Re: John 21:15-19

From: Christopher Hutson (
Date: Sat Apr 18 1998 - 12:17:34 EDT


I knew this would happen. The problem with posting on one of these
lists is that you make a little observation and then go off to a
meeting, and when you return there have been twenty responses, four of
which have already developed into threads of their own. Ah, well,
thanks for the conversation, even though I cannot respond to every

I think, Jim, that you are straining against a point that I, at least,
am not making, when you assert that

>On my own behalf I would only say
>that the author of John was smart enough to realize that he used
>words in this story. How much smarter we must be if we tell him that
>meant only one thing when he used two words!!!

Of course, the author knew he was using different words, and of course
different words have different nuances. Yes, various listers are also
right to point out that the use of different words is sometimes a
matter of style and sometimes a matter of substance and somethimes
both. I have not argued that there is no distinction between AGAPAW
and FILEW in John 21, only that they overlap in usage. My main point,
however, was that, whereas "love" is the dominant social construct in
our culture, "friendship" was the dominant social construct in
Greco-Roman antiquity. Therefore, we should not write Peter off for
using a "weak" term FILEW; rather, we should see how the evangelist is
nuancing the meaning of FILEW by juxtaposing it with AGAPAW. In other
words, I think Steven is on the right track when he says:

> Yes agreed 101%. And what you say here supports the way
> I read it which is a build up to FILEW not a let down.
> Am I misquoting you? I see nothing in NT uses of FILEW
> to indicate it is a second-class love.

I agree that, although "friendship" is a second-class love in modern
English, FILIA is not a second-class love in ancient Greek. So you
are not misrepresenting me, when you say that the dialogue is "a build
up to FILEW." I would put it this way. The evangelist is
deliberately shifting the meaning of a basic social construct FILIA
toward a more carefully nuanced AGAPH, defined in terms of dying on
behalf of a "friend." In Greek culture, friendship was commonly
described as a reciprocal relationship between equals--a give-and-take
affair. One hallmark of true friendship, however, was willingness to
sacrifice oneself for a friend, and the dialogue in John 21 brings
that nuance to the fore.

I suppose we could say, then, that this dialogue functions somewhat
like Socrates' speech on the meaning of "love" (EROS) in Plato's
_Symposium_, where Socrates basically redefines "love," moving away
from the idea of physical attraction toward the ideals of true
"friendship," or what we sometimes call "Platonic love." For
Socraties (Plato), true "love" is not a matter of lust but of concern
for the well-being of one's beloved. So in John 21, Jesus moves the
bar up another notch by stressing the self-sacrificial aspect of
friendship, for which he uses the term AGAPAW (keeping in mind that
this self-sacrificial nuance of AGAPH has already been brought out in
15:12-13, and the ideal illustrated in the Good Shepherd (10:11, 15,
17) and the Lesson of the Towel, which is an illustration of what it
meant that "he loved them completely" (EIS TELOS AGAPHSEN AUTOUS,
13:1), and so on. Here is a loose paraphrase that highlights my

Do you love me (self-sacrificially)?
Of course, Lord. We're friends.
Do you love me (self-sacrificially)?
Of course, Lord. We're friends.
Are we friends?
Lord, you KNOW we're friends!
Truly, truly, I tell you. . . signifying by what sort of death he
would glorify God.

Peter is not disagreeing, or redirecting the conversation, nor ducking
the question. But Jesus IS putting emphasis on the one aspect of
friendship that the evangelist most wants to highlight, namely
self-sacrificial love-unto-death for the sake of one's friend.

Remember the key passage where the evangelist defined AGAPH in terms
of "laying down one's life for one's friends" in 15:13? Notice that
the next sentence is "you are my friends...(15:14-15). Now 21:15-19
returns to that point. What does it mean to be a "friend"? In
Johannine terms it means to "love" one's "friend," yea to die for
one's friend.
"Even as I have loved you, so you ought to love one another" (15:12,

I hope this helps, though I know it doesn't answer all our questions
about John 21:15-19. Thanks for all who have contributed various
helpful observations.

Grace and peace,


Christopher R. Hutson
          Hood Theological Seminary
          Salisbury, NC 28144

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