ArticleHow many loves?
AuthorHelmut Richter
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How many loves?

It has become folklore among Christians that the English word “love” in the New Testament is the translation of at least two different Greek words with different flavours. Now, some of the meanings attributed to the most frequent of these words, agape, and some conclusions from the usage of the Greek words are quite far-reaching. In this article, which is neither a theological nor a linguistic analysis, we compile some information which might help in judging such attributions and conclusions.

In the Greek language, there are a number of words with distinct meanings translated by the one English word “love”. This is sometimes used as an example of how “Biblical” language displays a precision which is difficult to reproduce in translations into “coarser” languages such as English or German where these distinctions are not made in the same way. However, so simply stated, this argument is hardly tenable, for several reasons:

The author is neither a theologian nor a linguist. Hence, this article cannot be a scientifically sound analysis. Rather, it is meant as a compilation of evidence which indicates that the alleged extraordinary precision of Biblical terminology simply does not exist. This is not to mean that the Biblical message is in any way fuzzy, imprecise or open to arbitrary interpretation. Rather, it means that the Biblical message is quite ordinary in its terminology or language – what is indeed extraordinary is its contents.

“The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis

The book “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis is a very valuable investigation on different aspects of love – which is only one, not four. Lewis himself is fully aware of the problem of splitting love into different notions. In his introductory chapter, he describes how he was tempted to try such a splitting and then refrained from it, or at least found it dubious:

“God is love,” says St. John. When I first tried to write this book I thought that his maxim would provide me with a very plain highroad through the whole subject. I thought I should be able to say that human loves deserved to be called loves at all just in so far as they resembled that Love which is God. The first distinction I made was therefore between what I called Gift-love and Need-love. […]
I was looking forward to writing some fairly easy panegyrics on the first sort of love and disparagements of the second. And much of what I was going to say still seems to me to be true. I still think that if all we mean by our love is a craving to be loved, we are in a very deplorable state. But I would not now say (with my master, MacDonald) that if we mean only this craving we are mistaking for love something that is not love at all. I cannot now deny the name love to Need-love. Every time I have tried to think the thing out along those lines I have ended in puzzles and contradictions. The reality is more complicated than I supposed.

So if you want to study love, it is an excellent book, but it should not be used to corroborate the theory that only a particularly unselfish form of love deserves to be called love.

Lewis calls the four loves by four Greek names, but we will see in a minute that only two of these appear directly in the Greek New Testament, one appears only in two places as a cognate word, and one does not appear at all. One could take that as a further indication that the fine distinction he makes is perhaps useful but not, or not immediately, Biblical.

Words for “love” in the Bible

In the Greek New Testament, there are three different words used which can be translated by the English word “love”:

The translations given in parentheses are those one would find most often as explanations of the difference between these words. It should not be taken for granted that these renderings are indeed correct in all contexts.

A fourth Greek word for “love”, eros (grc: ἔρως; attraction, sexual love) is not found in the Greek NT, neither the word itself nor as root of another word.

For the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the picture is quite different. With respect to words for love, it resembles our languages like English or German: there is one and only one word for love (the root ahav (he: אהב) with the noun ahava) which covers the concept as broadly as our modern word “love”. God’s love (Jr.31:3), love of God (Dt.6:5), love of the fellow man (Lv.19:18), love of a friend (2Sam.1:26), love of a girl (Gen.29:20), mere sex (Prov.7:18), love of money (Eccl.5:9), and love of vanity (Ps.4:3) are all called by the same name.

As far as theological jargon is concerned, the language of the Greek NT is heavily influenced by the Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek produced in the Jewish community of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. The LXX uses mainly (196 times, among them all examples above except one) the Greek root agape for translating the Hebrew ahava, 31 times philia, 15 times erastes (lover), and once eros (in the “mere sex” example above). Hence, neither the usage of more than one word nor the pronounced preference of the root agape are an invention of the NT authors but both have been taken over by them from the LXX translators. The root agape was much less common in secular Greek writings; and it is not obvious why the LXX translators liked it so much. Perhaps, Greek eros would quite well have served the purpose but the translators did not want to use it, either because it had too many “erotic” connotations or because it was the name of a Greek godhead. Whatever the reason, they chose agape which appeared to them the best to convey the most important meaning, and took into account that this word had not quite so broad a spectrum of meanings as the original Hebrew ahava.

Speaking of erotic connotations: The prophets often use explicitly erotic connotations to express the relationship of God with his people, e.g. Ez. 16, 23, Hos. 2, Jr. 2:2, 3:6–12, Is. 1:21. In the New Testament, the same allegory is used for Christ and his bride, the Church. For the Song of Songs, there has been a controversy throughout history whether the apparent erotic language is exclusively meant in this allegorical sense or whether an erotic relationship between a man and a woman is meant. This is, however, a false dichotomy: only if the Song of Songs describes what a loving human erotic relationsship can look like, it can also serve as an allegory of God's loving relationship with his people.

