In our last issue, I wrote an article, “Misreading Scripture Cross-culturally,” (Oct. 2023) in which my overall point was that we need to be careful and humble in interpreting and applying Scripture given the historical, linguistic, and cultural gaps between us and the Bible’s original audience. One example I used of how some nuances might be lost in translation from Greek to English was Jesus and Peter’s dialogue in John 21. Citing the different Greek words for love used in the passage (agape and philos), I suggested that Jesus was “asking for a higher standard of love (agape) from Peter, but Peter was honest: at that point, he only had a friendly, brotherly love (philos) for Jesus.” I also suggested that Jesus condescended to Peter’s level of love when on his third ask of “Do you love me?” Jesus used philos rather than agape. However, some readers pointed out that I may have misled you. I knew there were different views of that passage. But apparently a majority of scholars now refute my interpretation. While of course I could be wrong, I do have reasons for believing my view is still valid.
Some scholars point out that the original conversation between Jesus and Peter would have been in Aramaic, not Greek, and because Aramaic has only one basic word for love, the distinction would not have occurred in the original dialogue. However, I would ask, “What theological insight was the gospel writer trying to convey to his Greek-reading audience by describing the conversation with this pattern and use of agape and philos?” Regardless of the Aramaic, the fact John presented it in Greek with such a pattern strongly implies that John was trying to convey something.
The scholarly majority also argue that there was no significant difference in meaning between agape and philos and that the gospel of John generally uses the terms interchangeably.
I am not a linguist, and I am only conveying what I have been taught my entire Christian life about those Greek words. But here are some reasons why I think that John, at least in this specific passage, did have a nuance of meaning between them.
Jesus and Peter’s dialogue in John 21 is the conclusion of a narrative arc that began in John 13, where Jesus predicted Peter’s three-time denial. There, Jesus taught: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) Agape was used for all instances of “love” here. Shortly after, Peter exclaimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus (v. 37), suggesting that Peter understood agape, in this context, to have some sacrificial element. Jesus questioned Peter’s sacrificial love by predicting Peter’s denial.
Later in this same address, Jesus said: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). All instances of “love” in this verse and its immediate context are also rendered as agape. Furthermore, when Jesus commissioned Peter in John 21 to feed and tend his sheep, he was alluding to the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Therefore, I conclude from these passages that John uses agape, at least in this narrative arc, to mean sacrificial love. Much more can be said but I am running out of space.
This is just one example of how well-meaning Christians, all with valid reasons, all respecting Scriptural authority, can in good faith have different interpretations of the same passage. We must therefore hold our views with humility.