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Thursday, May 26, 2011

“direct translation” μονογενης θεος, part 3

John 1:18  θεον ουδεις εωρακεν πωποτε· ⸂μονογενης θεος⸃ ο ων εις τον κολπον του πατρος εκεινος εξηγησατο. SBLGNT,   Michael W. Holmes ed.

Looking at how μονογενης θεος in John 1:18 was translated in the last century[1], one option that does not appear is “only child …”.  The word μονογενης is used by Luke for a daughter Luke 8:41 and a son Luke 9:38.

Luke 8:41 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἦλθεν ἀνὴρ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰάϊρος καὶ οὗτος ἄρχων τῆς συναγωγῆς ὑπῆρχεν, καὶ πεσὼν παρὰ τοὺς πόδας [τοῦ] Ἰησοῦ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ,  42 ὅτι θυγάτηρ μονογενὴς ἦν αὐτῷ ὡς ἐτῶν δώδεκα καὶ αὐτὴ ἀπέθνῃσκεν.

Luke 9:38 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἀνὴρ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου ἐβόησεν λέγων· διδάσκαλε, δέομαί σου ἐπιβλέψαι ἐπὶ τὸν υἱόν μου, ὅτι μονογενής μοί ἐστιν,

There are good reasons for reading μονογενής as “only son” even when υἱός is not present.  The word μονογενής can be used as a stimulus to trigger the inference “only son” in a co-text where the referent is obviously male. In Heb. 11:17 where μονογενῆ is used in reference to Isaac.

Heb. 11:17 Πίστει προσενήνοχεν Ἀβραὰμ τὸν Ἰσαὰκ πειραζόμενος καὶ τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν, ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος, 

In light of this we might argue that μονογενὴς in Jn 1:18 should be rendered “only son.” While “only child” is contemporary English, it does not trigger the same inferential associations as μονογενὴς in Jn 1:18. If we accept “only son” as a direct translation, what are we going to do with θεος? The NAB gives a formal correspondence rendering of μονογενης θεος:

John 1:18 … The only Son, God, ...

The avoidance of paraphrase does not in an of itself constitute direct translation. Someone who was working within an ostensive-inferential framework might arrive at the same place but it is how you get there, not where you end up, that matters.[2]

The code model of communication (CMC) can produce results all across the spectrum which is illustrated by the history of the NIV: “God the only Son” NIV1973, 1978, “God the One and Only” NIV1984[3] and “the one and only Son, who is himself God” NIV2011[4]. One might argue that “God the only Son” is an acceptable direct translation. By way of contrast, the NIV2011 is very far into E. A. Nida territory; what we have here is an interpretive comment on the text presented as a translation. However, the rendering  “God the only Son” was not the result of embracing an ostensive-inferential framework, quite the contrary. It was more likely a residual conservatism inherited from the formal correspondence english bible tradition. In regard to the rendering of μονογενης θεος[5] the timeline shows the NIV committee moving away from that tradition and becoming more aligned with the E. A. Nida school of translation.  

[1] M. J. Harris,  “Jesus as God,” pp. 88-92.

[2] “How you get there depends on where you are at.”  Zabriskie Point

[3] My source for the NIV 1973,1979,1984 is M. J. Harris,  “Jesus as God,” pp. 89-90

[4] My source for the NIV2011 is

[5] This is analysis of one minute text. I am not making general statements about where the NIV committee was headed.


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