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
Southern College