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.