One of the great indoor sports of New Testament Biblical Scholarship is how to interpret the subtleties in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel. It is the classic interaction wherein Jesus asks, “Peter do you love me?” And Peter responds “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.” This exchange occurs three times. But to us who read the passage in English some of the subtle distinctions in vocabulary are lost. There is an interplay between two Greek words for love, Agapas and Philo. Jesus asks of Peter’s love with one word, but Peter responds with another. There is also a subtle shift in the use of another verb meaning “to know.” Peter moves from odias to ginoskeis. Both can be translated “you know” but again the question is why the shift and how should this be interpreted?
No one disputes these facts about the Greek text. Allow me to reproduce the well known dialogue with the distinctions stitched in:
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know (oidas) that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I love (philo) You.”
But there are the facts. But here is where the debate begins. The central questions are these:
- Is there any real distinction to be made between agapas and philo? Or is it a distinction without a difference?
- Although modern Christians make a sharp distinction between agape love and filial (philo) love, was such a distinction operative in ancient Greek or where these words merely synonyms that were simply interchangeable?
- If so, why does John and the Holy Spirit record these different words for love? Is there really no purpose at all?
- And why does John shift from using the verb odias (you know) to ginoskeis? the same questions would prevail.
The answers to these questions admit of many possible answers. Now if you put three Greek scholars (or three scripture scholars) in a room together you’re going to have at least 17 opinions. But for the sake of brevity let me set forth two basic opinions or interpretations:
1. The use of different words for love is highly significant. Jesus is asking Peter for agape love. Agape love being the highest and most spiritual love wherein Peter is called to Love Jesus above all things and all people, including himself. But Peter, finally being honest says to Jesus in effect, Lord you know that I love you (only) with brotherly love (philo se). Jesus is not disappointed for entrusts the role of chief Shepherd to Peter anyway. But again he asks for agape love and Peter answers the same. A third time Jesus asks, but this time he comes to Peter’s level and says, in effect, “OK Peter then do you love me with brotherly love (phileis me)?”
And this all makes Peter sad who now becomes more emphatic and says Lord, You know (oidas) everything; You know (ginoskeis) that I (only) love with brotherly love (philo). Note here that Peter’s exasperation includes a shift in the verb “know.” He shifts from the verb oidas (meaning more literally “you have seen”) to the verb ginoskeis (meaning a deeper sort or perception that includes understanding).
So perhaps the final sentence translated with these distinctions in mind would read: “Lord! You have seen everything; and you understand that I (only) love you with brotherly love.” The Lord then goes on to tell Peter that one day he will die a martyr’s death. Almost as if to say, “Peter I DO understand that you only love me now with brotherly love. But there will come a day when you will finally be willing to die for me and you will give over your life. Then you will truly be able to say that you love me with Agape love.”
This first opinion obviously takes the distinctions in the Greek text as very significant and interprets them to the max. It results in a beautifully pastoral scene wherein Jesus and Peter have a very poignant and honest conversation.
2. The second opinion or interpretation is there is no significance in the use of different Greek verbs for love or know. The main reason for this opinion is rooted in the view that among Greek speakers of the First Century there is no evidence that they used these verbs to mean significantly different things. It is claimed that Agape was not understood in the early Centuries of the Church as God-like, unconditional love. That meaning came only later and then only among Christians, not among pagans.
There seems to be a scriptural basis for the fact that the early Christians had not reserved apape and philo for the exclusive meanings they had later. For example “agapao” is sometimes used in the New Testament for less God-like loves. Two examples are the Pharisees loving the front seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43) and Paul’s indication that Demas had deserted him, because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10). Further, God’s love is sometimes described using “phileo“, as when he is said to love humanity (John 16:27) or even once when the Father is said to love Jesus (John 5:20).
More evidence is also deduced from the silence of the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church who do not make mention of this distinction in the verbs for love when they comment on this passage. One would think that had the subtle distinctions been significant they would surely have dwelt upon it.
Hence, rooting itself in historical data this second opinion and interpretation sees little significance if any in the fact that Jesus and Peter are using different words for love.
So there it is. The great indoor sport of Scripture Scholarship: understanding and interpreting the subtleties of John 21:15ff. For myself I will say that while number 2 seems a compelling argument against opinion 1, I will also say that I cannot wholly reject that, if opinion 1 isn’t true, it OUGHT to be. I find it strange that these different verbs are being used and that we are to conclude absolutely nothing from it. The subtle details of John’s Gospel are almost never without purpose. SOMETHING is going on here that we ought not ignore. Peter and Jesus are subtly interacting here. There is a movement in their conversation that involves a give and take that is instructive for us.
It also remains a fact that not all Greek Scholars accept that Agape and Philo were simply synonyms in the First Century.
The silence of the Greek speaking Fathers is surely significant. But it also remains true that Scriptural interpretation did not end with the death of the last Father. Further, I have found that I, who speak a little German am sometimes better able to appreciate the clever subtleties of German vocabulary than the those for whom it is the mother tongue. At a certain point we can become rather unreflective about the subtle distinctions of the words we use and it takes an outsider to call them to our attention. I never really appreciated the more subtle meanings of English words until I studied Latin.
Hence, for me it is still helpful to see the distinctions in this text even if some historical purists find no room for them. I simply cannot avoid that a key message is available to us in the subtle shifts in vocabulary here. As always, I value your comments and additions to this post. Do we have here a distinction without a difference, a distinction to die for or something in between? Let me know what you think!