Monday, September 8, 2008

Make Me a Higher Love? (agape/phileo)

Here's a question posted last week: "In John 21:15-17 Jesus asks three times if Simon Peter loves him. The first two times Jesus uses agapao for love and in both Simon Peter's replies phileo is used. Then the third time Jesus asks he uses phileo as well and so does Simon Peter. Is there any significance to this?"

A few weeks ago, my son's soccer coach advised the boys to put on jackets so that they wouldn't catch cold after practice. He believed that you could catch a cold if you got chilly after exercise. This belief was once so widespread that people just knew it to be true, even though doctors and scientists agree that colds are caused by viruses, not chill. OK, I know that rhinoviruses thrive better in cold, dry air, but you get my point - sometimes something that everyone knows is untrue.

I mention this story because many Christians in America just know that agape is a Greek word that refers to divine, unconditional love, a higher love than any other. But as a matter of fact, agape does not have this special meaning in Greek, and is only slightly different in meaning from phileo. Agape means "love," and it has about the same range of meaning as the English word "love." It can refer to loving people, food, God, money, or anything else. It can refer to selfless love or selfish love, depending on the context. Surprisingly, Greek scholars and New Testament scholars widely agree on this conclusion, but most other Christians, including many pastors, are unaware of it. I am not aware of any living Greek scholar who accepts the view of agape that is widely proclaimed from the pulpit. (By the way, agapao is the verb form of agape, and phileo is the verb form of philia; I use them interchangeably in this post).

Here's some of the evidence:

1) Philosophers in ancient Greece could not agree on the precise difference between agape and philia, and could not agree on which one was higher. Most philosophers actually asserted that philia was a higher love, because of the high value that philosophers placed on friendship.

2) The translators of the LXX (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) regularly used agapao to translate the Hebrew word ahav, which is also a very generic word for love in Hebrew.

3) While agape is often used to describe positive forms of love, it is also used to describe defective forms of love (Luke 6:32, John 3:19, Deut 21:15 LXX), the love of money (2 Pet 2:15, Isa 1:23 LXX), the love of sin (Rev 22:15, Jer 14:10, Hos 12:7 LXX), the love for honor (Luke 11:43, John 12:43), legitimate sexual desire (Song of Solomon 1:3, 4, 7, 3:1-4 LXX) and even lust (Gen 34:2-3, Jdg 16:4, 2 Sam 13:3-15 LXX). In other words, agape is like the English word love - it can have a positive or negative meaning depending on its context.

4) Although there are some slight differences in usage between agapao and phileo, they are used interchangeably at times in the Bible. Take a look at Luke 11:43/20:46; John 3:35/5:20; John 11:3/11:5/11:36; John 14:21/14:23/16:27; and Heb 12:6/Rev 3:19. In each of these cases, almost identical sentences use phileo or agapao with no apparent difference in meaning. In some cases, phileo is used for very high forms of love, such as the love between the Father and the Son.

For some people, this information is bad news. They like the idea that the Bible has a special word that means divine, unconditional love, and it disturbs them that the evidence does not support this view. But here's the good news: although Greek and Hebrew words for love do not have this special nuance, God's love is divine, giving and unconditional, no matter which word we use to communicate it. It's not the word for love that matters, but the many sentences, paragraphs, and stories about God's love that matter. Ideas don't have to be found in single words to be valid - in fact, most ideas require multiple words to be communicated.

Next post: if agapao and phileo mean almost the same thing, what was John trying to say at the breakfast scene in John 21:15-17?

The picture: The Miraculous Draught of Fish, by Konrad Witz, 1443.


  1. Excellent, Dr. Manning! This is one of those "wipe the maka piapia from my bible-eyes" lessons!

    It's really scary to think about how many times I have heard the agape = unconditional love lesson taught by pastors. Unfortunately, this includes my own senior pastor. Two questions: 1)Don't I have a responsibility to email the link to your blog to the pastors at my church? 2)So even though agapao and phileo have very similar meanings, wasn't it still a little weird that Peter used a different word in his answer? I just wonder because if I said, "Kimo, is that a lavender shirt?" and Kimo replied, "Keoki, you know it's a periwinkle shirt." I would think, "What's the difference?"


