The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (5): the 1st to 3rd century CE

Part 5 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, and 4)

1st to 3rd CE usages

Rather than turn directly to John, which is really the interpretative crux, we turn now to consider a range of usages, primarily non-Christian, across the first three centuries CE. Our focus here is on seeing that the patterns of usage we have already encountered, continue to be reflected in most authors. Importantly non-theological usages continued to abound, and did not dramatically shift in meaning during this period. I have excluded here, the references to μονογενής found in the longer recension of Ignatius, 15 in total, as more likely dated to the 4th century). Also, the 9 references in pseudo-Clement texts.


In Apion’s Fragmenta de glossis Homericis, μονογενής is included as a part of a definition for the word τηλύγετος.

τηλύγετος· ὁ μονογενής (Ι 143). καὶ ὁ (15) μετὰ θηλυκῶν μόνος ἄρρην. καὶ ὁ ἤδη προηκούσῃ τῇ ἡλικίᾳ τεκνωθείς (Ε 153).[1]

“Telugetos”: the only child. Also, an only son born after girls. Also, one born to a woman already advanced in age.

Clement’s usage (1 Cl 25.2.1) in reference to the phoenix is sometimes taken as evidence for the understanding of ‘unique’, but a closer reading is warranted.

(2) Ὄρνεον γάρ ἐστιν, ὃ προσονομάζεται φοίνιξ· τοῦτο μονογενὲς ὑπάρχον ζῇ ἔτη πεντακόσια, γενόμενόν τε ἤδη πρὸς ἀπόλυσιν τοῦ ἀποθανεῖν αὐτὸ σηκὸν ἑαυτῷ ποιεῖ ἐκ λιβάνου καὶ σμύρνης καὶ τῶν λοιπῶν ἀρωμάτων, εἰς ὃν πληρωθέντος τοῦ χρόνου εἰσέρχεται καὶ τελευτᾷ.[2]

For there is a bird, named the Phoenix. This [bird] being the only one, lives 500 years, and when it approaches its demise, makes for itself a tomb from frankincense and myrrh, and the other spices, and when the time is fulfilled it enters this tomb and dies.

Granted, it’s not as clear in the case of Clement whether one should take μονογενής as (i) unique as there only being one, or (ii) sole in absence of siblings. This is because they amount to the same thing in this case – there is only one phoenix, and it lacks siblings. It does not quite match to the other biological/classificatory uses, as in Theophrastes, because Clement’s argument is not that there is one ‘species’ of Phoenix, with multiple specimens, but rather a unique species with a single specimen. There are no other phoenixes. That said, a generic sense of ‘unique’ doesn’t do us enough service – unique in what respect remains the right question to ask.

There are eight references in Plutarch, writing in the second half of the first century CE. These include Lycurgus 31.4.6

υἱὸν δὲ λέγεται μονογενῆ καταλιπεῖν Ἀντίωρον·[3]

It is also said that he left behind an only son, Antiorus.

This is from the end of Plutarch’s Lycurgus, dealing with the death of Lycurgus and the end-matter. Here, again, the pair υἱὸν … μονογενή indicates a sole son with no siblings.

De E apud Delphos

πέντε τοὺς πάντας ὄντας καὶ μὴ πλείονας. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κἂν εἷς οὗτος ᾖ μονογενής, ὡς οἴεται καὶ Ἀριστοτέλης[4]

But although this one [cosmos] were unique, as Aristotle thinks…

In this text concerned with the investigation of the inscription of Ε or ΕΙ at Delphi, Plutarch includes this use of μονογενής which fits our philosophical category.

We find instances also in De Defectu Oraculorum, from DDO 423a12 and DDO 423c12, both of which are philosophical usages, and anaphoric to Plato’s Timaeus 31b and 92c.[5] Likewise De Fraterne Amore, 480e8, referring back to (and critiquing) Hesiod’s Works and Days 376.[6] A more interesting occurrence comes in De facie in orbe lunae 28:

ὁ μὲν ἐκ τριῶν δύο ποιεῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὁ δ’ ἓν
ἐκ δυοῖν, καὶ ὁ μέν ἐστιν ἐν τῇ <γῇ> τῆς Δήμητρος, …
ἐν αὐτῇ τελεῖν καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς Ἀθηναῖοι Δημητρείους
ὠνόμαζον τὸ παλαιόν· <ὁ> δ’ ἐν τῇ σελήνῃ τῆς Φερσε-
φόνης· καὶ σύνοικός ἐστι τῆς μὲν χθόνιος ὁ Ἑρμῆς τῆς    (5)
δ’ οὐράνιος. λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν
ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ
χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μο-
νογενὴς κέκληται· μόνον γὰρ γίνεται τὸ βέλτιστον τοῦ
ἀνθρώπου διακρινόμενον αὐτῆς.[7]

