John 3:16, Only-Begotten & Translational Peculiarities

I have always been appreciative of people who are passionate for the Lord and who live a life of reverence towards Him. These folks are generally tremendously zealous about the gospel and living a life in holiness. They are an example to us all and should be respected. One problem that surfaces at times however is when such individuals step out of their area of study and attempt to edify in an area they really haven’t studied.  Recently such a gentleman spoke at my church on John 3:16 and how the modern translations including the NIV & ESV omitted a very important word “begotten”.  He was implying that the KJV which he hailed as superior has the correct reading while these two translations are in error in omitting this term. Let us compare the translations:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

What is quite apparent is that there is a difference between the more modern translations and the KJV in that there seems to be missing the term “begotten”. The question is was this brother justified in condemning these other two translations based upon the translation of this text? It was said that it was a travesty that this word was taken out and that we needed to get back to trusting the Ol’ KJV because of this. He argued that the term begotten was significantly important. He stated that the term refers to both a natural conception and a supernatural conception. His argument was that because it wasn’t there in these two modern translations that, in essence, they were denying the deity of Christ and the virgin birth.

The problem is that “begotten” here is not speaking of Christ’s birth at all but His uniqueness in relation with the Father. The reason the giving of the Son is something extraordinarily precious is due to the fact that He alone is the Son and hence God’s heir. Carson writes

The word μονογενης (monogenes) is often thought to spring from μονος(monos, only) plus γενναω (gennao, to beget); and hence its meaning is “only begotten.” Even at the etymological level, the γεν (gen)-root is tricky: μονογενης (monogenes) could as easily spring from μονος (monos,only) plus γενος(genos, kind or race) to mean “only one of its kind,” “unique”, or the like. (Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson, Page 30)

The term is not referring here to Christ’s birth. We read in Hebrews 11:17 that Abraham gave his only begotten but Isaac wasn’t his only begotten but he was the heir of the promise. The terms “firstborn” and “only-begotten” are very similar in their meaning when considered in their respective usage throughout the Old & New Testament. In John 3:16, John is saying that God gave His unique and ultimately the most important person in relation to the Father for sinners like us. Again, it has nothing to do with the way He came into being as a man. What is most dangerous is that  it was almost as if he believed that Christ became the Son while I believe in the eternal Sonship of Christ.  These two translations didn’t do any harm to what John was trying to present in this passage. They paraphrase probably a little more than I would like and personally I prefer having “only-begotten’ in the text however we cannot say they are corrupt or unreliable because of their omitting the term “begotten”.

The really alarming thing for me is that there are people in our church that rarely pick up their bibles to read and we are trying to encourage them to do so. One must wonder by hearing that the translations they are using are corrupt, if they will be motivated to do so?


One thought on “John 3:16, Only-Begotten & Translational Peculiarities

  1. Like you I prefer having “only begotten” in the text but would not discredit the translations that omit it. The question I would ask is does “begotten” in Psalm2:7 have the same meaning as John 3:16? If so, I wonder what the reasoning was to change the wording in John3:16

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