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The Christadelphian | July 2009

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Fellowship in the Gospel: 11 – Elementary principles
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “We would see Jesus” | Geoff Henstock
  • Tragedy: the Master’s perspective | Islwyn T. Rees
  • The Letter to the Philippians 7 – “The sacrifice and service of your faith” (Philippians 2:17-30) | Mark Allfree
  • In a trance | Tom McCarthy
  • Three brethren | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • The Wave Sheaf Offering | Paul M. Wade
  • Acts of the Apostles 28 – Acts 26:1-23 – Paul answers before Agrippa | Paul Cresswell
  • Pause and ponder 30 – “It is finished” | Stephen Whitehouse
  • The cleansing of the temple | Dudley Fifield
  • The problem of John 1:18 | Michael Ashton
  • Signs of the times Crisis in Iran
  • Israel and their land West Bank settlements
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

The problem of John 1:18

THE choice of Bible Version is never easy. For many years there was no choice: the King James (Authorised) Version therefore became well known and well loved, even though with passing years some of its vocabulary grew archaic and a few words changed their meanings quite substantially. But during the twentieth century there was a flurry of new translations, all with the objective of providing a faithful representation of the original languages. Yet out of the bewildering choice that is now available, none stands out clearly. All have some benefits, but all also have drawbacks.

What is wanted above all is faithfulness to God’s word, and this depends completely on ensuring first of all that the text being translated is faithful to the original. Because there is no original text, translators have to work from copies (and from copies of copies). Only a very few scholars have the expertise to assess the best texts to use, though they obviously pay close attention to the oldest version available, and almost all Bible readers have to rely on the scholars’ knowledge and skill. In the main, they have served Bible readers well, with very few passages arousing deep suspicion. 1 John 5:7 in the KJV is one of these.

Scholars’ bias

But this example indicates a potentially serious problem. It is a passage that can be used to support the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not taught elsewhere in the Bible. There is every possibility that it was included, despite the lack of extensive manuscript support, because it upholds that false teaching. And if it was, have other decisions been taken about the texts with a similar objective in mind?

Many modern translations, for example, have a very different translation of John 1:18 from the wording that appears in the King James Version. Here is a selection, starting with KJV:

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

“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (RSV)

“No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.” (New Jerusalem Bible)

“No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” (NASB)

“No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (NIV)

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (ESV)

Of these six translations, the first three refer to Jesus as “the only Son” or “the only begotten Son”; while the last three suggest that Jesus is “the only begotten God”, “God, the One and Only”, or “the only God”. How can there possibly be such radical differences?

The answer lies in the text used by the different translators. The first three generally follow what is known as the Received Text (first compiled in the sixteenth century from a comparatively small number of ancient manuscripts); the others are based on the Westcott and Hort text (first published in the nineteenth century after the discovery and study of many more ancient manuscripts). In the Received Text, John 1:18 has the words ho monogenes huios; the Westcott and Hort text has (ho) [1] monogenes theos. The difference really turns on only one word. But the implications are very significant indeed. How is it possible to know which Greek text is more reliable?

The most ancient manuscripts available for scholars to examine date from the third and fourth centuries AD: immediately following a period when views about the relationship between Christ and God were in considerable flux. Some Christians believed that Christ was both a man and God; others said he was a man but not God; others claimed he was God and not man; others insisted that he was a man who had been inhabited temporarily by God. Each of these views had its supporters and its critics, and the arguments spilled over into the literature of the times. The different theologies were often associated with particular geographical areas, mainly through the support offered for one view or another by the prominent church leaders in those areas.

These geographical considerations are important in relation to the translation of John 1:18. The text that leads to the translation, “the one and only God” is found firmly in the Alexandrian tradition – in manuscripts produced in that area dating from the third and fourth centuries, and also in other literature arising in the locality and commenting on the verse. The early date of the manuscripts and the external support for the text would normally be sufficient to ensure its widespread acceptance. Indeed, as can be seen from the available translations, most modern translations are based on it.

However, outside the Alexandrian tradition the wording ho monogenes theos is scarcely found at all. Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine texts invariably have ho monogenes huios, even though they are generally not as ancient as the Alexandrian texts. There are also some Alexandrian texts, generally regarded as secondary to the ones normally used, which support the translation “only begotten Son”. As one commentator has written, “This is not simply a case of one reading supported by the earliest and best manuscripts and another supported by late and inferior ones, but of one reading found almost exclusively in the Alexandrian tradition and another found sporadically there and virtually everywhere else.” [2]

Further support for the translation, “only begotten Son” can be found in the writings of men known as ‘the early church fathers’, such as Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertullian, who wrote before the earliest surviving New Testament manuscripts were produced. When they refer to John 1:18, they consistently quote ho monogenes huios.

A problem of logic

The problem is not resolved just by carefully considering the range of ancient manuscripts available, or by accepting the testimony of the church fathers. The translation “the only begotten God” contains logical difficulties. As it stands it does not really make sense. Jesus can be “the one and only God” only if there is no other God. But the rest of the verse goes on to assert that this “unique God” has made known another God, the Father. Theologians get round this difficulty by claiming that ho monogenes theos refers to “the unique Son who is God”. But the word monogenes does not support this. In Greek literature outside the New Testament, it means “one of a kind” or “unique”. In the New Testament monogenes is usually associated with huios, and is translated as “the unique (or only begotten)” Son. On its own therefore monogenes does not mean “the unique Son”, and translators have to explain how the unique (or one and only) God can make known another God; for if there is one, and only one, God, there cannot be another!

What is revealed by examining how the ancient manuscripts were selected for the Greek text of John 1:18, is a distinct preference for ones that lend support to the doctrine of the Trinity. This shows how carefully we should look at passages used by Trinitarians, and wherever possible select translations that are as free as possible from such bias.

Michael Ashton

[1] Later manuscripts that follow the theos tradition in John 1:18 omit the definite article (ho). In these versions, it is alleged that Christ is “uniquely God”, but less explicitly that “the one and only God”.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.


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