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I haven't found a way to search to see if questions on specific Biblical passages have already been asked.

I'm trying to find out if anyone has dealt with Jesus' possible Hebrew/Aramaic words in the conversation with Peter in this passage.

John 21:15–17 – ἀγαπᾷς με … φιλῶ σε (do you love me … I love you, ESV) – Are the different words translated love in this passage significant or are they only synonyms? This is the question translating this passage. Most translations show no difference in these words. Some translations that show a difference are “lovest thou me … I am attached to thee“ (1890 Darby), “dost thou love me … I dearly love thee” (Young’s Literal), “me amas … te quiero” (La Biblia de las Américas), “diligis me ... amo te” (Latin Vulgate), “do you truly love me … I love you” (NIV), “do you love Me … […—with reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father] … I love You [that I have deep, instinctive, personal affection for You, as for a close friend]” (The Amplified Bible), and “do you love me … I am your friend" (Living Bible).

The Septuagint (LXX) in Proverbs 21:17 has both words as synonyms. However, the question is why does this passage make sense interpreting the words as having different meanings? In particular, why does John have Jesus saying φιλεῖς instead of ἀγαπᾷς on the third time? Why is John placing emphasis on the third time? Is it because Jesus is using the different word that Peter used on the third time, or is it because Jesus asked the question three times?

In all likelihood John’s Greek is a translation of Jesus’ words in Hebrew/Aramaic. Does Hebrew/Aramaic support the possibility of different means for these two words? While the LXX uses both ἀγαπάω and φιλέω to translate אָהֵב, is there another Hebrew/Aramaic verb with the noun form meaning friend? While the word חָבַר has this meaning,* the Hebrew word that stands out is רָעָה (Aramaic רְעָא, ܪܥܳܐ), because this word has three homonyms (same spelling different meanings). Delitzsch and the Peshitta used this word to translate βόσκε (feed, ESV). The Peshitta also used it to translate ποίμαινε (tend, ESV). This word has three possible meanings, depending on usage: I - pasture, tend, graze (BDB); II – vb. associate with (BDB); [“1. LN 34.1–34.21 (qal) be a friend, be a companion, i.e., be in an association with a person in a friendly relation based on common interests or vices (Pr 13:20; 28:7; 29:3+); (hitp) make friends with (Pr 22:24+); 2. LN 34.66–34.78 (piel) be best man, i.e., be an attendant of the groom at a wedding (Jdg 14:20+),…”]** ; III – (in later Hebrew and Aramaic) opinion, thought, disposition (BDB). What would make the most sense is if Peter used the piel of רָעָה, thus meaning “We’re best friends,” a response to Jesus’ “more than these.” We do not know the exact words Jesus and Peter used and only have them translated into Greek by John. But, the word רָעָה opens up the possibility that Jesus may have done a play on Peter’s word. Thus, not only does it seem likely that John’s play on words is a reflection of Jesus’ own words, but it is likely that not all of Jesus’ play on words could be translated by John.

What we do know is this is Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after he had denied Christ. Part of Peter’s struggle was that he hadn’t yet grasped what Jesus’ Messiahship was all about. His views were still influenced by Jewish tradition. In fact, a study of the Hebrew/Aramaic words for friend showed that these words are often used with the meaning of ally or associate in military terms. Jesus told Peter that he is to take a leadership role of pastoring the flock of Christians. He is to not worry about the roll Jesus gives to other disciples.


*vb. unite (usually intr.), be joined, tie a magic knot or spell, charm (BDB) - Genesis 14:3 (joined forces, ESV); Psalm 94:20 (be allied, ESV); Daniel 11:6 (make an alliance, ESV); Daniel 11:23 (an alliance is made, ESV); 2 Chronicles 20:35,36,37 (joined with, ESV); Exodus 26:3,6,9,11; 28:7; 36:10,13,16,18; 39:4 (coupled to one another; joined together; attached ESV); Hosea 4:17 (joined to idols, ESV); Psalm 122:3 (bound firmly together, ESV) of Jerusalem; Ecclesiastes 9:4 (joined with all the living, ESV)]

**Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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My Greek professor often commented, "While we don't want to read to much into subtle differences between two words, neither should we read too LITTLE. Two different words used closely together generally mean two different things. If they both meant the same thing, it seems as though one or the other word would have passed from usage, and the stronger one prevailed."

