How Did Agapē Become the Ultimate Word for Love?

Paul’s famous words on the Greek word agapē in 1 Corinthians 13 become the most eloquent definition of “love” in all human literature. But how did Paul and the New Testament faith community come to choose that word to mean the exalted kind of love of which Paul writes in this chapter? And what insights can we glean from digging deeper into his definition of that word?

Tom with the great theologian Catherine Hobson, very much in love, in 1978. Photo: Scott Griess.

In the Hebrew Bible, there was a generic word for love: ahabah and its verb form ahab. There were a few rarely used words for erotic love, dōd (Proverbs 7:18) and ‘ugabah (Ezekiel 23:11). But the word that most closely resembles Paul’s definition of agapē love is the word ḥesed, a word often translated “lovingkindness” (King James) or “steadfast love” (Revised Standard) in our English versions.

Ḥesed is a combination of “love” and “loyalty.” It is the word repeated in every line of Psalm 136: “for his lovingkindness endures forever.” (See also famous lines such as Exodus 20:6, and Psalm 100:5 and 103:8.) It is a love that never quits, a word that amazingly resembles the kind of love that Paul depicts in his divinely inspired essay on agapē. The resemblance is so striking that one might wonder whether agapē was the word used to translate ḥesed into Greek.

Surprisingly, no! The Greek version almost always uses the word “mercy” (eleos) to translate this Hebrew word, and absolutely never uses agapē. (The New King James agrees with this translation.) It would appear that agapē did not mean what it means for Paul at the time that the Septuagint was being translated (early to mid-200’s BCE).

Instead, the Greek version uses agapē and its verb form agapaō to translate the generic Hebrew word for love. Agapaō is used for romance, family love, love for neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, the Second Greatest Commandment), love for God (Deuteronomy 6:4, the Greatest Commandment), and love from God (Jeremiah 38:3 = English 31:3, “Behold, I have loved you with an everlasting love”).

There is nothing remarkable about the noun agapē in any of its pre-Christian uses. In fact, agapē is used almost entirely simply for strong emotional attachment. Eleven of the nineteen times it is used in the Septuagint are in Song of Solomon. It is even used to describe the passion that propelled Amnon to sexually assault his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:15).

So what happened, then? It appears that agapē was chosen to convey the exalted form of love that Paul describes, because other words were too attached to other meanings. Phileō was the love Isaac had for Jacob’s pot of stew (Genesis 27:4), and love for other foods (Proverbs 21:17, Hosea 3:1). It was also the standard verb for a kiss of greeting (fifteen out of 33 times in the Septuagint). Its noun form philos is the standard word for “friend” (John 15:13).

Storgē was used only for love within a family; Romans 1:31 speaks of those who are a-storgoi, “without family affection.”  Erōs was too exclusively associated with sex (Proverbs 7:18), and aphrodisia, a non-Biblical word, was even worse (as Tina Turner asked, What’s love got to do with it?).

Actually, agapē is only used twice anywhere in the first three Gospels: Matthew 24:12 (“the love of many will grow cold”) and Luke 11:42 (“you neglect justice and the love of God”). Agapē is never used in the whole book of Acts (neither is the verb!). But the noun is used seven times in John’s Gospel, seventeen times in John’s epistles, and 75 times in Paul’s letters.  And the verb is used 26 times in the Synoptic Gospels, 37 times in John’s Gospel, 31 times in John’s letters, and 34 times in Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul takes a previously generic Greek term for love and loads it with new meaning. He says in 13:4 that love does not envy or show off, and is not “puffed up” (Revised Standard: “arrogant;” New International Version: “proud”). In 13:5, he says that love does not behave “shamefully” (most versions: “rude”). He says it “does not seek its own things” (Revised Standard: “does not demand its own way;” New International Version: “is not self-seeking”), and is not “provoked” (as the New King James puts it – the New Living Translation and New Revised Standard read “irritable”).

Paul’s last point in 13:5 is that love literally “does not reason / calculate the bad.” In other words, it “thinks no evil” (New King James) or “keeps no record of wrong” (New Living Translation).  In 13:6, Paul declares that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” In 13:7, Paul attributes four constant action verbs to love: it always “bears” (New International Version: “protects”), “trusts,” “hopes,” and “endures.”

In 13:8, Paul proclaims that love never “falls.” That is, it never quits or goes obsolete. He compares the everlasting nature of love to spiritual gifts and knowledge, which will one day be abolished. In the end, Paul says in 13:13 that only faith, hope, and love will remain, but the greatest of these is love. That’s why Paul writes in the very next verse (14:1), “Pursue love.” The verb he uses here is the verb for “chase down” or “persecute” (!).

What a masterpiece portrait of love! Who can measure up to such love? If you think you do, you are deceiving yourself. People who come close to measuring up to this kind of love are an endangered species indeed, and only the Holy Spirit can make such love happen.

Agapē is an unconditional love that gives without expecting in return. It is a self-sacrificial love, the kind God showed in us in what Jesus did for us on the cross – that is, if he really was bearing the penalty for our sin.

Finding the right word for such love in Greek was not easy. We still don’t have the right word for it in English.


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