“Lovest Thou Me?” -- By: William G. Ballantine

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 046:183 (Jul 1889)
Article: “Lovest Thou Me?”
Author: William G. Ballantine


“Lovest Thou Me?”

Rev. Professor WM. G. Ballantine

In the Independent of Nov. 2, 1882, the present writer presented under the title above, a brief statement of the results of a fresh investigation of the biblical usage of the verbs ἀγαπάω and φιλέω and their derivatives. As that article seems to have somehow escaped the notice of scholars, and learned authors have gone on repeating in standard works the errors which that investigation exposed, it seems proper to present the facts again in greater detail in these pages.

In the dialogue between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15–17), is there any significance in the fact that Jesus begins with ἀγαπᾷς, repeats it, and finally says φιλεῖς, while Peter every time protests φιλῶ? A patient study of the concordances compels us to answer that there is no significance.

Such a question requires a purely inductive answer. The question is not whether an imaginative writer, like Trench, can construct an ingenious theory involving “subtle and delicate play of feeling”, but, What was usage? Dr. Ezra Abbott has shown in another case (The Distinction between αἰτέω and ἐρωτάω. Critical Essays. 1888) how the learned archbishop could construct, on purely sentimental grounds, and right in the face of abundant facts of usage, an artificial distinction and secure the unwary assent of distinguished scholars. We are convinced that he has done so here.

Φιλέω, we need not say, is as early as the earliest Greek literature itself, and as wide in its meaning as our verb to love, running through all kinds and degrees of the feeling, from the love of family and friend down to mere liking and being wont to do a thing; and passing over from the sphere of innocent to that of licentious love, whether passionate or merely sensual.”1 In modern Greek all this definition is just as true of ἀγαπῶ which has completely superseded φιλῶ in all its senses, except that of kissing. The venerable and learned Professor E. A. Sophocles, in a private letter written in 1881, said: “The modern ἀγαπῶ means simply to love. In general it corresponds to the classical φιλῶ, ἐρῶ, ἔ...

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