do you love me?… I love you. An extraordinary variation in the Greek vocabulary appears in the three repetitive verses, 15, 16, and 17. Respectively, there are two different verbs for “to love,” for “to know,” and for “to feed or tend,” and two or three different nouns for sheep. With the partial exception of Origen, the great Greek commentators of old, like Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, and the scholars of the Reformation period, like Erasmus and Grotius, saw no real difference of meaning in this variation of vocabulary; but British scholars of the last century, like Trench, Westcott, and Plummer, found therein subtle shades of meaning. We shall discuss their thesis, but we note that most modern scholars have reverted to the older idea that the variations are a meaningless stylistic peculiarity (see Moule, IBNTG, p. 198; E. D. Freed, “Variations in the Language and Thought of John,” ZNW 55 , especially 192–93). Why the variation is not consistently introduced elsewhere remains a puzzle; for instance, in ch. 10 John uses the same word for sheep fifteen times, and in 13:34 and 14:21 John uses the same verb “to love” (agapan) three and four times respectively.
For the verb “to love” in the questions and answers of 21:15–17, the variations are these:
15: agapas me … philo se
16: agapas me … philo se
17: phileis me … philo se
As pointed out in vol. 29, p. 498, this is the proof text for those who wish to distinguish between agapan and philein, a distinction that goes back to Origen’s time. Yet, as we saw from our report of the interpretations of 15–17 offered by Trench, Westcott, and Evans, the advocates of distinction between the verbs are not in agreement about the shades of meaning. Is Jesus asking Peter for a more noble form of love (agapan) and then settling for the lower form of friendship (philein), which is all that Peter can give? Is Jesus asking for a reverential love (agapan) and then conceding to Peter’s expression of passionate personal affection (philein)? Or even vice versa? McDowell, pp. 425–38, insists on a distinction flowing from the classic use of agapan (“to esteem, prize, prefer”): Jesus first asks Peter if he prefers him (Jesus) to these (boats, fishing)—is he willing to leave them to become a fisher of men? Peter’s answer is not only in terms of esteem or preference but of real passion (philein). In his work Agape in the New Testament, III, 95, C. Spicq writes with confidence: “Commentators are divided about the respective value of the two verbs, but those who make them synonymous either ignore the semantics of agape or minimize the importance of the scene.”
Despite the danger of being guilty of one of those two crimes, the present writer is forced to align himself with scholars ancient (the OL translators, Augustine) and modern (Lagrange, Bernard, Moffatt, Strachan, Bonsirven, Bultmann, Barrett, etc.) who find no clear distinction of meaning in the alternation of agapan and philein in vss. 15–17. The reasons for this are: (a) There seems to be a general interchangeability of the two verbs in John; see vol. 29, p. 498; also Bernard, II, 702–4. (b) In Hebrew and Aramaic there is one basic verb for expressing the various types of love, so that all the subtlety of distinction that commentators find in the use of the two verbs in 15–17 scarcely echoes the putative Semitic original. We note that LXX uses both verbs to translate Heb. ’āhēb, although agapan is twenty times more frequent than philein. In the Syriac translations of 15–17 only one verb is used. (c) Peter answers “Yes” to the questions phrased with the verb agapan even though he expresses his love in terms of philein and thus shows no awareness that he is answering a request for a higher or more spiritual or more rational type of love (agapan) with an offer of a lower or more affectionate form of love (philein).1