Love: Agape, Phileo, and Eros

The purpose of this article is to discuss Christ's use of the Greek words for "love" and "hate" and to suggest an approach to translating them so people can better understand why Christ uses different words for "love" and why "hate" sometimes appears to be to strong a word for what is being said.

First, all of these terms that are used in the NT are used to express a relative preference, not an emotional absolute. This article explains what this means.

Let's start by making it clear: the Greek, as used by Christ, expresses the differences among close, personal relationships much more clearly than the English word "love" does. Using Christ's Greek, we have a much clearer picture of human relationships. 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 two brothers? Or were they best friends? Knowing the Greek helps us understand this relationship more exactly.

Christ uses two different words that are translated as "love" in the Gospels, agapao and phileo. Both of these words are treated as the opposite of hate in various verses. These two words can also be better understood in the context of another Greek word for "love," eros. However, Christ never uses that word.

We should also note that John uses both of these terms a lot more often than the other Gospels.

Christ uses one term that is translated as "hate", miseo, but that term is not an emotional absolute like our word, "hate," in English. It is a relative term. This is important to understand because the words for "love" (except for eros) are also relative rather than absolute.

Agape -- Love as a Bond

The most common word translated as "to love" is agapao. He uses this word about twice as much as he does phileo. Its noun form is agape. This word means "devotion" more than what we think of as "love."  It is also the word used as the opposite of "hate". This is the "love" that is associated with "duty" and what God wants of us regarding our relationships with others.

Historically, in Greek literature, this verb has expressed a lot of different ideas including "to be fond of", "to greet with affection", "to persuade", "to caress", "to prize", "to desire", "to be pleased with," and "to be contented with." As a noun, it means "love of a spouse" "love of God" and "charity" in the sense of giving to the poor. In the KJV of the Gospels, it is always translated as "love" or "beloved."

However, Jesus uses this word more specifically. He associates it with relationship that have a sense of duty rather than those of passion. "Devotion" perhaps captures its meaning more specifically in English. Physically, it is associated with the affection of hugging and embracing someone. If you would hug someone when you meet them, the feeling you have is agape. He uses this word to express feelings of caring that people have for relatives and friends. This is the word that John uses to describe his relationship with Jesus. So he thought of Jesus as a big brother.

In English, "love" is commonly used as a more exclusive term when referring to relationships than when we use it to refer to things. We mean something different when we say we love a person than when we say we "love" a particular food or a television show. Loving things is a relative term, expressing a preference for them over similar things. This is the sense of the Greek word "agape".

As a contrast, the Greek word for passionate love, especially in a sexual sense, is eros. Agape is not passion. Though agape has been translated as "to desire," Christ does not associate it with sexual desire or romantic desire.

If we want to avoid confusion, the best way to translated agapao is in terms of caring and being devoted to someone. When we care for other, we are acting out of agapao. The care for others is agape. In a sense, agape is affection for those who are dependent on us or on whom we are dependent. Just because you say you "care" for someone, doesn't mean that you don't have other preferences. Its use expresses a preference.

This agape can be voluntary as Jesus's feeling for John,  but it is not always voluntary. It is often a matter of duty. This is the word used in  the "love" commands: Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, Love your enemies, Matthew 22:37 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, John 13:34 A new commandment I give unto you. However, it can also be voluntary when the relationship does not demand it, Matthew 6:24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate one and love the other.

As caring, agapao covers a wide variety of situations, from the love of a son for a father to the way that people love their own lives. Many of these situations, however, can overlap with the other form of love, but they are not required to do so by the definition of the two words.

Phileo -- Love as Liking or Empathy

Phileo also gets consistently translated in the KJV as "love," but it is less common and has a different meaning that agape. It too is a preference, but a different kind of preference. This is the love of "best friends". Though it is sometimes called "brotherly love," in the sense that Philadelphia is the "city of brotherly love," "brotherly love" might be a better description of agape. However, the noun for of phileo is philos, which means literally "brother," though it was used much more broadly to include friends with whom you shared a point of view.

