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John 21:15: “αγαπας με πλειον τουτων”

Taken by itself, I can interpret “Do you love Me more than these?” as

  • Do you love Me more than these people love Me?
  • Do you love Me more than you love these people?
  • Do you love Me more than these fish?

The third seems very unlikely,  One might think “more than fishing” except that τουτων is plural.

What, if anything, would pin it down to one of these choices?  Or is there another I haven’t thought of?

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  • In English, "more than they" and "more than them" would match the first two meanings, but the word "these" loses the subjective/objective distinction. Does the Greek here make any similar distinctions? Commented May 30 at 17:16
  • @RayButterworth - the word τούτων ("these") could refer to either people or inanimate objects or anything else. It is simply the plural demonstrative pronoun, genitive.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 31 at 4:54
  • As well in English, antecedent of "these" can be people, animals, ideas, objects, or any other plural noun.
    – WGroleau
    Commented May 31 at 5:51
  • @Dottard, my question was about whether the Greek grammar (e.g. genitive) can indicate whether the word "these" is used as the English equivalent of an object or a subject, as in "Subjective: you love me more than they [love me]" versus "Objective: you love me more than [you love] them". Commented May 31 at 12:47
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    @RayButterworth - the word τούτων ("these") could refer to either people or inanimate objects or anything else. It is simply the plural demonstrative pronoun, genitive. That is, the word is quite accurately translated by "these" potentially meaning anything.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 31 at 21:47

6 Answers 6

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Something interesting is that in every single place in this gospel Peter is referred to as “Simon Peter”, except for two places. Here, the phrase “Simon, [the] son of John” is used (and it’s used several times here). It’s also used at the very beginning of the gospel, in 1:42. And, interestingly, 1:42 is where Jesus explicitly names Simon Peter as “‘You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” Verse 21:15 seems to echo 1:42. Everywhere else John refers to Peter as “Simon Peter.” These two places are also the only two places where Jesus addresses Simon Peter directly by name. In all the other cases where Peter’s name is used it is John the author referring to him. I wouldn’t have noticed all this, but R.C.H. Lenski points it out. It might be a stretch to label this an inclusio (book ends), but it feels like it.

It’s also interesting that here Jesus addresses Peter as ‘Simon’, even though at the beginning of Peter’s discipleship Jesus gives the name ‘Peter’ to him. That is, it appears that Jesus’ name for Simon Peter was simply ‘Peter’. But, here, he calls him Simon. That seems salient. It’s more than just poetic for some kind of rhetorical impact. I think it’s meant to stand out.

I’m not sure what all to make of this observation. I wouldn’t want to push it too far. Like, I don’t think Peter is viewed as having destroyed his relationship with Jesus, and somehow he needs to start over. However, this pericope has certainly been viewed as one of renewal. Jesus prompting for a commitment would not in any way be unusual, and it’s reflective of the similar commitment that occurred at the beginning when Peter became a disciple. Again, somewhat of an inclusio.

I’ll admit that it seems a bit silly to think of choice number 3. However, that (a fisherman standing near a large load of fish) was Simon before he became a disciple. And John 21 is introduced by Peter saying, “I’m going fishing”. Which isn’t a hobby of catching a fish or two. It was more like a vocation. If you combine that with the allusion to the pre-disciple Simon, this pericope starts to take on the form of a recommitment to the cause. And, to enhance the notion of commitment all the more, ‘Simon’, ‘Peter’, and ‘Cephas’, all of which have been highlighted in reference to this disciple, mean ‘Rock’. “Simon, are you rock steady? Or impetuous?”

Makes me wonder if this was Jesus way of starting a conversation of, “It’s decision time, Simon, or should I call you, ‘Peter’, the Rock?” I could easily change my mind, but number 3, in the sense of vocation, appears rather an attractive answer. I think another addition is that “tend my lambs” (et al) also serves as a metaphor for vocation.

