Agapaō and phileō

Use and abuse in the gospels

Love is one of the central themes of the holy scriptures. The glorious hope of everlasting life that we share is a gift from our Heavenly Father, whose love was the prime motivation in sacrificing His Son for us (John 3:16). A recognition of this fact naturally leads us to demonstrate love to one another. The Apostle John says as much in his First Epistle:

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:10-11)1

Many of us have a passing familiarity with two of the common Greek words behind our English term “love” in the New Testament: agapaō and phileō.2 Common wisdom is that two different kinds of love are intended whenever these words appear:

  • agapaō denotes a divine, self-sacrificial love, exemplified in God’s offering of his Son
  • phileō denotes an ‘inferior’ human love, more akin to a warm, friendly affection

Our Lord’s threefold questioning of Peter in John 21:15-19 is frequently appealed to as the ‘proof-text’ supporting this distinction.3 Armed with this, the temptation then is to assume that every New Testament occurrence of “love” neatly conforms to one of these definitions. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear exhortations to ‘move on’ from a phileō love in order that we might agape one another, with the assumption that this is the ‘preferred’ love that God wishes us to show.

The aim of this study is to demonstrate that:

  1. These common characterisations of agapaō as ‘divine love’ and phileō as ‘human love’ (or some such descriptions) are not so clearly delineated in the Biblical text as is often assumed.
  2. The ideas expressed by the two terms enjoy substantial overlap (especially in John’s gospel), and in many instances are virtually synonymous.
  3. John’s usage of agapaō and phileō in the 21st chapter of his gospel can more likely be attributed to stylistic reasons rather than any real distinction in meaning.

Human or Divine?

If we insist that agapaō always refers to divine love, we start to encounter problems as soon as Matthew Chapter 5, where Jesus says:

“For if you love (agapaō) those who love (agapaō) you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46)

The context of this passage is the exhortation to love one’s enemies. Jesus explains that this requires an attitude that goes beyond mere reciprocation, and uses the hated tax collectors as an example of how not to demonstrate this. Yet the word for “love” used in both instances is agapaō, which in this context can hardly refer to the love of God.4

The following passages show the other six instances where agapaō is used in a negative sense:5

“Woe to you Pharisees! For you love (agapaō) the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)6

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved (agapaō) the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19)

“…for they [the Pharisees] loved (agapaō) the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” (John 12:43)7

“For Demas, in love (agapaō) with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Timothy 4:10)

“Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved (agapaō) gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:15)

“Do not love (agapaō) the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves (agapaō) the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)

Each of these examples demonstrates the difficulty in restricting the Greek word agapaō to a “good” love or a sacrificial love or a divine love.

John’s Usage

In considering the theme of love in the New Testament, the Apostle John tends to become a focus, and for good reason. Considering agapaō alone, John’s writings include one-third (68) of the total occurrences, 37 of which appear in his gospel. Phileō likewise receives the most generous usage by John, occurring 13 times in his gospel (more than the three synoptic gospels together).

We have already seen that the commonly-assumed distinction between the two words cannot always be upheld across the gospels as a whole. But what of John’s writings specifically? The following table surveys the various ways in which he uses both words:

phileō agapaō
The Father’s love for the Son John 5:20 John 3:35
Jesus’ love for his friends John 11:3 John 11:5
The love of God for men John 16:27 John 17:23
The love of men for Jesus John 16:27 John 8:42
Jesus’ love for John John 20:2 John 21:7

These examples show that John uses both words more-or-less synonymously, a point agreed on by virtually all modern commentators8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16. To insist upon a rigid definition for either term is an over-simplification, and often cannot be supported by the text.

This is not to say that both words are completely synonymous in every instance, but rather that their meanings substantially overlap. The point is that simply appealing to the underlying Greek word in order to determine meaning is fallacious. Meaning is determined by context, which should be uppermost in our minds when studying any word.17

“Do you love me?”

This leads us finally to a consideration of the well-known exchange between the Apostle Peter and Jesus in John 21:15-19. The relevant verses are as follows:

“15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

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

The pattern of Greek words is shown in the table below:

Jesus’ question Peter’s response
agapaō phileō
agapaō phileō
phileō phileō

A great deal has been made of John’s usage of these words here. Those who note the shift and assume it to be theologically significant usually interpret the passage in a way similar to the following:

Jesus asks Peter if he loves him unreservedly with a divine, self-sacrificing love. Peter replies that he does love his Master, but only with a natural, human affection. Jesus asks the question again, with Peter’s response remaining the same. By the third time, Jesus has realised that Peter is not ready to commit to the divine standard of love that he desires, and so he relents and agrees to a compromise with Peter, recognising that his disciple, whilst faithful, is still a ‘work in progress’.18

This interpretation should be rejected on a number of grounds:

