One old familiar chestnut is the notion that Greek distinguishes various kinds of love and that the highest among these is agapē.
The desire to find some magical Greek term to articulate what a truly pure form of love involves is not hard to explain. We say we “love” pizza, but we certainly mean something different (one would hope!) when we say we “love” our spouses, children, and parents. The notion that Greek can sort the meaning of love out for us sounds very learned. The reality, however, is that this is a myth.
The notion that biblical Greek uses different terms for various kinds of love was popularized by C. S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960). I will refrain from offering a full treatment. Let me focus on two terms: agapē and philia. According to Lewis, agapē love can be distinguished from philia love in that the latter refers to the love of friendship, while the former denotes something more: unconditional divine love. The official C.S. Lewis website sums up his views on this here. Writing about agapē, Lewis taught: “This is our chief aim, the unconditional love of the Father given to us through his Son.”
That Greek has clear words for different types of love sounds nice. It seems helpful. Unfortunately, it greatly oversimplifies things.
When you read the New Testament in Greek, you discover–as all beginning Greek students quickly learn–that the distinction between agapē and philia does not hold up. Nevertheless, the notion that agapē refers to the highest form of love still gets applied incorrectly to passages in Scripture.
The romanticized take on Greek terms for love especially finds its way into treatments of John 21. There we read the story of the Risen Lord’s appearance to the disciples in Galilee. As the apostles are fishing, Jesus appears on the shore. Once they arrive on the land, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He repeats the question three times. It is often pointed out that the word for “love” changes the third time. Below I have provided a translation in which I provide the Greek verbs in brackets. The verbs are derived from the Greek nouns agapē and philia.
When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapaō] me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love [phileō] you. He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [agapaō] me?” He sad to him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love [phileō] you.” He said to him, “Feed my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [phileō] me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love [phileō] me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”John 21:15-17; my translation
Interpreters often make much hay out of the fact that the word for “love” is different the third time Jesus asks the question. It is often claimed that Peter is hurt because the last time Jesus puts the question to him, he asks, “Do you phileō me?” Peter is said to be grieved because even though he realizes that he has not yet matured to agapē love for Jesus, he is nonetheless saddened to think that Jesus doubts that he at least has philia love for him.
This is not an uncommon interpretation. In a 2006 General Audience, for example, Benedict XVI offered this line of interpretation of this passage. I must confess that I was quite surprised by it when I first read it. Notably, he studiously avoids this line of explanation in his treatment of John 21 in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, which he later published in 2011. This would not be the only time Benedict XVI’s explanations in his trilogy would depart from what he had said earlier in a General Audience. For example, his lengthy treatment of the date of the Last Supper in Jesus of Nazareth also omits a suggestion he had once made at a General Audience in 2006. (In Catholic theology, papal statements made in General Audiences are not viewed as infallible magisterial doctrinal definitions.)
Yet, I have to confess, it seems highly unlikely to me that the evangelist is making a big deal out of the fact that Jesus and Peter use different words for love here. Why? Because elsewhere these words are used interchangeably in John.
Take, for example, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in John 16:
For the Father himself loves [phileō] you, because you have loved [phileō] me, and have believed that I came out from God.John 16:27; my translation
Should believers be hurt that the Father only loves them with phileō love? That would be a ridiculous claim! That is certainly not Jesus’ point. The reality is that phileō is synonymous with agapē. To make a big deal out of the different Greek verbs in John 16:27 would be to read something into John’s Gospel that is simply not there.
Likewise, in John 12:43 we read the following about the Pharisees:
For they loved [agapaō] the praise of men more than the praise of God.John 12:43; my translation
Did you catch that? The Pharisees have agapē for “the praise of men,” which they prefer to “the praise of God.” Is John’s point that the Pharisees have some kind of “divine” or “unconditional” love? Of course not. This reveals that the claim that agapē represents some pure or higher form of love simply ignores the way John uses the term.
Other passages could also be mentioned. In John 11, Jesus is said to have “loved” Lazarus. The word used here is not agapē. Instead, in John 11:3 and 11:36 the term is phileō! Does John think Jesus had a deficient love for Lazarus? No one would make the case for that based on the Greek.
Here is my favorite example. In John 5, Jesus says:
For the Father loves [phileō] the Son, and shows him everything that he himself is doing. . .John 5:20; my translation
Does this passage reveal that the Father’s love for the Son is deficient because he only has philia love for Jesus? Not a chance! But this is precisely what people read into Jesus’ exchange with Peter in John 21.
