What is the significance of the two Greek words for “love” in John 21:15-17?

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Does Hebrew have two words that would differentiate between the love of Christ for Peter and Peter's love for Christ?

Question received from Dr. William H. Pape (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 51 (April-June 1996): 7.

I find Jerusalem Perspective extremely interesting and a great help in teaching in a Bible college in Germany.

I write now regarding the text of John 21:15-17. In the Greek text Jesus uses ἀγαπάω (agapaō) for the Greek verb “love,” but Peter uses φιλέω (fileō) in his reply. The explanation often given is that the first word means a higher, truer love, whereas the second word means only to be fond of. It is certain that Jesus and Peter were not talking Greek! My question is: Does Hebrew have two words that would differentiate between the love of Christ for Peter and Peter’s love for Christ?

David Bivin responds:

Only in the first and second “Doy you love me?” addressed to Peter did Jesus use the verb ἀγαπᾶν (agapan). In the third address, Jesus used the verb φιλεῖν (philein), the same verb Peter used in each of his responses. In answer to your question: No. Unlike Greek, Hebrew does not have two verbs for “love” that would differentiate between the love of Jesus for Peter and Peter’s love for Jesus. Assuming that Jesus and Peter spoke Hebrew to each other, this Greek distinction is one of myriad indications that the Gospel of John was originally composed in Greek.

See the related Readers’ Perspective, “Why is your research focused on the synoptic Gospels? Why leave out the Gospel of John?”.

This article originally appeared in issue 51 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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