Bit of a language lesson today!
It’s really long, sorry. Like, really really long; if it were a sermon I’d probably be over an hour. Skip to the end if it bores you; this is the short version of what I think may be a book by the time I’m done and I mostly posted it hoping to get some input from my pastor.
I just keep finding more material to mine here, and as we all know I am a Lover of linguistics. Precision of language is incredibly important to me, and I believe it was incredibly important to Jesus. In this my opinion strays from many Biblical scholars, but I believe I have a case to make for my view here.
John 21:15-17 tells a heartbreaking story of commandment to us. It reads (with pronouns altered for clarity):
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?”
[Peter] saith unto [Jesus], “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.”
[Jesus] saith unto [Peter], “Feed my lambs.”
[Jesus] saith to [Peter] again the second time, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?”
[Peter] saith unto [Jesus], “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.”
[Jesus] saith unto [Peter], “Feed my sheep.”
[Jesus] saith unto [Peter] the third time, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?”
Peter was grieved because [Jesus] said unto him the third time, “Lovest thou me?” And [Peter] said unto [Jesus], “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”
Jesus saith unto [Peter], “Feed my sheep.”
The story reads quite powerfully right there, but the lack of specificity in the English language chops away so much.
There are 4 words here of incredible importance: lambs, sheep, feed, and Love. In the Greek they are actually 6 words; Love is two and feed is two. But let us remember: it is HIGHLY unlikely Peter and Jesus spoke Greek to each other. Both grew up speaking Suriston, also known as Northern Galilean Aramaic. They had some knowledge of Greek, and indeed Suriston has many Greek words in it due to the tight nature of business with Greece, but it’s doubtful they spoke a language to each other aside from their common language. Jesus did learn Hebrew as He studied, but that was for formal events and teaching; His everyday language was Aramaic which, while it uses the same alphabet as Hebrew, bears just a little more resemblance to Hebrew than Portuguese bears to Castillian Spanish. That poses a higher challenge for interpreting the truth of the discussion. In Suriston these 4 words are 6, but a different 6: Love is two and lamb/sheep is 3.
This presents a huge challenge in interpreting this text, and indeed many scholars seem to hand-wave it away because it’s tough to draw a final and approved solution, some going as far as to say the conversation never happened and was an allegory by John to prop up Peter’s papacy. Neither of those arguments seems to jibe with Jesus’ style or the movement of the Lord to me. Could there, perhaps, be an intention on the part of the Holy Spirit to have this conversation read differently among languages to encourage discussion? I think there’s precedence for this, so go with me for a bit.
To put the conversation in context you have to first really examine who Peter was.
Peter was, by trade, a fisherman when Christ found he and his brother on the shore. Fishing was his business, not his hobby; we’re talking Deadliest Catch here, not Bass Masters. His given name was Simon, which means “he who has heard”, but Jesus gave him the name Peter, which means “a rock”; this was not a gentile dude, and he accepted that about himself. We know he was married because later Jesus goes to Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law. He was the first disciple called and later the first apostle chosen, and you can imagine this sort of brash, roughneck guy, who is so instantly drawn to Christ he literally dropped his net and walked away from everything he had known in his life, not being terribly comfortable with that. Throughout the gospels he’s the mouth; if there’s an awkward question to ask or statement to make you can be sure he’s making it. Couth was not his cup of tea.
When Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is, it is Peter who risks punishment for blasphemy by saying He’s the Son of God. He’s the one willing to walk off the side of a boat blindly and to ask Jesus how often we should forgive people who keep on doing what we tell them not to. I find Catholic depictions of him so funny; as their first claimed pope they always show him this kind of demure, reverent guy. I doubt that bears much likeness to him. He was not a ponderer, he was an actor. This is the guy who first violated the sanctity of Christ’s tomb by barreling in to check the graveclothes himself. That nature is precisely why Jesus has this conversation with him: of all the apostles, he was most suited to spread the gospel clearly and without pretense because right and wrong were very black and white to him. He’s a church leader who would have had zero problem telling people to cut the nonsense, to straighten up and get their act together despite his own faults because he was telling himself, too. In his view there wasn’t waffling about; you do what you’re told to do, period. If you mess up, you stand up and continue doing what you’re supposed to.
