The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (1)

(This is the first in a series of posts in which I will extensively review the word μονογενής in Greek literature up to the 1st century CE, in the context of debates about its meaning in the Gospel of John, as well as Patristic usage of the term in the 4th century. A finalised version of this paper will appear in a citable and stable format at the conclusion of our series)


Since the decision to translate μονογενής in John 3:16 with ‘only Son’ in the Revised Standard Version of 1952, and Dale Moody’s defence of that translation in 1953, it has been the received wisdom that μονογενής means ‘single of its kind, only’ and not ‘only-begotten.’[1] This paper argues that the shift to the meaning ‘unique’ is itself based on a linguistic fallacy, and in some cases a misreading of earlier scholarship, while also contending that ‘only-begotten’ is a similarly misguided translation choice. In contrast, a review of the evidence from Greek literature up to the 1st century CE strongly supports the claim that μονογενής indicates or denotes (when referring to persons) a child who lacks siblings.

Previous scholarship

Moody pointed to the tradition of scholarship in Thayer, Kattenbusch, Schmidt, Moulton and Milligan, and Buechsel. A consideration of that scholarship is less supportive than Moody suggests. Thayer rightly begins his entry with ‘used of only sons or daughters (viewed in relation to their parents)’[2] and even applies this to John 3:16, 18; 1:18, and then writes of 1:14, ‘used of Christ, denotes the only son of God or one who in the sense in which he himself is the son of God has no brethren.’[3] Thayer, as we will see, is quite correct when read at length, but not when his entry is reduced to its initial gloss, ‘single of its kind, only’. Kattenbusch is primarily of value in following Schmidt in recognising that the -γενής component derives from γίγνεσθαι but that the latter term has generally lost its ‘earlier sexual sense’.[4] But this does not solve the case in any event, since it is a combination of etymological and diachronic arguments that fails to settle the word’s meaning itself. Moulton and Milligan assert the primary meaning of ‘one of a kind, only, unique’ by rejecting ‘only-begotten’ on the basis that the latter would have to be μονογέννητος.[5] Their conclusion seems presumptuous in dictating that a Greek speaker ought to have used a hypothetical word they have derived on conjectural grounds.[6] Perhaps most useful of the older works is Friedrich Büchsel’s. He usefully compares μονογενής with other -γενής compounds, and notes that generally when a noun occurs as a prefix it indicates source, but when an adverb does it indicates ‘the nature of derivation’. It is worth quoting him at length:

The μονο- 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 μόνος, 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.[7]

Büchsel does give the meaning ‘only-begotten’, but only in the sense previously indicated – lacking siblings. Indeed he goes on to apply that same phrase, ‘only-begotten’ to the non-Johannine NT usages, suggesting that Büchsel treats ‘only-begotten’ as ‘siblingless’, which is arguably not the broader understanding of the former English phrase.

Roberts next took up the discussion in 1973, focused again on translation of John 3:16 and ‘only begotten’ or ‘only’.[8] His etymological discussion follows Moulton and Milligan in asserting that monogennetos would have to be the form to mean ‘only begotten’, and more generally insisting that because γένος lies behind the -γενής morpheme, it cannot be connected to γεννᾶν. This argument, and the corresponding argument that γίγνεσθαι has lost generational or sexual connotations by the 1st century, suggests that John coined the word ab initio and ἀφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ in the first century, expecting readers to derive their understanding from the compound, when the word has a long, if not frequent, usage history.[9] Both Roberts, and Moody, refer to Warden’s (unfortunately) unpublished dissertation, as supporting ‘basically uniqueness of being, rather than any remarkableness of manner of coming into being, or yet uniqueness resulting from any manner coming into being.’[10] The problem with this argument is two-fold. Firstly, it continues to suggest that a contextless etymological argument supplies the meaning of -γενής from γένος and contemporaneous usage of γίγνεσθαι, rather than examining contextual and diachronic usages of μονογενής. Secondly, it suggests that μονογενής means ‘unique’ without any content to that uniqueness. To be unique, or one of a kind, refers to some kind of quality or class in which a thing is unique. Μονογενής, as I demonstrate below, refers primarily to the lack of members in the class of ‘sibling’. It is not an empty modifier signifying ‘unique’ to which any number of qualities or classes may be supplied, but a specified modifier in which the class is already transparent – siblings.

Roberts also attempts to make a case based on a ‘third category’ of usage, ‘a son or daughter who was one of two or more children,’ specifically Abraham/Isaac, and Josephus’ reference to Izates.[11] Both of these usages are examined adequately below.

