficulty in interpreting the passage did give rise to at least one key variant:

  • Instead of “that which has come to be in him was (h@n) life”, assuming interpretation #2 above, a number of manuscripts instead read “…is (e)stin) life”, changing from an imperfect to a present form—i.e., “is living/alive”, instead of “was living/alive”.

No easy answers can be given to this rich and challenging passage.

John 1:9:

Here I mention in passing another question of pronunciation and interpretation in the prologue. This involves the phrase e)rxo/menon ei)$ ton ko/smon, “coming into the world”—does the phrase modify to fw=$ to a)lhqino/n (“the true/real light”) or pa/nta a&nqrwpon (“every man”)? In other words, is it the light or the (created) human being who is “coming into the world”? I think it almost certain that the reference is to the light.

John 1:13:

The original Greek text for this verse is all but certain, with some minor/insignificant variants. Here is the reading of virtually all Greek manuscripts (and most other textual witnesses as well)—for context, I include verse 12 as well:

12o%soi de e&labon au)to/n, e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai, toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to o&noma au)tou=, 13oi† ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ sarko$ ou)de e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan.

12But as (many) as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood, not (even) out of (the) will of flesh, not (even) out of (the) will of man, but out of God, have come to be (born).

There is, however, one major (singular or nearly-singular) variant which must be noted. In one Old Latin manuscript (b), and in several of the early Latin Church Fathers, the singular (instead of the plural) is read in verse 13—the underlying Greek would be o^$ ou)k…e)gennh/qh, instead of oi^ ou)k…e)gennh/qhsan—i.e., “the (one) who…has come to be (born)”. A few Syriac manuscripts also read the verb in the singular. Interestingly, this variant is attested already by the middle of the 2nd century (in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles, §3); a bit later it is cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; V.1.3) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, §19, 24) as an important proof-text in support of the (real) Virgin Birth of Jesus. Tertullian, especially, claims that the heretics have tampered with the passage, changing the singular to the plural—in his view, the singular (natus est) is the correct reading, which he cites both against the Ebionites and the Valentinians. In the transmission of the New Testament, corruption usually occurs toward a “higher” or more distinct Christological emphasis (adding or modifying details), and rarely in the opposite direction. In addition to the usefulness of this particular variant in Christological disputes, there may also have been some unease with the plural construction. Tertullian seems to reflect this (§19) when he claims that the Valentinians have taken what properly should be said of Christ and appropriated it to themselves. The Latin West was never especially comfortable with the doctrine of theosis—the deification of the believer, in Christ, as the end result of salvation and sanctification; John 1:13 has been one of the clearest passages in relation to this teaching.

John 1:18:

Here we have one of the most significant, disputed textual variants in the entire New Testament. The principal variant is as follows:

18Qeon ou)dei$ e(w/raken pw/pote:
No one has seen God (at) any time;”
[o(] monogenh$ qeo$            o( monogenh$ ui(o$
“[the] only God,”              “the only Son,”
o( w*n ei)$ ton ko/lpon tou= patro$ e)kei=no$ e)chgh/sato.
“the (one) being in(to) the bosom of the Father, that one has brought (him) out”

Note: The word monogenh$ is difficult to translate literally in English; typically it has been rendered “only-born/begotten”; however, in common Greek parlance, it is much like saying “one of a kind”, “unique”; perhaps a fair literal rendering would be “only one (of its) kind”. Also, while e)chge/omai is translated literally as “lead/bring out”, it would more commonly be rendered “declare, report, expound, narrate, reveal”—i.e., “has declared (him)”, or “has revealed (him)”.

I cited the textual evidence briefly in an earlier article. I include the diagram again here below:

MS_diagram1Clearly, o( monogenh$ ui(o$ is the majority reading, supported by an impressive range of early and diverse witnesses; this normally would be sufficient to confirm it as the original text. On the other hand, the “earliest and best” (Alexandrian) Greek MSS, along with other strong/diverse witnesses, read monogenh$ qeo$ (with or without the definite article). A few manuscripts also read simply o( monogenh$.

The reading with qeo$ (“God”) would seem to be the more difficult, and, on the principle of difficilior lectio potior, perhaps is to be preferred. Scribes may have altered it to the more familiar ui(o$ (“Son”). On the other hand, there was a marked tendency for scribes, consciously or unconsciously, to modify the text in favor of a stronger Christological emphasis. There can be no doubt that the reading [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ became a key text in support of the Deity of Christ. Even today, many theological and apologetic writings cite John 1:18 for this purpose—however, to do so, without any indication of the divided textual evidence, is really quite irresponsible.

What exactly is the meaning of [o(] monogenh$ qeo$? One ought to be cautious about reading later credal formulations (whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or from the Westminster standards) back into the first-century text. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified (or identifies himself) with the Father, but perhaps never so explicitly as this variant would indicate (especially if the definite article is original). The wording of John 1:1 (kai qeo$ h@n o( lo/go$, “and the Logos was God”) is most precise (and, one might almostg say, cautious)—note the anarthrous form (without the definite article), and the specific word order.

In terms of transcriptional probability, the evidence is likewise uncertain, though, I think, slightly in favor of ui(o$ as the original reading. In the early (Alexandrian) scribal tradition, both readings would be represented by nomina sacra (“sacred names”)—a convention of using marked abbreviations to represent various names and titles of God (and Christ). In these MSS, it is easy to see how ui(o$ (+u+s) and qeo$ (+q+s) might be confused. +u+s would have been much less common as a sacred name, and more likely to have been (accidentally?) modified to +q+s.

But was the change, in whichever direction it occurred, accidental or was it intentional? We may never know for sure. Likewise, we may never be absolutely certain which is the original reading—although this must always be a fundamental goal of Biblical Criticism: to determine, as far as possible, the original text. However, in this instance, I would recommend that believers study and meditate on this wondrous passage with both variant readings in mind.