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Jesus’ & Peter’s Love Struggle in John 21:15-17: A Common Fiction


I love word studies.

This is one passion that I share with many a pastor… for whose ministries I am grateful. If everyone had my particular gifting, the church would be in quite a state—lots of biblically and theologically refined and impassioned teachers, but a lot less compassionate care at every level of society. Not to be mean, but, to tell the truth, I’d rather write a blog post, article, or footnote than attend your funeral… No worries, I’ll go anyway… and I’ll dress real nice, shake hands, and get genuinely teary-eyed.

There is one word study, however, that seems to have become ingrained in the “collective consciousness” of the Church that needs some serious reconsideration. I speak of the unwavering conviction among many that Scripture speaks of two types of love, with agape representing “the God type of love” and philia, philos representing “lesser human types of love.” Each are also respectively represented in verb forms agapao and phileo.

More to the point, I am referencing the specific assertion that Jesus and Peter engage in a battle of the loves in John 21:15-17, with Peter hopelessly unable to offer Jesus the God Type of love that He asks for, bound as Peter is to mere human friend types of love… as the story is often told.

It is, I believe, an honest mistake that got its start in an unfortunate misunderstanding of the remarkable C. S. Lewis’ piece, The Four Loves. Jumping from his use of these words to preach his own message about love, many sought to apply his keen insights to the Biblical authors across the board… and Viola! agape vs. phileo took on a life all its own.

Equally unfortunate, is that in so doing, a number of important linguistic rules are broken, and several important linguistic issues are ignored. I here name only four.

  1. Those who wield these two definitions at the texts containing them are guilty of the root fallacy otherwise called the etymology fallacy. Because the root phil is used in various words to designate an assortment of family and friendship love, they assume that every word containing this root must have this connotation. They go further afield to imagine that this must, of course, be an inferior love. In keeping with their eisegesis by presupposition, they rarely discover the fact that the root agap is a weak and “colorless” root in its origin. Agape is not a special “God-Type of Love” but is in fact the most generic word for love… like our word love. I love Baseball, Ice-cream, my Mother and my Wife and Children… oh, yeah, and cool fall afternoons in New England too.
  2. These have defied the concept of Word-Sphere or Semantic field. They ignore the fact that any given word may have a variety of shades of meaning and connotations. These may be figurative or literal, technical or general, or may be associations by external social/historical/literary phenomena. As such they have not allowed the various contexts of agapao or phileo, or John’s use of them more particularly to shape these shades of meaning for the purpose of interpreting Jesus’s and Peter’s exchange. If you actually look up all their uses both in and out of Scripture both the generic nature of agape and the synonym like overlap for both loves will become clear.
  3. They have ignored the issue of whether the original dialogue was in Greek or Aramaic. If Jesus’ discussion with Peter was in Aramaic, was such a play upon shades of meaning for love a lexical likelihood, or even possibility?[1] When switching languages, you have to remember that “It’s not just a different word; it’s a different world.” Any proposed tension between two different words for love in Greek may not have equally intensioned[2] words in Hebrew or Aramaic.
  4. If one might reasonably establish that the Church invested agape with deeper theological significance than it had in normal Greek usage (recognizing the fact the context and authorial use of a word within its Semantic-field is central when interpreting a terms function in a text) can it then be assumed that Jesus and Peter would have bantered about the love between them before the Church or Biblical writers had an opportunity to invest this word with new theological significance?

If John’s use of agape, agapao, or phileo is allowed to shape the background for our look at Jesus’ and Peter’s dialogue, a startling fact arises. There are few contexts in John where he uses agapao that he does not also use phileo. (See below for English-Greek comparisons in John.) Jesus’ love for Lazarus is described with both of these terms (John 11:3 and 11:5). The Father’s love for the Son is described by both (John 3:35, 5:20). The Father’s love for the disciples is described by both (John 16:27 and 17:23). Even John’s self-descriptive phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is described by both (John 13:23 and 20:2). It is possible, on these parallels alone, to eradicate any serious distinction in John for these terms.

Those who look for some divine quality in agape will be shocked to learn that John uses agape to describe man’s love for darkness, man’s love for human approval, and a man’s love for philoe auton (his friend). Those who look for a lesser love in phileo will be shocked to find both Jesus’ weeping-inducing-love for Lazarus and a man’s love for his own life being elevated with this term.

It must be admitted that within the context of John 21:15-17 the pattern agapao—phileo; agapao—phileo; phileo—phileo seems too good to have no significance. The use of the article with the third time, in vs. 16, as opposed to the absence of the article with again a second time, in vs. 15, adds to this conviction. Were the translators to have made the pattern “he asked again a second time…he asked a third time” the issue could be dismissed on the basis of past stylistic exchange between the terms—the third ask would be declared a mere repetition of the previous two. Saying, “a second time…the third time,” however, to the English ear at least, suggests a focus on the distinct wording in the third ask.

Even if the word exchange does have significance, however, it does not necessarily have the significance commonly ascribed to it. I would say that it absolutely does not have the oft suggested word play.

It is commonly repeated that Jesus asked about a high, God-type of love, but that Peter could only confess a human, friend-type of love, and that Jesus, finally realizing that He could not get a confession of the higher love, reduces his standards and offends Peter’s sensibilities with the concession.

What if, however, the pattern were reversed? What if agapao were the lesser, being essentially broader and somewhat generic in its use? What if phileo were the higher, being rooted to the ties between family and friends, which culturally may have stronger connotations than in our own society? Consider John 15:15 where Jesus ups the ante and calls the disciples philos friends. Taken this way, Jesus would be questioning whether Peter loves (agapao) Him and Peter would be going yet further insisting that he LOOOOOVES (phileo) Him.

It would flesh out this way:

On the first ask Jesus questions Peter’s love in a comparative sense—do you love me more than these[3]—and, while it does not appear so to the English ear, Peter has indeed answered the comparison question properly.

Jesus repeats the question of general love and Peter again reiterates the higher love.

When Jesus asks again, He questions Peter’s “raising of the ante,” challenging Peter’s higher claims, calling into question the validity of Peter’s affirmation, and, perhaps, simultaneously reminding Peter of his three-fold denial on the morning of Jesus’ crucifixion.

This has been a mild prodding at the issue, with a few pertinent questions which need to be answered in coming to a final conclusion about the matter. Whatever decision a person makes about this issue, however, he must make it based upon an analysis of John’s employment of the terms in question, specifically, the New Testament’s use of them as a whole, the use of these terms in the Greco-Semitic world at the time of Christ in general, and upon a full analysis of the grammar and literary context of John 21:15-17 particularly… all while considering the lexical possibilities in Aramaic that might stand behind John’s Greek rendering.

[1] Another discussion for another day.

[2] Yes, I made this word up.

[3] What the these are shall be reserved for another post another day… hint: I think it’s the fish.

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