John 21:17 - TRITON's influence on AGAPE and PHILEO?

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Mon Jan 1 08:46:54 EST 2001

I think this was probably meant for the list, although it was addressed
only to Harold and myself (a reply to a B-Greek message will be sent by
preference only to the respondent to whom one is replying UNLESS one's own
mail program's settings are fixed on "reply to all").

Steve Godfrey's question is directed less to the semantic distinction
between AGAPAW and FILEW than to the weight of the article TO in John
21:17. As we often attempt to discuss the text without having it properly
before us, let me recite that text in our normal transliteration:


I suppose that when Steve speaks of a "pronominal usage" of TO TRITON here,
he means to understand something like an implicit word ERWTHMA so that 17a
must mean something like "He [Jesus] asks him a third one [i.e. question]
as 'do you love (FIL-) me" and then "Peter was hurt that he [Jesus] had
asked him a third one [i.e. question] as 'do you love e (FIL-) me.'"
Frankly this seems unlikely to me; it seems to me that it is the adverb
TRITON that is substantivized by the article, and that the substantivized
adverb is still functioning in an accusative singular neuter ADVERBIAL
function: TRITON = "thirdly" and TO TRITON = "the third time."

For my own part I continue to hold with what I take to be the conventional
reading of this passage, that the three-fold question put to Peter by Jesus
and Peter's three-fold answer followed by Jesus' three-fold designation of
Peter's pastoral status is to be understood as a rehabilitation of Peter
and restoration to pastoral status after his three-fold denial of Jesus on
the night of the arrest. And if there is any stress laid upon "the third
time" it would seem to me to rest rather upon the determinative "thirdness"
reached with this putting of the question, so matching the "thirdness" of
the denial by Peter that he knew Jesus when the question was put him in the
High Priest's courtyard.

It would seem to me also that those who seriously want to insist upon a
distinction in meaning between AGAPAW and FILEW in this exchange OUGHT also
to show that there's some significant distinction in meaning between the
verbs for "shepherding" (POIMAINW and BOSKW) and for "sheep" (ARNIA,
PROBATA). That is to say, should THIS pair of verbs clearly indicate a
semantic distinction if THOSE TWO PAIRS cannot be shown to indicate a
similar semantic distinction?

For those who care to review some of the VOLUMINOUS earlier B-Greek
dialogue on this topic,here's what a quick search of my own archives for
AGAPAW found; those earlier than May of 1998 will be found in the older
archives; those later at the present web site.

2/11-19/97 various subject-headers
8/13-19/97 Philadelphia vs. agape
4/17-20/98 Re: Jn 21:15-17
12/7,13/99 Randy Leedy's offer to send paper re John 21
3/19-21/00 A question from a novice
3/20/00 AGAPAW vs. FILEW and Instances of AGAPAW
3/20-23/00 Was: "a question from a novice"
3/23/00 more stats on AGAPAW/AGAPH

