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In John 21: 15-17 there's a post-Resurrection dialog between Peter and Jesus. Here's the KJV translation of this dialog.

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

Other more recent translations basically say the same thing about this threefold dialog between Jesus and the guy who recently denied him. It's good to read this passage as Jesus's threefold recommissioning of Peter after the three denials. But it does seem repetitive.

But, there's a strange thing about the translation. The Greek uses two different words for love here. agape and philo. Writing out the KJV again using "like" for philo and "love" for agape, we get this.

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I like thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I like thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, likest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Likest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I like thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

This difference in words gives the whole dialog a very different tone. Is Peter holding out on Jesus? (If you're wondering about why this might be important, next time your spouse asks, "do you love me?" answer "sweetheart, I like you." Let us know how that works out for you. :-)

Does anybody know why the English translations erase this distinction in the words for love in this passage? Was it due to a translator's theological point of view?

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+1 a very interesting observation, one I hadn't heard before. –  dancek Aug 29 '11 at 14:16
    
This question would be much better asked at Biblical Hermeneutics. –  DJClayworth Oct 28 '11 at 13:44
    
+1 interesting. I thought philo means familial love. What's the greek word again? Also there are eros and stuff, which also translate as love. –  Jim Thio Dec 14 '11 at 11:28
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3 Answers 3

Though not a Greek scholar, I would contend that translating philo as like is a poor translation. Agape typically connotes the perfect love that God has and to which we can only aspire (though aspire to it we must, just as we aspire to imitate Christ though we can only do so imperfectly). On the other hand, philo connotes the love between two persons which is not eros, the sexual love between a man and a woman.

Our language is inadequate to the task, having only one word for love, which takes on different connotations in different contexts - when I say "I love my brother" I mean quite different love than "I loved my wife last night".

As an aside, why does Jesus "labor the point" three times? It is generally considered to correlate to Peter's three denials; for Peter it was thrice affirming the forgiveness for thrice denying our Lord.

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The Difficulty of Translation

The NIV does attempt to give us a hint at this, using "love" and "truly love" for phileo and agape, respectively. Young's Literal translation uses "dearly love" and "love" (with "dearly love for phileo).

The problem with translating to English is we just don't have a good way to distinguish between the two without rendering too wooden of a translation. I think the NIV does make a pretty good attempt here.

Why Peter Responds Differently

Is Peter holding out on Jesus? Perhaps, so. Peter, after all, was the one who told Jesus that he would never fall away even if everyone else did.

Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Matthew 26:33 ESV

He also boldly claims that he will even lay down his life for Jesus:

Peter said to him, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." John 13:37 ESV

The problem Peter had was that his mouth proclaimed a level of commitment for which he fell short. It seems likely, then, that Peter, now knowing his own weakness all too well, is just too hesitant to proclaim the fortitude of his resolve with his mouth again. Better to live a life of resolve without proclaiming so, than to proclaim a life of resolve and not live one.

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Perhaps one could read this as

Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?

Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?

Simon, son of Jonah, do you even like me?

This interpolation is not in the English text and almost certainly not in the original, but do you think it might convey the right pacing?

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Dr. Olga Strakhov has commented on this text: –  Robert Haraway Feb 15 '13 at 19:14
    
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