February 12, 2011

Phileo beats Agape

at least, in Pre-Christianized Greek, which sometimes includes the New Testament.

One major reason Paul wrote "the love chapter" into 1st Corinthians was to recondition those native Greek speakers as to what "agape" could indicate, in the new Christian usage.  If the word already meant such things, that chapter would not have been so radical.  And as for the popular rendering, "unconditional love", excuse me, but what heathen Greek, before Jesus, ever conceived such a thing?  When Jesus said, "Agapate your enemies", that was radical even for Jews!  Not even Septuagint uses of Agape had conditioned this word for the meanings that Jesus and Paul brought to God's people.

"Love" may have always been the most excellent way, but- it had not yet been stated in so many words.

Meanwhile, in the minds of the people whose tongues gave us Greek, Friendship was the highest form of devotion.  Period.  Plato and Aristotle did no better than suggesting that "helping someone else is a way of serving oneself". The best one could aspire to was great personal loyalty, idealized by the legend of Damon & Pythias.  Even non-idealized, loyal friendship was the greatest "love" any Greek speaking soul ever knew, before Christ. (That's not to knock loyalty, which remains pretty fantastic in it's own right.)

Back to proper linguistics, search the Liddell-Scott Lexicon some time for phil- stems and agap- stems, and see which word was more highly though of, not to mention more commonly used, in the classical age.  Agape meant something else, like caress[ing], affection, contentment, or perhaps general positive regard.  However, to be remarkably fond of something, or someone, you would be called a phil-something. In English also, Philosopher and Philharmonic are but two cognates the OED lists in its ten full pages of phil- words, to say nothing of suffixed loans such as audiophile. In both Greek and English, the phil- stem stands tallest.

Which brings us back to the reason you're still reading.

In the Gospel of John, agap- forms outnumber phil- forms (33 to 16), although the noun forms balance out (6 to 6), and there are admittedly times when the meanings may seem interchangeable. But while chapter 17 leaves no doubt that God's most Enduring Love, in the author's opinion, is "agape", there are only two chapters where the agap- and phil- forms appear together with significant contrast or interplay. On this comparison, chapter 21 usually gets all the (erroneous) attention, but less noticed (sadly) is that Chapter 15 had already set up a semantic relationship between phil- and agap- words.

In that chapter, the Friend is the one who Loves, and the one who loves is the friend (v.13,14,15). And while the world loves "like a friend" (15:19), so had the Father loved Jesus "like a friend" (5:20); so had Jesus loved Lazarus (11:3,36); so had Phillip's supplicants been challenged (12:25); and so (once) is called the beloved disciple (20:2). And in John 16:27, Jesus tells Peter and the rest of his disciples "the Father Himself philei you, because you pephilekate me". Thus, if Christian Linguists must think of phileo as "love like a friend loves", they must also admit this type of love gets contextualized with a very High pedigree, in John's Gospel.

So, then what's going on with Peter and Jesus, in chapter 21?

Here's how I put it a couple of years ago:
having breathed in the Holy Spirit and learning to practice the Lord’s presence during His periods of physical absence, Peter was simply itching for some more active type of occupation, besides being just spiritual. [Which is why he went fishing.]  So when Jesus sounded like he wanted a favor, Peter sounded eager to please, but then he clammed up at the favor that was requested. Finally, Jesus challenged Peter’s confident claim to be such a friend... if he didn't want to go [where God wanted him to].
Jesus' question, "Agapete me?", was an obvious prompt for a favor. Peter's "Yes, Lord, philw" was an affirmative, both times. "You want agape? A friend loves."  In other words, Peter was saying, "I'm your man, Lord, what do you need?"

In Peter's mouth, "Phileo" wasn't less than Agape. It was more.

From the upper room to the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus needed his best friends to prepare for a new mission - to love one another, yes, but to do so in Jerusalem; not heading back to their former vocations, not to feed their own families, but to trust God's provision for fish and bread, and to come provide food for God's family.

And so they did.  Because that's what Friends do.  They Love.

For a more Story-based investigation, incorporating Luke 24:34, and to see how I initially formed this opinion, peruse my series from 2009:
A New Take on John 21
preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 summary


kayjay said...

Very interesting. It's not every day that you get to say "hmmmm.... never thought of it that way before." Thanks!

Now I'd be interested to know the nuances of the Aramaic words that the Lord and Peter likely actually used as they were talking. "agape" and "phileo" came from somewhere, but presumably not out of their mouths or mindsets. Is there a resource out there that takes New Testament Greek and makes a good guess (admittedly speculative) as to the Aramaic or Hebrew words the speakers/writers might have used?

Bill Heroman said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, Kristen. I'm sorry I can't help on the possible Aramaic, but here's an idea.

Speaking historically, I once proposed that Jesus may have just at this point begun training his disciples in a bit of conversational Greek - as a prelude to the Gentile mission, and as an encouragement to take it seriously. In such a case, the hypothesis is that Jesus and Peter may have been practicing their Greek for a moment, and thus the memorable exchange could be authentically verbatim.

Speaking textually, however, I don't also suppose John 15 represents conversational Greek in practice. So I'm kind of having it both ways, with the text, which is why I probably won't get very far with the linked post, above.

But a historical-critic of John's Gospel would say that both passages represent the author constructing a representation of speeches and events, from whatever available source/s. Thus, it's possible Jesus and Peter had a similar conversation with some different cleverness involved in the wordplay, which the beloved disciple felt justified in completely rewriting, as a way of getting the real point of their real conversation across.

In other words, if the conversation was in Aramaic, I seriously doubt it was anything close to a word-for-word translation of the one we see here.

Then again, perhaps someone schooled in Aramaic could surprise us both. If you find out, please do let me know.

Again, I like my conversational training hypothesis, above. But I admit that it's stretching a bit. :-)

Thanks for tolerating this long answer. And thanks for the question.

Grace & Peace

GregMD said...

“By this we know love (agapeo), because He laid down His life for us.” 1 John 3:16. Agapé dominates 1 John. Why? The highest form of love, that which Jesus manifested at the cross, was perfect love, a major focus of 1 John. This perfect love needed a word. Agapé was uncommon, but known, yet not fully defined prior to John’s gospel. And John used it in various ways intermingled with phileo, perhaps to elevate agape and connect it with phileo. But as love that was as perfect as Christ’s love on the cross was manifested, and consumed the minds of Christians, by the time John wrote 1 John many years later, agapeo had formed a new, deep, and richer meaning than it had before. In a way it surpassed phileo by 1 John. In fact, John doesn’t even use phil- in 1 John.

Thus when Peter and Jesus had their conversation in John 21, agape was only a whisper of what it was to become. Jesus‘s final question to Peter that inserted phileo from agape twice before could have prefigured to Peter what he was to come to understand as he reeled from Jesus’s death and resurrection, was humbled and converted, and learned what it meant to give his life for his brethren. As Peter conversed in greek and told that story, his use of phileo instead of agapeo when he repeated Jesus final question to him, grew richer in time as the word agapé transformed to represent the love that God expressed through Jesus on the cross.

God is agapé. 1 John 4:8,16. This became and now is forevermore the highest form of love.

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