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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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    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. – user4951 Dec 14 '11 at 11:28
  • Philo is not "like" as we use it in English today. The greeks had multiple words for love, and multiple kinds of love (... see also how the Eskimos have multiple words for snow). The question holds a deeply flawed premise. – KorvinStarmast Apr 2 '16 at 15:58
  • @KorvinStarmast I agree with your assessment of the Greek, it is stronger than like. However, I wouldn't say that means the premise of the question is flawed. It still correctly points out a pattern of use. The question stands as valid even if the second to last paragraph is a bit misguided. But why the two words are used when they are can still be significant. – Joshua Apr 3 '16 at 1:50
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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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In John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. John Carroll explains in The Existential Jesus, pages 144-5, that this is Peter's final humiliation. Jesus addressed him each time theatrically as “Simon, son of Jonah”, not as Peter, the name always previously used by Jesus, as if to humiliate Peter in front of the other disciples.

The first time, Jesus asks about sacred love (Greek: agape) and the question is comparative: Do you love me more than these [the other disciples]? Peter answers that he loves him, but only using the Greek word for friendly or brotherly love (philia). Not satisfied, Jesus again asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Again, Jesus asks about sacred love (agape) but this time does not ask whether Peter loves Jesus more than the others. Again, Peter replies with the Greek word for brotherly love (philia). In the third questioning, Jesus asks only whether Peter had brotherly love for him (philia). He accepts that this was the most that Peter would give. Peter is upset that it has been necessary to ask him three times, but Jesus knows Peter had denied him three times.

A reader of the original Greek gospel would have realised that Jesus was frustrated at Peter's inability to say he love him unconditionally, and recognised "feed my sheep" as an indication of his exasperation. For us, the nuances of unconditional love are lost, and the same passage is more usually read in Western Christianity as a command, thrice repeated, for Peter to "feed my sheep" - "minister to the Christians" - but this is not what was written.

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I think Jesus was actually testing Peter. And He knew that Peter did not have the capacity to "agape" Him. Because "agape" can only come from God. In his own strength the best he could do was "philia" until he received the Holy Spirit.

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Jesus: Simon Peter, you ἀγαπᾷς me? Peter: Lord, I φιλῶ , you. Jesus: Then feed my lambs. Do you ἀγαπᾷς me? Peter: Lord, you know I φιλῶ you. Jesus: Then Shepard my sheep. You φιλεῖς me? Peter: Lord, you know all things. You know I φιλῶ you. Jesus: Then feed my sheep.

Jesus and Peter shared a close bond and Jesus needed him to care for his Church, but Peter had betrayed Jesus by denying he knew him and scattering from the other disciples. He denied that he knew Jesus three times. Peters actions likely weighed heavily upon him. Jesus here knows Peter loves him and his anointing over Peter remains, and so he redeems him of his denial three times- the same number of times he had previously denied him.

Jesus then assures Peter that he will not deny him again, but will be led to captivity (and ultimately death, as tradition holds) because of his testimony concerning Jesus.

The confusion demonstrated by the question comes from a conflation of connotations of our English words "like" and "love" with the Greek words that you mention. It is incorrect to consider these as "degrees of love", as though "I phileo you" means less than "I agape you." Notice in the passage that Christ first uses "agape" but then uses "phileo". Do not be quick to assume that Jesus continues to ask because Peter has answered incorrectly. He has answered him correctly, and Jesus allows him to do so three times to demonstrate a point to Peter, and to us.

I find it is better when considering linguistic distinctions, especially with these specific words, not to consider them "different kinds of love", as it were, but to think of them as different, albeit related, emotions altogether.

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I see the use of agape and philos in John 21:15 as sign of the internal struggle Peter is living through. Peter denied Jesus three times, but Peter will deny Jesus thrice more, for a total of six times! The last three times he will correct Jesus by using the word philos rather than agape as his Lord uses, and this time the insult will be done to His face.

Peter's life was at risk, his friend's lives were at risk of death, Jesus, albeit just ate breakfast with him, hung from a cross! And all he believed in he no longer had the conviction to serve. I see him like a war vetran who trained and capable, one who once ultimately, so it seemed, loved their country so much they would die for it, yet they can no longer march forward. A tremendous weight stops Peter, and there is nothing but the shame of cowardice, the absence of power for what is necessary for agape. He denies his Lord but he doesn't lie. I see a man who weeps when he uses the word philos.

The other side of the coin is that Jesus does not see Peter as Peter sees himself in this moment. Jesus sees His rock. Jesus tries to convince him -- talk sense in to him. "Do you love Me agape?"... "Do you love Me agape?"... But Jesus stops and capitulates to the moment, and finally asks "Do you love me with philos?". Peter says yes yes "I love You with philos." Now.who's denying who here? Is Jesus giving in to Peter's broken spirit? Yes, in a sense. I see, in this moment, that Peter is denying what Jesus is about to fortell about Peter, and wjen one reads the next passage in scripture, the Peter that Jesus describes, the Peter that will be, Loves God, Loves God agape.

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