Re: Synonyms (???) in John

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Feb 17 1997 - 11:43:46 EST

At 8:00 AM -0600 2/17/97, Randy Leedy wrote:
>With his usual thoroughness and thoughtfulness Carl has replied to
>the arguments I offered supporting a distinction between AGAPAW and
>PHILEW in John 21. And he makes a case that sounds convincing.

Ah yes, I hear the "MEN" there, and I shall wait for the "DE" to drop.

>>>>(1) I have to say first of all that, while I once felt quite
>confident that this distinction between AGAPAW and FILEW in NT usage
>was both real and important, I now doubt it seriously. Others have
>already shown that the usage of the two verbs in the NT does not
>constate this distinction but rather shows them overlapping in sense
>so far as to make them virtual synonyms.
>I agree that there is overlap, but I don't find it as thorough as
>Carl does. For example, the imperative mood of "to love" uniformly
>uses AGAPAW. Surely this must be significant. And AGAPAW/AGAPH is
>ascribed to God far more frequently than PHILEW/PHILIA. I would like
>to see a more even distribution of these words among similar contexts
>before I could confidently treat them as interchangeable everywhere.

I would agree with Randy that AGAPH is the preferred NT term for love that
is not fundamentally self-interested. Certainly it is the key verb in that
all-important chapter in Paul, 1 Cor 13, and it is used also by Paul in
sharp contrast to GNWSIS, which one could say is intensely self-interested
love of God and akin to ERWS in terms of the antithesis of Anders Nygren's
celebrated book, _Eros and Agape_ (which book on the whole I think
overstates the differences and misses points wherein both Platonic Eros and
Christian Agape may involved a notion of mutual/shared concern). I would
not want ever to say that there's no difference between the two at all;
what I would want to say is that we cannot say that a distinction is
uniformly and universally observed in NT texts, and I have my doubts that a
distinction between the two has any real bearing on the understanding of
John 21.

>>>>I honestly believe that Gary Shogren is right on the mark in
>asserting that one has to assume this distinction from the outset in
>order to find the alternation of the verbs in sequence significant, a
>petitio principii. If one doesn't make that assumption, but observes
>the actual usage of the words in other passages in the NT, then the
>assumption seems to have no support.
>We had a thread some time ago on the use of the scientific method in
>grammar studies, and I don't see how it is possible not to begin with
>one assumption or another. It seems to me that one must form an
>hypothesis, then, as objectively as possible (there's the rub), test
>it for validity. Let me offer an instance where I was open-minded
>enough to reject my initial assumption, just to show that I'm not
>just a stubborn blockhead. In comparing Romans 6:1 and 6:15, one
>notices that Paul asks similar questions: "Should we continue in
>sin?" (v.1) and "Should we sin?" (v. 15). Noting the aorist
>subjunctive in v. 15, contrasted with the present in v. 1, I formed
>the initial hypothesis that Paul in v. 15 is asking a different
>question. In testing the hypothesis, I initially found support in the
>wording of v. 1; not just "Should we go on sinning?" (present
>subjunctive of hAMARTANW), but "Should we be continuing in sin?",
>where the very verb itself ("continue") reinforces the ongoing action
>implied by the present tense. Surely the contrast between this and
>the simple aorist subjunctive of hAMARTANW in v. 15 must be
>significant. So the theory is that Paul in vv. 2-14 is answering the
>question whether a believer should continue in habitual sin, while in
>v. 15 he raises a different question: whether the believer may
>tolerate even an occasional sin.
>But the argument in the verses following v. 15 doesn't support the
>"occasional sin" interpretation of v. 15; for one thing, the present
>tense is used in the verbs for yielding. So the theory is seriously
>weakened. A re-inspection of the differences between vv. 1 and 15
>brings to light a difference that suits the context much better: the
>different excuses offered for a believer's sinning ("that grace may
>abound" vs. "because we are under grace rather than law"). I won't go
>into the contextual support for this view; this message is already
>getting way too long. The changed wording of the question in v. 15 is
>best explained, then, not as being a different question, but rather
>as a restatement of the original question in the simplest possible
>The point of this digression from John 21 is to maintain that it is
>not a methodological flaw to begin a study with an assumption, so
>long as one is willing to abandon his assumption in the face of
>evidence against it. Treat the tenses in Romans 6 like the verbs in
>John 21. Is there evidence that the aorist differs from the present?
>(Yes.) Is there evidence that the aorist does not differ from the
>present? (Yes.) Does the aorist differ from the present in Romans 6:1
>and 6:15? (I don't know. Let's assume it does, see what that would
>mean, and see if the context supports that meaning. Then let's assume
>it doesn't, see what that would mean, and see of the context supports
>that view better.)

I think your point is very well made, Randy. I agree with you altogether.
And I went into my latest discussion of the passage earlier this morning
with a whole, massive set of assumptions that I suspect will appear
questionable to many who read what I wrote. As you say, the fundamental
thing about assumptions is that you allow them to be subjected to
alternative views and critique, and then you decide whether to sustain your
original assumptions, to modify them, or to abandon them.

>My initial assumption in interpreting John 21, based on prior
>understanding of the key verbs, is that AGAPAW signifies a
>self-sacrificing commitment to another's welfare while PHILEW
>signifies personal attachement (IMPORTANT NOTE: this is not precisely
>the same thing as the divine/human distinction that is sometimes
>offered). I find more contextual evidence favoring the assumption
>than I find opposing it. But the weighing of the evidence (and there
>is, indeed, evidence on both sides) is a subjective matter, and I can
>understand how others come out with a different conclusion than I do.
>Finally, I don't fully follow Carl's reasoning on the significance of
>>>> <snip> Moreover, if one really wants to say that the difference
>of the verb is the important thing, then TO TRITON can't really refer
>to actual events reported in the narrative as a whole. Peter is
>grieved BECAUSE he has been asked for the third time "Do you love
>me," not because this is the third time that the verb of the question
>is FILEIS. And the question may be asked regarding the reference of
>TO TRITON in the first clause of the verse: is it to LEGEI AUTWi: "He
>speaks to him for the third time" --or is it to the WHOLE sentence:
>"He says for the third time to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love
>me." Which is it: addressing him for the third time? or putting this
>particular question for the third time? My own inclination is to say
>that THE QUESTION is put to Peter for the third time, and that IT IS
>THE SAME QUESTION EACH TIME, even though the verb is different.
>I see a third possiblity that Carl's arguments don't seem to address,
>unless I'm misunderstanding something: Peter is grieved BECAUSE
>(emphasis Carl's) Jesus' third question, in contrast to the first
>two, challenges even Peter's personal attachment to Him.

I did discuss that alternative this morning earlier in my "Coming up for
air the third time ..." post. I think it is indeed a possibility; but I
don't find it convincing. I've also tried to argue that this is not simply
a matter of the rehabilitation of Peter or of the rebuke of Peter but also
a matter of Peter's assumption of a leadership role in the community of
believers--what I think is really the main thrust of the narrative: the
threefold denial must be repudiated in a threefold affirmation; then there
is the threefold charge to tend Christ's flock.

I suspect that this whole exchange has sharpened us all up very helpfully,
whether or not we've come to share each other's perspective on the matter;
I think we all understand better how and why we justify our understanding
of the text in terms of what the Greek text says. I'm grateful for the
whole exchange. And I'm much more satisfied myself than I was when we took
up this issue last summer.

I don't mean to suggest for a moment, either, that I deem the discussion as

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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