Many pastors have approached Peter and Jesus’ first post-Resurrection meeting as having an elephant in the room in that Peter had denied, vehemently, knowing Christ the day of the Crucifixion. I don’t claim to know more than they do, but I don’t agree; what Biblical scholars say on the subject rings hollow to me. I have a guy working for me that is the Peter archetype. He is a bull in a china shop, which is precisely why I hired him. Sometimes his mouth gets ahead of his intentions; we both know it happens and we’ve got an understanding that I’ll mention, in private, when he steps over the line and he’ll make note to work on it. I feel confident Peter and Jesus had this same management contract. Peter didn’t come into this conversation worried the risen Christ would smite him with His mighty stick of smiting; he knew that Jesus had predicted he would deny him thrice, and likely his actual thought was “He was right about me again.” Jesus knew he knew, so there needed be nothing awkward. But Jesus needed to get synced up on His next steps for Peter. In that view this conversation was about celebration, not accusation.
So, now, back to the interpretation challenge. The story is relayed to us by John, who appears to be the only one in earshot of the conversation, and Peter actually shows a little irritation at it as he makes a snide comment to Jesus about John. Whomever wrote the story down had the unenviable task of conveying an overheard conversation, in which one party didn’t want it overheard and which was filled with subtext, in a language that doesn’t precisely match up to Greek into Greek. Biblical manuscripts differ on the wording of this conversation, both the Greek texts and the Suriston texts. Either the Spirit has kept vagueness there or humanity has failed to properly interpret. I tend to believe the former.
I put forth that Jesus does not ask the same question three times, nor is His command the same three times. To understand His questions and Peter’s answer requires understanding Love in a very detailed way we are not used to in our watered-down tongue. There are 5 words at play: the Greek agape, the Aramaic chav, the Greek philo, the Greek eros, and the Aramaic racham. It is worth saying that there are a large number of scholars who dismiss the differences in these words as meaningless because they are simply synonyms, and they cite places where a word was used in a different context than the accepted. I say that those scholars don’t understand Love enough. As proof, I submit to you: ladies, would you rather your husband call you pretty or beautiful? Hot or Sexy? Synonyms carry undertones that absolutely make a structurally meaningful difference.
Agape speaks of a willful Love, the kind that is not emotional, but which is chosen. This is often interpreted as being the selfless Love God has for us, and while true it undercuts the idea. This is also the Love that is displayed when you change your spouse’s bedpan or hold your autistic child through an episode: it is a Love that is not about emotion, but about willful dedication. It is the Love you’re talking about in your vows when you say “for worse”, “in sickness”, and “for poorer”. It is a Love borne of the spiritual, a choice decided in the realm of the connected Love of all things. It is God’s Love, but He made us in His image — He gave us the ability to Love this way that we might understand some fraction of how He Loves us.
Philo is the idea of emotional, autonomic Love. It is illustrated in two ways that are tough to wrap your mind around. Philo Love is the companion Love you have for your spouse and the Love you have for your siblings or friends. But philo Love is also the affinity you have for your hobbies and the kismet you have with certain kinds of food. Philo is the root word of philosophy, “Love of knowledge.” It denotes, then, a soulful Love, a Love based on instinct out of emotion in contrast to agape’s decided and chosen spiritual Love.
Eros Love is physical Love, touchy-feely, cuddly, and sexual Love. It’s kissing your baby, hugging your friends, or any other physical display of Love. It doesn’t come into play in this conversation, but it’s important to understand the whole Greek concept of Love.
Suriston doesn’t carry these separations of Love by where in you they originate.