One last item, the plural (τούτων) could directly refer to the quantity of fish, but use a figure of speech called metonymy--the name of one thing to refer to another. In this case, the vocation. It wouldn't be surprising since the analogy of: 'fishing' is to 'tend' as 'fish' is to 'lambs' holds quite strongly.

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I thought this very good question had already been asked in this group, but a search could not find it. There is no decisive argument for the choice you list. Often in the Gospel of John when Jesus makes such an ambiguous statement, it is purposely ambiguous. This is particularly so between "do you love me more that these disciples" and "do you love me more than these things (your fishing career)." The ambiguity is even more so considering that the language of Jesus and his disciples was Hebrew influenced Aramaic, and the word for love in that language also means like. Thus, "Do you like me more than your fishing career." See: Is there any significance behind Jesus' use of the word "love" in "John 21:15-17"

For ambiguity see:

What does ανωθεν mean in John 3:3?

Woman at the well: What is the significance of Jesus asking her to call her Husband (John 4:16)

What did Martha mean in John 11:24 by the term "resurrection"?

Why does everyone in John misunderstand Jesus?

This includes John's writing: "Overcome" vs "comprehend" in John 1:5

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Westcott's commentary (p302) takes the first choice (without even considering the second) as a pointed reference to Peters' bold claim ("I will lay down my life") in ch13 v37.

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It seems to me that if he was referring to the other disciples he would be inconsistant in his continued efforts to teach them humility and that none was better than another. Did Peter truly love Jesus more than any other disciples? If so, and if Jesus was acknowledging this as fact and accepting Peters statement that he did, then we would not need to heed the advice found in Phil. 2:3 KJV "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves." However as Peter left his past life which primarily included his fishing buisness, seems logical he was teaching him what should now be his focus. To care for the flock of believers. Which he did do.

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    Look at how this fits:: But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25–28, NASB1995)
    – Perry Webb
    Commented May 31 at 1:41
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As is well-understood, Jesus asked Simon Peter three times if he Loved Jesus, because, Peter had denied Jesus three times.

Now, the reason Peter denied Jesus was embarrassingly simple (for him) - Peter was afraid of what the onlookers would think of him if he admitted to being Jesus' disciple. That is, Peter regarded the opinion of these people more highly than Jesus.

Thus, Jesus wanted Peter to get his priorities clear - Jesus was to be the first, best and most important person in Peter's priorities. Thus, if I were to translate Jesus' question rather paraphrastically, it would be something like this:

Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, Son of John, "Do you love me more that you love these people?" That is, am I the most important person in your life now? Do you love me more that you love anything or anyone else?

Peter answered affirmatively. Thus, Jesus appears to be alluding to Deut 6:5 (compare John 20:28) as love for Jesus was to surpass all else.

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John 21:7 ESV

"That disciple whom Jesus loved 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. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish,..".

Simon Peter's action separated him from the other disciples.

It was a dramatic action, which might be interpreted by the other disciples who were trying to sort out the fish as Peter saying, "Look at me , I love Jesus much more than you lot fussing over the fish!"

Simon Peter maybe did want to be with Jesus more than the others, or maybe he had a more flamboyant nature than theirs, so that his actions came out in a more dramatic way.

We can consider whether drama proves love as when John [John 20:3-9] stood outside the tomb thinking and did not rush in. Peter who arrived after John went in before John. John's response is cautious and considered as he stands outside thinking. So who loves the most, the one who charges in or the one who considers? The disciple whom Jesus loved [John 13:23] seems a strong candidate. Though who loves the most is a potentially divisive question when all who love, love in their own way.

I am inclined to think that Simon Peter thought that his impulsive nature seen in throwing himself in the sea, proved that he loved Jesus more than the other disciples. This trait of his had been around for quite awhile and was now challenged by Jesus.

Could Peter look into the hearts of the other disciples and know that he loved more than them just because he liked outward dramatic gestures? He could not. And Jesus points this out to him.

So, "Do you love Me more than these people love Me?" is my choice.

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