© 1996, 2002, 2003, 2011 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.
John 1:18 (KJV) No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
"The only begotten Son"--A Textus Receptus/Majority Text reading much disputed by modern scholarship. Most 20th century versions read similarly to the New American Standard--"the only begotten God" [Gk. "theos," rather than TR's "huios" ("Son")]--although it is notable that the English Revised Version of 1881-5, American Standard Version of 1901, Revised Standard Version of 1946/1971, and New English Bible all retain "Son" and only preserve the opposing reading in the margin (RV/ASV mg.: "Many very ancient authorities read God only begotten").
Furthermore, a sizable number of post-Textus Receptus editors of the Greek NT--Griesbach, Lachmann, Alford, Wordsworth, von Soden, Bover, and even Tischendorf in his influential 8th edition based on Codex Sinaiticus--also read "huios" rather than "theos." Since, as Dean Burgon points out, both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus give "theos", this consensus among such editors in reading "huios" suggests that they considered the position of Traditional Texts supporters like Burgon on this passage--who condemned the "theos" reading as "undeserving of serious attention" (Last Twelve Verses of S. Mark, p. 81)--something to be taken seriously. Indeed, F.H. Scrivener goes so far as to call the theos reading "a term that reverential minds instinctively shrink from" and an "alternative, which one hardly likes to utter with the voice" (Six Lectures on the Text of the New Testament, pp. 154-5)!!
It is interesting, then, that modern scholarship has apparently made up its mind that "huios" is to be soundly rejected in favour of "theos." Edwin Palmer, executive secretary of the NIV translation committee, wrote:
"John 1:18, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, is one of those few clear and decisive texts that declare that Jesus is God. But, without fault of its own, the KJV, following inferior manuscripts, altered what the Holy Spirit said through John . . . . [T]he verse should read: 'No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [Son], who is at the Father's side, has made him known' (NIV)."
(--Quoted from Richard Kevin Barnard, God's Word in Our Language: The Story of the New International Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989, p. 30. Ellipsis and brackets in source (Barnard). I note in passing the insertion of "Son" in brackets, which was not in the NIV when Barnard’s work was published, but is either Palmer's or Barnard's "fudging" of the version's text in an apparent move to make it more palatable and "orthodox.")
A brief sidebar at this point is necessary because of the changing wording of the NIV at this verse:
- In the Eight Translation New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1974), the NIV New Testament has "No man has ever seen God, but God the only [Son], who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (Brackets in source; see illustration below).
- In the complete NIV as published prior to 2011 (retrospectively dubbed “New International Version 1984”), the text reads “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” This was the text in print when Barnard’s book appeared. It can also be found in another edition of Alfred Marshall’s interlinear, this one an Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament originally published in 1986.
- In the 2011 revision of the NIV, the text became “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” This was taken verbatim from the wording in Today’s New International Version (2001/2005), a previous revision of the NIV which—unlike NIV 2011—presented the new edition under a distinct name. TNIV’s presentation differs only in putting the word “Son” in half-brackets, apparently to denote a word "not in the original texts but required by the context" (see "A Word to the Reader" in TNIV); these are dropped in NIV 2011, which as a result accurately represents no known Greek text, as a glance at either the Textus Receptus or a modern NT text such as Westcott and Hort’s amply demonstrates.
Dare I propose that these repeated changes suggest considerable uneasiness on the part of the translators about reading "the only begotten God" here, as their critical text followed even minimally faithfully in this verse would seem to require?
As is to be expected, James White also comes to the defence of the modern reading in this verse (The King James Only Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995, pp. 258-60). Significantly, he introduces "the textual evidence as given by the UBS 4th edition text," yet only gives the portion favourable to the "theos" reading! And, with all due respect to him, his presentation of even this is a bit misleading (i.e., in saying that "We also note that the Syrian, Georgian, and Coptic translations support this rendering"--when in fact three of the five Syrian recensions and one of the two Georgian ones cited in UBS-4 actually support "huios"/"Son"!). Here is just some of the substantial evidence for the KJV's reading from UBS-4, which is omitted by White:
Now while White grudgingly admits in passing that the evidence for "huios" is "very great indeed," he alleges that "It is difficult to see how the reading theos could arise from huios. The terms are simply too far removed from one another in form to account for scribal error based on morphology. However, it is easily understood how theos could give way to huios. . . ." (One assumes that, by his reference to "morphology," White implies that theos could not have arisen as a scribal misreading or mishearing of huios--a fair enough assumption.)
But, despite Dr. White's inability to see any other alternatives, this is not the only way that an original reading of huios could have been changed into theos. Since White goes on to speculate that a scribe recollecting "only-begotten Son" at Jn. 3:16 and 18 could have changed theos into huios, I will offer my own hypotheses as to how the TR's reading may have just as easily been the original, but was altered to theos:
1. Since the word "God" (in the form "theon") appears as the first word in the Greek of the present verse, it is near enough that an early scribe could have retained it in his mind and recopied it here rather than "huios," with the change to "theos" either his own compounding of error or done by a subsequent hand to correct the grammar;
2. Since White is fond of alleging that KJV textual differences reflect scribal "expansions of piety," one could equally well argue that an early scribe may have changed "huios" to "theos"--"from a desire to protect and reverence divine truths," as White says in another context (p. 43). Through misguided zeal, this scribe may have felt that "Son" did not adequately express the full deity of Christ and made the word change to "God" to safeguard the Son's Godhood;
3. This could have been a deliberate corruption of the text by a heretical group, made to teach a plurality of gods in the Godhead rather than the orthodox doctrine of one God in three Persons. As Wilbur Pickering says in a separate context, "It is clear that during the second century, and possibly already in the first, [heretics] produced many copies of N.T. writings incorporating their alterations" (Identity of the NT Text, Rev. ed., Nashville: Nelson, 1980, pp. 113-4).
And there is one further consideration I would like to mention briefly, which has nothing to do with manuscript evidence, but relies on considerations of style. It seems to me more credible that the Apostle John would have written "only begotten Son" than "only begotten God" because he would have wanted it understood clearly at the outset of his writing that Jesus was the Son of God. We have this implied in the first few verses of this gospel, made clearer at verse 14 , but otherwise not clarified until verse 34 of this chapter! This is rather strange in view of the fact that in two of the apostle's other contributions to scripture, the First and Second Epistles of John, we have Jesus clearly expressed as the "Son" within the first three verses (cf. 1 John 1:3, 2 John 1:3). Of course John may have wanted to enhance interest in the opening of this gospel by delaying the statement of Jesus as "Son" and instead introducing Him first, unnamed, as the "Word," as the Agent of Creation, as the Light of the World. But why, here at the crescendo of his introduction, the Apostle would neglect to mention that this was also the "SON" of God, but would instead oddly refer to Him as "the only begotten GOD"--and risk confusing the initial readers of the gospel who needed to be evangelized--is something that is utterly beyond me.
In sum, there is no compelling reason to believe Palmer's implication that his Greek text is "inspired by the Holy Spirit" at this point, or that the KJV "altered what the Holy Spirit said through John." Indeed, it is much to be noted that one of the twenty-first century’s first complete Bible translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, has reverted to the text in those mss. Palmer condemned as "inferior" in preference to the reading in its declared source texts for the New Testament (Nestle-Aland 27 and UBS-4). Given the impressive attestation for the KJV's reading, the hesitancy of many early modern editors to change it (perhaps they knew the implications of the change better than today's scholars?), and the lack of adequate internal justification for the modern versions' reading, one may accept the reading "the only begotten Son" in this passage with full confidence.