Chav literally means “to kindle”, and reflects a one-way Love; the Love of servant to master, pet to owner, or parent to child. It is an A-to-B line. That is to say, it’s Love in which you are unconcerned if it’s returned; you’re going to give it because you choose to. It is also most commonly attributed as being the Love God has for us, but again that isn’t the length and breadth of it. The fact it refers to the start of a fire speaks volumes. When Love begins it is always one-way because we don’t yet know if the other person shares it, and indeed our hearts and minds don’t truly care — we enter with the full hope of mutual Love. Chav Love has elements soulful, physical, and spiritual. It is similar to agape and philo, but not similar enough to really translate to either.
Racham is similar to chav, but if you think of chav as a line, racham is a circle: it is shared Love flowing bidirectionally. It is thought of as completed Love, and you can think of this as wedding Love, which is to say chav turns into racham with the “I do”s when the couple truly see two “lines” of chav Love combine to form racham. What was presumed is now confirmed and that bound Love can grow. Chav is the kindling that starts the fire, but racham is the fire itself. Racham is deep, passionate, but again soulful, physical, and spiritual.
That is an interesting distinction, because it means Love has almost completely incompatible definitions between Greek and Suriston. Why? You have to understand the cultures.
The Greeks were an intellectual people, and their language reflects that: it is a language of the mind. They saw 3 types of Love because they saw man as 3 beings and logically interpreted the different Loves that could come from the 3. This intellectual view of Love is very utilitarian: sex, friendship, fealty. That’s it. As a Socratic that’s all you need.
But Aramaic, and its root Hebrew, is a language for reverent people, Loving people, so it is a language of the heart. Aramaic was a much more complex language; it regards each evoked feeling or attitude as a separate word. This is why it is so much more complex a language than Hebrew: the people needed new words to express more subtle detail. This is how language always evolves.
Jesus carried the most supreme understanding of Love any human could posses; He is born of the Father’s Love and came here specifically to teach us about the inner workings of the Father’s Love. He spoke Greek and Aramaic (Suriston), so it seems plainly obvious he’d have employed all 5 of these words and used them in their subtler contexts specifically to evoke the thoughts like what we’re exploring here. God is Love, the Bible says this clearly. Jesus is the Word of God, the Bible tells us also. So Jesus is very much the Word of Love. To rationalize in any way that He randomly threw in synonyms with no subtext is intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually ridiculous. He used these words to the maximum effect He could, knowing full well that they didn’t encompass even a part of the true nature of Love. Nothing He ever said had just one meaning.
In Greek, Jesus’ first question is “do you agape me more than our friends?”, His second is “do you agape me?”, and last “do you philo me?”. Peter responds to all 3 that he philo- Loves Jesus.
In Greek it is clear that agape Love is superior. Philo is unintentional and, supposedly, fleeting where agape is decided and thus more permanent. Many pastors have lectured that Jesus asks a series of descending accusations, and that Peter was sad because Jesus had to ask such questions. In a darkness-obsessed guilt view that certainly makes us feel better because here’s Jesus putting the smack down for Peter’s betrayal. The switch from agape to philo is Jesus smiting Peter with His mighty stick of smiting. I don’t buy that for one second, and nothing in any conversation Jesus ever had backs that view up.
In Suriston the questions are “do you chav me more than our friends?”, “do you chav me?”, and “do you racham me?”, to which Peter responds thrice “I racham you”. In some Aramaic manuscripts you’ll actually see they use the word racham for all six places; humans really can’t wrap their minds around subtlety. My interpretation could be wrong, but tell me if it is more or less Spirit-filled to you.
In Suriston, racham is actually the higher Love because it flows both ways. Given that Suriston is the language of the actual conversation, Jesus was not asking a descending series of questions, but an ascending one. They were questions aimed at provoking Peter to self-reflection. The first, “do you Love me more than these?”, was to make Peter ponder if his previous claim of Loving Jesus more than any other disciple was still valid. The second, “do you Love (chav) me?” was to make Peter consider his fealty to his Lord. The last, “do you Love (racham) me?” is a question of trust. Racham is compete Love, remember, so if you have to ask if someone competes your Love they really don’t. No, this question was actually asking Peter if he understood that what he and Jesus shared was racham. “Do you believe I Love you?” might be a better translation.
