Re: Was: "a question from a novice"

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Mar 21 2000 - 09:22:03 EST

At 8:21 AM -0500 3/21/00, Mike Sangrey wrote:
>In reply to Bob Stevens citing of John 5:20 and 16:27,
>Carlton Winbery <> said:
>> Bob I have read the later replies to your post of these two verses and
>> I disagree with them. I think that you have placed your finger on the
>> achilles heel of any interpretation that tries to maintain an
>> essential difference in the uses of AGAPAW and FILEW in John's gospel.
>And Carlton concludes the paragraph with
>> In fact no matter how hard I strain at it I cannot find any
>> differences between these words any where in the NT.
>Whenever an expert (at least relatively speaking) makes a statement
>like the above I'm forced into a very pensive, pondering posture.
>In my pursuit of understanding Greek, I do not want to reject those
>more knowledgeable than I, but nor do I wish to submit to the tyranny
>of the expert.

The "tyranny of the expert" resides fundamentally in the servile mentality
of an inquirer. I think, Mike, you are expressing a very sound stance here:
there really is too much reverence for the IPSE DIXIT/AUTOS EFH oracular
authority of the renowned scholar, although I'm inclined to think that in
questions of the sort we are dealing with on B-Greek, it's respect for the
oracular authority of whichsoever renowned scholar favors the perspective
one is inclined to prefer for reasons other than what the evidence
supports. Often enough I respond to a B-Greek query with what I admit is a
hunch or a "gut feeling" that I don't really trust without seeing
supporting evidence for its validity, even if I'm pretty sure that my hunch
is right.

One of my favorite texts in this regard is, I think, somewhere in Plato's
Phaedo, where a lesser member of the circle of disciples, after Socrates
has offered a lengthy and seemingly cogent explanation for a proposition
(and it really doesn't matter what the proposition was) says, "I cannot
refute you, Socrates," and Socrates replies, "Me you can readily refute,
but the truth you cannot." The point, of course, is that authority resides
NOT in the person who presents the viewpoint but in the persuasiveness of
the argument which that person has presented. This is why I object to "yes"
or "no" answers to inquiries; I think that anyone offering a serious
response to an inquiry has an obligation to present some sort of evidence
for the perspective offered in the response.

That said, I would also say for myself that I think that there are numerous
questions raised on B-Greek that are not likely to get really authoritative
answers precisely because the evidence is sufficiently ambiguous that a
universal consensus cannot be reached--and although a majority is good
enough to elect a leader in a democracy, Socrates righthly emphasized that
a majority opinion has no legitimate claim to be Truth (although Aristotle
was probably wise to remark that ignoring majority opinion on a matter
completely may be reckless). After seeing at least three go-rounds on the
matter of differentiation between AGAPAW and FILEW on B-Greek in the past
few years (they're all in the archives, of course), I'm willing to venture
that neither those who are convinced the two verbs are essentially
synonymous nor those who are sure that there's a "subtle difference that
makes all the difference" will persuade many others over to their own side.

> That said to sincerely reflect my respect for many
>on this list, I have a question.
>If there are no differences between these two words as used in the NT,
>then why use two?
>It may be the lexical semantics had completely, or at least nearly so,
>coalesced; and, in the decades during which the NT was written,
>we are seeing through a window into a transition. If this is true,
>then we would find, over time, either the disappearance of one or a
>semantic divergence of one from what it meant earlier. (If there is
>a divergence, then we may just have a clue regarding a distinctive
>attribute of one of the words.) Can someone show either of these two
>possibilities to be true?

This may well be a task that is worth undertaking, but it is a matter of
sifting and evaluating the evidence currently available ranging over
several centuries from the time of the Homeric poems until at least the
second century of our era.
Although the latest TLG "E" disk has not incorporated ALL of the extant
Greek texts of that period, there's probably enough there for a valid and
useful query. But this work would require a pretty good degree of
competence in Greek and a fair amount of time and effort (not nearly so
much time as in the old pre-computer era). "Whom shall we send? And who
will go for us?"

>Also, I'd like to add, that I can readily see an overlap in the
>usages of these two words. The lexical attributes of the words may
>even be largely the same. This would explain Carlton's (and others)
>viewpoint. In other words, people would not generally think of the
>distinctive features of AGAPAW (or FILEW) in many contexts; however,
>in certain contexts we would see a sharp distinction being made (John
>21 may be just such a case). Also, given the nature of a word like
>'love', I would think the lexical attributes would be quite complex,
>and it is probably this very feature which generates this discussion.

What can one say to this other than a loud and long "Amen"? But (yes, there
is something else to say, as you already knew!) any one speaker may use two
different words to mean something that is so synonymous that any real
difference is negligible, and that's an observation expressed in the
proverbial expression, "It's six of one and half a dozen of the other." How
can we distinguish to our own satisfaction the degrees of warmth in the
expressions of two persons in casual conversation, one of whom says, "You
know, I really LIKE that fellow," and a second replies, "Yeah, I LOVE HIM."
Most of us have probably been taught (or urged, at least) in school to
distinguish "like" and "love" carefully in our usage, but I'd guess that
many (I'd better avoid saying "most") of us, given the right setting, the
right group of friends, family, or acquaintances, is likely to slip easily
back and forth between "like" and "love," even if there are contexts in
which we would surely use ONLY "like" and others wherein we would surely
use ONLY "love." And then there are such expressions as "You know that I
care for you" about which only the speaker may surely know what intensity
of loving or liking is intended--and something like that could even have
been involved in Peter's pitiful effort to tell Jesus what he really wanted
to tell him.

>Summing up, if the people of 1st century koine needed both words,
>then there must be some way to make them distinct. However, that
>does NOT imply the distinction in every context, nor even in most.
>But, there would need to be some distinction somewhere, else two
>words are not needed where one will suffice.

That could be true, but for my part I'm rather leery of a notion that a
living language employed by vast numbers of speakers and writers is so
neatly economical as to lack a fair number of indistinguishable or
virtually-indistinguishable synonymous word-pairs or word-groups.


Carl W. Conrad Department of Classics/Washington University One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018 Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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