Re: Synonyms in John 21 etc.

From: James H. Vellenga (
Date: Mon Jun 24 1996 - 09:05:12 EDT

I got a chance to do a little study of the Biblical occurrences of
AGAPAW, AGAPH, and FILEW over the week-end. A technique I use to try to
understand the words better is to try to find an English word or phrase
that fits all or most contexts (NT only -- somewhat as James MacGuire
has suggested, but really because that's the resource I have access to).
But I would like to suggest a couple of hypotheses:

1) That neither AGAPAW nor FILEW is "higher" or "lower" than the other.
Provisionally, I am finding it useful to interpret AGAPAW as "to devote-
oneself-to" and FILEW as "to love-as-a-friend-or-close-relation." This
gives AGAPAW a one-sided and often altruistic flavor, while FILEW has
more of a flavor of mutuality. Treating AGAPAW as one-sided doesn't
mean that we don't get some form of love and/or devotion in return, but
it seems to require an other-directedness -- whether to darkness, to a
neighbor, to a chief seat in the synagogue, or to God.

With this interpretation, John 21 could reflect a different sense of
values in the two speakers. Jesus may be saying, "Are you devoting
yourself to me?" and thereby asking for Peter's total commitment,
whereas Peter is saying, "What do you mean? Don't you know that I love
you as a friend or brother?" And finally Jesus acquiesces and puts the
question in terms that Peter can understand at that stage of his
"spiritual journey."

2) That AGAPH carries the flavor of "selfless devotion" to a larger
extent than AGAPAW. I suspect that distinctive endings may reflect a
real difference in etymological evolution. If we allow this hypothesis,
then finding examples of AGAPAW (such as Matt 5.46) that do not connote
selflessness doesn't necessarily obviate the selflessness of AGAPH

In this case, cf. 2 Pet. 1.7, which seems to put AGAPH at a step beyond
FILADELFIA, the "love-of-brothers[-and-sisters]" -- which is
etymologically related to FILEW.

If 2 Pet. really did turn out to be written by Peter, this would reflect
an evolution in Peter's thinking from the episode in John 21!

Jim V.

James H. Vellenga |
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