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In John 21:15-17 (ESV), we read:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" three times. In order, the translation of the word love in the greek is as follows:

agapaō agapaō phileō

Is there a reason or any significance as to why Jesus uses "phileō" the third time around? English translations don't seem to distinguish this fact and maybe they shouldn't.

Note: Blue Letter Bible is where I got the Greek references.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! That's a fine question and I know that some interpreters see this change as of utmost significance and others think it meaningless. See also: Has the meaning of “Love” changed enough to warrant substitutions in Bible translations? –  Jon Ericson Oct 12 '12 at 16:58
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Are you looking for statistical significance, or a word study?:) –  swasheck Apr 18 '13 at 5:09
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D.A. Carson's short book on Exegetical Fallacies provides a specific answer to this question. He illustrates a fallacy which is committed when too much emphasis is placed on the difference in verbs used in this passage. I refer to that book for this answer, but I think @swaschek has also provided a very good answer below. –  Qoheleth-Tech Apr 18 '13 at 23:00
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@Qoheleth-Tech I have Carson's book on my shelf and never thought to reference it. Dough! Thanks for the pointer! –  Dan Apr 19 '13 at 5:11
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@Qoheleth-Tech i had to read that book every semester of Greek in seminary (3 years) –  swasheck Apr 19 '13 at 14:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted
+50

As has already been pointed out, the progression is

Jesus ἀγαπᾷς ἀγαπάω Verb Second Present Active Indicative Singular

Peter φιλῶ φιλέω Verb First Present Active Indicative Singular

Jesus ἀγαπᾷς ἀγαπάω Verb Second Present Active Indicative Singular

Peter φιλῶ φιλέω Verb First Present Active Indicative Singular

Jesus φιλεῖς φιλέω Verb Second Present Active Indicative Singular

Narr. Φιλεῖς φιλέω Verb Second Present Active Indicative Singular

Peter φιλῶ φιλέω Verb First Present Active Indicative Singular

The crux of this passage is the use of different root words in this exchange. Much stock is placed on the differentiation between the two lemmata with the primary distinction being something along the lines of ἀγαπάω as a standard of God's love and/or the way that the people of God should love each other. When this distinction is made, ἀγαπάω is usually held over against φιλέω which, apparently, is a baser skill or imperative.

Grammatically, there's nothing significant to note about the tenses, voices, or moods in this passage. Present, Active, Indicative may carry some imperatival force in this context and Aktionsart would only be useful to the degree that it tells us that the author is describing an event as it occurred in real time.

Verbal aspect theory would look at this and note that this conversation is the focus of the narrative, but that in the foreground is Peter's first response that Jesus knows (οἶδα) that Peter loves (φιλέω) him. What's significant is that the specific morph of οἶδα that is used is οἶδας (οἶδας οἶδα Verb Second Perfect Active Indicative Singular). Verbal aspect would note that the perfect would emphasize Peter's acknowledgement that he absolutely knew that Jesus knew the answer to the question. Aktionsart would say that Peter knew that Jesus has always known and currently knows that Peter loves him.

Otherwise, the verbs themselves are not heavily marked, especially in light of the perfect that occurs within the passage.

As for the words themselves, looking at the occurrences in the SBLGNT, here's what we have:

+--------+-----+
| ἀγαπάω | 143 |
| φιλέω  |  25 |
+--------+-----+

and here are the occurrences by book:

ἀγαπάω

+--------+-----------------+----+
| ἀγαπάω | 1 Corinthians   |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | 1 John          | 28 |
| ἀγαπάω | 1 Peter         |  4 |
| ἀγαπάω | 1 Thessalonians |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | 2 Corinthians   |  4 |
| ἀγαπάω | 2 John          |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | 2 Peter         |  1 |
| ἀγαπάω | 2 Thessalonians |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | 2 Timothy       |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | 3 John          |  1 |
| ἀγαπάω | Colossians      |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | Ephesians       | 10 |
| ἀγαπάω | Galatians       |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | Hebrews         |  2 |
| ἀγαπάω | James           |  3 |
| ἀγαπάω | John            | 37 |
| ἀγαπάω | Jude            |  1 |
| ἀγαπάω | Luke            | 13 |
| ἀγαπάω | Mark            |  5 |
| ἀγαπάω | Matthew         |  8 |
| ἀγαπάω | Revelation      |  4 |
| ἀγαπάω | Romans          |  8 |
+--------+-----------------+----+

φιλέω

+-------+---------------+----+
| φιλέω | 1 Corinthians |  1 |
| φιλέω | John          | 13 |
| φιλέω | Luke          |  2 |
| φιλέω | Mark          |  1 |
| φιλέω | Matthew       |  5 |
| φιλέω | Revelation    |  2 |
| φιλέω | Titus         |  1 |
+-------+---------------+----+

A brief glance at these numbers shows that John is more invested in using words in the semantic domain: Attitudes and Emotions, sub-domain: Love, Affection, Compassion (Louw-Nida).