  1. It relies on the assumption that agapaō and phileō are intended to convey different meanings which, as demonstrated, is not correct in the context of John’s gospel.
  2. It does not propose any reason for Jesus questioning Peter three times. If Jesus’ intention was simply to force Peter to capitulate and profess the ‘correct’ kind of love, then he has failed without comment.
  3. The conversation most likely took place in Aramaic, not Greek. Therefore the choice of words here are John’s rather than those of the original participants in the conversation.19
  4. John uses three other pairs of words in this passage: boskō and poimainō (‘feed’ and ‘take care of’ the sheep), arnia and probata (‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’), and oida and ginōskō (both rendered ‘you know’ in v. 17). These other pairs are rarely the subject of detailed theological exposition, so it is curious why agapaō and phileō should be.20
  5. The claim is sometimes made that the Biblical writers invested agapaō with special theological meaning, because no other term existed to adequately express the love of God.21 However, diachronic22 study has disproved this, showing that the word was in common usage in Greek literature from the 4th Century BC onwards.23 24
  6. John’s very own summary in verse 17 discounts the possibility of a variance in meaning. “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love (phileō) me?”” This is technically untrue – Jesus had only used this word once, not three times, giving further evidence for John’s synonymous usage of the terms.

Conclusion

 If we accept that John’s usage of agapaō and phileō in this chapter are not intended to impart some deep theological insight into the love of God, how then are we to understand the passage?

Perhaps an historical over-emphasis on word meanings in this instance has blinded us to a simple explanation.

As many commentators note, the incident is a parallel of Peter’s earlier threefold denial of his Lord, even down to some of the finer narrative details.25 Having bravely followed Jesus on that fateful night (when all others had fled), Peter’s lapse in faith must have left a mark on his conscience that is difficult to for us to fathom. Matthew and Luke both record that he “wept bitterly”.26 John’s own emphasis in verse 17 is not on the shift in words used, but rather the number of times Jesus asked Peter the same question. He appears to be deliberately mirroring Peter’s earlier failure.27 By the third question, Peter would doubtless have recognised the connection.

  1. A. Whittaker rejects this view, seeing it as inconceivable that “Jesus would torture his apostle in this fashion”, adding that “this is not the Jesus of the gospels”.28 However, far from seeing this as “torture”, could it not equally demonstrate the gentle compassion of Jesus in allowing Peter to make amends for his past failings? Here is an opportunity for him to confess a love for his Lord not once, but three times. And in so doing, Peter is given the opportunity to ‘undo’ the guilt and shame which must have been his companions for many restless nights after the betrayal.

In conclusion, none of this is to say that there is nothing special about the love of God. On the contrary, scripture teaches us that there is great deal that is special about it. But to appeal to a single word as exclusively expressing all the qualities of divine love is illegitimate, and should be avoided in our study of scripture.

