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I very frequently hear repeated that there are three Greek words (or word-groups, more precisely) that are translated into the same English word "love"; the words being ἀγάπη, φιλíα, and ἔρως. ἔρως is said to refer to sexual love, φιλíα to a non-sexual "brotherly love" that is not specific to Christians and ἀγάπη to the highest form of love that only a Christian can know.

However, I've never heard any backing for this claim and have a sneaking suspicion that this is one of those things that gets passed around pastoral circles without getting checked out.

The problem lies, of course, when one imports the distinction into his/her exegesis and extracts a meaning that may not be present. For example, if φιλíα is used rather than ἀγάπη in a particular passage, one might conclude that less is being required.

So, my question is, are the semantic ranges of these words as rigid as is claimed, and are the definitions consistent with what is intended in scripture?

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For example, I've heard it said that agapao is used to say that Demas loved this presen world – Ray Sep 23 '11 at 4:02
I wasn't really sure if you're questioning the general idea often presented, or the more in-depth research that exists. I made an answer assuming that Strong's Concordance is trustworthy, and I probably can't do any better. Hope that is enough :) – dancek Sep 23 '11 at 14:16
I've never heard it said that agape love was exclusive to Christianity or even that it is exclusively a love for God. However, I've always heard it said that there is a solid difference. – Richard Sep 23 '11 at 14:18
Read "The Four Loves" by C. S. Lewis. He contrasts Eros, Agape, Philia and Storge. (Storge is the easy friendship that exists among among people who are familiar with one another after long association.) I would consider Lewis a 'credible source'. – Paul Chernoch Nov 25 at 21:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The commonly held understanding is partially correct, but overstated. In reality, the semantic range of the words is broader.


It is true that the words ἀγαπάω (agapaó) and ἀγάπη (agapé) came to mean something like "the highest form of love," but this was primarily due later Christian usage of the term. At the time of the New Testament's writing, the word had a broad semantic range, not all that different than the modern English word love. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG), lists the following meanings (italics are suggested glosses; definitions [numbers] are direct quotes; usages [letters] are summaries):

ἀγαπάω (verb)

  1. to have warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love

    a. by humans - toward other humans (in a variety of fashions) or toward God/Jesus as an act of special devotion

    b. by transcendent beings - toward ordinary humans or toward other transcendent beings

  2. to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in

  3. to practice/express love, prove one's love

ἀγάπη (noun)

  1. the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love

    a. of human love - without an object (i.e. an abstract trait), toward an impersonal object, toward human beings, toward God/Jesus

    b. of God/Jesus - toward humans, referring to the relationship between God and Christ

  2. a common meal eat by early Christians in connection with their worship, for the purpose of fostering and expressing mutual affection and concern, fellowship meal, a love-feast

From these definitions, it should be clear that it is not a technical term reserved exclusively for "Christian love." This can also be seen plainly by its use in Luke 6:32:

If you love (ἀγαπᾶτε) those who love (ἀγαπῶντας) you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love (ἀγαπῶσιν) those who love (ἀγαπῶντας) them. (ESV)

If "sinners" are capable of this love, it cannot be something reserved to true believers.

Additionally, BDAG lists various non-Biblical usages of the verb to describe, for instance, love for fellow humans. The noun form is rare outside of the Bible, although sufficient examples exist to show it did not generally have a special religious significance. The reason it is rare is that it had a "colloquial flavor," which written works generally seek to avoid.


The words φιλέω (phileó) and φίλος (philos) have a similar semantic range. Indeed, φιλέω was the normal verb for many kinds of love in ancient times, but gradually lost ground to ἀγαπάω in most contexts. It does not, however, normally refer to romantic love. BDAG lists the following meanings:

φιλέω (verb)

  1. to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend

    a. in regards to people - usually literal relatives extra-Biblically; to describe the relationship between believers in the Bible; occasionally, God's relationship to believers

    b. in regards to things

    c. informally to mean "like/love to do something"

  2. to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss

φίλος (noun)

  1. pertaining to having a special interest in someone, beloved, dear, and actively loving, kindly disposed, devoted

  2. substantively, one who is on intimate terms or in close association with another,

    a. friend - literally or "in a special sense" (for example, fulfilling a specific role - see John 3:29)

    b. woman friend (similar to the way a contemporary woman might use "girlfriends")

Eros and Storge

Ancient Greek has two other word sets sometimes associated the word English word love: ἐράω (eraō) / ἔρως (érōs) and στέργω (stérgō) / στοργή (storgḗ). Neither occurs in the New Testament, so the BDAG entries are short. (The words do appear in the Septuagint, however.) The entries in A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ) list the following meanings:

ἐράω (verb)

  1. love, property of the sexual passion; to be in love with

  2. without sexual reference, love warmly

  3. love or desire passionately

ἔρως (noun)

