Love: Agape, Phileo, and Eros

The purpose of this article is to discuss Jesus's use of the Greek words usually translated as  "love" and "hate" and to suggest an approach to translating them so people can better understand:

  • why Jesus uses different words for "love" and
  • why "hate" sometimes appears to be too strong a word for what is being said.

Inconsistent Love

First we should make it clear that Bibles are not very precise about translating Greek words in a consistent way.  This is especially true for "love" where two different Greek words are both commonly translated as "love." By looking at the English translations, we cannot tell which of the two Jesus is using. 

In this article, we discuss the most common words translated as "love," but many other words, completely unrelated for our concept of "love" are also translated as "love" when the spirit moves the translators to insert it. For example, in the KJV Mark 12:38, the verb that means "to be willing." "to consent or delight in somethings" is translated as "love." This common  Greek verb is almost always translated as "will" and occasionally as "desire," but as "love?" Only in the Bible.

So many words that express a preference can be translated as "love" if the translators so desire. Sometimes the word is simply inserted to satisfy the translations' feeling about what a give verse means. The problem seems to have grown worse in more modern versions that use every opportunity to put the word "love" on Jesus's lips.

The Relative Nature

Jesus 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 because  Jesus never uses that word though perhaps it comes closest to our most popular idea of "love."

Greek terms for both love and hate are essentially different from the English terms. In English, the words express an emotional state. In Greek, they are used to express a relationships more than feelings. Let us explain what this means.

The Greek, as used by Jesus, expresses the differences among close, personal relationships much more clearly than our English word "love" does. Using Jesus'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 that Jesus used helps us understand this relationship more exactly. As we will see in examining both the terms Jesus used more closely.

We should also note that John uses both of the common terms translated as "love" a lot more often than the other Gospel writers. He described himself as the one whom Jesus loved. He also emphasized Jesus's teachings on love.

Perhaps it is easier to understand this idea of relative preference by looking at how we use the term "love" when we refer to things rather than people. When we say we "love" a particular food or a television show, we express a feeling, but we recognize that it is not an absolute. Loving things is a relative term, expressing a preference for that thing over similar things. This is the sense of both of the Greek words translated as "love."

Agape -- Caring as a Bond

The most common word translated as "to love" is agapao. Jesus 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."  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 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. This duty does not arise from emotion. "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.

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," Jesus 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. Our caring about others is agape. Is agape an emotion? In the same sense that caring for someone can also mean having affection for them. However, it doesn't means that such affection is necessary. Agape exists 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.

The verb form agapao covers a wide variety of situations of caring, from the love of a son for a father to the way that people card about their own lives. Many of these situations, however, can overlap with the other form of love, phileo, but they are not required to do so.

This agape can be voluntary as Jesus's feeling for John,  but it is not always voluntary. It is often a matter of family 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.

Agape is always a bond. The bond between spouses and the bond that parents feel for their children is the clearest expressions 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. It is a bond that insists that the person loved lives up to their potential. This makes it different than the other type of love, phileo.

Phileo -- Love as Liking or Empathy

Phileo also gets consistently translated as "love," but it is less common and has a different meaning that agape. Though it describes a relationship, it is much more clearly a relationships of preference, but a different kind of preference. This is the love of friends. 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," but you have no Biblical duty to care for your brothers in any special way. The noun form of phileo is philos, which means literally "brother," though it was used much more broadly to include friends, work partners, and associates with whom you are compatible. Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." (A weak translation, but it makes the point.) In the Septuagint version of that verse, "friend" is philos. The word for "brother" is adelphos.

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. Unlike agape, phileo is never a duty.

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. 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. "Liking" is a different feeling than "caring."

A noun from the same root, philema,  means a "kiss", but kissing was not a eroticized as it is today. After all, we  kiss family members--parents, brothers, sisters, children,--as well as a spouses or lovers. In many other cultures, friend of both sexes common kiss to express their emotion.

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 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. 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 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 Jesus'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 or Liking

The word for "hate" is miseo, and it  somewhat simpler because it doesn't overlap with another Greek words. Again, the word doesn't have the absolute, strong emotional sense that it does in English. It describes a relationship. The word expresses a negative preference, not a strong passion. Both agape and phileo are used at the opposite of the word translated as "hate."  Miseo means not being devotes to someone, and it also means not liking them.

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, Jesus 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.