  2. Hi Keoki,

    I recall that it was pretty eye-opening for me when I learned it as well. Part of the reason that it has been repeated so often is that some older books promoted the idea - but generally, they were lower quality references.
    1) If I were you, I would only email it to pastors that you have a relationship with.
    2) I plan on posting on that topic later this week.

    By the way, for Mainland readers, maka piapia is eye boogers - for some reason we find the word kinda funny in Hawaii.


  3. I just came across a few other pieces of evidence in support of the idea that agapao is approximately equal to phileo. Early Bible translators who were fluent in Hellenistic Greek (the Greek of the Bible) generally translated the two words with one in Latin and Syriac (See the NET Bible notes).

    The church fathers (Christian leaders from the first four centuries) were often fluent in Hellenistic Greek, and in their sermons and commentaries on John, they did not see a difference in meaning between phileo and agapao, even in John 21 (See the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol IVb).


  4. Can you tell this is one of my soapbox items? Three comments on my own post!

    The common pulpit view of agape arose in the 1800s. I found reference to it in Westcott's commentary on John, as well as Spicq's word study lexicon. I'm sure there were a few others from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Lenski's commentary on John, that I don't have handy.

    But as NT scholars in the 20th century began to use better principles for studying Greek words, it became rare for any commentary, Greek dictionary, or word study resource to claim any special status for agape.

    For my book, Echoes of a Prophet, I did a thorough study of scholarship on John 21. I found only 2 recent scholars who believe that there is any significance to the variation in John 21:15-17. Spiros Zodhiates interestingly (one might say idiosyncratically) claims that phileo is greater, so Peter was being boastful. No other scholar has accepted Zodhiates' claim. There was also an article in 1985 by K.L. McKay. He argued that normally there is no distinction between ,agapao and phileo, even in John, but that John was creating a subtle distinction between them in this passage only. Likewise, no other scholars seem to have accepted McKay's view.

    I began to be persuaded of the current view when I did a study of every occurrence of agapao, phileo, and several cognate words in the NT and the LXX (a study that I quickly re-did to write this blog post). I was fully persuaded when I read the relevant entries in the most authoritative NT Greek dictionary, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG, 2000).

  5. Firstly, Jesus did not actually use agape, and Peter did not use phileo - this was a conversation that actually took place in Aramaic, not Greek. So, the words used to reconstruct the conversation were chosen by John to reflect the actual conversation.
    Secondly, whilst teh words have a high degree of synonymity, they are not coterminus; i.e. whilst they can be used interchangeably to to a high degree, they do have slightly different conotations; this fact is accepted by all lexicons.
    Thus, proving theat the words have a high degree of synonymity proves nothing. John still chose to use two different words to speak of love in this particular cnversation. The question is why did he do this?
    There are two possible answers: 1) he intended to make a distinction between Jesus question and Peter's response, or 2) he chose to use different words in order to add variety to the wording and hence enhance the reading. If the latter is true, then we should be able to prove it by showing that John typically employs both words to avoid repitition.
    There are six passages in the John's writings where agape is used multiple times: Jn 14:15-31 (15 times in 15 verses - no phileo); Jn 15:9-17 (9 times in 8 verses - no phileo); Jn 17:23-26 (5 times in 4 verses - no phileo); 1 Jn 3:1-23 (9 times in 23 verses - no phileo); 1 Jn 4:7-21 (27 times in 15 verses - no phileo).
    There are only 2 passages where both words are used, John 11:3-36 (where phileo is used twice - once in the mouth of Martha and once in the mouths the pharisees; and agape is used once by the narator) and John 21:15-17.
    These statistics prove beyond all doubt that John did not use agape and phileo interchangeably to enhance the reading of the text - in fact John typically chooses one or the other of the words and sticks to it ad nuseum, even if this means that the text becomes clumsy.
    Thus the only possible alternative view is that John actually intended to add meaning by using the two words.
    Its true that some may have exaggerated the difference between the two words, but thos that clain there is no difference and that John never intended anything by using different words, are on very shaky ground as the evidence is strongly against them.


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