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Odd Gospel Greek: love me three times

April 2, 2013

Love me one time
I could not speak
Love me one time, baby
Yeah, my knees got weak
But love me two times, girl
Last me all through the week
Love me two times
I’m goin’ away
— Jim Morrison, and The Doors

Ἐλυπήθη ὁ Πέτρος
ὅτι εἶπεν αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον,
Φιλεῖς με;

Peter was grieved
because he said unto him the third time,
Lovest thou me?
— odd gospel Greek, and the KJV translation of John 21:17

When we come to the end of the non-syn-optic yet canonical gospel of John, we have already read about lots of love.  What is notable in John 21:17 is there is a concentrated amount of it.  There is love questioned and love repeated.  The writer is telling, or rather is showing, the reader that Jesus had already asked Peter, and three times, “Lovest thou me?”  The way the Greek reader gets it is Φιλεῖς με;

And, sure enough, the reader goes back to see what Jesus asked, three times:

λέγει τῷ Σίμωνι Πέτρῳ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Σίμων Ἰωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με πλεῖον τούτων; – 21:15

Λέγει αὐτῷ πάλιν δεύτερον, Σίμων Ἰωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με; – 21:16

Λέγει αὐτῷ τὸ τρίτον, Σίμων Ἰωνᾶ, φιλεῖς με; – 21:17

And Peter’s consistent reply is “You know ὅτι φιλῶ σε.”

Now, if the writer had Jesus asking Peter, just two times, then that would have been something.  And maybe a single word for the two times of love asking, and answering, would have sufficed.  But here it’s “love me three times.”  Doesn’t the style, the show of the questions of love, three times, go better with two different synonyms for love?  Should I ask it again? And again and again?

Well, I’m really glad that some time ago at another blog, my BLT co-blogger Suzanne asked:

Should agape and philia be translated differently in the scriptures? Should we have a different translation for the two verbs in the exchange in John 21?

Her questions got me rereading a couple of other questions, ones asked in the Odyssey:

Why, my beloved child, has this intention come into
your mind? Why do you wish to wander over much country,
you, an only and loved son?

The answers, of course, are found elsewhere.  Pardon me if I send you away to those other places, but, if you’re asking such questions about the three questions of love in John, and the question of two loves, and the question of the style of odd gospel Greek, then you’ll want to read more here, and perhaps here.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    April 2, 2013 8:42 am

    Could have the author here have had any purpose besides literary style in using two different words of love? Is this literary pattern also seen in Jesus’ varied response 15 βοσκε τα αρνια μου 16 ποιμαινε τα προβατια μου 17 βοσκε τα προβατια μου. What may the author be wanting to do with this play on the words of love since an exchange like this between Jesus and his disciple would have been in Aramaic anyway?

  2. April 2, 2013 9:47 am

    Jay,
    You make two excellent points. The author, if not translating spoken Hebraic Aramaic directly, is imagining the conversation in written Greek. It is literary Greek, with style, that uses variations that are what some linguists and some sociolinguists and some discourse linguists might call “emic.” In other words, there’s an insiderness to the odd uses of the Hellene that first readers, as insiders, would have recognized as novel and as patterned style, indeed as “play on the words” likely. We “etic” outsiders might sense some significant differences — especially if we’re trying to establish some foreign and theological differences — in the variation, that is, in the synonyms. My own speculation, which I probably didn’t express clearly or strongly enough in the post, is that there is a packing in of love here, a denseness of rich meaningfulness in a concentrated short context, that makes for and allows for and maybe even requires the nuancing to say the “same” thing.

    As noted in the post at the WOMBman’s Bible (the second link above), several individual NT translators want to use different English words for the singular Greek concept of love expressed in the different Greek synonymous phrases: Ann Nyland, J. B. Phillips, David H. Stern, and Michael Paul Johnson. I see you wrote in a comment there to suggest, instead, “love and cherish.” That’s brilliant in my opinion.

  3. April 2, 2013 10:58 pm

    Good grief. I had no idea.

    Without having yet followed any of the links in the post for further reading, my first very strong impression is that this significantly changes the story from a riff/allusion/counterpoint to Peter’s three denials, which is how I usually read it, into something rather different. Assuming that there actually is a qualitative difference between philia and agape, which is what I was taught, then even without knowing that that difference is, exactly, I get this:

    Peter, do you agape me?
    Lord, you know I philia you.

    Yes, but Peter, do you agape me?
    Yes, I philia you.

    :sigh: Peter, do you philia me?
    Yes, Lord, I philia you.

    Suddenly this looks to me like Jesus meeting Peter where he is, after Peter fails to meet Jesus quite where he is. It looks like Jesus meeting Thomas where he is: Thomas won’t believe until he puts his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ hands? OK, then, Jesus shows up and invites him to do so.

    Am I way off base here, or is that plausible?

