John 21: Peter as Jesus' friend

Bill Heroman has just concluded a heroic series of twelve posts in just over a week putting forward A New Take on John 21 (this link is to the final summary post; the individual posts are preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10). I am not convinced by some of this, such as his argument that this encounter by the beach took place at Tiberias and that Jesus and Peter actually spoke in Greek (actually that was in an earlier post by Bill). But I do find his main conclusion about their conversation rather persuasive, even if I have to say that it was crafted into its surviving Greek form by John rather than being a precise record of Greek words spoken by Jesus and Peter.

I have heard two main lines of interpretation of the conversation about love, and why in the Greek text Jesus uses agapao in his first two questions to Peter, and phileo only in his third, whereas Peter always answers with phileo. One interpretation is that agapao is a strong word for “love” and phileo is a weak word, and so Peter is committing himself only to a lower level of love than Jesus is looking for. The other interpretation is that no distinction is to be made between agapao and phileo, that this is merely stylistic variation.

Into this debate rides Bill Heroman with a radically new proposal, based on pre-Christian Greek usage, that in this context (before the Christian concept of agape love was fully developed, on his hypothesis) phileo is the strong word for “love”, the committed love between friends, and agapao is the weak word, referring to doing favours. More specifically, Jesus’ first two questions “Do you love me?” (agapao) would have been understood as “Will you do something for me?”, whereas Peter’s reply “I love you” (phileo) would have meant “I am your friend”, alluding back to John 15:14-15 and implying “Of course, I will do anything for you, my friend”. Then Jesus’ continuing questioning, especially the final question “Do you love me?” (phileo), would have been his probing of the genuineness and depth of Peter’s friendship.

This seems quite convincing to me. It also implies an interesting take on the call to Christian discipleship, on whether we who call ourselves friends of God (John 15:14-15, cf. James 2:23) are actually prepared to do what he asks us to do. Does anyone have any constructive, or other, criticism of this proposal?

Bill also recently told this wonderful joke, especially for maths geeks like him and me:

One day Jesus began teaching The Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x squared plus 8x minus 9.

The disciples began to wonder about this until Peter said, I’ll bet this is another one of his parabolas.

13 thoughts on “John 21: Peter as Jesus' friend

  1. Thanks, Bill. I think the joke would have worked even better in the original Greek, except that of course Peter didn’t speak Greek with Jesus and the other disciples.

  2. I’m loving this stuff on John 21; I never really went in for the old “Four Loves” business anyway, but this upside down take on it works for me. I’ve never seen anything on pre-Christian use of agapao, and to top it all there is a relevant challenge to the church of today (which always helps)
    thanks Peter

  3. Thanks, Tim. The pre-Christian use of agapao is interesting. But this is where Bill’s suggestion that Jesus and Peter were speaking Greek, if it were believable, would strengthen his case. Somehow I can’t imagine John writing or “crafting” this in the 90’s AD and still using the pre-Christian sense of agapao rather than the by then quite well established Christian sense of it, as evidenced by his own letters with the theme “God is agape“.

  4. Peter, do you realize my suggestion about spoken words was that it’s possible for only the six key lines to have been spoken in Greek? To illustrate, imagine a missions team leader inserting a bit of conversational farsi during a lunch before heading to Iraq. The Q&A format with short sentences seems like a natural fit for such a situation, in any era.

    That aside, I question dating John in the 90’s. But even granting such a date, it doesn’t mean the word agapao had become 100% christianized by such time. And even if it had, that doesn’t preclude an author using a word’s more archaic meaning. Not that I meant to necessarily slight the value of “agapao” in my series.

    Unless I mispoke, or am misremembering, I don’t think I actually implied Jesus was using an inferior form of “agapao”. I just said “phileo” wasn’t inferior to it in Peter’s useage. I also said that in Jesus’ useage (Jn.15) the “philos” is the one responsible for delivering the “agape”.

    Not to seem defensive. 😉 Really, I’m just grateful for the pushback.

    We’ve spent so many years being told one word was inferior to the other. Reflecting on it all again, now, I think it’s more accurate to say the words are complementary, as used in Jn.21, rather than hierarchial.

    What do you think?

  5. Bill, you may well be right that John is earlier than the 90’s. But I really don’t see why Jesus and Peter would have had this particular conversation in Greek.

    But yes, I think you have a real point that the words are complementary. You are certainly doing a good job of making people think.

  6. It *could* have been another way for Jesus to nudge Peter into thinking about the gentiles. But I don’t want my whole argument to rest on Greek. The context, to me, is what’s more important. The reconciliation was to service, because they had already reconciled in relationship. So the old interpretation is unfitting.

    Thanks again, Peter.

  7. This is almost as bad as the one about Issac complaining he could not get Vista to run on his PC and then Abraham stating that God Himself would supply the RAM..

  8. Bill has posted again on John 21, this time a summary of his previous arguments with the focus on how Peter responded to Jesus. Another paragraph or two applying it to our lives today and it would make a good short sermon, one which I need for my own life.

  9. Cheerskill, thanks for the quote. But please can you explain how it is relevant to this post. Are you suggesting that my approach to Scripture, or anyone else’s, is not “simple”? Or that we don’t believe in its truth? If so, in what way?

  10. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » A New Take on 1 Timothy 2:12

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