Phileo vs Agape, or What Language Did Jesus Speak?


OK, in spite of many interruptions and other fun things, I have completed this part of the study on love.  Hold on to your hats!  I’m about to break with tradition, and I’m going to do it unapologetically.  At the end, I have a question for everyone to consider!

I’m sure we’ve all heard it: the long-winded explanations of how the Greeks had four words for love, whereas the English only has the one.  Then, the lecturer tells you that eros, from which we get “erotica”, does not appear in the New Testament.  That means we have three words that are, and it is important to distinguish between them.

You know, that all sounds nice in theory.  I’m a writer, and I like to be precise with my words.  I sometimes will pour over a paragraph for an hour just looking for the “right” wording.  I’ll plug in synonyms, rip portions of the paragraph out, rewrite them, and I still sometimes come away dissatisfied.  So, the idea of a “precise” meaning of a word carries a certain appeal to me.

However, it is also not how real life works.  Much to the chagrin of many writers, synonyms really are used interchangeably, and often – gasp – incorrectly!  Such violations of language stab at the heart of a dedicated wordsmith, making one to desire banging their head against the desk just so the pain will push out the pain of an ill-placed and ill-advised syntactical analog used in the wrong context.

No, having studied at least a couple of languages, there are idioms, expressions and other types of speech that are characteristic to not just each language, but often to various dialects, classes and sometimes individuals.

IOW, language is not mathematics, nor should it be, unless of course we are talking about artificial languages such as computer languages.

Keep in mind, the NT was written in Greek, but many of the exchanges we see in the four gospel accounts probably happened in either Aramaic or Hebrew.  So, if a Greek scholar goes on and on about word usage, this thought alone should send up a red flag!  I’m suggesting that this “scholarly” idea, which has now been mostly repudiated by many current scholars, BTW, has leaked into the COG through well meaning but misinformed Protestant commentators.

This morning’s Church of God Perspective Daily Bible Reading (shameless plug!) in Proverbs 4 was a good example of synonyms.

7 Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.

~ Pr 4:7

What is the difference between “wisdom” and “understanding”?  Aren’t they the same things?  No, not exactly.

Synonyms for wisdom include: acumen, astuteness, balance, brains, caution, circumspection, clear thinking, comprehension, discernment, discrimination, enlightenment, erudition, experience, foresight, good judgment, gumption, horse sense, information, intelligence, judgment, judiciousness, knowledge, learning, pansophy, penetration, perspicacity, poise, practicality, prudence, reason, sagacity, sageness, sanity, sapience, savoir faire, savvy, shrewdness, solidity, sophistication, stability and understanding.

Now, if I were to say to you “discernment”, how many of you would immediately think of “wisdom”?  I daresay very few.  If I say “good judgment”, that is more likely, IMO, to evoke the thought of “wisdom”, but that is still a bit of a stretch.  Why?  They are synonyms, which don’t have to mean exactly the same thing.

Others, like “knowledge”, “learning” and even “understanding” are much more likely to be interchangeably with “wisdom”.

I could cite other examples, but it is more expedient to move on.

Some people think agape and phileo are just interchangeable synonyms, and there is evidence to support such a position.  There is the Just Thinking… blog article “AGAPE and PHILEO: That much different?”, for example.

In Mt. 5:43-46, and Lk. 6:27-35 we are exhorted by Jesus to love our enemies and not just those who love us, and are kind to us. Verse 46 puts a twist on this love. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” If agape is the God kind of love, then how is it that a hated tax collector could also love with agape?

Then, there is the example of one’s love growing cold.  However, the context hardly justifies it only being Christian love that grows cold.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of their interchangeability is the fact that they are used interchangeably.

6 And love [phileo] the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

~ Mt 23:6

vs

43 Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love [agapao] the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets.

~ Lk 11:43

Luke 11:43 should point out that agape is not always a selfless type of love!

Then, there is

2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved [phileo], and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

~ Jn 20:2

vs

23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved [agapao].

~ Jn 13:23

Jesus not only agape’ed John, but He phileo’ed John as well.  If agape were truly a higher form of godly love, then John should feel demoted by Jesus merely phileo’ing him later in the narrative.

Even the famous passage in John 21, where Jesus uses agape twice but phileo the third time doesn’t appear so different in the Syriac New Testament.  While Aramaic has more than one word for love, the translators only used one.

Perhaps little is more convincing of this, however, than the fact that the Father loves [phileo] us:

27 For the Father himself loveth [phileo] you, because ye have loved [phileo] me, and have believed that I came out from God.

~ Jn 16:27

Jesus Himself uses phileo to describe His love for one of the churches:

19 As many as I love [phileo], I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

~ Rev 3:19

I suggest if you are still completely in doubt about this, you take the Agape vs Phileo Love Challenge at King James Bible Believers.  It is an interesting exercise, to say the least.

Now, do I really believe they are completely and totally interchangeable?  No, I do not.  I just don’t see where one type of love is “greater”, “better”, “purer” or “more godly” than another.  If God can phileo, then perhaps by insisting that agape is godly love, we could be missing the point.  The point is that God is wildly in love with us, even as any parent is wildly in love with their sons and daughters!