Bulman (1981) sought ‘to defend the traditional translation of the term for the Johannine writings, as also for Hebrews 11:17.’[12] In doing so, he concedes that the meaning ‘only descendant’ is fine for the Lucan references, but that the others place a particular emphasis on ‘the factor of generation’[13] The difficulty remains that his initial argument seems a case of, at least, etymological pleading, that because of the -γένος stem, generation remains in view. I will argue that is true in a broad sense, against ‘unique’, but not in a narrow sense as pertains to some feature of that act of generation. Bulman also reviews the evidence from translation to Latin in the early church.[14] This, arguably, misrepresents some of the issue, since the language of unicus well-suits a siblingless descendant, whereas unigenitus does indeed shift the focus to generation, in a manner that moves away from the Greek term.[15]

Bulman attempts to rescue Heb 11:27 from Moody, who had suggested that it could not mean ‘only begotten’ precisely because Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Bulman acknowledges as much but uses this to contend that it thus denotes the heir. The semantic argument here is muddled precisely because a sole descendant is concomitantly an heir, just as they are dearly beloved. This might represent some element of semantic bleeding, For Bulman, this becomes a theological contention that in John μονογενής refers to the pre-temporal appointment choice and ordination of the Son to the work of the economy. Such a proposal might, one supposes, be granted as the theological significance of the term,[16] but not the meaning of the word. That is, the Son as heir comports with his being μονογενής, but does it define it?

Dahms (1983) [17] short article suggests that even if birth per se is a notion absent from the γεν- stem, generation more broadly conceived may not be.[18] He recognises that the instances where μονογενής refers to non-persons are not persuasive evidence to the contrary.[19] He also reviews the arguments for cases where sole-generation cannot be in view, including Heb 11:17. Dahm’s view rejects the case that these are decisive, as being precisely cases where sole child, with a view to generation, can be upheld. Dahm’s also reviews the considerable evidence that μονογενής used of persons, even prior to Arian debates, ‘was understood to include the idea of generation.’[20] The thorny, indeed intractable, problem here is that, from the argument I make below, a sole, siblingless child, is by the fact of being a child, a generated child. That does not foreground the generation itself though.


Skarsaune’s work focuses on the use in the Nicene creed.[21] While recognising that Alexander and Athanasius use the term to denote ‘the only one who has been born, begotten – as distinct from adoptive sons,’[22] he nonetheless defers to the ‘well-known’ position that μονογενής admits of two meanings, one being ‘the only one of its kind. This seems to be the original meaning of the word – probably also the Johannine meaning.’[23] This with little more justification than Moody. On the other hand, Skarsaune’s advertisement that μονογενής in the Dated creed of 359 is deliberately interpreted as meaning begotten from a single source, is perceptive.[24] It does not, however, change the grounds of the debate.

The most recent debates about the term come from the work of Kevin Giles, and the Charles Lee Irons. Giles has argued for the commonly accepted view of ‘only’, and ‘unique’ as the meaning of μονογενής in a number of contexts, and specifically made the argument that the Greek church fathers understood it in this sense, and not with any theological jargon meaning of ‘only-begotten’. Giles holds that the meaning of μονογενής in the New Testament is ‘only’ or ‘unique’, and that the same is true in the church fathers.[25] Giles’ position on the fathers, I argue elsewhere, misreads the 4th century fathers, just as Irons does. Giles correctly recognises that μονογενής is not necessarily their basis for a doctrine of eternal generation, but his commitment to a uniqueness reading of the term, misses the way it signifies ‘siblingless’, and the way this comports with the doctrine of eternal generation that they in fact articulate.[26]

Irons has written the most comprehensive recent treatment of the term in light of debates over eternal generation, and focused on the Johannine usages.[27] Irons asks the elephant in the room question when he says, ‘if modern exegetes no longer find the patristic proof texts for the eternal generation of the Son, where does that leave the doctrine?’[28] This presumes three things: (i) that the meaning of μονογενής is a support for eternal generation, (ii) that the fourth century fathers held the same meaning of the term as 1st century authors, and (iii) that this meaning functions as a basis for the doctrine. I propose that (i) and (ii) are correct, though that meaning is not as transparent as Irons contends; elsewhere I content that (iii) is not strictly true.

