The Two Words for Love in John 21:15-17

The verbal interchange between Jesus and Peter found in John 21:15-17 undoubtedly served as a catharsis for Peter’s threefold denial at Jesus’ trial. It also demonstrates Jesus’ characterization of Peter as a “rock.” Unfortunately, however, the English translators and preachers of this text either hide or interpret unfavorably Peter’s responses to Jesus’ questions. The issue centers on the word “love” seen in bold font in the following translation from the New International Version (NIV).

15 ”Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” John Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

The NIV translates this famous interchange differently than translations such as the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible by adding “truly” to the text of verses 15 and 16, words that do not appear in the Greek text. Why did the translators choose to add it? And what does the addition imply?

To answer the first question, note the verbs for “love” in verses 15-17 that vary according to the following threefold scheme:

Jesus — agapao (ἀγαπάω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)

Jesus — agapao (ἀγαπάω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)

Jesus — phileo (φιλέω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)

The NIV translators apparently sought to distinguish between Jesus’ word “love” in the first two exchanges from that of Peter. Therefore “truly” was inserted without endorsement from the Greek text. The legitimacy of this interpretation involves the second question.

The addition of “truly” seems to communicate that Peter’s simple response, “I love you,” implies a lesser degree of love, falling short of the higher standard of Jesus’ love. The two words for love appear to be understood by the NIV translators in hierarchical fashion wherein Jesus’ word rises higher on the ethical plane than that of Peter. Such an understanding may enjoy the benefit of “conventional wisdom” regarding the words for love, but it falters under closer scrutiny.

In the Greek language at least four different words for love existed, all of which are translated “love” in English. Only the last two constitute the primary burden of this article. The four words, generally defined on the basis of relationships rather than on a hierarchy of meanings, are:

  • eros (ἔρος) — The relationship between an individual and his/her own need—focused on oneself. This word does not occur in the New Testament.
  • storge (στόργη) — The relationship between an individual and his/her relatives—focused on family/marital relationships. In the New Testament it occurs only in a compound word (Romans 12:10, philostorgos, φιλόστοργος).
  • philia (φίλια) — The relationship between an individual and his/her acquaintances—focused on friendship. The verb form is φιλέω (phileo).
  • agape (ἀγάπη) — The relationship between an individual and any other person regardless of the nature of that relationship—focused on others. The verb form is ἀγαπάω (agapao).

It is frequently affirmed in a hierarchy of meanings scenario that agapao (ἀγαπάω) represents the God-kind of love whereas phileo (φιλέω) a human-kind. However, this analysis does not fit passages such as John 5:20 (NIV), “For the Father loves (phileo, φιλέω) the Son,” or John 16:27 (NIV), “the Father himself loves (phileo, φιλέω) you.” An understanding of the uses of these words based on relationships instead of on a higher or lower ethical plane resolves this difficulty admirably and is completely consistent with the lexical uses of the words.

These relational differences are perfectly proper and devoid of any hierarchical degrees of love, and they can be used for the same “love event” depending upon the perceived relationship. Once this relationship-focused description for the “love words” is applied, the interpretation of John 21:15-17 changes dramatically.

Under the “conventional wisdom” paradigm it has been fashionable to accuse Peter of failing to love Jesus with a divine-kind of love. He settles for a lesser human-kind to which Jesus Himself, with subtle sarcasm, acquiesces in the third interchange.

To avoid this conclusion some scholars claim that John uses the two verbs for love interchangeably without distinction in sense. Carson writes (Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd edition, 53), “In any case, my point is that it is rather strange to insist on a semantic distinction between the two words for “to love” in this context, and not on small distinctions between other pairs of words in the same context.” But why would a consistent scholar neglect these other “small distinctions”? Some don’t and Carson’s argument evaporates.

Arguing against Carson, a consistent interpretation methodology must give first priority to the biblical author’s word choices and approach the study with the expectation that similar but different words reflect different nuances of meaning unless it can be unequivocally proven otherwise. Moule states (An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 198), “The safest principle is probably to assume a difference until one is driven to accept identity of meaning.” In the case of John 21:15-17 Carson’s synonymity has not been proven.

However, under the “relationship” paradigm, Peter steadfastly refuses to accept the implication that a broken relationship exists between him and Jesus based on Jesus’ use of agapao (ἀγαπάω). He remains undeterred and declares that his and Jesus’ relationship continues on a close friendship basis (phileo, φιλέω). In the third interchange, Jesus agrees and thereby brings closure to Peter’s denials, and Peter lives up to the steadfastness implied by his name, Rock.

The interpretation problem of John 21:15-17 involves minimally three matters: (1) the English language that does not distinguishing between the different Greek words for “love,” (2) the English Bible translators who introduce interpretations into the passage implying that they are undisputed in the Greek text, and (3) the Bible interpreters who follow “conventional wisdom” ignoring synonymity or a “relationship paradigm” as viable options.

To illustrate the agapao (ἀγαπάω) “relationship paradigm” in the New Testament, consider the following: Matthew 5:44 (NIV), “Love your enemies.” Here agapao (ἀγαπάω) must be the verb of choice where interpersonal antagonism exists. Ephesians 5:28 (NIV), “Husbands ought to love their wives.” Likewise agapao (ἀγαπάω) is invoked in a husband/wife relationship placing the love obligation upon the husband; love cannot be withdrawn when marital tensions arise.

Notice also the word phileo (φιλέω) in connection with Jesus or God the Father in the John passages cited above and in Matthew 10:37; John 11:36; 20:2; Revelation 3:19. It should be clear that phileo (φιλέω) is not a lesser, “human-kind” of love.

Other love passages could be cited but these serve to establish the point of this posting—“Conventional wisdom” in this case is not incontestable! It is only one choice among other viable options, and, according to this scholar, not the best choice!

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