Monday, February 1, 2010

Words Used For "Love" in the Bible

Helmut Richter, a German linguist gives these thoughts:

"In the Greek New Testament, there are three different words used which can be translated by the English word "love":

· agapê (love, charity) and words derived from it

· philia (friendship, love) and words derived from it

· storgê (natural affection), only as astorgos (lacking natural affection) in Ro.1:31 and 2Tim.3:3.

The translations given in parentheses are those one would find most often as explanations of the difference between these words.

A fourth Greek word for "love", eros (attraction, sexual love) is not found in the Greek NT, neither the word itself nor as root of another word.

For the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the picture is quite different. With respect to words for love, it resembles our languages like English or German: there is one and only one word for love (the verb ahav and the noun ahava) which covers the concept as broadly as our modern word "love". God's love (Jr.31:3), love of God (Dt.6:4), love of the fellow man (Lv.19:18), love of a friend (2Sam.1:26), love of a girl (Gen.29:20), mere sex (Prov.7:18), love of money (Eccl.5:9), and love of vanity (Ps.4:3) are all called by the same name.

Now, are agapê and philia synonymous? This question has been discussed for quite some time. In particular, the story of the reinstatement of Peter plays with the different words meaning love:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" - "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. ...
" (John 21:15-17, NIV)

In this translation, the verb agapaô is rendered as "truly love" and the verb phileô as "love". It looks as if Jesus had asked a different, perhaps a less demanding, question at the third time, and Peter had committed himself only to friendship, not to "true" love. But is that really meant?

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time the same question, and not relieved that Jesus reduced his demands at his third attempt. In what follows, Jesus announced that Peter would have to bear the full burden of friendship, reminding him that "greater love (agapê) has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (philoi)" (John15:13, NIV). - Whatever the interpretation of the change of words in this discourse, there is little evidence that philia is an inferior kind of love compared to agapê."

Here is another article on this topic:


  1. Good morning, Donna. Charlene Taylor here ... mother in law of Shayla, April's roommate. I'm in the hospital awaiting move up to surgery floor for removal of a 3 cm brain tumor. Priesthood blessing promises complete healing and speedy recovery. My husband has been by my side using my laptop for work/work but had to get up and walk around. So it's my turn and I chose to use my time to read your blog. I'm so thankful for your years of study and sacrifice and your willingness to share your learning. It's a last minute way to fill my spirit yet more. I hope to meet you one day. For now know that your efforts are touching me. Also, my daughter who has been inactive for 21 years has been led back to Christ and we are able to share gospel conversations once more. One of my first acts upon returning home is to order her a copy of Beloved Bridegroom and your CD about the nativity. You are a blessing in my life!

  2. Charlene, we send wishes for a speedy and complete recovery. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. I find this interesting. My rusty knowledge returns a broad idea of saintly attributes attached to love of the 'agape' kind, much more than plain "charity"; the broad unconditional helpfullness which allows the will to carry out charity by effort more often than is found in charity by tax accountants. Further to that, I had an impression from agape of some sense of good natured duty, as a modern writer could try to express as love for his city, his countrymen, and for everyone else in the rest of the world.

    I did not know about the word philia before reading this, so THANKS, because it presents a useful distinction which should be more widely thought about. I've seen 'brotherly-love' used a fair bit, and ask whether that was the cludge of words used by some translators for philia. I'm much heartened to see a straightforwardly wholesome reason for that translation appearing in places.

    And please edit to do the e-tilda if you have time...