Re: Jn 21:15-17

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Sun Apr 19 1998 - 13:05:19 EDT

Paul dixon writes,

<Thanks to everybody for the interesting interaction on this discussion.
<It has been profitable. I am preaching on this passage tomorrow (along
<with the whole chapter) and am more convinced than ever of the synonymous
<relationship between AGAPAS and FILEIS, at least in Jn 21:15-21. That
<the two Greek words have the same Aramaic derivative only reinforces this
<view in my judgement.

Dear Paul,

Just a comment about your last sentence. Jack made a fine Aramaic
retroverion of the verses, but we cannot necessarily conclude from this
that AGAPAW and FILEW are translations of the same word.

There is evidence that both Aramaic and Hebrew were spoken in Palestine in
the first century CE, but we do not know if Hebrew was the language of the
people and Aramaic was the language for the learned ones or the reverse,
and neither do we know to which extent one of the languages was more
popular in one area of the country. The NT calls the normal language
"Hebrew", and I see no compelling evidence for the popular view that
"Hebrew" in the NT means Aramaic (Jack and I disagree here). Jospehus` use
of "Hebrew" strongly suggests that for him "Hebrew" meant "Hebrew". Be that
as it may.

If Jesus and Peter spoke Hebrew, they had two verbs at their disposition -
`AHAB and RAXAM which could be translated by AGAPAW and FILEW respectively.
If they spoke Aramaic, there was just the one verb, REXAM at their
disposition. This verb is used to translate both FILEW and AGAPAW in the
Syriac Peshitta (Syriac is a branch of Aramaic). However, even if Aramaic
was the language spoken, two different verbs *might* have been used. Nobody
will dispute that Peter was eager to persuade Jesus about his love,
something which probably was expressed by the tone of his voice. But it
also could have been expressed by choosing the Hebrew `AHAB even though he
spoke Aramaic. The two languages are quite close, and even in modern times
is it not unusual to choose a word from another language to make a certain
point. Jesus cry to ELI is a blend of both languages. The Mishna is for
instance written in Hebrew, but in the middle of the text we often find in
Aramaic one word, one clause or several clauses. We cannot therefore
exclude the possibility that two words were used even if they spoke Aramaic.

When speaking about word meaning, we should not forget that meaning is
connected with people rather than with words. The letters of a word
represent just a signal of a concept in the mind of the author or the
speaker. Each set of letters signal a different concept, but some concepts
can be quite similar. There is no doubt that FILEW and AGAPAW signal TWO
different concepts, even though these concepts clearly has much in common.
The theory that each word represents a particular concept with a particular
meaning (though with fuzzy edges) imply that the role of the context is to
make visible the part of the concept signalled by the word, which the
author wants to stress. So the context does not induce new meaning, but
only make visible a part of the meaning which already is there. Because the
two words have much in common, this means that the question about FILEW and
AGAPAW in John 21 is not whether these words conceptually speaking have the
same meaning (they have not), but whether the context makes visible a part
of each concept which looks similar.

When we compare AGAPAW and FILEW it may be fine to take a look at what is
said in J.P. Louw, 1982, "Semantics of New Testament Greek", p 62:
"Synonyms are not words that have the same meaning, but words that
sometimes, or probably quite often, can be used for the same meaning.". I
agree with Jack that the two words have different meanings (in my words:
they signal two different concepts). A speaker once said: "I accept the
words of Jesus that I shall love ( AGAPAW) my enemies, but I am very happy
that he did not say that I also should feel affection for them." This may
illustrate a basic conceptual difference between AGAPAW and FILEW. FILEW
includes emotions and senses (as Jack says), AGAPAW may or may not include
these. But again, because the words also have so much in common, in some
contexts they can signal the same meaning. To ascertain this is the
privilege of the reader.


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:39:31 EDT