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Why did Jesus ask Peter “Do you love me?” three times?

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While some authors have answered this question from a strictly spiritual point of view, the original Greek text of the Gospel provides further insights.

The 21st chapter of the Gospel of John presents us with a scene that has commonly been read as both the counterpart of Peter’s three acts of denial. Interestingly, whereas all four Gospels include Peter’s denial, only the Gospel of John includes this scene, in which Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?” three times. While some biblical commentators understand these three questions, asked by Jesus in his third post-Resurrection apparition, as a redemptive moment in which Jesus addresses Peter’s three denials and confirming him as the leader of the then-nascent church, some other subtleties in this dialogue can be better appreciated if we go back to the original Greek.

In the text, we find Jesus sharing breakfast with the disciples, shortly after his Resurrection. The Gospel reads as follows:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Again, the fact that Jesus replies to Peter’s answer —“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you”— with a mandate —either “feed my lambs” or “tend my sheep”— has at least two meanings that run in parallel, one being the consequence of the other. One the one hand, this is a clear instantiation of the Great Commandment: if Peter really loves his Lord —Kyrie is the word Peter uses, according to the original Greek text—then he will surely care for those who belong to him. On the other hand, this is a concrete moment of divine forgiveness: despite his three denials, Jesus confirms Peter three times in his role as leader of the church. This gesture suggests God’s love is bigger than our own personal sin, no matter how grave.

In Greek, unlike in English, there are at least five different words for “love.”

But don’t we know from some other passages in the Gospel that confirming something twice is more than enough? Is this not how the classic passage in Matthew, “but let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ for whatever is more than these is from the evil one” has also been commonly interpreted?

Surely, this “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’” also indicates the “yes” one pronounces must match the “yes” in one’s heart, as to avoid hypocrisy, but it is also read as implying a solemn confirmation of one’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’ suffices, making subsequent oaths, promises, and compromises unnecessary (and thus avoiding swearing in God’s name, as if looking for even further confirmation). Why then would Jesus ask Peter three times instead of just two? Is it really only about revisiting Peter’s denial? The Greek text might provide us with an interesting twist here.

In Greek, unlike in English, there are at least five different words for “love.” The love one feels for friends is philía. The love one feels for one’s family is storge. The love one might feel for one’s betrothed is eros. A fourth kind of love, philautia, is the love one feels for oneself. And a fifth kind of love, agape —at least in its Greco-Christian usage— refers to a transcendent kind of love, a higher form of love commonly conceived as the love of God for man, and that of man for God. What kind of love are Jesus and Peter discussing here?

Read more: Was St. Peter married when he met Jesus?

The first two times Jesus asks “Simon Ioannou, agapas me?” The translation, as can be seen, is a tricky one. Jesus is indeed asking “Simon, son of John” if he loves him transcendentally, unconditionally, divinely, using the verb agapein, referring to divine, transcendental love. But Peter replies “Nai, Kyrie; su oidas oti philo se” (“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you”) using the verb philein, which implies loving yet in a more friendly, “limited” way.

But the third time, Jesus moves from agape to philein: “Simon Ioannou, phileis me?” seemingly pushing Peter further. It is almost as if Jesus is asking his disciple something along the lines of “Really, Peter? Do you love me like you love any other of your friends?” In fact, John’s text tells us that when Peter notices Jesus is not only asking him for a third time but that he is also using another verb, as in going from transcendental to a “simpler” kind of love, “he was grieved (…) and said to him ‘Lord, you know all things; you know I love you” but still using the very same verb, philein. Can we then draw any conclusions from the different usages of these verbs referring to different kinds of love?

Jesus seems to be trying to get Peter to remember not only his denial but, moreover, the very moment they first met by the Sea of Galilee

Here is a suggestion: Jesus seems to be trying to get Peter to remember not only his denial but, moreover, the very moment they first met by the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus told him to “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Moving from philia into agape is indeed emotionally equivalent to moving from the “shore” into deeper waters, and the condition of possibility of being able to not only tend to a flock but, as Jesus told Peter after that first miraculous catch of fish, to be a proper fisher of men.

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