A Distinction Without a Difference or a Distinction to Die For? Wrestling With the Subtleties of John 21:16 – Peter, Do You Love Me?

Last week, as we wrapped up the Easter season, we read the beautiful dialogue between Jesus and Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” Analyzing this beautiful text is one of the great indoor sports of New Testament Biblical Scholarship: how to interpret the subtleties in that dialogue between Jesus and Peter.

And thus 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 using one word, but Peter responds with a different one. There is also a subtle shift in the Greek word used for the verb “know.” Peter moves using the word odias to ginoskeis. Both can be translated “you know,” but the question is, why the change of words and how should that shift be interpreted?

No one disputes the following facts about the Greek text. Allow me to reproduce the well-known dialogue with the distinctions noted parenthetically:

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.

So those are the facts. But here is where the debate begins. The central questions are these:

  1. Is there any real distinction to be made between agapas and philo, or is it a distinction without a difference?
  2. Although modern Christians make a sharp distinction between agape love and filial (philo) love, was such a distinction operative in ancient Greek, or were these words interchangeable synonyms?
  3. If so, why does John (with the Holy Spirit) use different words for love in this passage? Is there really no purpose at all?
  4. And why does John shift from using the word odias to the word ginoskeis in order to say “you know”? The same questions arise.

There are many possible answers to these questions. If you put three Greek scholars (or three Scripture scholars) in a room together you’re going to get three different opinions. But for the sake of brevity let me set forth two basic opinions or interpretations:

1. The use of different Greek words for “love” and “know” is highly significant. Jesus is asking Peter for agape love. Agape love is the highest and most spiritual love; Peter is called to love Jesus above all things and all people, including himself. But Peter, being honest, replies to Jesus, in effect, “Lord you know that I love you (only) with brotherly love (philo se).” Apparently, Jesus is not disappointed, because He entrusts the role of chief shepherd to Peter anyway. Again, Jesus asks for agape love and Peter responds in the same way. A third time Jesus asks, but this time He comes down to Peter’s level and says, in effect, “OK, Peter, then do you love me with brotherly love (phileis me)?”

All this all makes Peter sad. He now becomes more emphatic and says to the 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 used for “know.” He shifts from the oidas (meaning more literally “you have seen”) to ginoskeis (meaning a deeper sort of 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. It’s almost as if He is saying, “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. It results in a beautifully pastoral scene in which Jesus and Peter have a very poignant and honest conversation.

2. There is no significance in the use of different Greek words for love. This opinion is rooted in the view that there is no evidence that Greek speakers of the first century used these words 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 on and even then only among Christians, not among pagans.

There does seem to be a scriptural basis for the view 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 of the use of “agapao” in this sense 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 when the Father is said to “love” Jesus (John 5:20).

More evidence is also provided by the silence of the Greek-speaking Fathers of the Church, who make no mention of this distinction between the different words for love when commenting on this passage. One would think that had the subtle distinctions been significant they would surely have remarked upon it.

Hence, rooting itself in historical data, this second interpretation sees little if any significance in the fact that Jesus and Peter use different words for love.

So there it is, the great indoor sport of Scripture scholarship: understanding and interpreting the subtleties of John 21:15ff. I will admit that while the second interpretation seems a strong argument against the first, I cannot wholly reject the first view. I will boldly say that if the first interpretation isn’t correct, it ought to be. I find it untenable that, although different words are being used,  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 should be noted that not all Greek Scholars accept that agape and philo were synonymous in the first century.

However, 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 those for whom it is their mother tongue. Sometimes 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.

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 believe that there is not a key message 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!

One Reply to “A Distinction Without a Difference or a Distinction to Die For? Wrestling With the Subtleties of John 21:16 – Peter, Do You Love Me?”

  1. Pentecost brings The Holy Spirit; St. Peter answers the question in his first letter 1:8. There it is. Thanks.

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