UPDATE: Michael Gorman reached out to me after reading this and made another important point: “Note also ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ phrases use agapaō four times, but phileō in 20:2.” Should we suspect from this that Jesus loved him a little less in John 20? I think not.
So why is Peter hurt in John 21? I do not think it is because of the verb Jesus uses. Rather, I would insist that John tells us exactly why Peter is hurt:
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love [phileō] me?”John 21:17
The reason Peter was grieved was because Jesus asked him “the third time.” The point is that Jesus is asking Peter about his love for him three times because Peter had earlier denied him three times (cf. John 18:25-27). Peter had promised to give his life for Jesus, but Jesus warned him that he would deny he even knew him. He even announced that Peter would deny him “three times” (John 13:38).
Moreover, John reinforces the connection between the scene of Peter’s denial and his exchange with Jesus in John 21 another way: these are the only two scenes in the Gospel involving a charcoal fire. In John 18, we read:
Now the servants and officers stood there, having made a charcoal fire because it was cold. And they were warming themselves. Peter also stood with them and warmed himself.John 18:18; my translation
In John 21, Peter’s exchange with Jesus is set up with a mention of another charcoal fire.
So when [the apostles] got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire there. . .John 21:9; my translation
Peter is hurt because Jesus takes Peter back to the scene of his betrayal. Jesus allows him the opportunity to reaffirm his love for him three times. He then goes on to affirm that Peter will ultimately go on to do what he promised to do at the Last Supper, namely, give his life for his Lord. By a charcoal fire, Jesus tells him,
Amen, amen, I say to you, “When you were young, you girded yourself, and walked where ever you wanted: but when you are old, you shalt stretch forth your hands, and another shall gird you, and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 This he spoke, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.”John 21:18-19; my translation
So why the change in the Greek in John 21? What people who make a big deal out of the change in the Greek verbs for love frequently ignore is this: Jesus varies the Greek for other terms in the scene as well! Take a look, for example, at the words for “feed” and “sheep” as well as Peter’s term for “know”:
When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed [boskō] my lambs [arnion].” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He sad to him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” He said to him, “Shepherd [poimainō] my sheep [probaton].” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know [oida] all things. You know [ginōskeis] that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed [boskō] my sheep [probaton].”John 21:15-17; my translation
If you want to insist that the change in the Greek words for love matter so much, what do you make of the change in the words for “sheep” and Peter’s different uses of “know”? Also, the second time, Jesus changes “feed” to “shepherd,” poimainō, a term that literally has the connotation of “leading to pasture,” i.e., bringing sheep to food. Jesus basically just finds another way to say, “feed my sheep.” Might it be too much to suggest that that these word changes are hugely significant? The variation in language is probably best explained as a means to make the Greek less repetitive and more readable.
But even if one wants to insist that the words for “sheep” and “know” mean different things, we should not lose sight of what we have already established: agapē does not have the connotation of divine or pure love in John–John uses it for the Pharisees’ love for the praise of men! And to suggest Peter is hurt because Jesus asks if he has philia love is silly. Certainly, Jesus is not saddened by the fact that the love has philia love for him. In sum, to claim that the word agapē has a different meaning in John 21 than it had earlier in the Gospel seems highly implausible.
UPDATE: Those who insist that agapē means “unconditional” or “pure” love should simply look at Lexicon to see its range of meaning. In 2 Timothy 4:10, for example, we read that Demas is said to have departed Paul because he was “in love [agapaō] with the world.”* The word there certainly does not have the sense of “pure” love. In addition, in the Septuagint the term agapē is used to describe the passion that leads Amnon to rape his half-sister Tamar (cf. 2 Samuel 13:1, 15).
The beauty of the passage in John 21 is found in Jesus’ restoration of Peter. It is not meant to highlight the glory of agapē love. I think that is a distraction. The key allusion is to Peter’s betrayal scene.
Finally, we might learn one more lesson from all of this: knowing Greek does not give you some magical insight into discerning things like the meaning of “love.” Philological and linguistic analysis will not render that kind of knowledge. The reality is, Greek is sometimes as messy and as ambiguous as English. Linguistic analysis is necessary, but not sufficient. Don’t get me wrong– sometimes knowing Greek is really helpful. But people can also overstate its ability to clear up the meaning of biblical texts. Philology is essential, but not sufficient.
*h/t to Richard Roland on Facebook for the mention of 2 Timothy 4:10!
**h/t John Kincaid and David Burnett.