The Love of John 21 and the TNIV / NIV

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

  1. Two Types of Love? | Kouya Chronicle - pingback on January 19, 2009 at 9:51 am
  2. Andy
    Interested in your new post. Like most people, I was always led to believe (including in my NT Greek studies, which were fairly foundational) that agapeo was the kind of love which always wishes the best on the other person – even an enemy, and that phileo indicated ‘family’ kind of love.. both being different from eros, the love between a man and a woman.

    Is scholarship now saying that this is not the case (which is how I understood your post). if so, presumably we should conclude that phileo (family) love means exactly the same thing as agapeo, in that we should treat all people (even enemies) in the same way would treat our own family?

    I suppose we all use different words to say the same thing at different times. But even so, it seems odd that John would do this so close together in one short passage. Perhaps he used different words deliberately in the same way I would (often using a thesaurus) in order to avoid repeating the same word too many time?

  3. Chris,

    I’m afraid that popular Christian literature and church sermons are plagued with myths of Greek exegesis and the example above is the same. I’ll be doing more posts on exegetical myths in due course! (Next up: the nonsense that claims that the aorist tense has a “once for all” meaning, which is an exegetical myth that seems to be common in devotional commentaries).

    Anyway back to the subject: it is not possible to make a hard distinction in koine Greek between agapao and phileo. There is a small difference of course, but then there are hardly any synonyms in Greek or English that exactly match. There’s a proof aplenty when we look around, and I cited a few examples above of places where agapao and phileo are used in ways that are different than is claimed from the Great Love Myth (I just coined the term). But there are more: in the Septuagint there is a case of incest and rape being described with agapao love and in John 16:27, the Father is described as having phileo love for Christians. The Great Love Myth says that it ought to be agapao. Another example: we find the apostle Paul in one of the pastoral epistles saying that Demas was in love with the world but this love is the word agapao. Did the great apostle get his verbs mixed up?! Me genoito (may it never be)!

    There are lots more examples like this and I think that today’s Greek scholars agree that it’s exegetically unwise to make hard distinctions between agapao and phileo, despite what is often said in devotional books.

    Although it might seem striking that John switches between agapao and phileo, in fact it isn’t. It’s just that typically, we don’t analyse John’s method of using words. We hear one example of him switching between words and assume that it’s highly unusual but in fact John has a tendency to alternate between words quite a lot — and I demonstrated how he did this with other words in John 21:15-17. When we realise that it’s really very typical of John to alternate between synonyms, it makes us realise that the agapao and phileo switcheroo is no big deal. I recall Moises Silva (one of the world’s foremost Greek scholars) saying that John is “famous” for just this kind of stylistic switching. In other words, John does the thesaurus thing that you mentioned.


    Andy, I shall be grateful if you will discuss different translations of Chapter 13 in the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. In my childhood, I heard it read more than any other passage. I think I could quote from it before I had any real notion of what it was about.

    In those days there was only the authorized version. In time ‘charity’, as Paul describes and discusses it, came to be understood by me as the ultimate in human nobility. While it is unattainable, it is still a better guide to conduct than the ‘shalt nots’ of the commandments. When new translations appeared and were read in church, I did not like the substitution of ‘love’ for ‘charity’ one bit – indeed for a long time I felt only contempt for the new translations. These modern fellows, so I thought, simply did not ‘get it’. Could they not see that ‘love’ no matter how selfless always includes an element of selfishness while St. Paul’s ‘charity’ is selfless? Later on, I was assured that the modern versions were more accurate than the old and I reluctantly accepted.

    I have never had the opportunity to hear directly from a scholar on this subject. What is your take?

    Sincerely, Peter

    PS I have NO greek. Please bear this in mind if you are so kind as to answer me.

  5. Peter, thanks for the comment. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, I do think that love is the best word to use because since that is certainly the closest English equivalent to agape. I wonder whether charity says too little. After all, it strikes me as much fuller expression to love one another than to show charity towards one another.

    Regarding the King James Version, I have often wondered whether in the 16/17th century, the term charity had a much stronger meaning than it has today. In this day charity is associated with occasional voluntary work on the side for various organisations. I’m no expert on the Elizabethan English but it will be interesting to know whether the word has changed meaning since.

  6. So are the Greek exegetical dictionaries, such as Strong’s or Vine’s, wrong when they define apagao as ‘to love in a social or moral sense’, and phileo as a fondness? Could there be a desire to communicate a different nuance of meaning? In John 21 Jesus is showing Peter that he is not where he should be (protests, ‘what about him?’) but he will get to a place of sacrificial love in that he will give his life for the Lord. The argument of the different verbs for ‘to love’ seems to fit very well in this context. Also I don’t think we should fall into the trap that, if indeed apapao does speak of a higher love, that God must therefore be limited to love in that sense and cannot phileo. The hebrew word ‘ahav’ in the old testament speaks of affection, according to the Strong’s. (Mal 1: 2 for example). Just thought I would ask about this.

    Also Andy, you said, “(Next up: the nonsense that claims that the aorist tense has a “once for all” meaning, which is an exegetical myth that seems to be common in devotional commentaries).” On commenting on Romans 6: 7 – 8 Martyn Lloyd Jones claims that it is the aorist tense, which speaks of a once for all act not to be repeated. If what you are saying is true, then Mr Lloyd Jones would have written pure fiction on that point. Would that be a true conclusion?

  7. no serious Greek scholar would resort to either Strong’s or Vine’s dictionaries. They are useful for general glosses and in that sense, the definitions you cite are acceptable. Those words have so much more than one simple meaning. The technical Greek lexicons such as BDAG but support the information I provided above.

    I think perhaps you also misunderstood my post. I did not suggest that God is only capable of a higher love.

    I’ll get onto the aorist tense soon. The aorist tense does not in itself ever mean “once for all never to be repeated”. Ever. However, it can be used in such contexts but it will be the overall meaning of the passage from which we deduce such a meaning and not from the verb tense itself.

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