Synonymy in John 21
There are several issues at play in the question of synonymy in John 21.
1. We can never *prove* or *disprove* synonymy in the work of a
deceased writer, since synonymy is, in fact, a mental perception, not a
palpable reality. Words are synonymous if a particular person detects
them to be so in a particular context. Others may not detect this
synonymy, or may detect in only other contexts. No two words *are*
inherently synonyms. At best, we may say of a pair of words that they
are *potential* synonyms, whose synonymy may or may not be detected by a
certain person at a certain time. Since we do not have direct access to
the writer of the fourth gospel, we cannot *know* whether he perceived,
e.g., agapaO and phileO as synonyms in this case.
2. As I mentioned in my earlier post, if this story is believed to
be based on a veritable event, we must recognize that the conversations
in that incident would have taken place in Aramaic, not Greek. This does
not invalidate consideration of synonomy or of semantic distinction in
our consideration of the *story,* as you have pointed out, but it does
mean that we should not retroject the semantic distinction into the
original event without further consideration. The distinction between
agapaO and phileO, if there is a distinction, is a device of the writer,
not of the original speakers. It is interesting to note in this context,
that that our earliest link to the original Aramaic conversation (the Syriac
translation) contains no hint of a distinction between phileO and
agapaO. The same Aramaic/Syriac verb is used to translate both Greek
verbs. Of course, the Syriac New Testament is a translation of the
Greek, not an independent witness. Furthermore, the Syriac (as a
written) document is probably at least 300 years later than the original
events. However, the failure of the Syriac to make a distinction between
these two Greek verbs implies:
a. that people conversant in the two languages (Greek and
Syriac/Aramaic) in the fourth century saw no need to
distinguish the verbs, i.e., they treated them as
b. If there was any living tradition of Jesus' words in
Aramaic/Syriac, no distinction was preserved between
the verb used by both Peter and Jesus and the one used
exclusively by Jesus.
3. The gospel of John elsewhere uses agapaO and phileO interchangably.
The "beloved disciple" is referred to alternatively as "hon Hgapa ho
iHsous" and "hon ephilei ho iHsous."
4. I (and others) have pointed out in earlier posts that the use of
synonymy in John 21 (if we are correct in detecting it at all) is by no
means limited to agapaO and phileO. There are other terms which appear
to be synonymous. I mentioned particularly two pairs often overlooked:
opsarion / prosphagion (see vv. 5, 9)
ploion / ploiarion (see vv. 3, 8)
The latter pair is a particularly clear case: there is only one boat
involved, whether the writer calls it "ploion" or "ploiarion." The terms
must be (in this context) synonyms. To these we might add the two
verbs used for dragging the fishnet,
surO / elkO (see vv. 8, 11)
Since there are several sets of these terms (e.g., the pairs of terms for
"love," for "know"), a question arises in my mind. Why is it that only the
concrete terms ("boat," "breakfast," "drag") are to be treated as
synonyms, and the abstractions ("love") are to be treated as distinct?
Is this inherent in the text, or is it a perception of later readers,
rather than of the writer himself? We know that variation of terms was a
common rhetorical device in the ancient world (indeed, it still is).
Why, in the absence of other evidence must we assume that the use of
potential synonyms in John 21 is anything else?
Again, we cannot *prove* or *disprove* synonymy. Evidence offered can
never be coercive. But I have not yet seen even a persuasive case for
regarding the potential synonyms of John 21 as anything else, and I
continue to suspect that the semantic distinctions are modern and
Donn W. Leatherman