In surveying whether μονογενής as ‘only-begotten’ only arose during the Arian disputes, Irons is correct in pointing out that the usage of the term both predates that controversy among eccelesiastical authors, and that the term was not itself sufficient to refute Arian theology, indeed they had no problem with it per se.[29] However, by this point in Irons’ argument, it is apparent that ‘only-begotten’ remains somewhat opaque. It is not a term in contemporary English usage, it appears to have no non-theological-jargon meaning. The primary motivation for keeping ‘begotten’ in ‘only-begotten’ is to insist on the generative relationship. But in what sense is it generative?

In setting aside the etymological argument against ‘only-begotten’, Irons helpfully reviews the considerable abundance of names with -γενής constituents that all indicate birth or origin. This comports with the treatment of Buchsel[30] who states that μονογενής parallels other [adverbial + γενής ] compounds to indicate the manner, not the source, of generation.[31]

What follows in Irons is a lexical argument that surveys four categories of meaning – a ‘root’ meaning with a biological reference, and then three meanings that are seen as non-literal extensions. As will become apparent, these four categories are correct, though I am less convinced that three of them should be treated as ‘non-literal extensions’ of the first.

We will return to Irons’ argument at the end of the paper. Having reviewed now all the most pertinent discussions of this term, we turn to the evidence itself. I will consider in a diachronic manner all occurrences of μονογενής in Greek literature up to and including the 1st century CE, demonstrating that the meaning ‘siblingless’ or ‘without siblings’ holds for all occurrences where it refers to a person. In passing, we will also consider the other three categories of usage as they emerge.

[1] Dale Moody, ‘God’s Only Song: The translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version’ JBL 1953, 213.
A long line of scholarship, and New Testament commentaries, refer to Moody as the definitive reference on this point, which is lamentable.

[2] Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. New York: Harper & Brothers., 1889, 417

[3] Thayer, 417.

[4] Ferdinand. Kattenbusch, ‘Only-Begotten’, in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Edited by J. Hastings, J.A. Selbie, J.C. Lambert. 1908, p281.
J.H. Heinrich Schmidt, Synonymik der griech. Sprache ii. p.503. ff.

[5] Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament illustrated from the papyri and other non-literary sources, 1930. 416.

[6] Excepting the one occurrence that TLG returns, from Constantinus Manasses, Monodia in Nicephorum Comnenum, l. 552, from the 12th century. E. Kurtz, “Εὐσταθίου Θεσσαλονίκης καὶ Κωνσταντίνου Μανασσῆ μονῳδίαι περὶ τοῦ θανάτου Νικηφόρου Κομνηνοῦ,” Vizantijskij Vremennik 17 (1910): 302-322.
Retrieved from:

[7] Friedrich Büchsel, “Μονογενής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 738.

[8] R.L. Roberts, ‘The Rendering “Only Begotten” in John 3:16,’ Restoration Quaterly, 1.

[9] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 3-4.

[10] Francis M. Warden, ‘Monogenēs in the Johannine Literature,’ unpublished dissertation, Ph.D Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1938, 19. As cited in Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 5

[11] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 8

[12] James M. Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’Calvin Theological Journal, 16 (1981): 56.

[13] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 56.

[14] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 59-61.

[15] utinam uni(g)natus scriptus esset.

[16] Possible but doubtful.

[17] John V. Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, New Test. Stud. vol. 29 (1983): 222-232.

[18] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 222-3.

[19] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 223.

[20] Dahms, 227.

[21] Oska Skarsaune, ‘A Neglected Detail in the Creed of Nicaea (325),’ Vigiliae Christianiae 41 (1987): 34-54.

[22] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 43.

[23] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 44.

[24] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 45-6. This has import for Basil’s refutation of Eunomius on the grounds that this subverts the word’s ordinary usage.

[25] See Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son IVP Academic, 2012. Also Kevin Giles, ‘Kevin Giles, Grudem, Ware and Eternal Generation’, ; also the series of comments on posts by Charles Lee Irons (parts 1-5, dated 30/12/2016, 31/12/2016, 1/1/2017). Also, Giles ‘The Nicene and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity.’ ETS conference, 15th Nov 2016:


[26] A full treatment of this topic is beyond our scope here, but we nonetheless treat two significant fourth century passages below.

[27] Charles Lee Irons, “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation. Edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

[28] Irons, 98-99.

[29] Irons, 102-3.

[30] Büchsel, 738.

[31] And indeed, this pertains to the Arian debates. Arians, broadly considered, are happy with the term μονογενής provided it means ‘born of one’. This reading of the term is rejected by their opponents.