Exegetical Insight: The “Agapao” and “Phileo” Kinds of Love in the New Testament
By Romeo Fulga
John 21:15-19: “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.” 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.” 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me” (ESV Translation).
The Christian tradition has embellished the idea that that the word “agape” refers to an altruistic, unconditional superior kind of love that exclusively refers to God’s love toward humanity–a Christian kind of love, while the word “phileo” refers to a brotherly lesser kind of love. This is the traditional interpretation of the words above and by far the most popular one. Based on this assumption, many such interpretations have been promulgated in many sermons and various devotional writings. While nothing is wrong with this traditional designation per se, there is a problem to see it exclusively this way across the board. When we look closer at the Bible we find this interpretation inconclusive and unconvincing due to several considerations which I will outline below:
1. The language spoken by Jesus and the disciples is not Greek but Aramaic. Although Greek language has multiple words for love, such as “phileo” and “agapao,” the Aramaic does not. The Aramaic word for love was “ܚܘܒܐ” and it simply means love or strong affection. This Greek based kind of distinction cannot be made in the Aramaic language, for the passage above, since the dialogue between Jesus and Peter transpired in the Aramaic.
2. The popular idea that “agapao” always expresses the divine, unconditional, selfless, superior love whereas “phileo” expresses the human, inferior love is simply not correct. It is a Christian myth (one of many), a generalization that does not do justice to the semantic range of these two Greek words. The two words have been used interchangeably in the Gospel of John as well as in the New Testament. Here are just a few examples:
Mathew 5:46–Jesus says, “If you “agapao” those who “agapao” you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” You see, here the word “agapao” is used with reference to sinners in a profane way. Same is true in the parallel passage of Luke 6:32. The idea of unselfish unconditional love does not hold here.
Luke 11:43–The term “agapao” is used in reference to the supreme seats in the synagogue with no meaning of “unconditional.”
John 3:19–Here it is recorded that men “agapao’d” the darkness rather than the light. Can this be an unconditional love?
John 12:43–Men “agapao’d” the approval of men rather than the approval of God. This is clearly not unselfish.
2 Tim. 4:10–Demas “agapao’d” the present age (referring to the worldly ungodly values). This cannot be the traditionally godly love.
1 John 2:15–The apostle tells us that we should not “agapao” the world. Here it is again a profane/worldly kind of love.
2 Peter 2:15–Even Balaam and the false prophets “agapao” the wages of unrighteousness. Here the word “agapao” is used with reference to false prophets.
The same interchangeability is also true of the word “phileo” throughout the New Testament. A few examples will suffice:
John 5:20–The Father “phileo” the Son. Here the intra-Trinitarian love between the members of the trinity is described as “phileo.”
John 16:27–The Father “phileo” the disciples who “phileo” God. God’s love here is a “phileo” love in both directions.
1 Corinthians 16:22– Anyone who does not “phileo” Jesus is acursed!
Revelation 3:19–The risen Christ loves His disciples with a “phileo” love.
The two words are also used interchangeably together also. Here a few examples:
As I mentioned above, Luke 11:43 says that the Pharisees would “agapao” the chief seats in the synagogue, while Matthew 23:6 says that they “phileo” those places of honor; moreover, the Pharisees “phileo’d” to be seen praying on street corners (Matthew 6:5). Therefore both words have been used with reference to these seats of power.
God loves Jesus with both kinds of love. In John 3:35 and 15:9, says that the Father loves Him, the word used is the verb “agapao”. Yet John 5:20 speaks of the Father’s “phileo” love for the Son.
In John 11:5 we are told that Jesus “agapao’d” Lazarus, yet a few verses later in the same chapter (11:36) we are told that He “phileo’d” Lazarus.
In John 17:23, the Father loves the disciples with “agapao” love; but in John 16:27, Jesus tells the disciples that the Father loves them with “phileo” love.
In John 20:2 it is written that John is the disciple whom Jesus phileo’d, and just a few verses later, in 21:20 John calls himself the disciple whom Jesus agapao’d.
Therefore, the word “phileo” can be seen in contexts which “agapao” would be expected to occur if the traditional definitions are correct. However, the use of “phileo” in these contexts renders such traditional views as unlikely at least and erroneous at best.
3. Moreover, no reliable distinction can be drawn from the LXX usage of the two words either. For example, the love that Jacob had for Joseph is expressed with “agapao” in Gen. 37:3 and in the very next verse the word “phileo” has been used (Gen. 37:4). In 2 Samuel 13 when Amnon raped Tamar, both verbs were used in the same context. In Proverbs 8:17 both verbs were used again, for the same Hebrew word.
4. Apostle John frequently uses stylistic variations of his own in different occasions with reference to different pairs of words. We have seen the first pair being “agapao” and “phileo” in the passage above. Another pair he uses interchangeably in the same passage is the pair “bosko” and “poimano” (“feed” and “take care” of sheep). Moreover, another pair also is “arnia” and “probata” (“lambs” and “sheep”). Yet another pair used in the same pericope is “oida” and “ginosko” (both meaning “to know” in vs 17).
5. The climax of this story in our passage (John 21:15-19), doesn’t hinge on the word “agapao,” but rather, Peter’s healing and restoration are seen in the use of the verb “phileo.”
In conclusion the variegated uses of “agapao” and “phileo” in this passage, as throughout the New Testament and LXX, are for stylistic reasons and variety rather than having different semantic connotations or implied meanings. This is a rather common practice of the fourth evangelist. Jesus is repeating the question three times to show Peter the importance of ministry. If we say we love Jesus we should show that love practically in loving them as Jesus loved them. The repetition usually was used in the Bible in order to convey the importance (two times) and highest degree (three times) of something.
6. Additional notes: Some linguists have seen a distinction between the two Greek words “agapao” and “phileo.” However, many commentators, linguists and theologians have sharply criticized a “cemented (always true)” distinction between these two words. If such distinction exists it should be decided in individual passages, locally and not generalized over the entire Bible. It is true that “agapao” and “agape” have become signature words for divine love in Christianity, especially modern and contemporary Christianity. The word “agapao” was rarely used in the classical Greek, and that mostly with the meaning of “love” between a man and a woman. It was also rarely used with religions connotations. The word cognates of “agape” came to prominence in the Greek literature around fourth century B.C. Before that time “phileo” was the word of choice for the Greeks in both literature and everyday life. “Eros” was the “poetical” word used much in literature with that same meaning. It seems that “phileo” started to drop usage because it started to connote more and more the word “kiss.” Therefore, in this way, “agape” started to be used more and more for standard love in the classical period. However, it was the translators of the LXX who took the agape love to its glory and gave to it new and special connotations, especially in the religious arena. So much so that it was once thought that the LXX actually coined the word. “Agapao” in LXX was generally used (as “agapan”) for God and man alike, although the former seems to have had preference. It was via LXX that the agape love came on the stage of early Christianity, and was used by the NT authors generally in the same manner as the LXX. Most commentators and linguists currently agree that seeing too much distinction between “agapao” and “phileo” in the Bible leads to fallacious exegesis.