A quick search on the Perseus Hopper reveals that, outside of Flavius Josephus, ancient authors had little interest in ἀγαπάω, but φιλέω was much more prevalently used in comparable literature.

Does this mean that this was a divinely-appropriated word that was withheld from human use until the time of Jesus? Probably not. In fact, this rarity increases the probability that ἀγαπάω was a relatively unused word in contemporary literature and was appropriated by Christians to convey their emerging sense of affection.

To force such a distinction between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω is disingenuous. There are places where this distinction is inappropriate (2 Sam. 13:4 Amnon ἀγαπῶ Tamar, John 5:20 The Father φιλει The Son, 2 Tim. 4:10 Demas αγαπησας the present world, 1 John 2:15 Do not αγαπατε the world, John 3:19 the men ἠγάπησαν the darkness).

An alternative solution is that in this instance, the author was attempting to use variety within the text1, assigning words to operators in order to maintain a clear narrative that comes to a satisfying conclusion.

In conclusion, while the general tendency of NT authors is to use ἀγαπάω to convey a higher sense of meaningful love, we need to make sure that we're reading the text responsibly instead of forcing an assumed meaning of a word into the context of the story.

1Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 2nd ed., (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 418.

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The first two occasion Jesus says 'do you love me' using αγαπας which is the word chosen in the LLX and NT to refer to the command of God to love from the Old Testament. In reply Peter only uses φιλω which seems to be a more earthly or humble or 'less noble and commanding' confession of his love.

The possible meaning seems clear when recognizing that this thrice confession follows his previous boasting about being faithful above everyone else and then a thrice denial. (Math 26:33) Before, Peter would have had no humility about his confession. Nevertheless as Peter still confesses his warm affections for Christ (for the word chosen also means 'to kiss') on the third question, Jesus indicates to Peter that his humble confession, though acceptable still needs to be verified. Jesus does this by asking it exactly how Peter has been answering it. He uses the same word Peter was using. In other words, alright Peter, even under your more humble terms of what you are ready to confess, is it true, please confirm.

It would seem then that this, as user sticman pointed out, more thoroughly humbles Peter in testing his confession. However, as at his third time, there is no fourth, we can assume Christ accepts his threefold confession in contrast to his earlier threefold denial.

Note: The analysis of the words in Greek is actually quite complicated and potentially confusing taking up potentially too much space. Brooke Foss Westcott perhaps most known for his co-authoring of The New Testament in the Original Greek, understand the distinction of the two loves being used. The distinction does not seem to be something that can be understood through simple analysis of the way the words are used in the New Testament alone, but requires a broader understanding of Greek during New Testament times:

St Peter in his answer affirms his personal attachment to the Lord, appealing to the Lord’s own knowledge; but his profession differs in two important points from the question proposed. He does not assume any superiority over others (more than these): and he lays claim only to the feeling of natural love (φιλῶ) σε, Vulg. amo te), of which he could be sure. He does not venture to say that he has attained to that higher love (ἀγαπᾷν) which was to be the spring of the Christian life (ch. 13:34, 14:15, 14:21, 14:28, &c.). Moreover now he says nothing of the future, nothing of the manifestation of his love (13:37). Comp. Bernard, ‘Serm. de div.’ 29. fin. (BY B. F. WESTCOTT, D.D., D.C.L.)

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Jesus' use of phileō for the third questioning causes Peter grief - that is, "because Jesus said the third time, 'Do you φιλεῖς me?'". It doesn't seem to be an acceptance, but rather a deeper questioning - "Do you even φιλεῖς me, Peter?" –  Sticmann Nov 6 '12 at 1:15
    
@Sticmann that's really pressing the meaning a whole lot. –  swasheck Apr 18 '13 at 21:50

Jesus is asking Peter if he "Agapao" him. Agapao is a godly type of love like that of the "Good Samaritan" toward the wounded Jewish man on the road. The Good Samaritan cares even for his enemy, his love is unconditional and includes active compassion.

Peter is still at the Phileo stage, where you love your brothers with brotherly love...you love those you know and like and who like you in return. But according to Matthew 5:46 "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?"

In the end, Jesus accepts Peter where he is and accepts his Phileo love.

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Hi Leigh Anne, and welcome to BH.SE! We're a little different from other sites in that we require you to show your work. I know you're not the first to make this argument; could you cite sources? In this case you may have an especially high burden of proof because the argument you're making has been considered fallacious by some, as noted above. However, we still welcome your point of view, especially if you're willing to elaborate on your sources and their methods. –  Susan Oct 19 at 3:40

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