I recently received the latest issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, and an interesting article, really quite well done, treats the familiar issue arising from John 21:15–17 (“Peter, do you love me”), as to why Jesus uses one Greek word for love (related to agape) while Peter answers with another Greek word for love (related to philia). Actually, Jesus asks the question three times, and Peter answers three times. In the first two iterations, Jesus uses the verb ἀγαπάω and Peter uses φιλέω. But in the third and final instance, both Jesus and Peter use φιλέω. It’s a curious interaction, and people have wondered for a long time whether the two verbs for love indicate two different kinds of love (a view often heard in churches) or whether they are just synonyms.
The new article is:
Paul Aaron Himes, “Loving Wisdom: The Ἀγαπάω-Φιλέω Exchange in John 21:15–17 as an Allusion to LXX Proverbs 8:17,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 30.3 (2020): 379–402.
I like this article mostly because he surveys the issues very well, provides a good account of scholarship, presents good research, and develops a new (to me, anyway) theory.
As Himes says, whereas preachers generally assume that agape is a higher form of love than philia, scholars typically see the two terms as synonymous, and they explain the variation in John 21:15–17 as merely that—variation, stylistic variation, avoiding repetition. Himes himself argues in common with the majority of scholars that the two words are synonyms, but he further argues that the variation in John 21 is not simply stylistic but echoes Proverbs 8:17. More on that last point later, but for now let me give you some more information from Himes.
We learn from Himes that not all scholars regard agape and philia as synonyms. The major study arguing for a distinction (that agape is the highest form of love) is:
Ceslas Spicq, Agapè dans le Nouveau Testament: Analyse des Textes, 3 vols. (Paris: Librairie Lecoffre, 1959).
Also see for a strong articulation of this view: Kenneth Wuest, “Four Greek Words for Love,” Bibliotheca Sacra 116.463 (1959): 246–47.
And then two recent articles have more-or-less taken up the view of Spicq, though not necessarily in terms of Greek literature as a whole but specifically in the Gospel of John. That is, these two scholars argue that the Gospel of John presents agape as a higher form of love than any other.
David Shepherd, “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17,” Journal of Biblical Literature 192 (2010): 777–92.
Dieter Böhler, “Liebe und Freundschaft im Johannesevangelium. Zum alttestamentlichen Hintergrund von John 21,15–19,” Biblica 96 (2015): 599–608.
Himes (pp. 384–87) does a great job of showing the lack of evidence for a significant distinction in the meanings of philia and agape (or, actually, the verbal forms). He concludes:
…the texts examined indicate a significant amount of interchangeableness. This is not to argue a complete synonymy for the two words. However, while in theory φιλέω could refer to an “inferior” form of love, this has not been proven, since no clear example exists of φιλέω depicted as being inferior to ἀγαπάω in the NT, the LXX, or, so far as I can tell, anywhere else in 1st-century Greco-Roman literature. Nor are the two words ever pitted against each other. The consensus of modern scholarship seems justified, at least on this point.Himes, p. 387
Himes points out that in John 16:27, φιλέω is not an inferior type of love, not cause for embarrassment. “The problem with Peter [in John 21] was not that he ‘φιλεῖ’ instead of ‘ἀγαπεῖ,’ but rather that he has not yet evidenced either true φιλία or ἀγάπη” (p. 389).
Another oddity in the conversation between Peter and Jesus—an oddity that Himes mentions but does not fully treat—is that the words for “feed my sheep” are different each time.
βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου. (v. 15)
ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου. (v. 16)
βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου. (v. 17)
On this oddity, Himes says that “Böhler has adequately accounted for this lexical variation” (Himes 395n59, pointing to Böhler p. 602).
Himes wants to establish a link between John 21 and Proverbs. He sees these shared themes between John 21 and Proverbs 8–9: banquet, seeking-and-finding, and mutual love. He does admit that the interchange of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in Proverbs 8:17 is probably just variation (p. 395 n. 58). But the pattern that recurs in John 21, the fact that it is repeated—and not randomly, but Jesus uses ἀγαπάω twice while Peter uses φιλέω twice, before they both use φιλέω—”cries out for an explanation” (p. 395).
Four times in the LXX ἀγαπάω and φιλέω occur close-ish together (within 20 words). Here I use the NETS translation.
It is I who am fond [ἀγαπάω] of those who love [φιλέω] me, and those who seek me find me.Proverbs 8:17
A needy man loves [ἀγαπάω] joy; he likes [φιλέω] wine and oil in abundance.Proverbs 21:17
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, and love [ἀγαπάω] a woman who loves [ἀγαπάω] evil things and is an adulteress, just as God loves [ἀγαπάω] the sons of Israel, but they turn their attention to foreign gods, and they like [φιλέω] cakes with raisins.”Hosea 3:1
Weeping she wept in the night, and her tears were on her cheeks; of all those who love [ἀγαπάω] her there is no one to comfort her. All that were her friends [φιλέω] dealt treacherously with her; they became enemies to her.Lamentations 1:2
The only one where two entities (Wisdom and her disciple) love each other (sorta like John 21) is Proverbs 8:17. Himes thinks the Gospel passage is written up in such a way as to intentionally echo Proverbs 8:17. What would be the point of that?
Jesus, ultimate Wisdom [cf. Prov 8], will love those who love him, but in order to claim to love him, one must seek him.Himes p. 398
Himes also thinks that the threefold request for love at John 21 points back to the threefold denial (Himes p. 397). He thinks φιλέω is used in the third interchange by both Jesus and Peter as a means “of resolving the tension between the juxtaposed verbs” (p. 399).
I myself am not completely sold on the echo of Proverbs 8 in John 21, but it’s certainly worth thinking about, and this article by Himes is certainly worth reading.