That being the case, I would tend to think that John, having used two different terms, meant to convey some difference, however subtle, but intentional and meaningful. Whether Jesus said them in Aramaic or Greek we can't know, all we have are the words (and intended meaning) of John. So, might the conversation been along this line:

Jesus: "Simon, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς) me?" Peter:, "Lord you know that we are (φιλῶ) friends..." (humbled over denial) Jesus (Pressing for a renewed commitment): "Yes, but do you LOVE (ἀγαπᾷς) me?" Peter can only repeat his previous response: "Lord you know that we are (φιλῶ) friends..." Jesus (disappointed): "Is that ALL we are, just 'friends'?"

I am also intrigued by another pair of changing terms, being οἶδας (mental knowledge or intellectual understanding) vs. γινώσκεις (knowledge gained through relational experience). Does this change of terms on Peter's part convey a deep sorrow for his betrayal, that plays out more like:

"Simon, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς) me?" Peter:, "Lord, (οἶδας) THINK about it... you KNOW that we are (φιλῶ) friends..." Jesus (Pressing for a renewed commitment): "Yes, but do you LOVE (ἀγαπᾷς) me?" Peter repeats: "Lord, it stands to reason (οἶδας) that we are (φιλῶ) friends... Jesus (disappointed): "Is that ALL we are, just 'friends'?"

Here, Peter realizes that "all the evidence" (knowledge) indicates what a poor friend he had been, so he appeals to their RELATIONSHIP, finally replying, "You are aware of all things (πάντα σὺ οἶδας)... But then he changes his plea to "You have EXPERIENCED my friendship (σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε)..." Is he appealing to the ENTIRETY of the years they have spent together to outweigh the one moment of abysmal failure when he denied that he even knew his teacher? He dares not boast of what he still hopes to be true, that his love (in SPITE of his failure) will yet find favor in Jesus eyes.

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I earlier explained that the Lambs were the Apostles in verse 15 that Peter was commanded to feed.

In verse 16, the Sheep are the Jews and in verse 17, the Sheep are the Gentiles. In reference to verse 17, Jesus presented a lesser form of love to Peter because He was referring to the Gentiles. The Jews had no dealings or much regard for the Gentiles; they were considered dogs unto the Jews and Peter was a Jew.

If you will read in Acts 10, Peter went to the house of Cornelius and was very surprised that God had poured out His Spirit on the Gentiles. Peter was under the assumption that the Spirit was reserved for the Jews. Prior to Peter's visit to Cornelius, he had a dream of unclean animals and was told to eat of their flesh. Then the light came on and Peter realized that the dream he had was that the Spirit would be poured out onto all believers Jew or Greek.

In John 21 verse 17, Peter did not have a strong affection for the Gentiles.

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There are two questions here.

(1) there is the question as to why Jesus uses the two different Greek words for love in the context of John 21. There are a lot of dynamics in play in the passage. In verse 15 the question is different than it is in the other two times. In fact, Peter actually ignored part of the first question.

The background to the context may be the denial by Peter in the hours before the crucifixion. Some have even suggested that this is the reason Peter went fishing in the first place. That he felt as if he had denied his Lord and as a result he had been set aside. That might explain why Peter keeps using φιλῶ σε, instead of ἀγαπᾷς. Perhaps he did not feel worthy to address Jesus using ἀγαπᾷς -- back to the part he ignored in the first question. Certainly Jesus kept reasserting that Peter was still going to be prominent in the Church, based on the command to feed my sheep. It is hard to know why exactly that Peter was grieved. Was it that Jesus had asked three time, reminiscent of the denial? Was it that Jesus had changed his use of the words to agree with Peter. It is extremely difficult to determine for sure from the context.

(2) As to what Hebrew/Aramaic words might have actually been spoken it is even more difficult if not impossible to know what might have been said in another language. While many scholars, including many evangelicals, contend that Aramaic was the common language of both Judea and Galilee that he must have spoken in Aramaic. This is the whole debate of ipsissima verba (words) versus ipsissima vox (voice). Scholars in the late 19th century were primarily on the side of ipsissima verba, that the gospels contain the actual words of Jesus. Then through most of the later 20th century the swing was the other way, that the gospels only contain the voice or ideas of Jesus and not the actual words. Then in the last twenty years or so there have has been a small swing back to ipsissima verba. This is due to the fact that there have been a number of discoveries that show that most of Judea and Galilee was multilingual, speaking two or three languages; including Greek. Certainly Aramaic was common as there are Aramaic phrases found in the gospels. Of course that just means it was common, and maybe even the most common. Yet it doesn't prove that Greek was not spoken, just as the presence of foreign language phrase in English usages does not prove that those foreign languages are the most common language spoken here. I am one of those who would argue that the Gospels contain the actual words of Jesus. The differences between the gospels can be explained through the fact that authors may have emphasized only parts of what was actually spoken. The other is the possibility that some of the synoptic gospels may actually be recording multiple events and not just one event. An excellent book that approaches this on the conservative ipsissima verba side is *The Jesus Crisis** by Robert Thomas*. Years ago I did a paper on it that also pointed out numerous other modern scholars who would argue for ipsissima verba.

