Synonyms in John 21

From: Randy Leedy (
Date: Tue Jun 18 1996 - 12:10:00 EDT

    I'd like to get some reactions to views I have developed
regarding the synonymy of AGAPAW and FILEW in John 21. I am aware
that the preponderance of scholarly opinion today views the passage
as an example of free variation between these words, and I agree that
variation here. I will also admit the possibility of free variation
between AGAPAW and FILEW elsewhere in John.
    The word-study principles I have adopted emphasize the importance
of context. What I mean by that is that the components of meaning I
postulate for a given word should be demanded by, or should at least
mesh with, specific ideas found in context. I understand "context"
very broadly, starting with the immediate context of neighboring
words and expanding in concentric circles to take in the clause,
sentence, paragraph, discourse, literary genre, and social setting (I
would call this the literary context) as well as the teaching of
other passages of Scripture (I would call this the biblical context
and acknowledge considerable overlap between the two). None of this
is original with me.

Operating on these principles, I see strong evidence in this passage
for understanding AGAPAW as self-sacrificial commitment to another's
interests while taking FILEW as signifying personal attachment. Here
is the gist of my contextual analysis. Jesus' first question is "Do
you love (AGAPAW) me more than these?" My former pastor used to say
that "these" is a reference to the fish lying on the beach, because
Jesus never asks anyone to love Him more than someone else loves Him.
But I don't find Jesus asking Peter TO love Him more than someone
else; He is asking Peter WHETHER he loves Him more than someone else.
The critical element of context comes from Peter's rash promise to
stick with Jesus no matter what anyone else did. I see Jesus' first
question as meaning something like "How about it, Peter? You claimed
to love me (i.e. to be willing to sacrifice yourself for me) more
than anyone else. Is it true?" What can Peter say? He had denied even
knowing Jesus! Yet he has not lost his attachment to Jesus, so he
comes back with the most positive statement he can: "I haven't lost
my attachment to you" (you gotta love [FILEW - :-)] a guy like
    So Jesus comes down a level and asks, "Peter, are you willing to
deny yourself for me at all?" Again, what can Peter say? He had shown
precious little agape (i.e. self-sacrifice) in the recent crisis. Yet
he holds his ground in professing his attachment.
    Finally, Jesus questions that attachment by asking Peter whether
he loves (FILEW) Him, and this question grieves Peter. Now here comes
the Greek-grammar/immediate context argument: "the third time" uses
the definite article, both times. But the "second time" is
anarthrous. I believe this usage of the article shows that Jesus
asked essentially a different question the third time. He asks; He
asks a second time; but the third time He asks something different.
Peter's grief is not that Jesus questioned him three times, but that
the third time, unlike the first two, He directly challenged what
Peter knew to be the bedrock of his soul.
    I have done some exploration throughout the New Testament looking
at the usage of the article with ordinal numbers. The support for
this view seems to be there: without the article the ordinal seems to
indicate another instance of the same sort as previous ones; with the
article it seems to signify an additional instance that differs from
the previous ones. In other words, I suggest that the use of the
article is positive evidence that the context DEMANDS us to
understand Jesus' third question as different from the second. Since
the only difference is the verb, the two verbs must mean something
different here; therefore this is not an instance of free variation.
    I have not explored extra-biblical usage; does it further confirm
or nullify this hypothesis about the article with ordinals? Neither
have I explored the commentary/journal literature to any great
length, but I am aware of no analysis quite like this in print. While
I sense the force of arguments about John's use of synonyms, I sense
far more strongly the force of various levels of context and of the
use of the article in this particular case. I recognize that the
exchange almost certainly took place in Aramaic, and that Jesus and
Peter would have used the same verb throughout. But I believe John
picked up on something the words themselves that made the men's
meanings clear and that he chose to convey the difference compactly
by careful use of these two Greek verbs.
    I would appreciate whatever responses anyone cares to give. If a
thread on this topic has already been worked in this direction, it
was before my time, and I apologize for raising it again
unnecessarily. I will be away from the office a good bit this week,
and my time is limited enough that I don't know to what extent I will
be able to respond to responses. Still, here's a worm for any hungry
fish out there. Can you eat it off the hook without getting snagged?

In Love (AGAPH [I trust]) to God and Neighbor,
Randy Leedy
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:37:45 EDT