TELL ME WHAT LOVE IS ABOUT
IN THE BIBLE THERE IS NO ONE WORD FOR IT
It may come as a surprise to you but there is no one word for “love” in the original Greek and Hebrew Bible. This is a problem for English speaking people. It causes misunderstanding about the most important value of the Christian faith. The popular but very old English translation of the Bible, King James version of 1839 does not use the word “love” in the famous I Corinthians chapter 13 but it uses “charity” because of this difficulty. It seems a mere word “love” does not quite convey its true meaning. It shows the problem of translating the Greek word into English. It is not the difficulty that the word “love”poses, however. It is the limitation of human language. Human experience is much larger than our spoken and written words can explain.
A certain emotions and human conditions can only be adequately described in stories. This is why Jesus taught in parables. This is why poetry and myths, even fictitious stories, are better media to convey and express spiritual quality than theories. The parable of the good shepherd (Matthew 18:12), and the father of a prodigal son (Luke 15: 11ff), for example, are much better descriptions of love than First Corinthians 13: “Love is.” I am going to examine the Biblical love words to show the inadequacy of English language.
I can think of at least three words which are all translated into one English word “love”. I think all of them contain some of the ideas but not quite all. How is it possible that such an important and the most frequently used quality of Christian faith can not be expressed accurately in English? I can not answer the question, but I can make an attempt to reflect on all three “love” words and see if we can come to a better understanding of Biblical love.
Let me begin by dealing with the word which is not in the Bible. I dare to begin with this word though it is not biblical, because it is the most popular understanding, rather misunderstanding, of love in our culture today. The word I am referring to is “eros.” You can not find this word in the Greek Bible. Isn’t it significant that the word most people think and use it in relation to love is not there? The oldest use of the word “eros” was by Greek philosopher Plato of the 4th Century B.C. Even then, Plato’s usage of eros is not the same thing as we use it today with sexual connotation.
Plato extol the notion that everything has its ideal model. It’s the idea of the perfect form to which everything is striving to become. That irresistible force of pull toward or yearning for perfection is called “eros” by Plato. This is where sex may find an excuse to come in. It is the idea that unless one attains the act of union with a perfect object physically, one can never be satisfied. But that is only one of the erotic acts. One can feel strongly in need of making a perfect chair, for example. That passion for a perfect chair is eros too. The Bible does not touch this Platonic concept. One word closest to Platonic “eros” in the Bible, according to my first year university Greek lexicon, is “epithumia” translated as “desire.” That obviously does not convey exactly what Plato meant, for it lacks passion for idealism. Such is the problem of translation. By the way, Buddhism calls it “bonnow,” which we must abandone in order to reach “Nirvana.”
There are two Greek words that have been translated into one word “love” in the English Bible. Though they are translated into the same one English word, they carry different meanings. It means that the word “love” is not quite accurate translation of those two words, hence “charity” that translators of the King James chose to use. The difference between those two is not just nuance: it’s substantial. Therein is the problem of our understanding of love.
The first is “agapeh” or verb “agapaow.” It refers to self-giving and sacrificial love that God endows. Its typical usage is John 3:16: “God so loved the world He gave his own begotten Son.” When a human person does it in a self denying manner, such as “Love your neighbour” or “Love your enemy” without expecting any return, the Bible also uses agapaow (Matthew 5:43 & 44). It means human is also capable of the divine love to some extent. For example, the first Corinthians chapter 13 uses “agapeh.” No wonder the translators of the King James version did not use “love.” They must have felt the word “love” inadequate. They chose “charity” to indicate that it is the passion for self-giving and sacrificial acts.
Another word translated also into “love” is human instinctive force expressed in Greek word “philo” or verb “phileow.” It is self-giving love as “agapeh” is, but it is instinctive human emotional drive. It is used to describe that which exists between parents and children, brothers and sisters, man and woman, and between friends. As you can see, there is qualitative difference between agapeh and philo. The first one does not need any reason to love but does, while the other is something one can not help and does. It is an instinct and is a natural urge. The former is intentional and the latter spontaneous. In either case, one does it no matter how much it costs while expecting no return. It is sacrificial love like mother’s love of her child.
There is one word which is not translated into an English word “love” in the Bible but we call it “love.” It is the Greek word “epithumia.” The English Bible translates it into “desire” in stead of “love.” It is closest the Bible gets to what we call “eros”, though it includes not only sexual desire but also greed like insatiable desire for materials goods or wealth or power.
To sum up, in the Bible there are three words that are currently translated into or understood as love. Divine love and human love, both of which induce selfless acts, and lastly selfish desire to fulfil one’s desire. The last one is not called “love” in the Holy Scriptures. But we do. We love money and power, etc. I feel there ought to be different English words for each of three categories. Because of this paucity of English language, such an important value in our life “love” is treated so cheaply and badly misused. However, the following song written by a Dominican monk expresses love more adequately than anyone can ever articulate.
“Love is a giving; Love is a baby boy; Love is your brother; Love is your sister;
Love is a joy. Love is the tenderest thing; Love is a song of a bird; Love is a wind in the trees;
The man on the hill.” Amen.