I also have another beef with making one type of love “better” than another.  The one word not used in the NT is eros.  In our society, it has connotations of wanton lust.  However, isn’t there a place for eros?  Not having eros in a marriage could spell disaster!

Likewise, making out that godly love is a love that is purely by choice with no heart makes it seem cold and calculating.  In other words, it makes it distant and not real.  However, we are told to love God with all our heart and mind, and if we are learning to become like Him, doesn’t it stand to reason He loves us with His heart and mind?

Having said all that, synonyms are not exactly the same.  If they were, one of the words could just be thrown out.  No, to me they describe different aspects of the larger thing called “love”.

Still, what language did Jesus speak to His disciples in?  Do we really think they used Greek on a day-by-day basis?  Most likely, they spoke in Aramaic, the language in common use in Judea in Jesus’ day.  Some have argued that John chose to write the exchange down and switch the third time simply to stop repeating agape so many times.  That seems like a frivolous reason, however.

So the stylistic argument doesn’t seem to pass muster. John seems more than willing to repeat agape many times over without resorting to phileo for style. Additionally, we likely assume that Jesus and Peter were speaking in aramaic, and so we do not have a definite knowledge of what words were actually used. We only know what greek words John chose to describe the conversation. And since style does not seem to be a plausible motivation for his choice here, we are left to wonder why he chose different words.

Secondly, although I accept that the two words may be fairly synonymous, and that there has been much meaning attached to them that is unwarranted, the fact remains that they are different words. So let us agree with the scholars that the words are mainly synonymous, yet slightly different, and that we should not attach strict definitions to them in order to distinguish them. In so agreeing, we can STILL deduce a deeper meaning from the dialogue than what appears in the 2011 NIV translation.

~ “Agape vs. Phileo in John 21”, Emerging Worshiper

Here is my take on it:  Agape means to love by choice.  Phileo means brotherly love, and it represents a closeness that is achieved by blood relation or such a deep feeling so as to be similar to a familial type of love.  Agape might be “higher” in that it is a love that does not expect any return, but phileo is a natural affection that occurs within families and so is more emotional and less calculating.

In short, one is a “head love” vs “heart love”.

So, here is how I interpret John 21:15-17:

15 When they have finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon bar Jonah, do you choose to love Me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You with a heartfelt love.”

“Feed My lambs,” He told him.

16 A second time He asked him, “Simon bar Jonah, do you choose to love Me?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You with a heartfelt love.”

“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.

17 He asked him the third time, “Simon bar Jonah, do you love Me with a heartfelt love?”

Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me with a heartfelt love?”  He said, “Lord, You know everything!  You know that I love You with a heartfelt love.”

“Feed my ewes,” Jesus said.

It is interesting that the Syriac version has “ewes” instead of “sheep” for the third iteration.  Not only is Jesus asking Peter three times as an indirect reference to Peter denying Him three times, but Jesus is telling him to shepherd the young believers, the adult believers and the women believers.  Interestingly, it is with the women in which He switches it to a more heartfelt type of love!  It is not by accident, but it also is not some “lower” type of love.  It is a love that is more relatable for the female disciple!

Of course, the very fact that Jesus even had female disciples was surely shocking to His generation.  However, Jesus was sent for all of humanity.  More to the point, the Church was to be made up of not just men, but also women and children.  Children are indeed precious in the sight of God, and He expects the parents to bring them up His way.  It is interesting that Jesus lists “lambs” first, showing the great responsibility to train the next generation.  However, both men and women are of equal worth in the eyes of the Creator, and Jesus’ instructions to Peter underscore that point.

I am not against using scholarly sources for study.  Even the concordance is a scholarly work.  One of my favorite Bibles is the Companion Bible with lots of commentary.  They can enhance, bring to life and make understandable many passages that would otherwise fly right over our heads.  However, scholars are people, their writings are not inspired, and all of them have some type of bias.  Some “scholars” aren’t even believers!

Not only common sense, such as the realization that Jesus and Peter probably spoke to one another in Aramaic or even Hebrew, needs to prevail, but a theory only stands as well as you cannot disprove it.  Since agape and phileo are not only used differently than what is commonly asserted, but they also are sometimes used interchangeably, the theory that agape means and only means a godly love is easily disproven.  The facts that they are often used interchangeably, plus the fact that even the Father phileos us shows that agape is not some type of “higher” love.  It simply means a love done by choice rather than affection, and human beings crave affection as much as anything else.

With this in mind, do we properly show “Philadelphia” love towards God, Jesus Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ, or do we merely mouth the words?


John D Carmack

About John D Carmack

I am an avid computer geek and Christian. My parents were baptized in WCG around 1973, and a lot of it made sense even then. I went out "into the world" for a while, but God brought me back when the time was right. A true prodigal son, it has deepened my conviction that this world really does need the intervention of Jesus Christ to keep it from destroying itself.