Peter, do you love me?

peter's-renewalIt is often suggested that Jesus used a the word ‘agape’  in John 21:15-17  to describe a higher form of love when speaking to Peter, but when Peter chose to use ‘phileo,’ he did so because he was indicating a lower form of love. According to this theory, Peter was hurt when Jesus asked him if he “really” loved him according to the lower form of love (phileo) that Peter had already confessed twice before. The crux if this interpretation relies on the belief that ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ carry significantly different meanings; however, this is a claim that is not supported when we look at the weight of the evidence. Let’s take a look.

1. Scripture tells us why Peter was grieved.

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” (Joh 21:17 ESV)

Note that there is no indication in the Scripture that Peter was grieved because Jesus had used a different word for love. The reason given in Scripture about why Jesus was grieved is very different from the one suggested in the Agapeo / Phileo theory.

2. The conversation was originally in Aramaic.

In Aramaic, it is likely that only a single word would have been used for every instance where ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ are used in the Greek text. The following is the translation of this passage found in the Peshitta (an ancient Aramaic translation that some scholars believe was derived from an original Aramaic source document that may have also been a source for the synoptic Gospels i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

 (Do you love me more than these?)

רחם אנת לי יתיר מן הלין

  (Yes Lord, you know that I love you.)

אין מרי אנת ידע אנת דרחם אנא לך

 (Do you love me)

רחם אנת לי
(Yes Lord, you know that I love you.)

אין מרי אנת ידע אנת דרחם אנא לך

 (Do you love me?)

רחם אנת לי
(It grieved Caphas because he said a third time “do you love me?”)

 וכרית לה לכאפא דאמר לה דתלת זבנין דרחם אנת לי

(Lord, all things you understand. You know that I love you)

מרי כל מדם אנת חכם אנת אנת ידע אנת דרחם אנא לך

—– Note the consistent use of רחם to denote love in this passage —-

3. The idea that there was a distinction in meaning between agapeo and phileo is a very modern idea.

This passage was frequently commented on by the writers of the Early church, some who were fluent in Greek, but none ever mentioned the idea that the change of word affected the meaning of this passage. In the fourth Century, Augustine, in the City of God, uses a Latin translation of this passage to prove that ‘dilectio’ and ‘amor’ are completely synonymous; he uses this passage because it uses both Latin words and he assumes that his readers will acknowledge that the use of these two distinct Latin words is synonymous in this context. It is unfathomable to believe he would chosen this example if there was any debate on whether the underlying Greek words were or were not equivalent. After presenting the Latin translation, he concludes with the following statement:

“I have judged it right to mention this, because some are of opinion that charity or regard (dilectio) is one thing, love (amor) another. They say that dilectio is used of a good affection, amor of an evil love. But it is very certain that even secular literature knows no such distinction.”

4. Most Greek scholars reject the idea that John intended to make a distinction by changing the word used for Love in this passage.

Carson, Bruce, Bauer, Danker, Borchert, Morris, Mounce, and others have all rejected this interpretation of this passage.

5. The few Scholars who do believe there is a distinction in the meaning of these words do not even agree on what that distinction is or even which word denotes the “greater” love; they offer very contradictory assessments of each word’s meaning.

Kenneth Wuest (Wuest’s Word studies from the Greek NT)
“In John 21 : our Lord uses ‘agapao’ in verses 15 and 16, ‘phileo’ in 17. Peter uses ‘phileo’ three times. Our Lord uses the noblest word in the Greek language the first two times and changes to Peter’s word the third time, but assures Peter that his coming martyrdom speaks of the fact that his future love for his Lord will be based not only upon his delight in his Lord but upon his apprehension of His preciousness.”

Don Wilkins (NASB translator) says:
“On the more specific question of PHILEO/AGAPAO, I would like to suggest that PHILEO is a higher form of love than AGAPAO. AGAPAO seems to be a ‘charitable’ love in that one provides for another’s needs, without developing a relationship as a friend to the other person (i.e. no personal ties). PHILEO, on the other hand, implies the close connection between friends and the related obligations that were so important in the ancient world. By this interpretation, then, Jesus twice asks Peter if he is committed to him at the lower level of love, and Peter responds by raising the commitment to the higher level of a true friend. The third time, Jesus questions whether Peter is really committed to him at this higher level, or perhaps whether Peter really understands what such commitment really entails, and this would explain Peter’s hurt feelings. So it is not that Jesus asks him the question three times, it is rather (as I think the Greek implies) the fact that Jesus uses PHILEO the third time. Some people object to the notion that AGAPAO would not include the bonds of friendship, but in every passage where the objection would be raised, I think there is a reasonable answer–sometimes that friendship is not being denied, but that it is just not the focus of AGAPAO.”

6. The words themselves are used nearly synonymously in Scripture.

Love for the Father
The Father loves (ἀγαπάω) the Son (Joh 3:35 ESV)
the Father loves (φιλέω) the Son (Joh 5:20 ESV)
Love for Lazarus
So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love (φιλέω) is ill.” (Joh 11:3 ESV)
Now Jesus loved (ἀγαπάω) Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (Joh 11:5 ESV)

Love for John
whom Jesus loved (φιλέω) (Joh 20:2 ESV)
whom Jesus loved (ἀγαπάω) (Joh 13:23 ESV)

Loving for evil things
everyone who loves (φιλέω) and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:15 ESV)
people loved (ἀγαπάω) the darkness (Joh 3:19 ESV)
they loved (ἀγαπάω) the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (Joh 12:43 ESV)

Additionally, the word אהב (love) used in the Hebrew OT is translated by both agapeo and phileo in the LXX, sometimes these words are used interchangeably in the same verse even though only one word was used in the original Hebrew text. (ex. Pr. 21:17; Ho. 3:1)

7. The interchanging of synonyms was very common in biblical literature.

When we look at the passage in John 21:15-17, we find that John used a number of synonyms in this passage. The interchange of agapeo/phileo was only one out of four examples of similar synonym usages in these 3 verses alone! It is a pattern we see repeatedly thought the Scriptures.

Jesus: ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων (Do you love me more than these?)
Peter: ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε (Yes Lord, you know that I love you)
Jesus: βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου (Feed my lambs)

Jesus: ἀγαπᾷς με (Do you love me?)
Peter: ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε (Yes, Lord, You know that I love you).
Jesus: ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου (Tend my sheep)

Jesus: φιλεῖς με (Do you love me?)
Peter: κύριε, πάντα σὺ οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε (Lord, You know all, you know that I love you.)
Jesus: βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου (Feed my sheep).

Love: ἀγαπάω, φιλέω
Know: οἶδα, γινώσκω
Sheep/Lamb: πρόβατον, ἀρνίον
Tend/Feed: ποιμαίνω, βόσκω