  1. a. love, mostly of the sexual passion; love for one; generally, love of a thing; desires

    b. object of love or desire

    c. passionate joy

  2. the god of love

  3. at Nicaea, a funeral wreath

  4. name of the κλῆρος Ἀφροδίτης

στέργω (verb)

  1. a. love, feel affection, freq. of the mutual love of parents and children; also used in similar authority-subject relationships such as ruler-people or master-dog

    b. less freq. of the love of husband and wife; also other near equal relationships such as siblings or friends

    c. seldom of sexual love

  2. generally, to be fond of, show affection for

  3. to be content or satisfied, acquiesce

  4. desire, entreat

στοργή (noun)

  1. love, affection, esp. of parents and children

  2. rarely sexual love

As the above entries show, these words too have broad semantic ranges.


Typically the four words are described in Christian popular literature something along the lines of:

  • agape = Christian love
  • philia = brotherly love or friendship
  • eros = romantic or sexual love
  • storage = family love

These definitions are not incorrect per se, but greatly oversimplify the semantic range of all four words. Essentially, they equate a word with its most common meaning (in Christian literature), which is not proper - neither English or Greek words can be so narrowly defined. For example, agape does indeed typically refer to Christ-like love in the New Testament. However, it does so not because of the lexical specificity of the word, but rather only because the New Testament authors typically use it that way.

To directly address the heart of the question - no, one cannot draw exegetical conclusions from word choice alone. It provides a clue, of course, but context is far word important in determining what the author meant in a specific Bible verse than word choice. The dictionary definition of use of ἀγαπάω/ἀγάπη and φιλέω/φίλος have considerable overlap.

The Greeks did not have four words to describe four different kinds of love. They had four words for one set of complex human emotion with different connotations, just like English has many (overlapping) words that describe aspects of "love".

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Of the three types of love you mention, agape and phileo are found in the Bible. The third one, eros, is not in the Bible.

There's one often-cited passage that nicely displays both agape (ἀγαπᾷς) and phileo (φιλῶ, φιλεῖς). I'll show it in both English and Greek, highlighting the words meaning love.

John 21:15-17 (ESV)
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16 He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17 He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.

15 Ὅτε οὖν ἠρίστησαν λέγει τῷ Σίμωνι Πέτρῳ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων; λέγει αὐτῷ· Ναί, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· Βόσκε τὰ ἀρνία μου. 16 λέγει αὐτῷ πάλιν δεύτερον· Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με; λέγει αὐτῷ· Ναί, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ· Ποίμαινε τὰ πρόβατά μου. 17 λέγει αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; ἐλυπήθη ὁ Πέτρος ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον· Φιλεῖς με; καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Κύριε, πάντα σὺ οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι φιλῶ σε. λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Βόσκε τὰ πρόβατά μου.

Note how Jesus uses agape the first two times, and phileo the third time (after which Peter is grieved). Peter uses phileo each and every time.

Now I'll admit that I'm a hacker, not a Greek scholar. But it indeed does seem like these words could have separate meanings. There's probably quite a lot of research done (so room for better answers), but the quick and simple way to get at the differences is just to trust Strong's Concordance and see what it has to say:

agape: charity, love.
From agapao; love, i.e. Affection or benevolence; specially (plural) a love-feast -- (feast of) charity(-ably), dear, love.

phileo: to love
From philos; to be a friend to (fond of (an individual or an object)), i.e. Have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety: the two thus stand related very much as ethelo and boulomai, or as thumos and nous respectively; the former being chiefly of the heart and the latter of the head); specially, to kiss (as a mark of tenderness) -- kiss, love.

The words agape and phileo are indeed distinct.

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Wow. +1 for that revelation of the different words of Jesus there. That shows that more was going on then the English shows. – Richard Sep 23 '11 at 14:19
@dancek, how would you explain, then, that Demas is said to love (agapao) this present world, or that, in the LXX, Amnon is said to love (agapao) his half-sister Tamar when he rapes her? – Ray Sep 23 '11 at 15:12
@Ray I don't see a necessary contradiction with the Strong's Concordance definitions. I'm not a Greek scholar, so I cannot really go further than to say that the meanings are distinct, and I trust those definitions. – dancek Sep 23 '11 at 16:20
Of the three types of love you mention, agape and phileo are found in the Bible. The third one, eros, is not in the Bible. -- I assume you mean the word "eros" is not in the Bible, because the concept clearly is. – Flimzy Nov 25 at 21:39
In addition to @Flimzy’s point.... if your Bible includes the Greek OT (which it surely did for the NT authors and the church fathers) , the word itself is to be found. Even if that’s not “the Bible” in your view, it’s worth considering for the contribution it makes to the NT authors’ understanding of semantic range. – Susan Nov 25 at 22:10

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