  4. April 3, 2013 6:24 am

    Victoria,
    You’ve been taught that “philia” is somehow lesser and lower than “agape.” And John by that Greek surely must be noting how Jesus here comes down to the level of the sorrowful and repentant Peter, who denied him three times and can only at the end muster the courage to confess that he simply only can find it in himself to be the “friend” of Jesus but not one who truly can “love” him in any way approaching divinity. So, Jesus comes down to the merely human level then.

    N. T. Wright, following this same reasoning it seems, renders the odd gospel Greek this way:

    Peter was upset that on this third time Jesus asked, “Are you my friend?”

    Wright’s translation pushes further than any of the other translations this interpretation. The others before him, of course, are Ann Nyland, J. B. Phillips, David H. Stern, and Michael Paul Johnson.

    Nyland is the most careful of these. She includes a very helpful footnote pointing readers both to primary Greek literature and secondary commentary on it. Of the two Greek words that the gospel interchanges, Nyland says in her note: “there is a distinct overlap in their semantic ranges.” She goes on to say a whole lot more about the misunderstandings of “agapao” and how it “did not refer to a special God-like love.” She calls it a “mistaken belief that there is a divine meaning behind the word.” She explains that the “literature of the time also demonstrates that [it] certainly was not used particularly for ‘good’ love or ‘God-like’ love.”

    So back to Wright’s interpretation. His English translation takes away the synonymous interchange between the two Greek phrases. His rendering causes John’s Jesus to ask something entirely different “on this third time” of asking. Jesus is no longer asking Peter whether he loves him. Rather he’s simply conceding that the latter doesn’t have the courage to say that he loves him and must then simply ask him if he can only just merely see himself as his mere friend. This grieves Peter even more. Not only did he deny him thrice, as Jesus predicted he would. Now thrice Peter fails to say he loves Jesus, and again thrice, and again Jesus is pointing this out in a rather excruciating cross examination. “Peter was upset” in this third round of questioning of his loyalty. So maybe Jesus, the divine, is the one who has to concede the lack of degree of faithfulness in his disciple and to mandate a high command, nonetheless, to this mere human, mere friend. I’m starting to use a bit of hyperbole here. But I want to push Wright’s interpretation to its limits.

    The Christology, Wright’s theology, causes the extreme translation, I believe. This is not to say that Nyland does not have some theological lens also (albeit a different one in many respects), but at least she is careful to look at Greek writers before the gospel were doing. And she points readers to D.A. Carson’s study of the biblical uses of the words for love. Since you’ve followed the links, or if we look up the book Nyland points us to, we see for example how Carson writes:

    Whatever the heuristic merits of this analysis of kinds of love, I have shown elsewhere that there is plenty of evidence that these different loves cannot safely be tied to these respective [Greek] words. The Bible has plenty to say about sexual love, for instance, and yet never uses the word eros. In the Septuagint, when Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, the Greek text can say the he ‘loved’ her, using the verb agapao (LXX 2 Sam. 13:1, 4, 15). When John tells us that the Father loves the Son, once he does so with phileo, and once with agapao, with no discernible distinction in meaning (John 3:35; 5:20). When Demas forsakes Paul because he loves this present evil world, the verb is agapao. In fact, the evidence goes way beyond a smattering of verses, but I need not repeat it here since it has been set forth often enough.[3, to fn 3]

    So back to N. T. Wright. Here Theophrastus shows where we can purchase the NT Wright NT translation for less than four bucks.

    Now, I could interchange “less than four bucks” with merely “$3.79.” That may be a matter of style for me the English writer.

    We might all agree, likewise, that Abraham Lincoln, for effect, for style, wrote and then spoke, “Four score and seven years ago.” Does this really have a different meaning than “eighty seven”?

    We interchange entirely different phrases like “used automobile salesperson” and “pre-owned car seller.” We may do this for style.

    I’ve noticed how sometimes you will refer to a “blogpost” as an “essay.” For instance, you’ve done this before using single sentences, writing the following:

    Debra Dean Murphy has posted an interesting essay proposing a “third way” to think about marriage, grounded in trinitarian theology rather …

    When I wrote about Thecla the other day, I went looking for liturgical texts about her with which to close the essay.

    You’ve also used the English phrase “paper” to describe something altogether different from “paper”:

    My final paper on Paul is finally done!! … If you had asked me for a copy, I will email it out to you in a couple of days.

    Sure, we readers could argue indeed that what you are going to “email” us is really simply merely just “a copy” of a physical “paper.” But we cannot be absolutely certain what clear-cut semantic boundaries you were putting around these different words.

    If I had wanted to have better style in writing this comment, then I would have desired to be more concise. The effect of my droning on here, the “how” I am writing here, on and on and on, I hope, is countered by “what” I am saying. Notice, that I am saying and I am writing. I am droning and it’s what I’m doing on and on and on. Notice how I lack wanting to write differently and how I fail to desire to write differently. It’s a point I’m making, a thesis I’m delivering, a topic I’m exploring.

