I’ve spent much of the last two weeks trying to process and organize the usage data for ἀγάπη/ἀγαπάω (and, to a lesser extent, φιλέω) in the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, Josephus, and even the Apostolic Fathers. BibleWorks and Logos were essential tools for this work.
I’m going to present that material to you, and if you think you see a hole, feel free to point it out.
First, I’ll point to some usage data which I think casts doubt on the common view that ἀγάπη is always and only a special Christian love.
1. ἀγάπη is used for illicit love. In those uses it is clearly an “action” lost people are capable of performing.
- a) Lk 11:42–43 “Woe to the Pharisees who neglect the love of God but who love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces!” (cf. Mat 6:5, which uses φιλέω for almost the same situation.)
- b) Lk 16:13 “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Christ raises the possibility of having “ἀγάπη love” for money.)
- c) 1 Jn 2:15 “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
- d) Jn 3:19 “People loved the darkness rather than the light.”
- e) 2 Tim 4:10 “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.”
- f) 2 Pet 2:15 “They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.”
I consider a) and c)—as well as a) in number 2 below—particularly instructive, because Scripture uses the same word in the same context with no apparent shift in meaning.
2. ἀγάπη, when it is used for a laudable love, can be used for a love which is merely natural and not at all Christian. Here again, it is a love lost people are capable of performing.
- a) Mt 5:43–48 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (In other words, “loving those who love you” is something tax collectors do—and Jesus uses the ἀγάπη word group to say so.)
- b) Lk 7:36–50 “When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
- c) 1 Pet 2:10 “Whoever desires to love (ὁ θέλων ζωὴν ἀγαπᾶν) life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil.”
- d) Antiquites of the Jews 2:9, by Josephus “Jacob…loved (ἠγάπα) [Joseph] above the rest of his sons, both because of the beauty of his body, and the virtues of his mind, for he excelled the rest in prudence.”