Büchsel on μονογενής

The following article by Hermann Martin Friedrich Büchsel on the meaning of the word μονογενής is reproduced from vol. 4 of Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Gerhard Kittel, English edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 737-41. I omit all but one of the article's twenty footnotes: no. 14, dealing with the text-critical issue in John 1:18.


A. Usage outside the New Testament.

The word does not occur in Homer but is attested from the time of Hesiod. In compounds like διο-γενής, ευ-γενής, συγ-γενής the -γενής suggests derivation (γενος) rather than birth. Nouns as the first part of the compound give the source, e.g., from Zeus, the earth. Adverbs describe the nature of the derivation, e.g., noble or common. μονογενής is to be explained along the lines of ευγενής rather than διο-γενής. The μον- does not denote the source but the nature of derivation. Hence μονογενής means "of sole descent," i.e., without brothers or sisters. This gives us the sense of only-begotten. The ref. is to the only child of one's parents, primarily in relation to them. μονογενής is stronger than μονος, for it denotes that they have never had more than this child. But the word can also be used more generally without ref. to derivation in the sense of "unique," "unparalleled," "incomparable," though one should not confuse the refs. to class or species and to manner.

The LXX uses μονογενής for יָחִיד, e.g., Ju. 11:34, where it means the only child; cf. also Tob. 3:15; 6:11 (BA), 15 (S); 8:17; Bar. 4:16 vl. This rendering is also found in Ps. 21:20; 34:17, where יְחִידָתִי is par. to נַפְשִׁי and the ref. is to the uniqueness of the soul. The transl. is possible on the basis of the general use of μονογενής for "unique," "unparalleled," "incomparable."

The LXX also renders יָחִיד by αγαπητος, Gn. 22:2, 12, 16; Jer. 6:26; Am. 8:10; Zech. 12:10. Hence the question arises how far μονογενής has the sense of "beloved." Undoubtedly an only child is particularly dear to his parents. One might also say that the ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός of Mk. 1:11; Mt. 3:17; Lk. 3:22 and Mk. 9:7; Mt. 17:5 is materially close to the ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός of Jn., esp. as the Messianic Son of God is unique and without par. as such. But there is a distinction between the ἀγαπητός and μονογενής. It is a mistake to subsume the meaning of the latter under that of the former. μονογενής is not just a predicate of value. If the LXX has different terms for יָחִיד, this is perhaps because different translators were at work. Philo calls the λόγος, not μονογενής but πρωτογονος, Conf. Ling., 146, etc. μονογενής is not a significant word for him. Joseph. has μονογενής in the usual sense of "only born." There is a striking use of μονογενής in Ps.Sol. 18:4 : "Thy chastisement comes upon us (in love) as the first born and the only begotten son." With this may be compared 4 Esr. 6:58 : "But we, thy people, whom thou hast called the first born, the only begotten, the dearest friend, are given up into their hands." After πρωτοτοκος (Ex. 4:22) μονογενής denotes an intensifying. It is most unlikely that the sense here is simply that of ἀγαπητός.

B. The Use in the New Testament.

1. In the NT μονογενής occurs only in Lk., Jn. and Hb., not Mk., Mt. or Pl. It is thus found only in later writings. It means "only-begotten." Thus in Hb. Isaac is the μονογενής of Abraham (11:17), in Lk. the dead man raised up again at Nain is the only son of his mother (7:12), the daughter of Jairus is the only child (8:42), and the demoniac boy is the only son of his father (9:38).

2. Only Jn. uses μονογενής to describe the relation of Jesus to God. Mk. and Mt. have ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός; Pl. uses τὸν ἑαυτοῦ υἱὸν at R. 8:3, τοῦ ἰδίου υἱοῦ at R. 8:32, and πρωτότοκος at R. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18, but not μονογενής. The further step taken by Jn. to describe Jesus corresponds to the fact that believers who as children of God are called υἱοὶ θεοῦ — the same word as is applied to Jesus — in Mt., Pl. etc., are always called τέκνα θεοῦ in Jn., 1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn. 3:1, 2, 10; 5:2, while υἱός is reserved for Jesus. Jn. emphasizes more strongly the distinction between Jesus and believers and the uniqueness of Jesus in His divine sonship. It is not that Jesus is not unique in this sonship for Mt., Pl. etc. also. His Messiahship proves this. But Jn. puts it in an illuminating and easily remembered formula which was taken up into the baptismal confession and which ever since has formed an inalienable part of the creed of the Church. To μονογενής as a designation of Jesus corresponds the fact that God is the πατὴρ ἴδιος of Jesus, Jn. 5:18; for ἴδιος means to be in a special relation to Jesus which excludes the same relation to others.

