I'm planning to start a blog series (any day now) in which I challenge the traditional view of Jesus & Peter's "agape/phileo" conversation. Before I do that, I want to say this.
It seems fair to analyze the text of John 21 as if Jesus and Peter spoke in greek, whether or not the two men were actually speaking in greek on that day. Personally, I'd be happy enough to assume the agape/phileo wordplay is simply a faithful retelling of whatever Jesus & Peter actually said in some other language. However, since the words are significant here, we have to wonder. Are there any grounds for supposing that Peter & Jesus would have been talking to each other in Greek, on this particular occasion? I think, perhaps there are.
It's possible that the timing and location give us a clue here. Most likely sitting by the shore near Tiberias, the most hellenistic city of Galilee, Jesus was nearing the point where he was about to stop hinting about outreach to the gentiles, and about to start getting explicit. For four years of ministry, Jesus never pushed his disciples too quickly towards accepting what Peter wound up needing another 20 years to publicly affirm. On the other hand, there were subtle hints along the way. The gentiles had been on Jesus' mind for some time, and the dwindling time left - there were only two or three weeks before His command to preach and baptize in all nations - suggests Jesus may have been looking for a few extra teachable moments, before the big send off.
One thing we can say for sure is that it was Jesus who initiated the "love" sequence of the conversation. Now, since it's natural for foreign-language teachers to spontaneously ask questions of their students in the target language, and if we infer that Jesus [while not an instructor of greek] was hoping to nudge Peter into feeling more comfort with the greek world in general, it makes perfect sense to imagine this is where the greek began: a simple [and clearly elementary level] conversational exercise between master and disciple, set up at the perfect moment and chosen for more than one purpose. There are layers of brilliance in how appropriate this would have been - depending on our view of how Jesus set up the conversation.
Yes, that's a teaser for the upcoming series. What I have to say about agape/phileo is new, and I think it's significant. The case, when made, may provide even more reason to suspect Jesus & Peter did speak greek to each other, that day on the beach. That case, however, does not depend on any assumption that they did.
Obviously, I lean hard towards believing the agape/phileo conversation was actually held in greek - all nine sentences of it! (It's actually simple enough to be easily and fairly verbaitm as well.) I just want to be extra clear about separating these issues. Language, accuracy and interpretation are three different investigations to be held; if complimentary conclusions arise, that does not mean they stand or fall together. The picture I painted here offers a plausible scenario for putting the tri-fold exchange of John 21 in greek terms, historically. It's not at all conclusive, but it's definitely something to consider.
More on John 21 soon...