A few weeks ago, my son's soccer coach advised the boys to put on jackets so that they wouldn't catch cold after practice. He believed that you could catch a cold if you got chilly after exercise. This belief was once so widespread that people just knew it to be true, even though doctors and scientists agree that colds are caused by viruses, not chill. OK, I know that rhinoviruses thrive better in cold, dry air, but you get my point - sometimes something that everyone knows is untrue.
I mention this story because many Christians in America just know that agape is a Greek word that refers to divine, unconditional love, a higher love than any other. But as a matter of fact, agape does not have this special meaning in Greek, and is only slightly different in meaning from phileo. Agape means "love," and it has about the same range of meaning as the English word "love." It can refer to loving people, food, God, money, or anything else. It can refer to selfless love or selfish love, depending on the context. Surprisingly, Greek scholars and New Testament scholars widely agree on this conclusion, but most other Christians, including many pastors, are unaware of it. I am not aware of any living Greek scholar who accepts the view of agape that is widely proclaimed from the pulpit. (By the way, agapao is the verb form of agape, and phileo is the verb form of philia; I use them interchangeably in this post).
Here's some of the evidence:
1) Philosophers in ancient Greece could not agree on the precise difference between agape and philia, and could not agree on which one was higher. Most philosophers actually asserted that philia was a higher love, because of the high value that philosophers placed on friendship.
2) The translators of the LXX (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) regularly used agapao to translate the Hebrew word ahav, which is also a very generic word for love in Hebrew.
3) While agape is often used to describe positive forms of love, it is also used to describe defective forms of love (Luke 6:32, John 3:19, Deut 21:15 LXX), the love of money (2 Pet 2:15, Isa 1:23 LXX), the love of sin (Rev 22:15, Jer 14:10, Hos 12:7 LXX), the love for honor (Luke 11:43, John 12:43), legitimate sexual desire (Song of Solomon) and even lust (Gen 34:2-3, Jdg 16:4, 2 Sam 13:3-15 LXX). In other words, agape is like the English word love - it can have a positive or negative meaning depending on its context.
4) Although there are some slight differences in usage between agapao and phileo, they are used interchangeably at times in the Bible. Take a look at Luke 11:43/20:46; John 3:35/5:20; John 11:3/11:5/11:36; John 14:21/14:23/16:27; and Heb 12:6/Rev 3:19. In each of these cases, almost identical sentences use phileo or agapao with no apparent difference in meaning. In some cases, phileo is used for very high forms of love, such as the love between the Father and the Son.
For some people, this information is bad news. They like the idea that the Bible has a special word that means divine, unconditional love, and it disturbs them that the evidence does not support this view. But here's the good news: although Greek and Hebrew words for love do not have this special nuance, God's love is divine, giving and unconditional, no matter which word we use to communicate it. It's not the word for love that matters, but the many sentences, paragraphs, and stories about God's love that matter. Ideas don't have to be found in single words to be valid - in fact, most ideas require multiple words to be communicated.
Next post: if agapao and phileo mean almost the same thing, what was John trying to say at the breakfast scene in John 21:15-17?
The picture: The Miraculous Draught of Fish, by Konrad Witz, 1443.