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Friday, February 03, 2012

Son of God, Begotten of God & Islamic readings

If I were an Islamic apologist seeking support for the notion that Christianity teaches a pagan form of divine paternity I might start out with Psalm 2:7.   

I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, “You are my son,
today I have begotten you.

διαγγέλλων τὸ πρόσταγμα κυρίου
Κύριος εἶπεν πρός με Υἱός μου εἶ σύ,
ἐγὼ σήμερον γεγέννηκά σε·
 אספרה אל חק יהוה
אמר אלי בני אתה אני
היום ילדתיך
J. A. Fitzmyer in his discussion of 4q246, the Aramaic “son of god” fragment, refers to ילדתיך "begotten" in Psa 2:7 as a “graphic expression” and goes on to state “Commentators are usually hesitant to assert that this implies a physical divine sonship for the king, such as might be the connotation of similar expressions in the ancient myths of the eastern Mediterranean world.”[1]

From there moving to the New Testament, I might focus on one particular reading of μονογενὴς, i.e., “only begotten” in the Johannine Prolog.

John 1:14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth

John 1:18 Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

John 1:18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
Anyone who reads the NIV or RSV will know that μονογενὴς is not translated only begotten. Tyndale translated it only begotten and hundreds of years later we still see it in ASV, NKJV and NASB (ca. 1969) with footnote noting alternate translation. The second and third editions of the late F. Danker's lexicon[2] , TDNT[3] and EDNT[4] demonstrate  that the jury is still out on how to best render μονογενὴς and only begotten is still one of the contenders.    

The word μονογενής, in reference to an only child, is found with τέκνον and πατρί already in Aeschylus.

μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί
Aeschylus Line 898

This citation from Aeschylus Line 898 μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί is found in a speech by Agamemnon’s treacherous wife who is laying on the irony, nothing should be taken at face value. Obviously Agamemnon is not an only child of his father. A century ago, Herbert W. Smyth, the great classical Greek grammarian translated the passage:

“But now, having born all this, my heart freed from its anxiety, I would hail my husband here as the watchdog of the fold, the savior forestay of the ship, firm-based pillar of the lofty roof, only-begotten son of a father, or land glimpsed by common earth the foot, my King, that has trampled upon Ilium.”

Note that “only-begotten son of a father” is still with us. Smyth obviously hadn’t read B.F. Westcott's commentary on John (1881), which points out that only-begotten is a not the best translation. Keep in mind, we are simulating apologetic argumentation by an Islam foe of Christianity. Assuming that only-begotten is a mistranslation, it should be noted that mistranslations are very common in apologetics. The reading used by an apologist is the one which supports his argument.

Another early use of μονογενὲς is found in Herodotus Book 7.221
 Herodotus 7.221
 Ὁ δὲ ἀποπεμπόμενος αὐτὸς μὲν οὐκ ἀπέλιπε, τὸν δὲ παῖδα συστρατευόμενον, ἐόντα οἱ μουνογενέα, ἀπέπεμψε.

He however when he was bidden to go would not himself depart, but sent away his son who was with him in the army, besides whom he had no other child. G. C. Macaulay, [1890].
The word μονογενὲς is frequently found in a context where fatherhood or parents and children are part of the cognitive frame. The often repeated certain results of modern greek-lexicography, found in bible translation handbooks and the J. P. Louw & E. A. Nida Semantic Domain Dictionary of the NT, where μονογενὲς is defined:
58.52 pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class — ‘unique, only. 
The problem with this definition is that ignores the cognitive frame of family relationships. The samples given in the same entry demonstrate what is lacking in the definition.

58.52  τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ‘he gave his only Son’ Jn 3:16; τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεός ‘God sent his only Son’ 1Jn 4:9; τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος ‘he who had received the promises presented his only son’ or ‘… was ready to offer his only son’ He 11:17. Abraham, of course, did have another son, Ishmael, and later sons by Keturah, but Isaac was a unique son in that he was a son born as the result of certain promises made by God. Accordingly, he could be called a μονογενής son, since he was the only one of his kind.

There is significant disagreement among NT scholars on the precise meaning of μονογενὲς. The ancient hand me down Vulgate-Tyndale-KJV-ASV-NASB tradition of "only begotten" isn't dead by any means. Claims of consensus are always premature, you take long hard look at the secondary literature and you will find real diversity. Our hypothetical Islamic apologist will find cracks large enough for driving in a wedge which is all one needs to build an argument.    
There is no lack of material in the Christian canon for an Islamic apologist who is set on proving the that christianity teaches a pagan form of divine paternity. All these texts are read by orthodox christians in light of the doctrine of the trinity worked out in detail after the canon was complete. If the question is simply one about the language used in an isolated text like Psalm 2:7 or John1:18 then the Islamic apologist will be difficult to refute. 

[1]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, 2000, page 66.

[2] BAGD 1979, p. 527. BDAG 2000, p. 658.

[3] TDNT, IV, 737-741.

[4] EDNT, v.2, 439-440.


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