HOUSMAIL HM#121 -- THE ONLY BEGOTTEN - "SON"? OR "GOD"? - John 1:18                                4 May 2005

The King James version of the Bible renders John 1:18 as:

"No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son , which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

The vast majority of the other English translations agree that this verse is saying that Jesus is God's SON.

However, a number of modern translations which do retain "son" as the translation, also add a marginal note which says that some ancient authorities read "god" instead of "son".  This is a reference to several Greek manuscripts which have the Greek word "theos" (god) instead of "huios" (son).

The NASB goes even further. It changes the word "Son" to "God" so that the verse reads "the only begotten God". And it adds a marginal note which says, "some later MSS read 'Son'".

The NIV doesn't go quite that far. My 1978 edition has "God the only [Son]", with marginal notes "Or but God the only begotten" and "Some manuscripts but the only son (or but the only begotten son)"

In the 1984 edition of the NIV, that has been changed to "God the one and only", with marginal notes "Or the Only Begotten" and "Some manuscripts but the only (or only begotten) Son"

Many Trinitarians like to quote the NASB, and the marginal notes from the other versions,  as "proof" of the "deity" of Jesus. However other Trinitarians see theological problems with an "only begotten God", and reject the NASB and NIV readings as a corruption of the text.

Where does the truth lie? Is this alternative reading authentic? What do the Greek Manuscripts really say?

The truth is that the marginal notes in the modern translations are quite misleading!

* They fail to tell us that the vast majority of the some 5000 NT Greek manuscripts
    which we have, all read "son"! Only a very small number read "God"!
* They fail to tell us about the inadequacies of those earlier MSS which  include "god"
    instead of "son"!
* They fail to tell us that there are ancient translations of the Scriptures into other
   languages, which must have been made from very early Greek Texts,  which
   support the authenticity of "son".
* They fail to tell us that there are early Church writings, which support the
   traditional reading by quoting from John 1:18, using "son" instead of "god".
Which Manuscripts Do Contain the  Word "God"?

After a fairly intensive Internet search, I was able to find only four Greek manuscripts, dating back to the 2nd and 4th centuries, which were definitely stated to include the alternative reading "God", in John 1:28. Some sources indicated that there could be a few more. However the total number can be no more than a VERY TINY fraction of the more than 5000 NT Greek Texts which have been found. The overwhelming majority of these have the traditional reading "Son".

These four manuscripts all belong to a group which scholars call theMinority Texts. This group is also called "Alexandrian" or "Egyptian", because of its origin in Egypt. They are labelled "minority" because they represent only about 5% of the more than 5000 NT Greek texts we have. Despite this rather alarming statistic, most of the English Bibles produced since the late 19th century English Revised Version, have been based on a composite text which gives preference to the minority Group.

The other main group of texts is often called "Byzantine", because of its wide use in the Eastern Church. It is found in the vast majority of Greek New Testament manuscripts. The text used to translate the 1611  King James version was a composite made from several manuscripts in this family. And of course this Greek text has "son".

Problems With These Manuscripts

There are some major questions about the reliability of these Minority Text manuscripts. If you do a little research for yourself,  you can easily find many highly respected and credible scholars who are convinced that they are flawed and unreliable, in places where they differ from the traditional readings found in Byzantine texts.

These manuscripts contain numerous "corrections", and amendments, some of them made centuries after the original was written. Large sections have been overwritten by later hands. There are many original scribal errors, omissions and additions. Nor are they identical. There are said to be literally thousands of places where they differ, some minor, some much more significant.

It all adds up to more than enough evidence to create grave doubts about the reliability of any conclusion which favors their alternative reading of "God" instead of "Son" in John 1:18.

It is noteworthy that, apart from the NASB, translators of other modern English Bibles have decided that the word "son" from the Byzantine texts, is more likely to be correct. Because of this they have retained it in their main text, and relegated the reading "god" to a marginal note, thus indicating that they think it is less likely to be authentic.

Of course none of the Majority Texts are nearly as old as those very few Minority texts which contain the alternative reading. However we must never make the mistake of thinking that mere age guarantees better reliability. That is quite illogical!

Older Versions in Other Languages

The Greek NT texts are not our only witnesses. There are reported to be quite a few very ancient translations of the NT into other languages, which use the word "son". Scholars tell us that these translations have their origins in  Byzantine type texts, similar to that which has survived to our own time. One that I have been able to verify is Jerome's Latin Vulgate.

Earlier Writings by the "Church Fathers"

There are early Church writings by men who quoted from John 1:18, using "son". These writings date back as far as the late 2nd century, and confirm for us that this reading existed and was in use at that time.

Scholars tell us that they were most likely quoting from Byzantine type texts, similar to those which which we still have.

The earliest I have found and verified so far, is from the late second century writer Irenaeus.  In his "Against Heresies", Book III, XI, 6, he quotes from John 1:18 using "son".

What Did John Mean To Say?

Finally we have the witness of John himself.

In John 20:31, we are told that John's reason for writing, is to enable readers to  believe that:

"Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."

It cannot be possible that John would contradict  himself elsewhere in the same Gospel by saying that Jesus is actually "God" rather than the "Son of God"! That would defeat the purpose for which he wrote.


From all of this I conclude that the KJV translation has got it right!

John did NOT say that Jesus is "the only begotten God"

He wrote that Jesus is "the only begotten Son".

The vast majority of New Testament Greek texts confirm that.