>From: "Steve Godfrey" <sgodfrey at>
>To: "Harold R. Holmyard III" <hholmyard at>, <cwconrad at>
>Subject: RE: [b-greek] John 21:17 - TRITON's influence on AGAPE and PHILEO?
>Date: Mon, 1 Jan 2001 14:58:59 +0300
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>Dear Harold and Carl,
>Thank you much for responding.  Harold's response raises a related question:
>is TRITON to be taken as an adjectival pronoun, or an adverb?  I checked the
>NT for occurences of TO PROTON, TO DEUTERON, and TO TRITON.  John 21:17
>would be the only NT instance of TRITOV taking on an adverbial function when
>preceded by the definite article.  However, this is how Zerwick apparently
>takes it based on the adverbial usage of DEUTERON in 21:14.  Admittedly,
>DEUTERON in 21:14 is not preceded by an article, but the point is that the
>context may set one up to read TRITON in 21:17 adverbally as well.  It may
>even be that John is intending ambiguity by creating poetic dissonance
>between conventional usage and his immediate context (although greater minds
>would have to provide corroboration based on a thorough knowledge of John's
>style, personality, and inclinations).  John might have been clearer about
>an adverbial intent had he written TRITON TO, but he did not.
>An adverbial usage of TRITON would clearly make the article's function as a
>marker of emphasis more pronounced. But even if TO TRITON is to be taken
>pronominally, the notion of emphasis is still possible.  This then leads
>back to the question of a possible distinction between AGAPAO and PHILEO.  I
>would love to follow the conventional wisdom and simply write these off as
>synonyms alternated for the sake of style.  But something about this has yet
>to make sense to me.  Usually, when someone asks a question, the responder
>doesn't answer with a synonym.  If I ask my wife, "Do you love me?", and she
>responds, "You know I am fond of you," there is the possibility of
>reservation inherent in the reply.
>I searched the B-Greek archives for PHILEO and 'John 21:17' but didn't hook
>anything.  However, I did compile lists of how John uses PHILEO and AGAPAO
>in his gospel, and then elsewhere in his writings.  John's usage in his
>gospel seems to support a general distinction between PHILEO as "love based
>on association" and AGAPAO as "love based on high regard."  This is the
>distinction suggested by Louw-Nida.  John's usage in his other writings is
>revealing.  PHILEO only appears two more times, in the Book of Revelation.
>AGAPAO is clearly John's term of choice for the theme of love that is so
>central to his understanding of the gospel message.  Nowhere else does John
>juxtapose PHILEO and AGAPAO in a way that would shed light on his intentions
>in John 21.
>Based on the immediate context of John 21:17, and the rhetorical
>improbability that John would have Peter answer Jesus' terse question with a
>different verb for the sake of style, I suspect John does intend some
>difference of meaning here.  The distinction is grounded not in the nature
>of the synonyms themselves as much as in Peter and Jesus' use of them in
>this particular exchange. John may want to say that while we may shirk from
>the perfect love of Jesus, the Son of God is nevertheless gracious enough to
>come to us and to restore us at the level of love of which we are currently
>capable.  However, given the contradictory nature of the evidence at hand, I
>christen this only as my current understanding.  However, when reading John,
>these questions are worth asking, because he tends to be a more subtle and
>poetic writer (e.g. the charcoal fire at Peter's denial and restoration)
>then many seem to recognize.
>As to protocol, I believe I have only used plain text in this message.  If
>either of you deems this worthy of posting please go ahead or write me
>suggesting I do so.  I really appreciate the chance to raise questions like
>this for discussion.  It's a great way to make use of my Greek and grow in
>my understanding of it.
>With sincere regards,
>Steve Godfrey
>Church Resource Ministries
>Irkutsk, Siberia
>>-----Original Message-----
>>From: Harold R. Holmyard III [mailto:hholmyard at]
>>Sent: Sunday, December 31, 2000 3:00 PM
>>To: Steve Godfrey
>>Subject: Re: [b-greek] John 21:17 - definite article a marker
>>fordistinction between AGAPE and PHILEO?
>>Dear Steve,
>>>Does the presence of the definite article in John 21:17 suggest that John
>>>is drawing attention to what follows, thus intending a distinction between
>>No, I do not think so. The article is used with TRITON to give it an
>>adverbial, definite sense: "the third time." This usage of the article is
>>different than the one you reference in Matt 19:18.
>>>        He says to him this the third time: ìSimon Son of John, do you
>>>        PHILEO me?  Peter was grieved because he said to him the third
>>>        time, ìDo you PHILEO me?î  He replied, Lord, you ascertain all
>>>        things, you know that I PHILEO you.  Jesus replies, ìFeed my
>>>        sheep.î
>>Let me point out that the word "this" on the first line is not in
>>the Hebrew.
>>One interpretative possibility for the first use of the definite article
>>with TRITON is to mark its deliberateness, but this is only a guess. That
>>is, there would be three distinct times when Jesus asked relatively the
>>same question, and He meant to ask three times. In verse 17 it is not just
>>"a third time," but "the third time."
>>				Yours,
>>				Harold
>We have had the discussion several times in recent years over whether there
>is or is not an intended distinction between FILEW and AGAPAW, and as I
>recall, Randy Leedy is one who argued that the article with TRITON was a
>reason to think that there IS a distinction intended here. If you want I
>can research dates of the discussions in our archives. My impression, for
>what it's worth, is that the growing tendency in recent years is to be more
>dubious that the author of John's gospel really did intend to differentiate
>between meanings of FILEW and AGAPAW. (1) Although they certainly CAN have
>distinct semantic focus apart from each other, there are sufficient places
>in the NT where they seem to overlap in meaning; and (2) elsewhere even in
>the same passage, the author seems to be using alternative words without
>any real distinction: e.g. BOSKW, POIMAINW. There is no danger (or hope,
>either) that this question will be resolved definitively, and I don't think
>this is one that it's same to take a hand-count of who is more convinced by
>which side of the argument, either. Rather, I think you must listen to what
>advocates of both sides argue and then settle the matter in terms of what
>you find more convincing.
>For myself, I'll say that I do NOT think the addition of the article to
>TRITON makes a significant difference here. I think it is a growing
>tendency in Hellenistic Greek to add an article to an adverb without
>thereby altering its meaning: PRWTON as adverb = "initially"; TO PRWTON
>adverbially = "the first time"' is there a difference of meaning? I'm from
>Missouri, you'll have to show me. KATA MEROS adverbially means "partially";
>does TO KATA MEROS means something different? KAQ' hHMERAN means "daily" or
>"day by day": does TO KAQ' hHMERAN means something different? I don't think
>Carl W. Conrad
>Department of Classics/Washington University
>One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
>Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649
>cwconrad at

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649
cwconrad at

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