15”Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
The NIV translates this famous interchange different from other translations such as the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible by adding “truly” to the text of verses 15 and 16, words that do not exist in the Greek text. Why did the translators choose to add it? What does the addition imply?
To answer the first question, the verbs for “love” in the Greek text vary according to the following threefold scheme:
Jesus — agapao (ἀγαπάω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)
Jesus — agapao (ἀγαπάω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)
Jesus — phileo (φιλέω)
Peter — phileo (φιλέω)
The NIV translators apparently sought to distinguish between Jesus’ word “love” in the first two exchanges from that of Peter. Therefore “truly” was inserted without endorsement from the Greek text. The legitimacy of this interpretation involves the second question.
To answer to the second question, the addition of “truly” seems to communicate that Simon’s simple response, “I love you,” implies a lesser degree of love, a love that fails to equal Jesus’ word for love. The two words for love appear to be understood by the NIV translators in hierarchical terms wherein Jesus’ word rises higher on the ethical plane than that of Simon. Such an understanding may enjoy the benefit of “conventional wisdom” regarding the words for love, but it falters under close examination.
In the Greek language at least four different words for love existed, all of which are translated “love” in English. Two of these words constitute the primary burden of this article. It is frequently affirmed that agapao (ἀγαπάω) represents the God-kind of love whereas phileo (φιλέω) a human-kind. However, this analysis does not fit passages such as John 5:20 (NIV), “For the Father loves (using phileo, φιλέω) the Son,” or John 16:27 (NIV), “the Father himself loves (using phileo, φιλέω) you.” An understanding of the uses of these words based on relationships instead of on a higher or lower ethical plane resolves this difficulty admirably and is completely consistent with the lexical meanings of the words (see Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition).
The Greek nouns for love based on relationships follows. (Verbs from the same roots mirror the meanings of the nouns.) For the sake of completeness all four Greek words for love are included.
eros (ἔρος) — The relationship between an individual and his/her own need—focused on oneself. This word does not occur in the New Testament.
storge (στόργη) — The relationship between an individual and his/her relatives—focused on family/marital relationships. In the New Testament it occurs only in a compound word (Romans 12:10, philostorgos, φιλόστοργος).
philia (φίλια) — The relationship between an individual and his/her acquaintances—focused on friendship. The verb form is φιλέω (phileo).
agape (ἀγάπη) — The relationship between an individual and any other person regardless of the nature of that relationship—focused on others. The verb form is ἀγαπάω (agapao).
These are not ethical or qualitative differences. Each is perfectly proper and devoid of ethical classification as a higher or lower degree of love. Each can be used properly for the same “love event” depending upon the perceived relationship.
Once this relationship-focused description for the “love words” is applied, notice the major interpretation difference discovered in John 21:15-17.
Under the traditional “ethical paradigm” it has been fashionable to accuse Peter of failing to love Jesus with a divine-kind of love. He settles for a lesser human-kind of love to which Jesus Himself with subtle sarcasm acquiesces in the third interchange. To avoid this conclusion some scholars have claimed that John uses the two verbs for love interchangeably without distinction in sense. Carson writes (Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd edition, 53, italics his), “In any case, my point is that it is rather strange to insist on a semantic distinction between the two words for “to love” in this context, and not on small distinctions between other pairs of words in the same context.” But why would a competent scholar neglect these other “small distinctions”? Carson’s argument evaporates.
Under the “relationship paradigm,” however, Peter steadfastly refuses to accept the possible implication, based on Jesus’ use of agapao (ἀγαπάω), that a broken relationship exists. He stands undeterred in declaring that his love for Jesus continues on a friendly basis. In the third interchange, Jesus agrees and thereby brings closure to problem of Peter’s denials, and Peter lives up to the steadfastness implied by his name, Rock.
The interpretation problem of John 21:15-17 involves minimally three matters: (1) the English language that has difficulty in clearly distinguishing between the different words for “love,” (2) the English Bible translators who introduce interpretations into the passage implying that they exist undisputed in the Greek text, and (3) the Bible interpreters who ignore word variations on the basis of assumed synonymity.
Regarding this third point, a consistent interpretation methodology must give first priority to the biblical author’s word choices and approach the study with the expectation that similar but different words reflect different nuances of meaning unless it can be unequivocally proven otherwise. Moule stated (An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 198), “The safest principle is probably to assume a difference until one is driven to accept identity of meaning.” In the case of John 21:15-17 synonymity has not been proven.
Other passages involving the word phileo (φιλέω) with Jesus or God the Father as the subjects are Matthew 10:37; John 11:36; 20:2; Revelation 3:19. It should be clear that phileo (φιλέω) is not a lesser “human-kind” of love.
To illustrate the agapao (ἀγαπάω) “relationship paradigm” in other portions of the New Testament consider the following: Matthew 5:44 (NIV), “Love your enemies”—agapao (ἀγαπάω) must be the verb of choice where interpersonal antagonism exists. Ephesians 5:28 (NIV), “Husbands ought to love their wives”—Likewise agapao (ἀγαπάω) is invoked in a husband/wife relationship placing the love obligation upon the husband—love cannot be withdrawn when marital tensions arise.
Other love passages in the New Testament could be included but these serve to establish the moral of this posting—“Conventional wisdom” is not always conclusive wisdom!