What are the difficulties in understanding John’s use of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in John 21:15-17?
Ὅτε οὖν ἠρίστησαν λέγει τῷ Σίμωνι Πέτρῳ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Σίμων ⸀Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων; λέγει αὐτῷ· ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· βόσκε τὰ ⸁ἀρνία μου. 16 ⸂λέγει αὐτῷ πάλιν⸃ ⸀δεύτερον· Σίμων ⸁Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με; λέγει αὐτῷ· ναὶ κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου. 17 λέγει αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; ἐλυπήθη ὁ Πέτρος ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· φιλεῖς με; καὶ ⸁λέγει αὐτῷ· κύριε, πάντα σὺ οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ ⸂[ὁ Ἰησοῦς]⸃· βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου. (NA28)
ἀγαπάω and φιλέω are often used as synonyms, especially in the Septuagint (LXX), the major Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the translations that try to show a difference there is no consensus on how they are meaningfully different for the usage here.
The way John uses ἀγαπάω and φιλέω makes sense if their meanings were slightly different. When Jesus switched to φιλεῖς με from ἀγαπᾷς με, “the third time” τὸ τρίτον has the article while “again a second time” πάλιν δεύτερον does not and has again πάλιν.
If we consider that this conversation most likely took place in Aramaic/Hebrew, does this give us some insight into the difference between what Jesus said and Peter said? Looking at the Septuagint (LXX), the most common Greek translation of the Old Testament, ἀγαπάω predominately translates the Hebrew אהב.
Figure 1. Hebrew words ἀγαπάω translates in the LXX. (Charts generated with Logos Bible Software.)
The Greek word φιλέω translates נָשַׁק (kiss) more often than any other word. However, this does not fit the context. The next most common word is the Hebrew אהב. But, of interest is the Hebrew word רֵעַ. It is the most common word for friend in the Hebrew Old Testament (Olyan, S. M. (2017). Friendship in the Hebrew Bible. (J. J. Collins, Ed.) (p. 4). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.). The Greek word for the friend is φίλος, the noun with the same root as φιλέω. Also note the strange translation of רָעָה the noun meaning evil in Jer. 22:22.
Figure 2. Hebrew words φιλέω translates in the LXX.
Here is what is happening. The Hebrew רָעָה has three homonyms: [I] vb. pasture, tend, graze; [II] vb. prob. associate with; and [III] *desire, opinion, through, disposition. Also there is the noun רָעָה meaning evil from the root רעע. Thus, while most translators today take רָעָתֵֽךְ in Jer. 22:22 to to come from the noun (“your evil”), the LXX translated it from homonym [II] (“your love/assication”). None the less it show the connection with the second homonym. The Hebrew word רֵעַ has the second homonym as its root.
Hebrew usually uses the participle to express the equivalent of English present tense, thus רֹעֶה for for the second homonym, or meaning, “that I love/(am associated with) you.” But, the same phrase if interpreted as with the first homonym means, “that I am shepherd with you,” or “that I graze you.”
The homonyms of רָעָה gains significance when looking at the words βόσκω and ποιμαίνω related to tending sheep. The most frequent word that they translate is the first homonym of רָעָה. It appears that Jesus made a word play on Peter’s words.
Figure 3. Hebrew words βόσκω translates in the LXX.
Figure 4. Hebrew words ποιμαίνω translates in the LXX.
Figure 5. Translating John 21:15-17 into Hebrew to show the word play.
What significance did אהב and רָעָה have? אהב is how to say like in Hebrew as well as love. Thus, what Jesus said could be translated, “Do you like me more than these?” “These” is just as ambiguous in Hebrew as in Greek and English, and the ambiguity was probably intentional. It could refer to Peter going back to his old life of fishing (these things) and well as referring to the other disciples with him (these people).
While רֵעַ is the most common Hebrew word for friend in the Old Testament (Olyan, S. M. (2017). Friendship in the Hebrew Bible. (J. J. Collins, Ed.) (p. 4). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.), it is more commonly used in the sense of neighbor and is used almost as often for countryman as it is for friend. Thus, the verb has the connotation common loyalty or association. In a sense Peter was saying “My loyalty still belongs to you in spite of denying you.”
רָעָה … vb. prob. associate with -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). In Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 945). Clarendon Press.
These words are also in Talmudic Aramaic:
(b. h.) [to join, arrange, cmp. דבר,] to lead, pasture, feed; (neut. verb) to graze. ...
Hif. הִרְעָה to lead to pasture, feed. ... Pi. רִיעָה, רֵעָה (v. Jud. 14:20) to associate, make a friend, companion ...
רְעֵי, רְעָא I ch. same, to feed; to graze. ...
Jastrow, M. (1903). In A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature and II (Vol. 1, p. 1486). Luzac & Co.; G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
רְעוּת f. (v. רֵעַ) friend, neighbor; another....
Figure 6. Senses of רֵעַ in the New Testament.
Peter probably felt like a failure and unworthy after denying Christ, influencing him to return to his old life of fishing. There were other connections in the setting, ἀνθρακιά charcoal fire, used only in John 18:18 and 21:9 in the New Testament. This connection emphasizes Christ repeating the call to reinstate Peter.
Looking at the possible and most likely Hebrew/Aramaic of Jesus conversation doesn’t add much to what the context already tells us, but it is significant in another way. The underlying word play and fit to the context supports the historical authenticity of Jesus’ conversation. The historical significance of this is that it is a conversation of the resurrected Christ, thus a witness to the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.