The phrase "disciple whom Jesus loved" is used 5 times in John's Gospel. It is commonly accepted each use refers to the same person, John the Apostle.

Four of the 5 times the word [G25 - agapao] is used (ESV):

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved (ἠγάπα), was reclining at table at Jesus' side (13:23)

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved (ἠγάπα) standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” (19:26)

That disciple whom Jesus loved (ἠγάπα) therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. (21:7)

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved (ἠγάπα) following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” (21:20)

In one a different word, [G5368 - phileo] is used:

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved (ἐφίλει), and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (20:2)

There is an appreciable difference in the meaning, and, notably Matthew, Mark, and Luke use φιλέω (phileo) in describing Judas' betrayal of Jesus:

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss (φιλῆσαι) him, (Luke 22:47)
Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss (φιλήσω) is the man; seize him.” (Matthew 26:48)
Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss (φιλήσω) is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” (Mark 14:44)

My questions:

  1. Is "the disciple whom Jesus loved" the best understanding of "...τὸν ἄλλον μαθητὴν ὃν ἐφίλει ὁ Ἰησοῦς..." in John 20:2?
  2. Should the disciple whom Jesus loved ἐφίλει in John 20:2 be seen as the same disciple whom Jesus loved ἠγάπα (in 13:23, 19:26, 21:7, and 21:20)?
  3. Why would John choose to describe himself (or another disciple) differently in this situation by using the same word Matthew, Mark, and Luke used to describe Judas' betrayal of Jesus?
  • sort of a add on, or follow up, why is it not translated 'the disciple who loved Jesus'?
    – N.Ish
    Mar 28, 2017 at 18:19
  • @N.Ish Are you asking why whom is in the objective case? Mar 28, 2017 at 19:51
  • @Dick Harfield, possibly. I'm asking why it's 'Jesus loved the disciple' and not 'the disciple loved Jesus'?
    – N.Ish
    Mar 28, 2017 at 19:54
  • I'm sure the disciple loved Jesus. However, John is the disciple and now the writer. He realized he was getting the greatest gift a son (Jesus) could give him (i.e. His mother to watch over). Thus, John was overwhelmed and began describing himself as "the one whom Jesus loved". Mar 14, 2019 at 1:37

3 Answers 3


I think that the difference, as you suggest with the other Scriptures you cite, is that φιλέω conveys the sense of some demonstrated act of affection. Also, in John 20:2, the verb tense in Greek is actually imperfect. One Orthodox translation of this verse1 reads:

Then she runneth and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus was regarding with affection ...

There are 32 occurrences of the word in the Septuagint, where it usually means to kiss, but occasionally also seems ambiguous. For example (Proverbs 8:17 LXX):

I love those that love me [ἐγὼ τοὺς ἐμὲ φιλοῦντας ἀγαπῶ]; and they that seek me shall find me

I happened to notice that in Latin, φιλέω seems to be translated with amare, whereas diligere is used for ἀγαπάω. This further suggests to me that ἀγαπάω corresponds to love in the sense of dedication, whereas φιλέω corresponds more to a show of affection. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

1 Holy Apostles Convent, The Orthodox New Testament: Evangelistarion
2 English translations of the Septuagint text are from Brenton


Interesting questions! In short, I am convinced that John uses these words for "love" as synonyms rather than using them to distinguish two different kinds of love/affection. As evidence, take a look at the use of "agape" and "philos" and their cognates:

John 5:20: The Father loves (phileo) the Son

John 3:35: The Father loves (agapao) the Son

John 11:3: Lord, behold, he (Lazarus) whom You love (phileo) is sick.

John 11:5: Jesus loved (agapao) Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

John 16:27: The Father Himself loves (phileo) you

John 17:23: You have sent Me, and have loved (agapao) them as You have loved Me

To further show that we cannot differentiate the two words by saying that agape is the noblest of loves while philos is a less noble love, consider the following:

John 3:19: and men loved (agapao) darkness rather than light

1 John 2:15: Do not love (agapao) the world or the things in the world.

More examples can be cited, but these, I believe, suffice to prove my point. Any good writer, to keep his writing from being tedious, will vary his language - this distinction between "agapao" and "philo" in "the disciple whom Jesus loved" should not be seen as anything other than rhetorical. In a similar way, John formulates "whom Jesus loved" in slightly different ways in different places - it is the idea communicated, not the words used, that is the point:

John 13:23: matheton autou ... hon egapa ho Iesous

John 19:26: ton matheten ... hon egapa

John 20:2: matheten hon ephilei ho Iesous

John 21:7: ho mathetes ekeinos hon egapa ho Iesous

John 21:20: ton matheten hon egapa ho Iesous

The slight variation between these, e.g. "ekeinos" in 21:7 and "autou" in 12:23, cannot simply be explained by differences in cases or the place of the phrase in the sentence - though different words are chosen, they communicate the same thing. Taking John 21 as an example, John employs 3 synonymous words for "fish" (v5, 6, 10) and two for "sheep" (v15, 16), but these different words are clearly not intended to convey different meanings. Thus as an English text might use "gift" and "present" to refer to the same object, John uses "phileo" and "agapao" synonymously. This is not to say that the two words for "love" are equal in every way, just as "gift" and "present" are not equal in every way - just that the ways in which John employs them they are synonymous.

  • Your statement: "Any good writer, to keep his writing from being tedious, will vary his language" is logical but the use of the words does not support this conclusion. I have a chart showing the use of agape and agapao in the NT: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/27622/… Agapao is used more in John than any other work; this pattern is magnified in the Letter 1 John. However, phileo is not used a single time. Apr 8, 2017 at 19:05
  • IOW there is no effort to vary the language, just the opposite: the frequency of using the same word is increased. This question does not look at the Letter (1 John) but the failure to use phileo even once in the Letter draws even greater attention to the selective use in the Gospel. In addition, the use in the scene of the empty tomb establishes an allusion to the betrayal by Judas. If the writer wanted to vary the language it would be natural to do so in one of the other scenes, either the Last Supper or breakfast by the lake to avoid making an allusion to the phileo betrayal by Judas. Apr 8, 2017 at 19:14
  • 2
    As I have shown by several examples, John does use agapao and phileo synonymously several times elsewhere. The fact that he fails to do so in the two particular scenes you mentioned nonwithstanding.
    – Niobius
    Apr 10, 2017 at 6:40
  • The cited scriptural examples I think adequately demonstrate your point @Niobius. It makes sense that John uses the various forms of love synonymously. Apr 13, 2017 at 11:34

For many years, I have heard the conversation between Jesus and Peter described as them speaking on two different levels. However, When one looks at the meaning of AGAPAO (commitment), it makes all the sense in the world.
AGAPAO - Are you committed to me, Peter? PHILEO - You are family, Jesus! Are you committed to me, Peter? You are FAMILY to me, Jesus. How much more can I be committed to you?? The John 3:16 passage also makes a lot of sense with this idea of Comitted. How much more committed can God be to His creation? A passage that makes that even more clear is when we read that the Scribes and Pharisees are "committed" (AGAPAO) to the most important seats in the synagogue! The whole idea about the "different levels of love..." causes a lot of unnecessary confusion. PHILEO shows the family bond, whereas AGAPAO shows the level of commitment to...
Too often this has been defined as a "love that is totally unselfish, that is at the sacrifice of self..." And yet, twice we find it used in the total opposite: Complete selfishness when it is used for the Scribes and Pharisees attachment to the important seats!

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