Peter was distressed at the third question because Jesus was asking more here, and while it might have been partially because the 3 questions reminded him of his 3 denials that was not the overriding thing at play. This was Peter being unsure he could wrap his mind around the idea that Jesus could Love him after what he’d done. We all profess to the Father our deep Love and thank Him for His Love. But when He places something before us with which to ask “do you believe I Love you?” we crumble into doubt. Peter still wasn’t sure he believed he was the guy Jesus thought he was. Doers rarely have the ability to step back and see what they are capable of because the scope is intimidating. Peter’s response all three times was that he Loves (racham) Jesus. He was confessing that he’d given himself and his brash, reckless heart wholly to Jesus. He said he knew Jesus Loved him, but to be pointedly asked brought him to tears. Not all grief is borne of death or darkness; Peter’s was borne of profound loss for this man and Lord he’d lost and for the true understanding that this very conversation proved Jesus did Love him.
So what was Peter being asked to do that required this escalation of questions? Everyone gets that “feed my sheep” is “lead my church”, but that’s not all; if that was all, then it really would have been Jesus sticking His finger in the open wound of Peter’s guilt. But the feeling of guilt has no place in the Kingdom, so there is zero chance this was just a “swear three times to atone for denying me three times!” thing. No, Peter is asked to do 3 absolutely distinct things that required 3 absolutely distinct confirmations.
Starting with terms, the KJV says the tasks, in order, are “feed My lambs”, “feed My sheep”, “feed My sheep”. In Greek they are “feed My lambs”, “tend My sheep”, and “feed my sheep”. In the Suriston Aramaic the words are “shepherd My lambs”, “shepherd My sheep”, and “shepherd My ewes”.
Are these just minor style variations? I don’t believe so.
Let’s start with “feed”. In English we just have the one word, and it can cover a multitude of meanings; feeding a baby, feeding tree, feeding a habit, etc. In Greek the word used refers especially to the kind of feeding that allows growth rather than just sustenance. In Suriston that Greek concept is fleshed out with the idea of a shephard tending a flock; it means tending not just to the health and growth of each individual, but also keeping the flock united, healthy, and growing. None lost, none left behind, none wandered away.
We have three types of food we require: physical sustenance, education of the mind, and growth of the Spirit. Starving your body of food causes death. Starving your soul of education causes it to become static, disinterested, automated, death-worshipping, and bleak (see the decline of Solomon for proof here). Starving your spirit of the ability to expand means the worst kind of death, the eternal death; to stifle your spirit is to limit your connection to the Spirit and reject God.
The commands to Peter address all three. The disciples had been told to feed the people physical food. Jesus walked the path of educating people; educating on interpretation of the Law, nature of sin, and the truth of humanity. And He showed, and commanded His followers to show others, how to feed their connection to God, to expand their faith and their Love.
So then what of sheeps and lambs? In English we get a distinction of lambs and sheep. So there’s at least two categories of people Jesus is noting here. In Greek we get lambs and a word that can refer to sheep or goats. In Suriston we clearly get lambs, sheep, and ewes. How do we make sense of that? Jesus makes clear in John 10:16 that not all His sheep were “of this flock”, so the distinction between lambs, sheep, and ewes has to be purposeful and critical.
Jesus was referred to, by both Isaiah and John, as the Lamb. This was reference to His sacrifice for us, the word chosen to evoke the image of the Passover lamb that was sacrificed yearly by the Jews for their atonement. The lamb is a young sheep, and was chosen for Passover because it was a fresh, unspoiled, tithe-worthy possession. It was a symbol for innocence, purity, and redemption. The lambs to be tended, then, could be the children. But He says “my lambs”, so He also means His children, which includes all faithful believers. Lambs need Love and constant attention to flourish, and so it is with the pure heart. This is the call to feed the spirit of righteous men; to foster the church proper in order to help people grow in Him. This was the fulfillment of why Christ called him Peter instead of Simon originally: he was to be the first stone of the church Jesus would build.
