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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

1 Answer 1

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

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