So if the gospels contain the actual words of Jesus then your question of Aramaic or Hebrew words would only be on the level of what he might have spoken and not the actual words.

Added later based on comments In the comments there was the question -- why Hebrew in Acts 21:37-41. That question was moved to another question with my answer. Feel free to over alternatives

Why Hebrew in Acts 21:37-40

  • Comment too long to put here. So, added to answer section. – Perry Webb Jan 14 '18 at 15:40
  • Sorry, I'm still trying to figure out how I misread you answer to think you said Jesus taught in Greek. There is good evidence in the conversation with Pilot that he spoke Greek, but he would have taught in the language that the people understood. I agree that we can only take Jesus' words as in the Greek New Testament as authoritative. But, hints at what Jesus' words may have been in the language he spoke may help us with interpretation with the understanding that it is only a possibility and must be judged by what we know in the actual text of the New Testament. – Perry Webb Jan 14 '18 at 21:42
  • The purpose of my original study was to see if it were possible for Jesus to have used two different Aramaic/Hebrew words for the two Greek words John used. If John used the words merely as synonyms, then most likely not. [Note the Spanish translations use synonyms.] The significance of a possible play on words in Aramaic/Hebrew isn't so much the interpretation of the passage, but historic evidence that Jesus' conversation with Peter actually occurred after Jesus' resurrection. Also note Abba is Aramaic (the article at the end). Hebrew would be Ha'ab.. – Perry Webb Jan 14 '18 at 21:59
  • The context of this passage is far more important than the significance of John using two words for love. I agree that often differences in the Gospels are do to multiple events. Prime example is the miracle with the fish in this chapter of John. John and Peter's reaction to the miracle indicates that this miracle was a repeat for Jesus to get them to recall in their memory. – Perry Webb Jan 14 '18 at 22:33
  • The idea that I was trying to offer was an alternative to is your phrase "he would have taught in the language that people understood." There are some scholars who have argued that Greek was not just known but that it was widely known and that he may actually have spoken the words in Greek and not Aramaic. This may have been especially true in Galilee where Greek was the language of commerce. – Ken Banks Jan 14 '18 at 22:33
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The verbs αγαπάω and φιλέω do have different meanings. The first, αγαπάω, denotes unconditional love, charity, or God's love for man. The second, φιλέω, denotes fondness, friendship, and affection.

This actually brings to mind John 15:15, in which Jesus refers to his followers by the word φιλοὺς ("friends"), derived from φιλέω.

John 15:15 οὐκέτι λέγω ὑμᾶς δούλους, ὅτι ὁ δοῦλος οὐκ οἶδεν τί ποιεῖ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος· ὑμᾶς δὲ εἴρηκα φίλους, ὅτι πάντα ἃ ἤκουσα παρὰ τοῦ Πατρός μου ἐγνώρισα ὑμῖν. (Nestle GNT 1904)

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (ESV)

(bolding mine)

Certainly, we are called to be friends (φίλοι) of Jesus, as we can draw from John 15:15. But we are also called to love God with agape (ἀγάπη) as commanded by Jesus in Mark 12.

Mark 12:30 καὶ ἀγαπήσεις Κύριον τὸν Θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου. (Nestle GNT 1904)

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (ESV)

(bolding mine)

Why is it then that Simon Peter uses the verb φιλῶ and not ἀγαπῶ? It's a good question. This is not a question I can answer; I can only give my thoughts.

  1. I think it might possibly be related to Simon Peter denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. Maybe he didn't love Jesus with agape yet. Maybe that came later.

  2. The pain that Simon Peter feels on the third question is later echoed by the pain he feels after the rooster crows thrice. Could there be a connection?

  3. It's also interesting that when giving the greatest commandments, Jesus uses the future tense ἀγαπήσεις. I wonder whether this sense of love was even possible before the crucifixion.

  4. Simon Peter is grieved by the third question, but it's worth pointing out that the third time Jesus asks, he uses the verb φιλέω. Could this detail also have grieved Simon Peter?

  5. At this part of John, Jesus was still alive in the flesh. The word φιλῶ may have come more naturally to speakers of Koine, especially in the midst of friends.

I hope my five thoughts on the matter are worth sharing. Thank you for the interesting question.

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