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John 21:15

Context
Peter’s Restoration

21:15 Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, 1  do you love me more than these do?” 2  He replied, 3  “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” 4  Jesus 5  told him, “Feed my lambs.”

1 tc The majority of mss (A C2 Θ Ψ Ë1,13 33 Ï sy) read “Simon, the son of Jonah” here and in vv. 16 and 17, but these are perhaps assimilations to Matt 16:17. The reading “Simon, son of John” is better attested, being found in א1 (א* only has “Simon” without mention of his father) B C* D L W lat co.

2 tn To whom (or what) does “these” (τούτων, toutwn) refer? Three possibilities are suggested: (1) τούτων should be understood as neuter, “these things,” referring to the boats, nets, and fishing gear nearby. In light of Peter’s statement in 21:3, “I am going fishing,” some have understood Peter to have renounced his commission in light of his denials of Jesus. Jesus, as he restores Peter and forgives him for his denials, is asking Peter if he really loves his previous vocation more than he loves Jesus. Three things may be said in evaluation of this view: (a) it is not at all necessary to understand Peter’s statement in 21:3 as a renouncement of his discipleship, as this view of the meaning of τούτων would imply; (b) it would probably be more likely that the verb would be repeated in such a construction (see 7:31 for an example where the verb is repeated); and (c) as R. E. Brown has observed (John [AB], 2:1103) by Johannine standards the choice being offered to Peter between material things and the risen Jesus would seem rather ridiculous, especially after the disciples had realized whom it was they were dealing with (the Lord, see v. 12). (2) τούτων refers to the other disciples, meaning “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples?” The same objection mentioned as (c) under (1) would apply here: Could the author, in light of the realization of who Jesus is which has come to the disciples after the resurrection, and which he has just mentioned in 21:12, seriously present Peter as being offered a choice between the other disciples and the risen Jesus? This leaves option (3), that τούτων refers to the other disciples, meaning “Do you love me more than these other disciples do?” It seems likely that there is some irony here: Peter had boasted in 13:37, “I will lay down my life for you,” and the synoptics present Peter as boasting even more explicitly of his loyalty to Jesus (“Even if they all fall away, I will not,” Matt 26:33; Mark 14:29). Thus the semantic force of what Jesus asks Peter here amounts to something like “Now, after you have denied me three times, as I told you you would, can you still affirm that you love me more than these other disciples do?” The addition of the auxiliary verb “do” in the translation is used to suggest to the English reader the third interpretation, which is the preferred one.

3 tn Grk “He said to him.”

4 tn Is there a significant difference in meaning between the two words for love used in the passage, ἀγαπάω and φιλέω (agapaw and filew)? Aside from Origen, who saw a distinction in the meaning of the two words, most of the Greek Fathers like Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, saw no real difference of meaning. Neither did Augustine nor the translators of the Itala (Old Latin). This was also the view of the Reformation Greek scholars Erasmus and Grotius. The suggestion that a distinction in meaning should be seen comes primarily from a number of British scholars of the 19th century, especially Trench, Westcott, and Plummer. It has been picked up by others such as Spicq, Lenski, and Hendriksen. But most modern scholars decline to see a real difference in the meaning of the two words in this context, among them Bernard, Moffatt, Bonsirven, Bultmann, Barrett, Brown, Morris, Haenchen, and Beasley-Murray. There are three significant reasons for seeing no real difference in the meaning of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in these verses: (1) the author has a habit of introducing slight stylistic variations in repeated material without any significant difference in meaning (compare, for example, 3:3 with 3:5, and 7:34 with 13:33). An examination of the uses of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in the Fourth Gospel seems to indicate a general interchangeability between the two. Both terms are used of God’s love for man (3:16, 16:27); of the Father’s love for the Son (3:35, 5:20); of Jesus’ love for men (11:5, 11:3); of the love of men for men (13:34, 15:19); and of the love of men for Jesus (8:42, 16:27). (2) If (as seems probable) the original conversation took place in Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew), there would not have been any difference expressed because both Aramaic and Hebrew have only one basic word for love. In the LXX both ἀγαπάω and φιλέω are used to translate the same Hebrew word for love, although ἀγαπάω is more frequent. It is significant that in the Syriac version of the NT only one verb is used to translate vv. 15-17 (Syriac is very similar linguistically to Palestinian Aramaic). (3) Peter’s answers to the questions asked with ἀγαπάω are ‘yes’ even though he answers using the verb φιλέω. If he is being asked to love Jesus on a higher or more spiritual level his answers give no indication of this, and one would be forced to say (in order to maintain a consistent distinction between the two verbs) that Jesus finally concedes defeat and accepts only the lower form of love which is all that Peter is capable of offering. Thus it seems best to regard the interchange between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in these verses as a minor stylistic variation of the author, consistent with his use of minor variations in repeated material elsewhere, and not indicative of any real difference in meaning. Thus no attempt has been made to distinguish between the two Greek words in the translation.

5 tn Grk “He”; the referent (Jesus) has been specified in the translation for clarity.



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