"begotten" and Bible translation
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,I was taught in theology classes that Jesus Christ the Son was "begotten of God the Father." I may have even been taught that he is eternally begotten. Now that I am older and have been translating the Bible for many years, I pay more attention to some words. One of them is the word "begotten." It's an older English word, not in current usage, except among theologians and some church people. My dictionary gives its primary meaning as "to father, sire." I recall the long genealogies in the Bible where Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, etc.
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father
I'm not qualified enough to question those who hammered out the Nicene Creed, but I do want to question whether or not it is accurate to translate with the word "begotten" or "begat" anywhere in the Bible where it refers to the relationship between God and Jesus. (Don't worry, orthodox readers of this blog; I'm not questioning some important theology; I'm questioning how to word in current English parts of the Bible that might refer to the concept of God the Father "begetting" the Son.)
I memorized John 3:16 from the KJV as a child:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.But many biblical scholars in more recent years now believe that "begotten" is not the best translation for John 3:16. Greek ton huion ton monogene of that verse refers to the "unique son" or "the one and only (unique) son". The word "begotten" seems to have gotten (not begotten!) into some translations of this verse due to confusion between two similar Greek verbs ginomai meaning 'to coming into being, to happen' and gennaw meaning 'to become the parent of someone, to bear.' There are words in the Greek New Testament which have inflected spellings of these two infinitives which are nearly identical and it is easy to confuse the two. My understanding is that a key to differentiating them is that words having to do with "begetting" (that is, fathering or parenting) will have the letter n twice while words derived from ginomai will have only one n. Michael Marlow suggests that use of "unique" rather than "begotten" as a translation of monogenes is theologically motivated. I would suggest, rather, that it is linguistically motivated, that is, based on which of the two Greek verbs a verb in any particular biblical context is derived. I personally believe that the Son is "begotten" (in some important theological sense) by the Father. But when I am translating I want to be sure that any particular passage actually says that in Greek before I use the English word "begotten", "begat", or some current equivalent.
I have quickly skimmed my memory bank and the Bible and I suggest that there may not be as clear statements in the Bible that God "begat" Jesus as the Nicene Creed states. Yes, Psalm 2:7 refers to a father "begetting" his son, and that psalm is applied messianically to Jesus in Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. But I'm not sure that every aspect of physical "begetting" of a son by a father is intended to be taught by the author of Hebrews who quoted from Psalm 2. I suspect that the focus of the Hebrews quotations are on the relationship between God the Father and the Son, not on the precise details of "begetting."
I don't know what it means in the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is "eternally begotten of the Father". It would help me if I heard that statement translated to contemporary English. Perhaps it simply means that there is an eternal Father-Son relationship. Surely it does not mean that that the Father is eternally begetting (that is causing to be born) the son.
I realize that this post is of a different nature than many others we have had on this blog. But I hope that the main point, that we should use currently understood English words to translate biblical concepts, comes through clearly. I think that theology can sometimes inform the Bible translation process. But I believe strongly that theology should not determine how we translate. Instead, we need to translate what the biblical texts actually say (and what they mean by what they say), not what we interpret them to say based on various systematic theologies.