Agape, Phileo, and Eros: Sorting Through The Meanings

New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE) (5 vols.)

I’m sure many of our readers have heard all sorts of info about the differences between three words for love: agape (αγαπη), eros (ερως), and phileo (φιλεω). I’ve heard a few of these discussions myself and they often leave me a little concerned because they aren’t always overly accurate. I could do a write-up of it myself, I suppose, but the NIDNTTE does a much better job than I could do. Here are some excerpts from the entry on love/agape (as a noun, verb, and adjective):

One should not infer that this word group has some kind of intrinsic “divine” meaning, as though the terms by themselves indicate selfless, sacrificial, pure love. In the LXX (Septuagint), for example, the verb is used of Samson’s attraction to Delilah (Judg 16:4), of Saul’s initial liking for David (1 Sam 16:21), of King Hiram’s political friendship with David (1 Ki. 5:1), of Solomon’s attachment to his numerous pagan wives (1 Ki. 11:2), of the people’s devotion to vain things (Ps 4:2 [LXX 4:3]), of the wicked’s love for unrighteousness, evil, and cursing (11:5 [10:5]; 52:3–4 [51:5–6]; 109:17 [108:17]), of the love for death that characterizes those who hate divine wisdom (Prov 8:36), of greediness for money and wealth (Eccl 5:10 [5:9]), of the rulers’ passion for shameful behavior (Hos 4:18), of the desire for a prostitute’s wages (9:1)….

It remains true that in the vast majority of its NT occurrences, ἀγαπάω is used with reference to a distinctive Christian virtue, but this fact witnesses to the significance of the theological concept, not to any positive qualities inherent in the word itself

 Here’s the section specifically on agape, eros, and phileo:

It has become commonplace—not only in popular literature but in scholarly treatments as well—to say that while English has only one word for “love,” Greek has three, each of which has a clearly distinguishable meaning: ἔρως (vb. ἐράω) supposedly has a negative connotation and indicates a desire for personal satisfaction, so that it is often applied to sexual matters (this word group is rare in the LXX and totally absent in the NT); φιλία/φιλέω (phileo) is said to be a somewhat neutral and colorless term, referring primarily to friendships and family relations; ἀγάπη and ἀγαπάω, (agape) finally, signify a self-giving attitude that seeks the best for others, even if unlovable (some of these distinctions owe much to the influential work by A. Nygren, Agape and Eros [1953]; earlier, Trench (p. 43) had argued that ἔρως and its cognates had been corrupted by the world, and “they carried such an atmosphere of unholiness about them … that the truth of God abstained from the defiling contact with them”).

This approach is problematic, however. Not only does it give an oversimplified picture of the Greek vocabulary—it is also inaccurate in several respects. To begin with, Greek has more than just three words whose use can come within the broad category of “love,” such as ἀντέχω , ἐπιθυμία, ἐπιπόθησις G2161, ἵμερος, κολλάω, πόθος, σπλάγχνον, στοργή, and others. And, of course, it is far from the truth that Eng. has only one word to express the concept of love in its various forms….

More important, it is misleading to suggest that the three Gk. words in question have inherently favorable or unfavorable meanings. As noted above (sect. 1), there are plenty of negative contexts in the LXX where ἀγαπάω is used. By the same token, ἐράω freq. occurs in positive contexts; Philo, for example, links this vb. with “good things,” “virtues,” “perseverance and temperance,” “peace,” “truth,” “wisdom,” etc. (Leg. 2.55, 80, 83; Somn. 2.40; Spec. 2.258; Virt. 1.62), and he can speak of ἔρως as “heavenly” and “divine” (οὐράνιος, θεῖος) and as the source of all virtue (Virt. 1.55). As for φιλέω, it is true enough that this vb. occurs freq. in contexts of friendship, and that often it is used in the mild sense of “to like (something)” (cf. Gen 27:4 et al.), but it can also be applied to Jacob’s strong love for his son Joseph (37:4 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 3]), to a person’s love for wisdom (Prov 29:3), to the love for parents (Matt 10:37), to God the Father’s love for the Son (John 5:20), to Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus (11:3 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 5], 36); to the Father’s love for the disciples in response to the disciples’ love for Jesus (16:27)… (etc).

One more note:

That ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo) can be used interchangeably in some contexts is certain: “I love [ἀγαπῶ] those who love [φιλοῦντας] me” (Prov 8:17 LXX, where the two terms render the same Heb. vb., אָהַב; cf. also 21:17; Lam 1:2; and Jos. Vita 1.198; LSJ cites Xen. Mem. 2.7.9); and John himself can employ these two vbs. as simple synonyms, as is especially clear from the formula “[the disciple] whom Jesus loved” (ἠγάπα in John 13:23; 21:7, 20; but ἐφίλει in 20:2). Moreover, as noted above, John sometimes applies ἀγαπάω (agapao) to negative expressions of love (3:19; 12:43), and φιλέω (phileo) to divine love (5:20; 16:27). 

The discussion is somewhat technical, I suppose, and I did edit the above quotes to make it easier to read. The point is, be somewhat wary when someone tries to give dogmatic statements about the meaning of agape, phileo, and eros!

 The above quotes are found in Silva, Moisés, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis 2014. s.v. agape.

 Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

3 comments on “Agape, Phileo, and Eros: Sorting Through The Meanings

  1. Lisa Inlow says:

    Very interesting. How does this help me understand the Bible better?

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    • Good question! It’s probably more of an indirect help than a direct help. That is, some people may have heard that “agape love” is ____ in the Bible and “philos love” is always different than “agape love” in the Bible. That’s just a false statement; this little article helps clear the mud that way.

      Also, for those who can read Greek or who are into languages, this article helps avoid some errors, what we call “exegetical fallacies.”

      Hope this makes sense. Blessings! Shane

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