Value-laden terms in our spiritual language

The Greek word agape, in particular when it is taken over untranslated into English, is often used as a term heavily charged with positive values: unconditional love, selfless love, true love – all this thoroughly distinct from the mediocre motives meant with the common English word “love” as used in everyday life. It is not quite clear where this harsh distinction comes from. The NT uses two words for love or friendship, agape and philia. Both have nearly always positive connotations, and both may be negative when they get the wrong object, for instance in 1Jo.2:15 where we are warned to love (agapao) the world. The NT concept of agape is quite well translated by the English word “love”, with the only exception that mere sex, “making love”, seems not to be included, and we should refrain to attribute something mystical to agape.

The gospel does indeed tell about extraordinary love, but not about an extraordinary word for love. Singling out one kind of love as the only true love suspects all other love to be not really true or not really selfless. The love of a child towards its mother, or of a man towards God, is not selfless: is it therefore no true love? C.S. Lewis discusses such questions in his book in quite some detail. In fact, these observations have brought him to the conclusion that restricting true love to absolute selflessness blinds our eyes for quite a lot of other expressions of love that are equally legitimate.

Now, are “agape” and “philia” synonymous?

This question has been discussed in the Church for quite some time. In particular, the story of the reinstatement of Peter plays with the different words meaning love:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” – “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. …” (John 21:15–17, NIV)

In this translation, the verb agapao is rendered as “truly love” and the verb phileo as “love”. It looks as if Jesus had asked a different, perhaps a less demanding, question at the third time, and Peter had committed himself only to friendship, not to “true” love. But is that really meant? Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time the same question, and not relieved that Jesus reduced his demands at his third attempt. In what follows, Jesus announced that Peter would have to bear the full burden of friendship, reminding him that “greater love (agape) has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (philoi)” (Jo.15:13, NIV). – Whatever the interpretation of the change of words in this discourse, there is little evidence that philia is an inferior kind of love compared to agape.

In many other passages of the New Testament, the distinction between agape and philia is not obvious at all, and not much seems to be lost when they are regarded as essentially synonymous. A quite pronounced position is that of Augustine, who took the story of Peter’s reinstatement as proof that the two words are synonymous. In “De civitate Dei”, book 14, section 7, he writes:

I have judged it right to mention this, because some are of opinion that charity or regard (dilectio) is one thing, love (amor) another. They say that dilectio is used of a good affection, amor of an evil love. But it is very certain that even secular literature knows no such distinction. However, it is for the philosophers to determine whether and how they differ, though their own writings sufficiently testify that they make great account of love (amor) placed on good objects, and even on God Himself.

The discussion is here about the Latin but it is obvious that the same distinction is meant, as Latin dilectio stands for Greek agape and Latin amor stands for Greek philia. The full text of this short article is on the Web both in the original Latin and in English translation.

Yet another distinction between agape and philia is that agape is a deliberate decision out of the respect everyone deserves, whereas philia is directed to people with whom one feels more connected. Therefore agape (love of fellow man as of himself and of God) can be commanded, but philia cannot. The change of the term in the conversation between Jesus and Peter would then, after the issue of agape had been resolved, be an increase of commitment rather than a reduction as it appears at first sight.

Synonyms in the Bible and elsewhere

The choice whether two words are exact synonyms or have clearly distinct meanings is a false dichotomy – not only for these two words but always when we talk about natural languages. In every language, the meaning of synonyms overlap so that for one thing, typically more than one word can be used. At the same time, words have flavours, hardly ever are they exact synonyms. Consider for instance the English words “love”, “friendship”, “affection”, “benevolence”, “mercy”, and “pity”: in many contexts, more than one could be appropriate, although each of them has a flavour that distiguishes its meaning from the meaning of all others. Similarly, it is plausible that the meanings of philia and agape overlap but that each of these words has a flavour. If this is so, it may be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the usage of one or the other in some context.

There is one exception to this quite general observation on languages: in science it is customary to single out a specific meaning of a word by a definition (e.g. when a physician talks about an “inflammation”, it is well-defined which findings could be meant and which cannot). In a specialised language where a definition of a term must precede its use, nearly synonymous words can coexist without an overlap of meanings.

Some people want to read the Bible as if there were a hidden definition for every word, and the Bible would use the word consistently according to that definition. I have found no indication that this is so. E.g., what is called Hebrew nefesh (soul) this time could be called neshama (breath) next time – and this does not mean that the Bible is in any way “inconsistent” but only that the meanings of the two words overlap. In other words, the Bible uses its language exactly the same way you and I use ours, and not the way an attorney or a mathematician would use their respective jargon.

To find out what love is, one should not start by dividing it into distinct phenomena with distinct (Greek, Latin, or English) names. Rather, one would study Biblical examples to find out what emotions, motivations, thoughts, words, and actions are loving, and on which of these aspects the Bible places the emphasis. My impression is: on actions and words much more than on emotions, in contrast to what the everyday usage of the word “love” suggests.


The LXX usage of words for love was determined using the Parallel Aligned Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek texts of Jewish Scripture provided by the University of Pennsylvania.

The differentiation of agape and philia after the quote from Augustine follows a suggestion by J. Harold Greenlee in his article “‘Love’ in the New Testament” (Notes on Translation, SIL International, Vol. 14(1), 2000, p. 49–53).

The NIV quote was extracted using the Bible Gateway. The English quote from Augustine’s “City of God” is an excerpt of “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, edited by Philip Schaff (1819–1893), available in the Web (see the links after the quote).