A particularly long-standing belief among Christians is that John 21:15-17 provides an example of a difference between two Greek words for love: agapao and phileo. The former, it is claimed, represents godly, Christian love whereas the second is a lower, ordinary love. Therefore, when Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, we are expected to infer an important distinction among the questions. Jesus asks Peter twice whether he loves (agapao) him but Peter’s reply uses phileo. All kinds of homiletical conclusions have been drawn from this difference: for example it is frequently said that this demonstrates Peter’s knowledge of his own frailty by affirming only a lower, phileo love for Jesus. Most Greek exegetes in fact consider such reasoning to be erroneous and it is interesting that the TNIV, a recent update to the NIV, has modified the latter’s rendering of these verses to reflect current scholarship. The belief that the two words have distinct meanings in this passage is a long cherished but unfortunate myth in Christian circles.
The NIV translates this passage thus:
21:15 Simon … do you truly love (agapao) me more than these? … Yes Lord, he said, you know that I love (phileo) you.
21:16 Again Jesus said “Simon son of John do you truly love (agapao) me?” He answered “Yes Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you” …
21:17 … Simon son of John do you love (phileo) me? … Lord you know all things: you know that I love (phileo) you.
So the NIV translates agapao here as “truly love” whereas phileo is translated merely “love” indicating that the NIV prefers a distinction between the two terms. Yet the TNIV removes this distinction by consistently using only “love” throughout these verses thereby recognising no difference between agapao and phileo. Why then, do I think that the TNIV is correct in its handling of agapao and phileo in John 21:15-70?
Firstly, in many passages of the Bible, agapao and phileo are used interchangeably and it is very difficult to discern a clear distinction in meaning – despite what is claimed in many popular Christian writings. Examples can be found even in John’s Gospel where agapao is used for evil, worldly love (3:19) and phileo is used to describe God’s love for his Son (12:43) – exactly reversing the alleged hard distinction between agapao and phileo. Also, and very tellingly, in a number of places the LXX (the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) interchanges between agapao and phileo for the same underlying Hebrew word.
Secondly, there are several other synonyms in 21:15-17 that usually go unnoticed. The author in fact uses two words for “know” (ginosko and oida), two words for “tend” (bosko and poimaino), and two words for sheep (arnia and probata). If we are to infer a difference in meaning between agapao and phileo, shouldn’t we do the same also with the other word pairs? And yet, if we do, we find that there is no lexical, linguistic, exegetical, or theological reason for the variations. This leaves most commentators concluding that John had merely a stylistic reason for the differing terms. So I am thankful for the translation of the TNIV for, I believe, correctly setting us right with the rendering of the words in John chapter 21.
Andy Cheung teaches New Testament Studies at King’s Evangelical Divinity School in the UK