The Christian Idea Of Love -- By: Samuel Whittlesey Howland

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 066:263 (Jul 1909)
Article: The Christian Idea Of Love
Author: Samuel Whittlesey Howland


The Christian Idea Of Love

Samuel Whittlesey Howland

Atlanta, Georgia

In the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel, in the conversation between Peter and Jesus there are two Greek words which are translated into English by the word “love.” The two words have been frequently compared with each other, and some of the distinctions have been pointed out; but it does not seem to me that enough has been said concerning them. Even prominent and able expounders of Scripture have said that there is no difference between the two, and that we should not attempt to distinguish them, and that Jesus uses them strictly synonymously. Some also say that the conversation was originally in Aramaic, and does not have the words to make the distinction. Though it is not a settled matter as to which language they used in the conversation, there is no doubt but that the Aramaic is capable of making the distinction. There seems to be no doubt but that the one who wrote the account of the incident intended to make a distinction between the two words. The change from one word to another was evidently deliberate and intentional, and intended to express a different idea by the two words.

It is a little remarkable that the word agape is first found in the Septuagint, which would seem to indicate that it was not a word familiar to classical Greek writers. It is not only first found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament: but it is found very frequently there, as if those translators were already familiar with it when they made their translation, or at least regarded it as a word necessary to the translation. The Jews evidently had an ethical idea of love. They were familiar with the command “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” and “shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This love is manifestly something that can be commanded. But the

Greeks had no such idea. With them love was an emotion spontaneous, not to be called up by an act of the will. Bringing these facts together, it seems to me necessary to suppose that not only was the idea borrowed by Greek users from the Hebrews, but that the word itself was borrowed with the idea. The Hebrew word is ahab; and in transferring it into Greek, not only are the vowels the same, but the consonants h and b very naturally become g and p. These same letters are used sometimes to transliterate the other two. So we may suppose the Greek agape is borrowed from the Hebrew ahab. Greek grammarians find themselves at a loss to account for the etymology of agape. The attempt is made to derive agape from agamai; but the idea and the root are too far fetched. We may admit a faint trace of relationship (su...

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