Assuming as settled truth that agapao and phileo have two different and distinct meanings in the New Testament was commonplace in the circles in which I moved in the past. Those who should have known better often advised to interpret Bible verses in this fashion. This theory asserts that agapao and phileo in the New Testament represent two different types of love and that one must discern this when trying to interpret the Bible. Accordingly, agapao is God’s “divine love” and phileo is “brotherly love.” The following quotes from The Total Man: Building a Man’s Internal Moral Character by Cornell Randolph provide an example of this approach:
- Philia is the kind of love you have for a companion or friend. It refers to loving another person like a brother or sister.
- Agape is a special term which represents the divine love of the Lord towards His Son, Jesus Christ, and toward human beings and all believers. This is the best of the three types of the three types of love in the Bible.
Does this matter? Yes! It is important to:
- Recognize that agapao and phileo are synonyms with substantial semantic overlap. They may be used to mean the same thing, or they may be used to connote something differently.
- Remove agapao and phileo as tools used to frighten those who do not read the Greek language, either implying or stating that they cannot read and understand the Bible.
- Realize that looking up and determining the use of these two Greek words in a concordance is not a magic rabbit’s foot that will reveal some secret meaning not found in the context.
The use in the inspired scriptures of the words agapao and phileo should be convincing to those who will be convinced by the scriptures. Their use in the Bible itself will demonstrate that (1) agapao/ἀγαπάω and phileo/φιλέω are used synonymously, and (2) agapao/ἀγαπάω and phileo/φιλέω are used “surprisingly” – that is, in ways that do not fit the prevailing theory.
Agapao and Phileo used as synonyms.[iii]
The Father loves the Son.
- John 3:35 The Father loveth (agapao) the Son...
- John 5:20 For the Father loveth (phileo) the Son…
The disciple whom Jesus loved.
- John 21:20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved (agapao)…
- John 20:2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved (phileo)…
The love of Christ for his churches.
- Revelation 3:9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved (agapao) thee.
- Revelation 3:19 As many as I love (phileo), I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent
The love of Pharisees for the most important seats.
- Matthew 23:6 and love (phileo) the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
- Luke 11:43 Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love (agapao) the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets.
The love of Jesus for Lazarus.
- John 11:3 Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest (phileo) is sick.
- John 11:5 Now Jesus loved (agapao) Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
- John 11:36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved (phileo) him!
The Christians’ love for one another.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:9 But as touching brotherly love (philadelphias) ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love (agapao) one another.
- 1 Peter 1:22 Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren (philadelphian), see that ye love (agapao) one another with a pure heart fervently:
Agapao and Phileo used surprisingly.[iv]
Agape love can wax cold.
- Matthew 24:12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love (agapao/ἀγαπάω) of many shall wax cold.
Would sinners’ reciprocal and sometimes self-serving love be described with God’s divine love?
- Luke 6:32 For if ye love (agapao) them which love (agapao) you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love (agapao) those that love (agapao) them.
Would natural man’s love for darkness be described with God’s divine love?
- John 3:19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved (agapao) darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
Would backsliding Demas’s love for the world be described with God’s divine love?
- 2 Timothy 4:10 for Demas hath forsaken me, having loved (agapao) this present world…
Agapao can describe the love of sinful, evil, or wrong things.
- John 12:43 for they loved (agapao) the praise of men more than the praise of God.
- 2 Peter 2:15 which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved (agapao) the wages of unrighteousness;
Agapao can love much or love little.
- Luke 7:47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved (agapao) much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth (agapao) little.
- 2 Corinthians 12:15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love (agapao) you, the less I be loved (agapao).
Phileo describes God’s love of man and man’s love of God.
- John 16:27 for the Father himself loveth (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me, and have believed that I came out from God.
The use of agapao and phileo by Greek translators of the Old Testament provides supporting evidence of the understanding of these two words.
Agapao and phileo are used interchangeably (synonymously) by the translators of the Septuagint to translate the same Hebrew word 'aheb.
- Genesis 37:3 And Jacob loved ('aheb, agapao, ἠγάπα) Joseph more than all his sons…
- Genesis 37:4 …his father loved ('aheb, phileo, φιλεῖ) him more than all his sons…, both translate the Hebrew They believed the two words could contain the same meaning.
Agapao is used surprisingly by the translators of the Septuagint to refer to the lust that Amnon had for his half-sister Tamar.
- 2 Samuel 13:15 Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love (ἀγάπην) with which he had loved (ἠγάπησεν) her, for the last wickedness was greater than the first: and Amnon said to her, Rise, and be gone.[v]
If one defaults to and depends on the scholars, we will find that scholars do not agree. Some even take opposite views on the meanings, either of which may be inconsistent with current rhetoric. R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament, 1880) and B. F. Westcott (The Gospel According to St. John, 1881) see the connotations of agapao and phileo much differently. Trench says that Peter sees the first uses of love (agapao) as “far too cold.”[vi] He thinks Peter wants “a more affectionate word” (phileo). Westcott, on the other hand, thinks Peter sees the first uses (agapao) as “too high” and therefore wants “a more human word” (phileo). In his commentary on The Gospel of John, F. F. Bruce concludes from this that when two distinguished Greek scholars “see the significance of the synonyms so differently, we may wonder if indeed we are intended to see such distinct significance.” I believe he concludes rightly.
D. A. Carson writes,
Although it is doubtless true that the entire range of αγαπάω (agapao, to love) and the entire range of φιλέω (phileo, to love) are not exactly the same, nevertheless they enjoy substantial overlap; and where they overlap, appeal to a “root meaning” in order to discern a difference is fallacious. (Exegetical Fallacies, p. 31)
The conclusion, by comparing the scriptures, here a little and there a little, is that these are two different Greek words which can be used as synonyms. One cannot just look into which of these two Greek words is used and then assign an arbitrary “kind of love” to the meaning of the text. The words must be interpreted in their immediate context and the overall context of biblical usage. “None of this is to suggest that there isn’t a special quality to God’s love for us. Certainly his love is sacrificial and divine, etc. But this is not because of some intrinsic meaning in the verb agapao or the noun agape.”[vii] Those who cannot read Greek should not give their right to search the scriptures, whether these things are so to those who pretend to hold some spectacular seer stone through which to interpret the Bible.
[i] “Agapileo” in the title is a made up word, jamming agapao and phileo together. In this writing, I use the transliterations of the Greek words and in a couple of instances the Greek words themselves. This seems necessary, for the sake of clarity, in order to discuss the differences which some would insert in these Greek words. Generally, I use the verb transliterations throughout, “Agapao” and “Phileo,” though “Agape” is probably used more often in theological-speak.
[ii] Synonyms are words that mean the same thing. One synonym can be used in place of another. However, most synonyms do not always mean exactly the same thing, but have a range of meaning that is determined by the contextual use. One should not expect that agapao and phileo always mean exactly the same thing. 2 Peter 1:7 demonstrates the different range of meaning, where “brotherly kindness” translates φιλαδελφίαν (a derivative of phileo) and “charity” translates ἀγάπην. Agapao and phileo have a different range of meaning, but any so-called always-settled difference between the two is not consistent in the Greek language.
[iii] Examples that compare scriptures that say and mean the same thing, while using agapao for love in one and phileo for love in the other.
[iv] Examples of uses we would not expect to find if the prevailing theory under discussion were true.
[v] English translation of the Greek Septuagint by L. C. L. Brenton.