Bible scholars are wrong about John 3:16!

It would be hard to find any passage in all of human literature that is more famous, more influential, or more cherished than John 3:16. Nevertheless, according to many biblical scholars, the English translation with which we are all so familiar is misleading. The English words, “For God so [οὕτως] loved [ἀγαπάω] the world that [ὥστε] he gave his only begotten Son,” suggest to most laymen that God loved the world so much that he went to the extreme of sending his only Son to die for us. Nevertheless, many biblical scholars insist that this popular interpretation of John 3:16 is erroneous. According to these scholars, the Greek word οὕτως in John 3:16 means “in this way,” not “so much.” In other words, οὕτως in this context indicates manner, not intensity. Thus the NET Bible renders the verse: “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son.” Likewise, the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son.”

When, as a seminary student, I first learned about this scholarly view of John 3:16, I was disappointed. No doctrine in all of Christian theology was more meaningful to me than the one I had always thought was articulated by John 3:16: God loved us to such an extravagant degree that he sent his Son to die for us. While of course one could still deduce this doctrine from John 3:16, even if οὕτως means "in this way," such an interpretation seemed to me to somewhat dampen the emotional intensity of the verse. Nevertheless, I got the impression that scholarly opinion (though not unanimous) was decidedly against the "so much" interpretation of οὕτως.

You can thus imagine my excitement when, a year or two ago, I stumbled upon a number of passages in the extant Greek literature that seemed to prove the scholars wrong! In recent decades, almost the entire corpus of extant Greek literature has been digitized in a massive project called Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG). TLG is now available online with a powerful search engine that allows scholars to quickly identify examples of specific Greek constructions. I used this tool almost every day for my dissertation research, and while my dissertation was on a topic unrelated to John 3:16, one afternoon I decided on a whim to do some research on the verse. In the influential article which had purportedly debunked the traditional understanding of John 3:16, the authors had examined a handful of passages in which the οὕτως + ὥστε construction was used. None of these passages, however, included the verb ἀγαπάω (to love). With a much larger corpus now at my disposal, I wondered if I could find any passages outside of John 3:16 in which the precise construction οὕτως + ἀγαπάω + ὥστε occurred. To my surprise, I found quite a number of examples. Furthermore, as I began to examine these passages, I discovered that the construction consistently meant, “to love so much,” not “to love in this manner.”

I was eager to share my findings, but my dissertation work prevented me for many months from taking on other projects. When I finally found the time to start working on John 3:16, I discovered that another scholar had beat me to it. In an article published in 2019 by New Testament Studies, Aaron M. Jensen makes precisely the point that I had intended to make: when used with ἀγαπάω, the οὕτως + ὥστε construction means “so much,” not “in this manner.” Jensen makes his case quite thoroughly, citing all of the passages I found and more, so there is nothing for me to add to his excellent research. I will simply share here one of the passages which first convinced me that the layman's interpretation of John 3:16 was right after all:

Atossa, however, was so [οὕτως] beloved [ἀγαπάω] by her father [i.e. Artaxerxes] as his consort, that [ὥστε] when her body was covered with leprosy he was not offended at this in the least, but offered prayers to Hera in her behalf, making his obeisance and clutching the earth before this goddess as he did before no other; while his satraps and friends, at his command, sent the goddess so many gifts that the sixteen furlongs between her sanctuary and the royal palace were filled with gold and silver and purple and horses. (Plutarch, Art. 23.4-5 [LCL])

Here the construction οὕτως + ἀγαπάω + ὥστε is clearly used to convey the extravagant degree to which Artaxerxes loved Atossa. (For other examples of this construction, as well as a discussion of the interpretation of John 3:16 in the Greek fathers, see Jensen's article.)

In closing, I find this particular passage from Plutarch rather poignant as a comparison to John 3:16, for here Artaxerxes’ love for Atossa is so extravagant that it appears almost embarrassing. One may even detect a hint of mockery in Plutarch’s description of the king clutching the ground in desperation, enamored with a leprosy-ridden girl. The reader is left with the impression that Artaxerxes is acting in a manner unbefitting the dignity of his royal station. No doubt C. S. Lewis’ fictional demon, Screwtape, would have similar thoughts about the love proclaimed in John 3:16.