Re: Jn 21:15-17

From: Christopher Hutson (
Date: Fri Apr 17 1998 - 11:57:27 EDT


Paul asked:

>>First, what is your take on the AGAPAS/FILEIS interpretation? Is
there a
>>difference in meaning between the two words here, or should we see
>>as being virtually synonymous, at least in this context?

to which Jim responded:

>No, I take the differences to be significant. I.e., Jesus asks
Peter, do ya
>love me. Peter says, yup, youre my friend. Jesus says again, do ya
>me. Peter- yup, youre my friend. Jesus says, are you even my
friend- Peter
>is grieved.
>The use of agape by Jesus and philew by Peter means peter sees Jesus
as a
>buddy; so the final question of Jesus is quite pointed.

With respect to Jim and Steve, I have come to think that this old
chestnut has been overroasted. I agree that AGAPH and FILIA (and
cognates) are not exact synonyms, but Carl was on the mark when he
mentioned that they overlap in meaning and usage. We should not make
too much of a distinciton between them. The reasons we tend to
overdistinguish are (1) AGAPH/AGAPAW came to be a very important
theological concept for Christians, so that we tend to assume it is
the more significant of the two words used in this exchange; and (2)
we traditionally translate AGAPE/AGAPAW as "love" and FILIA/FILEW as
"friendship/be a friend"in English, and then, since in OUR culture
"love" describes a deeper, stronger relationship than "friendship," we
tend to read our cultural sensibilities back into the ancient text.

HOWEVER, in antiquity FILIA was the more dominant and comprehensive
idea, and we should take this into account as we read John 21.
Elsewhere, John describes self-sacrificial AGAPH as an important
ascpect of FILIA: "Greater AGAPH has no one than this, that he lay
down is life for his friends (UPER TWN FILWN, 15:13). Such
self-sacrifice for one's friends is an old motif in Greek culture,
Aristotle being the first to offer a systematic discussion of the
reciprocal nature of friendship.

Therefore, when Jesus asks "Do you love me (AGAPAiS ME)?" he is not
asking about something distinct from friendship; rather, he is asking
"What kind of friend are you?" Peter can answer "Yes (I do love
you)... I'm your friend (FILW SE), because he understands that this is
exactly what friends do--they love (AGAPAW) one another; they die for
one another (cf. 15:12-13, etc.). When we view AGAPE not as a
relationship distinct from FILIA but as an important aspect of FILIA,
then the conversation takes on a very different flavor.

Those who wish to understand better the importance of the social
category FILIA in Greco-Roman culture in general and in NT writers in
particular, may consult the new collection of essays edited by John
Fitzgerald, _Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship_ (SBLRBS 34,
Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997). Note that the essay by Alan Mitchell
includes a discussion of friendship in John (257-259) and cites a
number of passages on the motif of dying for one's friends (231, n.



Christopher R. Hutson
          Hood Theological Seminary
          Salisbury, NC 28144

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