John 21 – Style or Significance

In the three repetitions of the questioning of Peter by Jesus on the beach post resurrection, there are interesting variations  in the vocabulary.  there are two words for love (agapao and phileo), two for tending the flock (bosko and poimaino), to for the flock (arnia and probatia) and two for know (oida and ginosko).  A lot of attention has been given to Jesus switching from the so called “higher” word for love (agapao) to the lesser word suggesting friendship (phileo).

F. F. Bruce states that the two words for love are used interchangeably when the OT word is translated, that agapeo does not necessarily indicate a higher sort of love, and John tends to use them interchangeably (the father loves the son in John 3:35 and 5:20 are agapeo and phileo respectively; “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is written with both words 13:23; 20:2).   (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, Eerdmans, 1983, p. 441)

We agree that the variation is more stylistic – it is common in Greek and English to vary the words for the avoidance of repetition.  The point then seems to be that the three repetitions answer the three denials by Peter in the chapter 18.

With word-studies it is important to look at all the factors before leaping to a conclusion.

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3 thoughts on “John 21 – Style or Significance

  1. Thanks for that careful exegesis – I’ve heard the agapeos==> phileos theory, and some books (“The Way of Agape”, Nancy Missler) apparently read way too much into it. I didn’t know that John often uses the terms interchageably.

    Now, can you answer this for me as I’m not a Greek scholar: when Jesus looked upon the Rich Young Ruler in Mark’s Gospel “…and loved him”, which word (agape or phileo) was used? Do you think it matters, theologically?

    • the story is in Matthew, Mark and Luke but only Mark says that jesus looking on him, loved him. The verb is “agapeo”. In the context of the story, the young man had made his declaration of his keeping the law. Jesus, lovingly, laid on a zinger, “go and sell…”.

      If he had “affection”, perhaps personal loyalty or compassion would have said, “Be easy on the kid, he has potential.” but instead he laid a strong word on him.

      To answer the question of whether the word choice is important, we would have to check marcan usage of the word group. but in general, we have overplayed the distiniction of the worlds. Better to observe the context and let that shade the meaning.

      It is more living to confront than to accept.

  2. Pingback: 2010 in review « Fresh Read

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