Next are sheep; the most commonly referenced animal in the Bible. They were a huge part of the farm economy of the time and so were easily understood by the people. Sheep are pack animals, skittish, ever-wandering, and uncomfortable alone. When Jesus referenced people He often called them sheep. This, then, represents the common believer. The thing that all sheep need is direction, boundaries. This is also true of men. This, then, is the call to feed the mind and soul of men; to teach them to learn to walk the path so that their spirits might remain open for nourishment.
That leaves ewes. This one is complicated. Ewes are female sheep, obviously, so maybe it was “take care of my women”, but I’m not so sure I believe Christ adhered to the social assignment that women labored under at the time. Never did He regard a woman with less or more than equal respect and Love to men, so it’s unlikely he’d do so here.
To sort of solidify that cultural woman-hate: neither Hebrew nor Greek even have a word for ewes, so those translations revert to the base designation “sheep”. The Suriston New Testament, which does have a word for ewes, only has one other reference to the word “ewe”, but it’s interesting. It’s in Acts 8:32.
In that verse Philip has been called down to Gaza by the Holy Spirit. There, he finds a eunuch from Ethiopia reading from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:7 to be precise. You may remember that the entirety of chapter 53 is the story of Jesus. Verse 7 describes Jesus as a sheep being led to slaughter, and says in our language that “like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” In Suristan the word used for “lamb” here is “ewe”. Now isn’t that interesting? The Spirit motivated that. Why the word change there and nowhere else? Perhaps the situation itself holds the key.
The description is of Christ being led to the Cross: silent, willing, and determined. Not shouting against God or man, not defending Himself, not even praying that it wouldn’t hurt. No. All of that was gone and this was the time for the execution of the act He’d been born for. The act, the Crucifixion, was the source of our church much as women are the source of babies and people, and ewes are the source of lambs and sheep. The designation ewe clearly is more apt here.
Back to John, then, what is Jesus asking in telling Peter to shepherd His ewes? Something for all people. The dead cannot receive the Spirit, and they view our wisdom as foolish. So the directive here would seem to be more physical. I believe it is the call to attend physical need: to feed the poor, counsel the lost, and reach out to the unbeliever. It’s the Great Commission to build the Kingdom.
Let me rephrase the conversation now that we’ve gotten all this down:
So when they had dined, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you Love me more than the others do?”
Peter said unto Jesus, “Yes, Lord; You know that we share deep Love.”
Jesus said unto Peter, “Then I need you to lead my church.”
Jesus said to Peter the second time, “Simon, son of Jonas, are you truly devoted to me?”
Peter said unto Jesus, “Yes, Lord; You know that You are my beloved brother.”
Jesus said unto Peter, “Then I need you to train the people of my church.”
Jesus said unto Peter the third time, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you believe that I Love you?”
Peter was struck by Jesus’ Love, but he said unto Jesus, “Lord, You know all things; You know that we Love each other as deeply as brothers can.”
Jesus said unto Peter, “Then I need you to build the Kingdom here on earth.”
This was not a chiding conversation or a guilt confirmation. It was a strategy planning session. It was Jesus bolstering Peter, letting him know that they were fine, and inspiring him to go forward. It was also a vision for every follower of Christ: you must help each other grow, but not at the expense of outreach. You must build the Kingdom with new souls, but not to the exclusion of teaching them.
Peter was able to take a command like this because he was action driven. He was a man who could take in big ideas because he didn’t worry about the size of them; he just started eating the elephant a bite at a time. This is our Great Commission: to take care of each other here. To help people look for the Light, to help them overcome guilt and shame and bitterness. To deprive Satan of listeners and thus eliminate the perception of shadow from all the earth.