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

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Feb 18 1997 - 08:25:12 EST

I will try to make this as brief as possible for the sake of any who may be
bored by the discussion; if you are, you may delete at once!

And I want to reiterate my own earlier expressions of gratitude to all who
have participated in this discussion. If we have achieved nothing more and
have altered nobody's opinion regarding the degree of synonymity or
semantic distinction between AGAPAW and FILEW, still we have reached
greater clarity on the reasons for our individual preferred interpretations
of the passage.

At 12:31 AM -0600 2/18/97, Paul Zellmer wrote:

>Carl, I am responding to you, not because I hope to convince you or Gary
>or anyone to adopt my point of view, but because you point out a couple
>areas where I did not come across clearly. My discussion on close
>synonyms was made because I acknowledge that these *are indeed* close
>synonyms. In many cases I acknowledge that they are used
>interchangably. But, just because they are used interchangagly in one
>place or even many places does not mean that they are without
>distinction in all places. I realize that etymology is out of favor
>this year, but this conclusion seems to me as if we are swinging the
>"usage" pendulum too far the other way.

I am personally prejudicially disposed to etymology and I can drive
students up the walls with etymological speculations about wonderful Greek
compound words when all they want to do is translate. But it is a tricky
business. I can remember when I used to think FILEW and its cognates always
referred to "kindred affection," AGAPAW and its cognates always referred to
"high esteem" attributed in judgment and action upon a person or thing, and
that the proper word for sexual love was ERAOMAI and its cognates. But
yesterday I was reading a passage in Sappho where FILOTHS clearly refers to
sexual love and I've seen AGAPAW used in classical Attic poetry in ways
that belie my once simpler word-differentiations. So I quite agree that we
have to be guided by context AS WELL AS by all we have ever learned and can
discover by consulting reference works when we seek to discern what a word
means in a particular passage. That is what philology, which
(etymologically, that is) really means "love for words," is all about.

>If we were to limit our focus only to this passage in John 21, then
>perhaps you might have the correct impression that I see a clear
>distinction between the two. You make the claim that this is at best
>predisposition and at worst eisegesis, yet I find it more substantiated
>by what is actually found here in this passage than I do a reference
>back to the denials. If the "third time" is so important, then what
>precludes us from any of the other times "three" is found in the life of
>Peter: the three tabernacles he wanted to build on the Mount of
>Transfiguration, the three disciples who slept instead of watching in
>the Garden, to name a couple. Of course, I'm being facetious. But,
>Carl, any reference to any other event in the life of Peter must be
>*read into* this. It just isn't expressed, no matter how many sermons
>our fathers have preached with this as the conclusion.

I think that you have scored solidly on this point; I think that Gary and I
were both a bit excessive in what we said about reading preconceptions into
interpretation of this passage. And the way I have come to understand John
21 as a whole is heavily impacted by my conviction (right or wrong) that
John 21 is a commentary on both the Johannine and Synoptic gospels. This is
a matter of "canonical" criticism, which may go beyond the conscious intent
of the original composer of a text like John 21: how do all the individual
elements in all the gospels work to interpret each other? how does the one
part bear upon all the other parts and how do all the other parts bear upon
the one part we are examining? This is an immense concern, and I suspect
that we (believing readers of the NT, I mean) imperil our sensibility when
we focus either too narrowly on the specific passage or when we ignore what
is unique about a specific passage. This is why I think that we tend to,
however perilously but not wrongly, bring to bear upon our reading of John
21 all that we have learned elsewhere in the gospels about Peter and the
Beloved Disciple. And yes, I'll admit it: one of the fundamental recurrent
traits of Peter in the gospels is impetuosity and reckless action without
advance thought. Mark characterizes him as the paradigmatic disciple
incapable of seeing anything clearly about Jesus and about what it means to
be a disciple, but Mark still points to Peter as the one who will play a
major role in the time after the resurrection. Matthew humanizes Mark's
caricature considerably, but Matthew is the most compassionate of all the
gospels, even more than Luke, who writes more like a doctrinaire liberal
than a keen observer of individual human beings. And these are very
exaggerated characterizations of the gospels too, of course. My point is
only that we bring the Peter we know from all of the gospels into our
reading of John 21, and one aspect of that Peter certainly is
short-sightedness that COULD be reflected in this verb shift from AGAPAW to
FILEW. IF IT IS, then it strikes me as all the more remarkable that Jesus
accommodates himself to Peter's FILEW rather than demanding that Peter rise
to his own AGAPAW--he will accept Peter's earnest declaration of grief and
commitment and charge his with pasturing his flock,despite Peter's not
unapparent weaknesses (like his apparent jealousy of the beloved disciple?)

>I wrote:
>> >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;"
>Carl replied:
>> 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
>True. I guess the author didn't see this argument coming, or he would
>have been more clear. ;^>

Let me confess that one reason I am not an inerrantist is that I believe
that God speaks to us THROUGH these imperfect writings of imperfect human
beings, WITHOUT annulling or overriding the humanity of the composers. And
I confess that, as a serious student of Greek language and style, I
certainly do think the composers of the NT texts might have helped us
modern readers out quite a bit if they had honestly supposed that they were
writing for non-Greek-speakers two millennia in the future instead of just
for their contemporaries. And I think that more than style is involved
here; certainly Luke and Matthew write well, the more obviously so when
they are compared with the writer of Ephesians. And while we must muddle
through, with great effort, to understand the important things that the
writer of Ephesians has to say to us, we cannot but be grateful, yes, and
thank God, that Matthew and Luke took pains in their writing to make sure
they would not be misunderstood if they could help it. Surely good writing
IS a virtue, although that doesn't mean God can't make use of a bad writer.

I'd better quit before I dig myself into a bottomless hole.

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

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