Monday, September 15, 2008

Do You Love Me (Now that I can Dance) (John 21:15-17)

In my last post, I explained that, contrary to popular Christian belief, the Bible does not use the Greek words agape and phileo in significantly different ways. Agape (and its verb form, agapao; I use agape throughout since most Christians are more familiar with it) is a fairly generic word for love, and does not necessarily imply divine, unconditional, or higher love. Phileo, although used less often in the Bible, is not a lower type of love, as revealed by the times it is used to describe love between Father, Son and disciples (see, for example, John 5:20, 16:27, 20:2).

So what is happening in John 21:15-17? Here's the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection:

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my lambs... Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Shepherd my sheep... Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?
Peter (grieved because Jesus had said "Do you love (phileo) me?" three times): Lord, you know (oida) all things, you know (ginosko) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my sheep.

After reading it carefully, you can see that the usual pulpit interpretation doesn't work. Peter isn't grieved because Jesus switched verbs; he is grieved because Jesus keeps asking him. In fact, Peter is "grieved because Jesus had said 'Do you love (phileo) me?' three times." But Jesus, in fact, had used agape twice and phileo once - another piece of evidence that the two words mean basically the same thing. Note also that Peter did not answer, "No, I don't love (agape) you, but I do love (phileo) you." Instead, he said "Yes, I love you," indicating agreement with Jesus. Finally, if the standard pulpit interpretation is correct, Jesus caves in at the end and says that a lesser form of love towards him is just fine - not the sort of thing you are likely to find anywhere in the New Testament, and especially not in John.

So what is going on? In one of the most poetic passages in his gospel, John varies words for style. Within John 21, notice the amount of synonyms or near-synonyms used: Know: oida, ginosko. Sheep: arnion, probaton. Tend: bosko, poimaino. Fish: ichthus, opsarion, prosphagion. Boat: ploion, ploiarion. Shore: aigialos, ge. Some of these words can have slightly differently meanings in other contexts, but don't have different meanings in this passage. The same fish are called all three words, and the same boat is called two different words. The variation in words, including the words for love, adds to the beauty of the description.

By the way, the view presented here, that the alternation between agape and phileo in John 21:15-17 is only for stylistic variation, is not some strange view that can only be found in this corner of the blogosphere. It is the standard view held by most ancient and modern commentaries on John. (The exceptions are primarily some nineteenth-century commentaries and, strangely, the NIV).

I don't intend to only take away your favorite (mis)interpretation! Next post: once we get over the agape/phileo bit, what can we learn from this passage?

The picture: Follow Me, from Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, 1516, courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The picture is composite, containing elements from the tomb in John 20 and the beach appearance in John 21.


  1. Dr. Manning, I'm very thankful that you have cleared that up so well for us. The funny thing is I originally read this entry shortly after you posted it and then because you said the NIV subscribes to this misinterpretation I searched the internet for information on different bible translations/versions. What I came across was a ton of opinions...some of them very strong and even exclusive of any varying idea. It seemed that all the really unwavering opinions came from those who championed the literal word-for-word translations. I’ve always used the NIV for a vast majority of my Bible reading but for a few weeks after reading all the faults of the NIV online I wrestled with whether I could trust it anymore or not.

    What do you think about the NIV?


  2. I think that overall the NIV is a great translation. Every now and then I find places where I disagree with the translation (like here, and in Philemon 6, and in Luke 19:44), but any NT scholar would say the same about other translations. BTW, the TNIV changed both Philemon 6 and John 21 - evidence of a translation committee that responds to criticism and is willing to correct errors.

    The NIV was the first serious translation to follow the dynamic equivalence approach. In some ways, I like the work that the NLT translators did better, but both translations try very hard to faithfully render the ideas found in the original languages.

    I think there is great value in continuing to use formal equivalent translations (sometimes called word-for-word), especially for careful study (with apologies to my former colleague, Ron Youngblood). I spend a lot of time in the NASB and RSV. However, I think it is a mistake to conclude that formal equivalence is the only correct approach to translation. In many cases, dynamic equivalent translations do a much better job at communicating ideas.

    Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss wrote _How to Choose a Translation For All Its Worth_, an excellent and very readable book that explains the complications of translating and the competing philosophies of translation.

  3. Thanks again, Dr. Manning. I checked out that book by Strauss and Fee. Now it's on my Amazon wishlist.

    I just seriously thank God for sites like BibleGateway so I can quickly and easily refer to both dynamic and formal equivalent translations when studying His Word.



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