“The only begotten son” – or not?

We’re all familiar with the verse about “the Word made flesh” – but the rest of the verse is challenging, when looked at it in the context of mystic teachings generally. The verse is understood to mean that Jesus is the only begotten son of the Father – that is, he is the only master and saviour for all time; whereas mystics everywhere teach that there is always at least one living master in the world in every generation. Hm…

Here is the verse in question (NIV translation):

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (New Testament, John 1:14 NIV)

Or the traditional King James version:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (KJV)

Out of curiosity I looked up the Greek original today – available online as an interlinear text with literal English word-by-word equivalents. What caught my eye in the Greek/English were the words “as of” towards the end of the verse. In fact, the KJV includes these words, but they get swallowed up by the rest of the KJV translation. Here is the literal Greek:

…a glory as of an only-begotten.

So the verse is not saying that Jesus is “the only begotten son of the Father” at all, but is making a comparison – comparing something or someone to the preciousness of “an only son”. If you will, it’s a generic statement. It’s not specific to Jesus.

What is being compared? See what you think! Here is a literal translation from the Greek:

The Word became flesh and made its dwelling among us[, full of grace and truth]. We have seen his glory [or its glory] – the glory as of an only son [full of grace and truth] with/of a/the father [full of grace and truth].

I’m not a Greek scholar, but here’s what I notice:

1) The underlined phrase “who came from the Father” (NIV, top of the page) doesn’t exist in the Greek – that’s why I have underlined it. In the Greek, it just says “with + of father” (genitive case).

2) The glory is not of “the” one and only Son (NIV), but “as of an only son”.

3) “As of…” turns what follows into an adverbial phrase; it tells us that a comparison is being introduced here, not a literal statement of fact. So whatever follows “as of” could be complete fantasy; it isn’t necessarily literal truth – it is the author trying to convey what he means by “the glory” that is associated with the Word and the Word-made-flesh.

4) Grammatically, “the glory” may refer to the Word or to the Word made flesh (that is, the son) – because “its” glory and “his” glory is the same word in Greek. Here are some meanings of doxa: honor, renown; glory, an especially divine quality, the unspoken manifestation of God, splendor (from Strong’s). I like “the unspoken manifestation of God” – goes with Word.

5) There seem to be different ways of interpreting who and what is being referred to in the phrase “full of grace and truth”. In Greek, it is in the nominative masculine singular, so it matches “the Word” (masculine singular); can it link up with “of an only son” (genitive masculine singular) and “with/of a father” (genitive masculine singular)?

  • The NIV version is ambiguous: it could refer to the Son or to the Father (depending on how literally you take the NIV comma after “the Father”!).
  • The KJV version uses parentheses in order to link “full of grace and truth” to the Word dwelling among us.
  • In my version, I have hedged the bets so you can choose whether “full of grace and truth” describes the Word, the father or the son – it really gives you a sense of the decisions the Bible translators have to deal with!

I’ve left “father” and “son” lowercase on purpose. Is it possible that the entire last phrase is a generic comparison that is not focusing either on “the Son” or on “the Father”, but rather on the unimaginable glory of the Word and the Word-made-flesh:

We have seen his glory [that is, we have seen with our own eyes the glory of the living master, the Word-made-flesh] – the glory as of a father’s only son!

It’s clear from the Greek that the writer does not claim Jesus is the only begotten son of the Father – later generations of Christians were responsible for that. The writer of John is a mystic speaking from personal experience about the Word and the Word made flesh.  Here he is simply telling us with a very human metaphor how much God loves his beloved son, the Word made flesh – as much as any father would love an only son. That is the intensity of the love, grace and glory that surround the master, the blessed son. And by extension, that is how much he loves and glorifies all his beloved sons, eternal Word made temporary flesh, regardless of when and where they may live.

The Word became flesh and made its dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. We have seen its glory – the glory as of a father’s only son!


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MYSTIC WRITINGS by Anthea Guinness (Translator) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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