The thrice-repeated question “Lovest thou me?” Jesus posed to Peter after His resurrection as recorded in John 21:15–17 (KJV) actually shrouds a scene at the heart of a tragedy. Looking at the Greek text clarifies the situation.
Jesus asks Peter, ἀγαπᾷς με; agapas me? “Do you love me?” He asks this question twice, both times using the verb ἀγαπῶ agapo (15, 16)—the verb also used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world . . .” Peter, however, responds each time by saying not ἀγαπῶ σε agapo se “I love you,” but φιλῶ σε filo se, a verb one would use in saying to a close friend, “I do care for you.” Peter, burdened by his denial of the Master only days earlier, is now feeling unworthy to gaze at the Master and say to Him that he loves Him.
When Jesus asks Peter a third time, He switches to Peter’s verb: φιλεῖς με; filis me? It is as though Jesus were saying, “Even so, Peter, do you care for me?”
There is little doubt that in Peter’s ears each question Jesus asks has a ring of forgiveness and acceptance. But at the ring of the third question, Peter sees Jesus once again willing to not only accept him as he is but to also stoop down to his level of unworthiness and lift him up. Overwhelmed, Peter feels grieved.
The difference between ἀγαπῶ agapo and φιλῶ filo is not allowable in English, nor in Aramaic. This lack of distinction leads to the assumption that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times, once for each of the three times the disciple had denied his Master. And, admittedly, some contemporary New Testament scholars claim the two words convey no difference of meaning in this passage.
Had that been the case, however, the Greek word in verse 17 would have been τρίς tris “three times.” But it is what Jesus specifically did τὸ τρίτον to triton“the third time” (17)—when He intentionally compromised His wording to Peter’s—that overwhelmed Peter.
Studying John 21:15-17 in light of Modern Greek clarifies this meaning. Both ἀγαπάω -ῶ agapao/agapo and φιλέω -ῶ fileo/filo are contract verbs. Thus, they have an uncontracted and a contracted form. The Greek text in this passage employs contracted forms. Used in Classical Attic, contracted forms would have been foreign to Homer and other ancient Greek authors in the ninth century BC. The difference between the contracted and the uncontracted form of a verb has no semantic bearing. In New Testament these two verbs share some common ground in meaning yet are clearly distinct—a distinction reflected in Modern Greek, which shares much in common with the koine of the New Testament on this point. After 20 centuries, the New Testament sense of ἀγαπῶ in Modern Greek remains intact, while that of φιλῶ I kiss has been reduced to one sense. On the other hand, the meaning of virtually all New Testament compounds and derivatives of φιλῶ (φίλος -η friend, φιλία friendship, φιλαδελφία brotherhood, φιλανθρωπία philanthropy, etc.) is fully preserved in Modern Greek. In this light, one can hardly doubt that this dialogue between Jesus and Peter was held as recorded—in Greek. Additionally, one can hardly doubt that Jesus’ use of φιλῶ in verse 17 was intentional.
There are various views respecting the use of the verbs ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ in John 21:15–17. Regardless, one must bear in mind two vital points: (a) the use of these two different verbs in the original text is not accidental, and (b) their delicate interplay, especially within the context given, can be subject to a “translation which either does not care, or is not able to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.” This should all the more be reason for the Bible student to become familiar with the language of the New Testament.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
1. George Lamsa’s English rendition of this passage from Aramaic follows the KJV wording, thus it does not reflect the distinction between ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ. George M. Lamsa, The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957).
2. See, for example, Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 665-566.
3. Potwin compares the Old Syriac version (AD 150) and the Peshitto version (about AD 300) of John 21:15-17 and finds that, even though the two differ from each other, neither corresponds to the wording of the Greek original. Lemuel Sloughton Potwin, Here and There in the Greek New Testament (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 122-126.
4. That Jesus and Peter could freely converse in Aramaic but also in Greek, the lingua franca of the then Hellenized world, does not sound remote to a thoroughly bilingual person. This situation is hardly any different from that in which two close friends, or brothers, both from Mexico but raised in a bilingual community in Los Angeles, end up at times conversing even in their own hometown in Mexico intimately, and just as naturally, in English.
5. Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), 43.
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