Synonymy in John 21

From: Stephen C Carlson (
Date: Wed Jun 19 1996 - 09:12:47 EDT

I'm attaching a post I had written over a month ago on this topic, but
for another list in which some of our B-GREEK regulars also participates.

Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>Although there's a difference between AGAPAW and FILEW in older Greek, and
>although AGAPH and AGAPAW are used generally in the NT of the Love that
>esteems a person and seeks that person's well-being as a creatureof God,
>even to the point of self-sacrifice, I think there's a general, but
>probably not universal, consensus that these two verbs are not
>differentiated in meaning here. What does Stephen Carlson say?

I had argued in the past that there is some distinction, as the Fourth
Evangelist's choice of words seems quite deliberate, but I am not so sure
what the distinction is. Whatever it is, it *not* meant to constrast
human love with divine love. First, John used FILEW to describe the
Father's love of the Son (Jn5:20), so FILEW can't rule out a deep godly
love. FILADELFIA is the concept of Christian brotherly love.

Second, there is much synonymy in the passage. Peter said twice, "You
know [OIDAS] I love [FILW] you." (21:15 16) And on the third time he
said, "You know [GINOSKW] I love [FILW] you." (v17) There is the
"Feed my lambs" (v15) -- "Tend my sheep" (v16) -- "Feed my sheep" (v17)
triad synonymous in elegant variation.

Third, Peter apparently understood all the questions to be synonymous:
troubled that he said to him [for] the third time, Do you love me? (v17)
[Carl, could the Greek be understood that Peter was worried about the
words of the third time, or the fact that Jesus asked three times?]

Finally, the whole pericope functions as a reinstatement of Peter after
his thrice denial of Jesus after the last supper, so the meaning of the
verb is not important but the fact that Peter times affirmed his love
for Jesus as many times as he denied him.

Therefore, I feel that whatever difference there is between the two
words, that difference is not crucial to the story.

Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson, George Mason University School of Law, Patent Track, 4LE              : Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs     : chant the words.  -- Shujing 2.35

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