    When the gospel uses odd Greek phrasal variations on the theme of love, we may want to try to “understand” why (even if we can establish that’s what the Hellene here is doing). But we may do better to sense the effect.

    Let’s try Jay’s suggestion of using the English interchangable phrases “love” and “cherish.” Let’s do that using the NRSV. How does this read to you?

    14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

    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 cherish you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I cherish you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you cherish me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you cherish me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I cherish you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

  5. April 3, 2013 9:47 am

    I think it’s fair to note, also, that nobody makes any fuss at all over the other stylish variations of the Greek in the gospel here.

    As Jay points out, there’s this:

    15 βοσκε τα αρνια μου
    16 ποιμαινε τα προβατια μου
    17 βοσκε τα προβατια μου.

    And there’s this too:

    15 Ναί, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι
    16 Ναί, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι
    17 Κύριε, πάντα σὺ οἶδας, σὺ γινώσκεις ὅτι

    And there’s this as well:

    15 λέγει τῷ / λέγει αὐτῷ· / λέγει αὐτῷ·
    16 λέγει αὐτῷ / λέγει αὐτῷ·/ λέγει αὐτῷ·
    17 λέγει αὐτῷ / εἶπεν αὐτῷ / εἶπεν αὐτῷ· /λέγει αὐτῷ

    One could certainly argue for Greek and translated English significant semantic sememic differences between the metaphorical animals (and the ways of caring for them), the various ways of knowing, and the varied forms for speaking. But nobody does.

  6. April 3, 2013 3:10 pm

    Hi Kurk,

    You’ve been taught that “philia” is somehow lesser and lower than “agape.”

    No, actually, I have not.

    I’ve been taught that agape and philia have distinctive meanings, that they are not precisely synonyms, that neither has a particularly good English synonym, and that the English word “love” covers the broad semantic field in which agape, philia, and eros all occur.

    I do have some notion that agape is more universal and, perhaps, sacrificial, while philia is more particular. And I’ve got some notion of philia absorbed from its related common English morpheme.

    But setting that aside, my point was more about pattern matching than the distinctive nuances of each Greek word. Regardless of what each word precisely means, there’s a difference between

    A? / A.
    A? / A.
    A? / A!

    and

    A? / B.
    A? / B.
    B? / B!

    That difference is interesting, and the latter version is more interesting than the former.

    As a literary technique, it looks like the rhyming couplet that culminates a poem of alternating rhyme, like the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. As a dramatic dialogue, it looks like the very human conversational dance between two persons who begin in somewhat different places but eventually find a way to match each other.

    Your next comment shows other examples of variations and I have to work a little harder to suss out the overall patterns, but I’ll do that next. 🙂

  7. April 3, 2013 3:28 pm

    Victoria,

    As outsiders to Greek and to this particular and peculiar Greek and to its pattern, we will have a tremendously difficult time knowing the emic-ness (or insiderness) of the pattern. It’s the problem of “shibboleth” and “sibboleth.”

    Or, rather, it’s the issue of us native English “speakers” not being able to hear a difference in the /p/ sounds when we say “speak” and “peak.” Native speakers of Thai language, of course, would very easily hear the very obvious difference. We native English speakers cannot and will not make a big deal out of it, despite the fact that a Thai speaker would want to understand and, if linguistically trained, would be very apt at describing the pattern, or the predictable context, where we make the one sound and then the other. “spot/ pot, spill/ pill, speak/ peak. The p’s are not really different. And, Yawn. Who cares?,” says us English speakers. But the Thai listeners know differently. But then again, it makes no good sense for the Thai speakers to focus on this difference when translating patterns of English into Thai.

    my point was more about pattern matching than the distinctive nuances of each Greek word.

    This is, I believe, the work of a good translator.

    Your initial point did include a focus on the distinctive nuances of each Greek word. or did I misunderstand you when you said the following, offering a transliteration translation of the two Greek words?:

    Assuming that there actually is a qualitative difference between philia and agape, which is what I was taught, then even without knowing that that difference is, exactly, I get this: ….

    My point is that the Greek pairs here have no nuanced difference to the ancient Greek readers.

    So, what did you think of seeing the patterns in the NRSV that includes Jay’s idea of “love” and “cherish” as distinct/the same?

  8. April 3, 2013 4:31 pm

    Victoria,

    I really like your comment here:

    As a literary technique, it looks like the rhyming couplet that culminates a poem of alternating rhyme, like the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. As a dramatic dialogue, it looks like the very human conversational dance between two persons who begin in somewhat different places but eventually find a way to match each other.

    There is, even to us outsiders, little question that this work in Greek is literary, is full of poetic and/or dramatic style here that way.

    The question is how to translate poetry and drama from such old Greek into English, to keep it literary, to show the style.

  9. April 3, 2013 7:33 pm

    On a less serious note, if you are going talk about loving three times, then I’m going to have to respond with Curtis Mayfield and Mavis Staples (I’d point to a recording of their song, but some readers may be avoiding music until Lag B’Omer.)

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