June 12, 2009

A New Take on John 21 (5)

Yes, I took sixteen semester hours of greek at LSU, but don't ask me how much I remember. Since I’m clearly not a linguist, I eagerly invite any Greek experts reading this to critique my claims here in the comments. That said, I suspect you’ll all mainly agree. Either way, here goes…

I never forgot my 7th grade Latin teacher telling us over and over, "Language was not created in a laboratory". That may partly explain why I just never bought into the supposed agape/phileo dichotomy, per se. What I mean is, “agape” may be the most excellent way in Paul’s most famous paragraph, but if the pagan-born Corinthians already shared Paul’s definition of “agape” then why did he have to spell it out for them? Answer: Because it wasn’t standardized christian jargon yet.

As I see it, 1.Cor.13 is a beautiful exercise in the redefinition of a term. “Agape is… Agape is… Agape is…” I don’t know how this didn’t come up while Paul was in town, but somehow, they still didn’t know! Or maybe they needed to hear it again. Either way, the Corinthians seem to have thought agape was something else. We may as well imagine displaced Eskimos trying to tell ancient Egyptians about snow, because surely, no human being before Jesus Christ ever thought up a word that meant “unconditional giving”.

Here’s all I’m trying to claim. To the ancient Greeks, “agape” wasn’t always, automatically or inherently superior to “phileo”. On the contrary, I believe classical scholars will back me up in asserting that – prior to Christian redefinitions – ancient Greeks valued “phileo” more than “agape”. The Liddel-Scott Lexicon devotes one collumn of space for the three major forms of "agape", but gives eleven full pages of "phileo" and "phil-" based words. When the Greeks needed to invent a new word to mean "fond of fish", they built it on "phil-", not "agap-".

Besides, the root of "phileo" seems to come from "philos", which means friend. Preachers always said this word meant brotherly love or loyalty - as if that's less valuable? Not in the godless, heathen world's mindset! In contrast, the Homeric & Attic "agapao" seems to center on the idea of affection, or expressions of personal regard, such as a simple caress. Think about that. You can pet a cat to express affection, but a blood-strong bond of loving friendship? That can press you to the limit at the cost of your life.

And remember, we're talking about a godless heathen language. Whatever emotional chords the Greeks struck on when they used the word agape (however rarely), they couldn't possibly have placed as much value upon it as upon friendship. A contract of personal loyalty is good credit for mutual fortune, advancement, prestige and many other practical benefits of this life.

Again, this is all just to say “phileo” can be superior to “agape” and generally was, to the Greek speakers up to and during the time of Jesus Christ. Evidently, it stayed that way at least as far as the days of Paul in Corinth as well.

This point alone suggests we consider turning the typical view of John 21 upside down. What if Peter thought he was 'doing one better' for Jesus, by claiming “phileo”?

(To be continued…)

Series Update:
A New Take on John 21
preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 summary

2 comments:

J. Samuel Thomas said...

Interesting....
I always kind of figured that to 'agape' was to 'phileo' someone that you normally wouldn't.

Bill said...

Exactly. I think that's precisely the idea behind the christian definition. Just not the pre-christian one.

Thanks for keeping up, Johnny.

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