Footnotes

  1. All quotations from the English Standard Version.
  2. A third word is storgē. Although it does not appear in the New Testament, we find a related adjective, philostorgos, in Romans 12:10 where it refers to a kind affection.
  3. “Jesus uses the word for love which is characteristic, in the New Testament, of the highest love there is, the love with which God loved the world, the love which prompts a man to lay down his life for his friends.” Norris, Alfred. Peter Fisher of Men. The Christadelphian, 1982.
  4. The parallel account can be found in Luke 6:32, where “tax collectors” has been replaced by “sinners”. This strengthens the argument that agapaō is not always divine love.
  5. Note also the negative usage of the word in the Septuagint: 2 Samuel 13:15 (lust); Isaiah 1:23 (greed).
  6. This instance is especially revealing when we consider Matthew’s parallel account. He records almost the exact same saying of Jesus, but uses phileō instead.
  7. “Just glance at 12:43, where it is said that the Pharisees “loved the praise of men” and realize that the verb there is agapan! That verse alone should dispel poor exegetical patterns of interpretation among preachers!” Borchert, Gerald L. The New American Commentary Volume 25 B – John 12-21. Nashville: B & H Pub. Group, 2002.
  8. “To make firm distinctions between phileō love and agapaō love is incorrect, for the meanings of the two words overlap…In Jn 21:15–27, some people make a distinction between the two words for love, agapaō and phileō. But these words do not have distinctly separate meanings, and John is famous for using virtual synonyms without any difference in meaning; he o9en switches between words merely for the sake of variety.” Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.
  9. “A basic error of many exegetes is to emphasize the differences of meaning between synonymous terms found in a list; for instance, the terms for “love” in John 21:15–17, the types of sacrifice in Hebrews 10:8 or the terms for prayer in Philippians 4:6. We must at all times be aware of the possibility that the reason for the employment of different terms or phrases may be stylistic rather than theological; repetition may have been used for emphasis, and the differences between the terms should not be stressed.” Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
  10. “Sometimes a lot has been made of these differences, but the fact is that agapaō and phileō are used synonymously in the Fourth Gospel.” Kruse, Colin G. John: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2003.
  11. “There is no reason, on the grounds of Johannine usage, for seeing a difference in meaning between the two verbs.” Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.
  12. “Many scholars, however, including J. H. Bernard, J. Moffatt, C. K. Barrett, L. Morris, and G. Stählin, have doubted whether any distinction is intended in such places as Jn. 21:15–17, where Jesus used both terms while questioning Peter about his loyalty. Morris demonstrated convincingly that such variation is a consistent feature of John’s style (Studies in the Fourth Gospel [1969], pp. 293–319).” Bromiley, Geoffrey William. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.b. Eerdmans, 1979.
  13. “It is difficult to see why a writer of such simple Greek as John should have used the two words in this context unless he intended a distinction to be drawn between their meanings. The existence of any clear distinction, here or elsewhere, is, however, seriously disputed by scholars, and is not noticed by ancient commentators…” Wood, D. R. W., and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
  14. “The suggestion that a distinction in meaning should be seen comes primarily from a number of British scholars of the 19th century, especially Trench, Westcott, and Plummer. It has been picked up by others such as Spicq, Lenski, and Hendriksen. But most modern scholars decline to see a real difference in the meaning of the two words in this context” Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press, 2006.
  15. “It is difficult to find any significance in the pattern of theses words’ usages. Some scholars, having drawn hard and fast differences between the words, have imposed these differences upon various texts of Scripture and thereby produced strained and awkward interpretations. Only on occasion do these words bear particular meanings distinct from one another.” Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN, U.S.A.: AMG Publishers, 1993.
  16. “Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between ἀγαπάωa, ἀγάπηa and φιλέωa, φιλία, it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn 21:15–1ti seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition.” Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
  17. “The best English example is simply the verb love. One may use it for sexual intercourse, platonic love, emotional love, the love of God, and more. The context defines and delimits the word, precisely as it does the verbs for love in the pages of holy Scripture.” Carson, D. A. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000.
  18. “[Peter] will keep his profession of loyalty at the lowest level a man can claim, but the highest of which he can be sure.” Norris, Alfred. Peter Fisher of Men. The Christadelphian, 1982.
  19. The objection is sometimes raised that every word in scripture must be significant (the ‘verbal plenary’ model of inspiration). Sometimes this can cause more harm than good, causing us to look for special meanings in every word, and read into the text ideas which were never intended. Certainly the scriptures are divinely-inspired, but they were also written by human authors. Whatever our view of inspiration, we must recognise that scripture was not written in a vacuum. It was written by authors who used different vocabulary, syntax and style to convey one inspired message. Osborne (2006) echoes this: “The Bible was not revealed via “the tongues of angels.” Though inspired of God, it was written in human language and within human cultures.”
  20. “But in this context, it is difficult to see a fundamental theological or linguistic or syntactical reason for the changes. We seem to be in the realm of slight variation for the sake of vague things like “feel” or “style.” 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.” Carson, D. A. Exegetical Fallacies. Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Paternoster ; Baker Books, 1996.
  21. “Moreover, it was argued, the reason the [agapaō] word group became extremely popular in the Septuagint and subsequently in the New Testament is that writers in the biblical tradition realized they needed some word other than those currently available to convey the glorious substance of the love of the God of Judeo-Christian revelation; so they deployed this extremely rare word group and filled it with the content just described, until it triumphed in frequency as well as in substance.” Carson, D. A. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000.
  22. Diachronic study is the study of how languages change over time. Its ‘opposite’ is synchronic study, which examines a language at a particular point in time.
  23. Joly, Robert. Le vocabulaire chrétien de lamour est-il original? Philein et agapan dans le grec antique. Bruxelles: Presses universitaires de Bruxelles, 1968.
  24. “Agape describes many types of love, having a range of meaning similar to that of the English word “love,” so one should not place exegetical weight on an author’s use of agape/agapao as opposed to other words available to him—it was simply the general, all-encompassing word for love.” Pratt, Richard L., Jr. I & II Corinthians. Vol. 7. Holman New Testament Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
  25. For example, the charcoal fire in John 18:18.
  26. Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62
  27. “Imagine again the scene as the evangelist framed it: a charcoal fire and three questions about Peter’s relationship to Jesus. It hardly takes a genius to relate this event to that of the denial. Facing up to oneself is a traumatic experience.” Borchert, Gerald L. The New American Commentary Volume 25 B – John 12-21. Nashville: B & H Pub. Group, 2002.
  28. Whittaker, Harry. Studies in the Gospels. Biblia, 1984.

Author: Phil Evans

Phil lives in Nottingham with his wife, three children, a dog and two rats. He is a lifelong Christadelphian, and has a particular interest in biblical interpretation, and the original languages of scripture.