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Love is more than it seems.
English Bibles do not seem to care much about why Jesus used specific words. The English word “love” is a good example. Two different Greek words are both consistently translated as "love," with a few other words being translated as “love” upon occasion. The two common Greek words have very different meanings, with serious implications regarding Jesus’s teaching. Unfortunately, neither of these two words really means “love” in the modern sense of the English word.
What can I say about the other Greek words sometimes translated as “love?” Translators simply like to associate Jesus with "love," finding opportunities to do so. Newer translations are worse in this regard, but the problem goes back to the beginning. For example, in the King James Version of Mark 12:38, the verb that means "to be willing," is translated as "love." Consenting or being willing is not the same as loving. This same Greek verb is almost always translated as "want" and occasionally as "desire" elsewhere in ancient Greek literature, but as "love?" Only in the Bible. And only occasionally.
The Greek Concepts
The two verbs always translated as "love" in the Gospels are agapao and phileo. These two words are better understood in the context of another Greek word, eros, a word Jesus never uses. Eros, however, has more in common with the romantic and sexual connotations of “love” in English. Neither agapao or phileo are used in ancient Greek to describe romantic love. English is also rich in words describing various, more specific forms of relationships among people that are not romantic love, but Biblical translators avoid them.
The Greek terms for both love and hate are essentially different from our English words. In English, the words express an emotional state. In Greek, they are used to express relationships and comparisons rather than emotions. When we say we “hate” Mondays and “love” Saturdays, or “love” roast beef and “hate” tuna, we are expressing concepts closer to the Greek. The Greek word translated as “hate,” miseo, means antipathy toward something, a dislike, and avoidance, primarily as a comparison rather than an emotion. Both agapao and phileo are contrasted by Jesus with miseo, agapao in three verses, phileo in three verses.
Agapao and phileo express two different human relationships. Calling them both “love” confuses what Jesus taught. For example, we can wonder what John means by describing himself as the "disciple whom Jesus loved." Did he mean they had a romantic relationship? Or the relationship of a father and son? Or were they best friends? Or, to take another example, in Matthew 10:37, when Jesus said "He that loves a father or mother more than me is not worthy of me," was he referring to the love of a family member or the love between friends? Knowing the Greek that Jesus used helps us understand his teachings more precisely.
John was the source of most of the “love” we find in the Gospels, using both agapao and phileo more often than the other three Gospel writers put together. Of the thirty three times Jesus uses the agapao, it appears in John seventeen times (51 %). Of the twelve times Jesus uses phileo, six of them are in John. Even though agapao only appears thirty-three times in Jesus’s words, it is one of the top ten verbs he uses, thanks to the Gospel of John.
Agapao -- Caring as a Bond
The most common verb translated as "love" is agapao. Jesus uses this word about twice as much as he does phileo. Historically, agapao expresses many different ideas including "to be fond of,” "to greet with affection," and "to persuade." Its noun form is agape, translated as means "love of a spouse" "love of God" and "charity" in the sense of giving to others.
However, Jesus uses agapao more specifically. He associates it with relationships having a sense of duty. He uses this word to express devotion. The English word “caring” comes closest, the caring we have for relatives, for those we feel a sense of responsibility toward. Caring for someone also means guiding them, which is this word’s connection to the idea of “to persuade.” Agapao covers a wide variety of caring, from the way we care about our own lives to the way we care for children and parents. This is the word that John uses to describe his relationship with Jesus. So he thought of Jesus as a big brother or a second father. This agape is often a matter of duty. Agapao is the word used in the "love" commands:
Agape is always a bond. The bond between spouses and the bond that parents feel for their children is the clearest expression of it. This bond motivates spouses to defend each other and their children when others criticize them. However, it doesn't prevent spouses from criticizing each other or their children. We don’t always like those to whom we are devoted. For example, a parent must insist a child lives up to his or her potential if they truly care for them.
Phileo -- Love as Liking
Phileo is less common and has a different meaning than agape. Though it describes a relationship, it is much more clearly a relationship of preference. This is the love of friends. Its noun form is philos, which primarily means “friend,” though it was used much more broadly to include work partners and associates with whom you are compatible. While a spouse or parent may be motivated by their bond of love to improve you, your friends enjoy you the way you are. Though phileo is sometimes called "brotherly love," you have no Biblical duty to care for your friend in any special way.
Jesus uses phileo in the sense of "liking" someone, enjoying their company. When you share a person's point of view, you have a feeling of phileo, friendship, with them. However, you can also enjoy being with people who are very different than you are. You can prefer spend time with some people because you get along well with them. Unlike agape, phileo is never a duty.
A noun from the same root, philema, means a "kiss", but kissing was not as eroticized in most times and places as it is in America today. After all, we kiss family members—parents, brothers, sisters, children—as well as spouses or lovers. In many other cultures, friends of both sexes commonly kiss to express their emotions. This was much more common in Jesus’s era and culture than it is today. In the KJV, phileo is actually translated as "to kiss" in some places, but not in sayings by Jesus.
Jesus uses phileo to describe the liking of the Father for the Son (John 5:20), our liking of life (John 12:25), and generally our liking of things (Matthew 6:5, Matthew 23:6). Again, in English, the verb "like" is a relative term, not an absolute. An expression of phileo is more simply an expression of preference.
A lot of people have a problem with Matthew 10:37 where Jesus says, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." However, in this verse, Jesus does not use agape, the devotion owed family members, but phileo, the liking of preference. This verse in no way minimizes dutiful caring. And notice that Jesus does not include spouses in this statement, only parents and children, those to who we have a duty but who we didn’t choose as companions.
Compared to agape, phileo is more voluntary. Agape can be an obligation, but that doesn't make the emotions connected with it any less real. Indeed, Greek-Roman culture took duty more seriously than personal preferences. In this sense of a choice, phileo is more like our use of "love" in English, but it isn't sexual in the sense that eros is. Phileo is more general and more selective than agape. You can love a son or a friend or lover with phileo. However, you have agape toward a son and a parent even when you don’t like them. You can also love your own life with phileo (John 12:25 He that loveth his life shall lose it) or not.
Eros is the word from which we get "erotic." If agape is hugging, and phileo kissing, eros covers more intimate acts. The excitement of phileo can lead to eros. However, you can be sexually attracted to those with whom you don't particularly want to spend your time otherwise. Jesus says nothing on the topic of eros. This puts him at odds with our highly eroticized culture.
If Jesus's words were translated more consistently, agapeo would be consistently translated as “care.” Phileo would be consistently translated as “like.” But that would make Jesus seem less transcendent and more like he was talking about real life. If people are unhappy today, is it because of they lack eros, or do they miss what Jesus valued, agapao and phileo? In marriage and life, the certainty of agapao must be a constant, the pleasure of phileo should be frequent with sufficient eros to keep it interesting. Of course, that is just my opinion.