In Greek literature, phileo is translated variously "to love", "to regard with affection", "to kiss," and "to approve of." How is this different than agape?

Jesus uses phileo as "love" in the sense of "liking" someone, enjoying their company. When you share a person's point of view, you have a feeling of phileo, brotherhood, with them. However, you can also enjoy being with people that are very different than you are. You can prefer spend time with some people because you get along well with them. This means you have certain things in common.

In English, "love" is less specific. We can love, for example, our mother-in-law, in the sense of "caring" for them, without having a feeling that you want to spend time with them or sharing their point of view. This love is agape not phileo. We can care about people without particularly liking them. You can also "love" people even when you don't have the duty of responsibility for them. You can have a natural affinity for some types of personalities, even when they are different than your own. This is phileo. "Liking" is a different feeling than "caring."

A noun from the same root, philema,  means a "kiss", but the term was not a eroticized as it is in English. After all, we  kiss family members--parents, brothers, sisters, children,--as well as a spouse or lover.

Christ uses phileo to describe the love of the Father for the Son (John 5:20), our love of life (John 12:25), and generally our love of things (Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, (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.

In a sense, compared to agape, phileo is more voluntary, because it means you enjoy their company. Agape can be an obligation, but that doesn't make the emotion any less real. Indeed, Greek-Roman culture took duty more seriously that personal preferences. It this sense of a choice, phileo is more like our use of "love" in English, but also isn't sexual in the sense that eros is. After all, you can enjoy being with people to who you aren't sexually attracted. People that you like in this way excite you in some way, though it can be intellectually or emotionally and not necessarily erotically.

In the KJV, phileo is actually translated as "to kiss." However, in saying this, we must point out that kissing was more common in Christ's culture, especially between men, than it is in our culture, where it has much stronger sexual overtones. The kiss expressed excitement at seeing someone but not necessarily sexual excitement. It is more like how French men might kiss each other on the cheek.

So, phileo is less generic than agape. You can love a son with phileo, or a friend or lover. However, you can also love your own life with phileo John 12:25 He that loveth his life shall lose it, but that clearly isn't health.

Miseo - Hate as Not Caring

The word for "hate" is somewhat simpler because it doesn't overlap with another Greek words. However, the word doesn't have the absolute, strong emotional sense that it does in English. The word expresses a negative preference, not a strong passion.

The verb works more like our ideas of "having an aversion" or "disliking" in English. It means something is valued much less than something else. If nothing else specific is specified, it means valued much less than all similar things.

In a sense, this "hate" is like we use the word to describe our opinion about things rather than people. When comparing two things where you dislike something relative to another thing, you might say, "I hate Chinese food but love Italian". However, this doesn't mean that you are trying to rid the world of Chinese food. It means simply that you would prefer not to eat it.

When not compared to something specific, the aversion of the Greek "hate" becomes more extreme. "I don't care if he lives or dies" captures the sense of it. 

Hate in the sense of miseo is not quite the opposite of either agape or phileo, but when these two concepts are contrasted, Christ uses miseo and agapao.

Conceptually, "hate" is more like the opposite of "caring" because it expresses indifference so it is the opposite of agape rather than phileo. Correctly translating these terms makes this easier to understand. For example, using the common translation for these word in the Gospels, you can "hate" and "love" at the same time. For example, you can "love" fattening foods and at the same time you "hate" fattening foods. However, this is easier to understand how you say that you like things but don't really care for them. However, using an earlier example, you cannot "hate" your mother-in-law" at the same time you "love" her.

Eros

Eros is the word from which we get "erotic." If agape is the love of hugging, then phileo is the love of kissing. Then eros covers more intimate acts. The excitement of phileo may lead to eros, but they are different. You can be sexually attracted to people who you don't particularly like to spend you time with otherwise.

Eros is even less like agape. While we can certainly feel agape for our sexual partner, and, in the case of a spouse, both are required for a happy life, but this overlap is in the relationship, not in the meaning of the words. Eros does not require agape and, unlike phileo, agape doesn't lead to eros.