“Son of Man” by  René Magritte

We noted in the blog The Gospel Writers Saw Jesus as “Son of Man,” Rejected “Son of God” Label that the Synoptic writers never had Jesus use the term “Son of God,” but only the term “Son of Man.” In the gospel of John, Jesus does use the term “Son of God” four times, although he uses the term “Son of Man” far more often, 13 times.

This is a clue that it is the/a writer of John who starts to have Jesus label himself as the “Son of God”.  Why does he do this?

The answer comes when we look at the verses in which he first does this.

10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things?  11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.  12 If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?

13 And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven.  14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.  16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.  17 For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.  18 He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.

This is the American Standard Version (ASV) translation. The New International Version (INV) gives this:

13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

The difference is in the translation of the Greek phrase τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. It is translated as “Only begotten Son of God” in ASV and “God’s one and only Son” in INV.

The translation of the term μονογενοῦς can be “only begotten” or “one and only”. The Apologist Website http://www.forananswer.org/John/Jn1_18.htm notes this about the word:

Thus, the Old Latin and Jerome (in the verses not referring to Jesus Christ) are correct to render monogenês as unicus (“only”) – literally, “one of a kind”…And this practice has been followed by many modern versions, rendering it variously as “only,” “unique,” or “one and only.” Some scholars and translators, however, argue that monogenês – when used of persons – carries the sense of an only offspring.  Thus, translations such as the ESV, ISV and the RSV render monogenês in John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:17 as “only Son,” even though it appears in these verses absolutely (that is, by itself, without an accompanying noun).

What we are getting here is the term monogenês generally means “one and only” or “unique.” This is the concept here. Since John has already said that Jesus is the “Son of Man,” He is here saying that the “Son of Man” is the “one and only,” or “unique” Son of God.

This should be seen in the context of the only earlier use of the term monogenês in John 1:18. This is a very controversial passage because there is good textual evidence that the original text was monogenês theos. The controversy is in Bart Ehrman’s book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 1993)  The Evangelical Brain J. Write presents the strong case in support of Ehrman’s case that  monogenês theos “Jesus as Θεός (God): A Textual Examination” (See http://bible.org/article/jesus-%CE%B8%CE%B5%E1%BD%B9%CF%82-scriptural-fact-or-scribal-fantasy)

The King James Bible renders John1:17 and 1:18 this way:

17For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

18No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

Given what we know now about 1:18, the better translation is the International Standard Version (ISV):

No one has ever seen God. The unique God, who is close to the Father’s side, has revealed him

The author John has told us that Jesus Christ is a Unique God in 1:18. This matches what we find in John 1:14 (ISV):

The Word became flesh and lived among us. We gazed on his glory, the kind of glory that belongs to the Father’s unique Son, who is full of grace and truth.

Again we have the word monogenês. The author is telling us that “the word of God” is a unique son, a one and only son, there is no other son like the word of God. The author goes on to tell us in 1:18 that this unique son is a unique God. Certainly, for any Jew the word of God is not a God like the Greco-Roman Gods, the word of God is a unique, a uniquely different type of God.

When he is writing 3:16-18, he is telling us about Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. The writer wants to connect with the idea he has used in 1:14, unique son, with 1:18, unique God. Combining these two, we are told that Jesus Christ, the Son of Man is a unique son of God.

The synoptic writers probably meant the son of man to be a prophet like Ezekiel who is called the “Son of Man” 94 times in the Book of Ezekiel. However the writer of the book of John seems to be using the term “son of man” more in line with the Book of Daniel 7:13:

I saw in the night-visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man.

When the writer of John uses the expression “Son of Man,” he means “resembles a man,” When he used the term “Son of God,” he means it in an analogous fashion. He is saying that Jesus is “like a son of God,” i.e. he resembles a God. By adding the term monogenês, he simply means that Jesus uniquely resembles a God.

Since this author of John sees Jesus as the word of God, all that he is saying is that the word of God resembles a man and resembles a unique God. The original meaning that John had in mind when he refers to Jesus as the only unique son of god is that Jesus resembles a God. The King James translation may say “the only begotten son of God,” but the author just wanted to say Jesus resembles a God.

The author John wrote metaphorically when he wrote that Jesus was (του μονογενους υιου του θεου) the unique (usually mistranslated as “only begotten”) son of God.

We can analyze the metaphor “Jesus… is the unique (only begotten) son of God” in classical Metaphor style in terms introduced by British rhetorician I.A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). The tenor for the metaphor is Jesus (who is also the “word of God”), the vehicle is “unique (only begotten) son of man” and the dimension is “resembles a God” Later Christians interpreted the metaphor literally as a biological and anthropomorphic son of a deity. The poetical writer simply meant that God’s words in the Hebrew Scriptures resemble a God.

We can say that almost all of Christianity has been based on a misunderstanding and taking this one poetical metaphor literally.