μονογενής occurs in Jn. 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9. What is meant is plainest in Jn. 3:16 and I Jn. 4:9. Because Jesus is the only Son of God, His sending into the world is the supreme proof of God's love for the world. On the other side, it is only as the only-begotten Son of God that Jesus can mediate life and salvation from perdition. For life is given only in Him, Jn. 5:26. But the fact that He is the only-begotten Son means also that men are obligated to believe in Him, and that they come under judgment, indeed, have done so already, if they withhold faith from Him, 3:18. μονογενής is thus a predicate of majesty. This is true in Jn. 1:18. Here we are to read ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός. (14) As the only-begotten Son Jesus is in the closest intimacy with God. There is no other with whom God can have similar fellowship. He shares everything with this Son. For this reason Jesus can give what no man can give, namely, the fullest possible eye-witness account of God. He knows God, not just from hearsay, but from incomparably close intercourse with Him. In 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9; 1:18 the relation of Jesus is not just compared to that of an only child to its father. It is the relation of the only-begotten to the Father. Similarly in Jn. 1:14: δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, His glory is not just compared with that of an only child; it is described as that of the only-begotten Son. Grammatically both interpretations are justifiable. But the total usage of μονογενής is very emphatically against taking ὡς μονογενοῦς as a mere comparison.

In Jn. 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9 μονογενής denotes more than the uniqueness or incomparability of Jesus. In all these verses He is expressly called the Son, and He is regarded as such in 1:14. In Jn. μονογενής denotes the origin of Jesus. He is μονογενής as the only-begotten.

What Jn. means by ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός in detail can be known in its full import only in the light of the whole of John's proclamation. For ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός is simply a special form of ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ. When Jn. speaks of the Son of God, he has primarily in view the man Jesus Christ, though not exclusively the man, but also the risen and pre-existent Lord. The relation of the pre-existent Lord to God is that of Son to Father. This comes out indisputably in 17:5, 24. Jesus is aware that He was with God, and was loved by Him, and endued with glory, before the foundation of the world. This is personal fellowship with God, divine sonship. It is true that neither In the prologue, nor 8:58, nor c. 17 does Jn. use the term "son" for the pre-existent Lord. But He describes His relation to God as that of a son. To maintain that in Jn. the pre-existent Lord is only the Word, and that the Son is only the historical and risen Lord, is to draw too sharp a line between the pre-existence on the one side and the historical and post-historical life on the other. In Jn. the Lord is always the Son. Because He alone was God's Son before the foundation of the world, because the whole love of the Father is for Him alone, because He alone is one with God, because the title God may be ascribed to Him alone, He is the only-begotten Son of God.

It is not wholly clear whether μονογενής in Jn. denotes also the birth or begetting from God; it probably does, Jn. calls Jesus ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ, 1 Jn. 5:18. Though many will not accept this, he here understands the concept of sonship in terms of begetting. For him to be the Son of God is not just to be the recipient of God's love. It is to be begotten of God. This is true both of believers and also of Jesus. For this reason μονογενής probably includes also begetting by God. To be sure, Jn. does not lift the veil of mystery which lies over the eternal begetting. But this does not entitle us to assume that he had no awareness of it. Johannine preaching and doctrine is designed to awaken faith, 20:30 f., not to give full and systematic knowledge. Hence it does not have to dispel all mysteries.


14. The only readings to call for consideration are (1) ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός and (2) μονογενὴς θεός. (1) is attested by the old Syriac, syc (no sys) syh and the Lat., Hipp. (Contra Noetum [MPG, 10], 5), the Lat. fathers from Tert., the Gk. from the 4th cent. The oldest attestation of (2) is in the Valentinians, Iren. Haer., I, 8, 5, Cl. Al., Exc. Theod., 6, 2, later Cl. Al., Orig. etc. Not very clear is the reading of Iren., who has unigenitus filius in III, 11, 6; IV, 20, 6, and unigenitus deus in IV, 20, 11. Very important in the fact that Hipp. read (1). For this proves that it does not come from the Lat. trans. (1) alone gives a non-artificial sense. υἱός fits best with εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς. (2) can only mean "an only-begotten God"; to render "an only-begotten, one who is God," is an exegetical invention. It can hardly be credited of Jn., who is distinguished by monumental simplicity of expression. An only-begotten God corresponds to the weakening of monotheism in Gnosticism. It derives from this, and came into the Egyptian texts by way of its influence on the theology of Alexandria. The original was preserved in the Western text (cf. also 1:13). On this whole matter cf. the exhaustive discussion of the tradition in Zn. J., 703 ff. and Bultmann J., 55 f., who also supports (1). W. Bauer's preference for (2) corresponds to his attempt to relate John's Gospel as closely as possible to Gnosticism.