October 4, 2020

Phileo > Agapao

 Michael Barber posted (earlier this year) an argument that C.S. Lewis was wrong about the four loves, and that interpretations are wrong which say phileo and agapao (in John 21) aren't interchangeably identical in meaning. I love Michael to pieces, but I'm here to counter-argue. By my formulation above, he is only half-right.

 However, although I don't think the beloved disciple uses these two Greek words interchangeably, as Michael believes, I also don't think Lewis was right about agapao being superior to phileo. What is most unfortunate is that Lewis has so monopolized the conversation that no one has suggested this alternative: The truth is that phileo is the superior verb, in ancient Greek, by far. Furthermore, that superiority should absolutely inform our reading of John 21.

Briefly, here are my reasons:

 (1) Variations of the phil- root take up twelve full pages in LSJ, whereas variations on the agap- root take up less than one page. In Ancient Greek, Philia is the far higher form of love than Agape. If you only read the New Testament, you'll find a different proportion of usage, but if the audience of the beloved disciple were native speakers of Greek then the LSJ should best inform our estimate of their semantic understanding.

 (2) Moreover, the relationship between these terms in John 21 is prefigured explicitly in John 15:13-17, where Jesus juxtaposes the same root concepts in his after-dinner commission. He calls them friends. Then he charges them, as his friends, to love one another. The task of loving is given to Jesus’s own friends and each friend is responsible for upholding this commandment of love. 

 (3) Jesus's talk about friendship also evokes (for any Greek audience) a history of friendship. In the ancient Greek world,  the word “friends” (plural) most often connotes the King’s inner circle of right hand men. Regular people couldn’t afford friends; they had kinfolk and they had bosses. The idea of maintaining even one devoted friend was legendary. But Jesus declares to these men that they are now his friends. So, like Alexander the Great, and eastern royalty since, Jesus assembles a circle of right hand men to stand with him in the vanguard of his ongoing campaign. 

 They are now officially "friends." This is a formal commission. Their orders are to love one another. 

 Literally, the philoi are called to agapate, which requires (at the very least) sustaining their assembly.

 But then the story goes on. Jesus dies and returns and appears and reappears and then disappears once again. The disciples are sitting around in between physical visits from the resurrected Jesus. Apparently Peter grows tired or impatient or restless or frustrated, or something to that effect, because Peter decides to leave the group and go back to feeding his family. He makes an individual declaration. And there lies the problem. 

 In narratological terms, this moment disrupts an equilibrium, and observing this is key to understanding Jesus's upcoming intervention to restore status quo. Peter says *I* am going to go fishing. For the time being, if not longer, Peter declares he will be separating from the group. Fortunately, the others decide to make his expedition a group trip. They say *WE* will come with you. Thus, when Jesus fills their nets and piles up fish on the beach, and then asks Peter, "do you love me more than these?" I don't think he's posing a love competition between Peter and his fellow apostles. I sincerely believe that, being careful readers, we're supposed to understand that Jesus means the fish. Jesus was cooking fish and he asked: Do you love me more than these? 

 In the most literal way, this catch of fish had been Peter's goal all night long. His need to earn a daily living had once again stolen away his devotion. Understandably, Peter felt the need to feed his family. But in response, what does Jesus command? Feed my family, Peter. Feed my sheep.

 The mission is not over. The one-anothering is not over. The formal commission must be renewed.

 Thus, in the third question in John 21, when the Gospel writer shifts Jesus's verb from agapao to phileo, this is not a semantic downgrade. This is a semantic upgrade. Jesus is tightening the screws. 

 Because Peter has been more devoted to fishing than to Jesus’s mission, Peter has not lived up to the charge of being Jesus's friend. Yes, you love me for now but are you devoted to me? Yes, you're excited to see me today but will you keep doing what I asked after I leave? Sure, you're now swearing your love as an individual but I commanded you to one-another with these guys. Okay, you do genuinely have an abiding agape for me... But will you step back into the role for which I have called you to labor? Will you love me by taking care of my people, whom I charged you to love?

 Will you do this job for me? If you love me like a friend loves, then you will.

 According to John 20, Peter had already spent time with Jesus on multiple occasions since the resurrection. Therefore, John 21 cannot be a passage of personal reconciliation. Beyond that contextual evidence, the popular reading is an individualistic interpretation that befits modern readers, and should henceforth be recognized as such. 

 This passage is about Peter renewing his dedication to leadership in Christian community. It’s a renewal of Jesus's marching orders from after the last supper. It's not about feelings. It's about mission.

 Being a friend of Jesus involves far more than how you feel about him personally.

 If you really love me, do me this favor. 

 Sustain my body on earth.


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