Coming up for air "the third time" (was AGAPAW in John 21)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Feb 17 1997 - 09:27:12 EST

My apologies for including all this background text, but I think it's
probably pretty important for understanding the questions at stake here.
I'll try to eliminate what seems less important.

At 12:12 AM -0600 2/17/97, Paul Zellmer wrote:
>Gary S. Shogren wrote:
>> Yes - but what I'm saying is, you need to presuppose that PHILEO is an
>> easing down from AGAPAO, the very thing that the evidence does not seem to
>> support. Wouldn't you have to say as well that Peter has been notched up
>> from feeding the lambs to tending the sheep?
>Gary, one of my tasks in overseeing a translation of the Bible into a
>minority language is to help the team discover the minor differences in
>meaning or standard usage of close synonyms. I can't speak for you, but
>I know that when I speak formally or write, I often weigh these subtle
>meanings in my decisions as to the word to use in a situation. By
>convention, close synonyms mean that the words are used interchangably
>in many (if not most) situations. This does not imply, however, that
>the words have become exactly the same in meaning. The only cases that
>I have found for an exact equivalence of meaning have been situations
>where a language has borrowed or incorporated words from two different
>languages. I don't see this as being the case with FILEO and AGAPAO.
>Given that, could not John 21 be a situation where the GNT writer is
>actually calling out a difference between the two?

I'm not sure that this view of close synonyms is quite or at least
necessarily valid. Perhaps the language of love may serve as a useful
comparison: what is the difference between saying "I love you" and saying
"I care for you"? My guess is that this probably depends upon the persons
speaking and spoken to; I can readily imagine "I care for you" sounding
altogether inadequate to a woman who wants to hear "I love you," but on the
other hand, I can just as readily imagine someone avoiding the phrase "I
love you" precisely because that verb has been so trivialized and therefore
preferring to say "I care for you," believing that to be a much warmer
expression of authentic love. This is not a case of a word borrowed from
another language but rather it is a matter of the associations that speaker
and listener bring to their speaking and hearing of these two expressions.
Eliza Doolittle can readily fling at Freddy her indignant: "Don't talk of
love! Show me!"

My impression, Paul, is that you disagree fundamentally with Gary here and
are not really talking about "minor differences" between FILEW and AGAPAW;
I think you are insisting that the difference is major. And I have to agree
with Gary: you're not gettng that from the text itself--it's the assumption
with which you're reading the text. But let me go on to other items in your

>Also, although I did not mention the change of the age of animal nor the
>type of care directed to be given, I think that your question would lend
>more support to the progressive nature of the passage than it would
>undermine it.

The passage is loaded with "synonyms," real or imagined. You, Paul, insist
on the fundamental importance of AGAPAW in relation to FILEW. Gary says
that the shift from ARNIA to PROBATA could also be said to be significant,
and you say this could support the "progressive nature of the passage." But
note that the shift from ARNIA to PROBATA takes place in the second
question-and-answer pair, and PROBATA is also in the third imperative
following on Peter's third response. Well, which is the superior item?
PROBATA or ARNIA? Older animals? I'm not so sure; a few weeks ago we were
noting that Matthew's preferred term for members of the believing community
is "little ones." This is John, not Matthew, so maybe that doesn't matter,
although I would point out that this chapter is an appendix to John's
gospel and it appears intended (some, like Raymond Brown and certainly
Rudolf Bultmann, would say, at least, and I would agree) to bring the
teaching of the gospel of John more into harmony with the Synoptic gospels.
Be that as it may, there's another alternation: the first command in
response to Peter's claim to love Jesus is BOSKE TA ARNIA MOU, the second
is present in the third as it was in the second, but the imperative verb
BOSKE present in the first has returned in the third. I fail to see any
significant difference between the verbs POIMAINW and BOSKW, and although
PROBATA and ARNIA aren't exactly the same, is the difference really quite
so significant?

And what is the point of the admonition "Feed/pasture my lambs/sheep"?
Someone, I don't remember who, suggested that this was "penance" for
Peter's denial. But surely it is church leadership, Peter's assumption of
the role of shepherd of the flock of believers. I do believe very strongly
that chapter 21 has to be read not only as a sequel to the first 20
chapters of John but as a sequel to the Synoptics as well. The passage that
bears most closely on this exchange of Jesus and Peter is the exchange in
Luke's Last Supper story, Lk 22:31ff. SIMWN, SIMWN, IDOU hO SATANAS
although Protestants don't particularly like to read Mt 16:18-20 as an
appointment of Peter to leadership over the community, it's hard to read
those verses honestly to mean anything else (I'm not saying that it
supports a papal institution, but it surely points to a leadership status
of Peter in the early church). Ultimately I think that a primary function
of chapter 21 is to place Peter and the Beloved Disciple into a harmonious
relationship; I think that the right interpretation of this chapter is
tightly bound up with the right interpretation of the four gospels as a
whole and the tenuous but not unreal threads tying John's gospel to the
Synoptics. And I really think that how one is inclined to judge this
alternation between AGAPAW and FILEW is profoundly impacted by how one
understands (i.e. what assumptions one makes) about Peter's leadership role
as set forth in the gospel tradition.

>> Anyhow - I mentioned that this synonym discussion can distract us from the
>> flow of the passage; an in my experience, every sermon I've heard on this
>> focuses so entirely on the alternation of verbs that it becomes an end in
>> itself.
>This danger is inherent in any exegetical sermon. Although I
>predominantly use this form of preaching, I have to keep reminding
>myself that the congregation is not looking for a scholastic argument.
>They are looking for a way to apply the truth of the Scriptures to their
>lives. I am more comfortable in finding the meaning in the passage from
>the change of words, since this is clearly seen in the text, then I do
>in referring the passage back to the denial in the courtyard, which
>seems more likely to be eisegesis since the text never makes reference
>to it. I guess I would be more shaken in my position, which I admit is
>mere opinion, if you, Carl, or someone could show me where my
>interpretation of Jn 21:17b is wrong, that the Greek would actually have
>been different if John meant to say, as I see this case, that Peter
>grieved because Jesus' third question was, "FILEIS ME;"

I personally think that this translation of Jn 21:17b is tendentious. Of
course such a meaning is POSSIBLE, given the Greek text, although I don't
think it is especially probable. If the author had meant to say just
precisely that and nothing else, he might have written, ELUPHQH hO PETROS

ME?' In my judgment the "natural" way to understand this sequence is,
"Peter was hurt because Jesus had said to him for the third time, 'FILEIS
ME?'" That is, the hurt comes not from the form of the verb used but from
the fact that the same question has been asked for the third time. Surely
this is the signal of Peter's EPISTREYAI, his "recovery" as pointed to in
Lk 22:32; henceforth he will proceed to STHRISAI TOUS ADELFOUS, to be their
shepherd. And that, I think, is where the center of gravity in this
narrative lies, NOT in the subtle wordplay between FILEW and AGAPAW.

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

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:38:06 EDT