One death renders a human from three things to two, and a second death renders them one thing from two; the former is on Demeter’s earth, and in this “to make an end”.. the Athenians of old called the dead “Demetrians”; the latter is on Persephone’s moon; associated with the former is terrestrial Hermes, with the later celestial Hermes. On earth, Demeter swiftly and violently separated the soul from the body, while there Persephone gently and gradually separates the mind from the soul, and for this reason is called monogenes; for the best part of the human best comes into existence alone (μόνον…γίνεται), separated off by her.

This is an instance of etymologising based on a psychological/philosophical reading of myth. In contrasting Demeter and Persephone, Plutarch’s narrator is arguing for a tripartite division of the human, and Persephone is responsible for separating of the mind of the mind from the soul, and this gives him occasion to use μονογενής.[8] The usage here both plays off the epithet μονογενής as applied to Persephone, but also engages in word play, where the mind coming to exist singly and separately, i.e. without ψυχή or σῶμα, is the reason for calling the mind μονογενές, and so by extension Persephone μονογενής because she is the agent who renders it μόνος.

Flavius Arrianus has a single reference, which indicates a sole daughter. It is substantially the same account as Megasthenes’, discussed above.[9] Apollonius the sophist repeats the Homeric gloss of Apion.[10]

There are also eight instances in the fragments of Philo of Byblos (Herennius Philo), though these involve considerable repetition. They universally involve an account of Phoenician theogony in which Kronos (El) has a μονογενής son, Zeus, (Ἰεούδ, or Ἰεδούδ).[11]

The Compendium Herodiani operis περὶ κλίσεως ὀνομάτων has a grammatical usage.[12]

Another philosophical usage occurs in Aëtius’ De placitis reliquiae, in giving a quotation on Parminides opinion about the universe.[13]

The Greek apocalypse of Esdras, variously dated, refers to the μονογενῆν … υἱόν. [14] Regardless of precise dating, it can be subsumed under derivative Christian usage.

In Galen we find another usage that is probably to be subscribed under ‘natural scientific’. It refers to each of the internal organs being ‘one of a kind’ in relation to the others, not sharing the same function or relation.[15]

There are three occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus’ De adverbiis, and 244 in the works of Aelius Herodianus (including Ps-Herodianus). Beyond that all future references are well past the New Testament corpus, and while a few non-Christian usages are found, they are all along the lines we have previously established here.



[1] A. Ludwich, “Über die homerischen Glossen Apions,” Philologus 74 (1917) 209-247; 75 (1919) 95-103
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Apion is dated to early 1st century CE.

[2] A. Jaubert, Clément de Rome. Épître aux Corinthiens [Sources chrétiennes 167. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1971]: 98-204.
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[3] B. Perrin, Plutarch’s lives, vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914 (repr. 1967): 204-302.
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[4] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 1-24.
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[5] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 59-122.

[6] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 221-254.
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[7] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 5.3, 2nd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1960: 31-89.
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[8] Cherniss and Helmbold claim that this is an epithet for both Hecate and Persephone. Their references to Hesiod and Apollonius of Rhodes are both to Hecate. Orphic Hymn 28 (to Persephone) does indeed refer to her as a μονογενής. Though it is unclear on what basis, except that Persephone appears to be the only offspring of Zeus and Demeter together. They also suggest that the -γενής has a causative, not a passive sense, which would be remarkable.

[9] Flavius Arrianus, Historia Indica 8.6.6. Writing in the 2nd century.

[10] Apollonios, Lexicon Homericum 152.18.

[11] Herrenius Philo Fragmenta 3c 780 F 2 164; 3c 790 F 3b 11-12 as found in F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) #790, Leiden: Brill, 1923-1958 (repr. 1954-1969): 3C:803-824.

2 219; 4 12 (x2), 5 23-24. as found in K. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 3, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 563-576.


[13] H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci, Berlin: Reimer, 1879 (repr. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965): 284, line 15. Retrieved from:

[14] C. Tischendorf, Apocalypses apocryphae, Leipzig: Mendelssohn, 1866: 31, line 22.
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[15] P.H. De Lacy, Galen. On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato [Corpus medicorum Graecorum vol., pts. 1-2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1978]: 1:65-358; 2:360-608.  Book 6, chapter 8, section 31, line 6   investigate exact location and look at how to cite this
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