I heard there are two words for love in John 21. Does one refer only to friendship, and the other to real love? You know Greek, so what do you say?

In John 21, I think it most likely that agapas me ("do you love me," as an act of will and commitment) and phileis me ("do you love me," as an act of devotion based in the affection) are synonymous. In other words, it is doubtful that Jesus is asking Peter if he is his "friend."

To illustrate, philein is the verb used in Matthew 10:37; John 11:3, 20:2; Romans 12:10; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Titus 2:4 (2x), 3:15. Please look up these passages and see how your translation renders philein.

Another false distinction from the same passage--though I have never heard it taught--would be between arnia (lambs) in John 21:15 and probata (sheep) in 21:16 and 17. While the two words don't have the same root meaning, in this context they are being used interchangeably, and in accordance with the dictates of good style.

On top of all this, in John 16:27 philein is the verb describing God's love for the Disciples. And several other examples could be called up...

For a parallel, compare James 4:4 to 1 John 2:15. The first speaks of friendship with the world, the second of love for the world. Yet the meaning is the same.

So in John 21, there may be zero difference between these words -- despite what many preachers claim.

UPDATE (13 years later):

Several newsletter recipients wrote in after the 13 July 2016 discussion of agapân and phileîn in John 21. It dawned on me that I had just attended a play (in English) in which Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him -- or is his even friend -- and I was contradicting the playwright's rendition of the interaction. Please believe me, I have no desire to rain on anyone's party. I tried to leave this an open matter, not being dogmatic but conceding that while the synonym interpretation may be correct, the balance of evidence suggests otherwise.

There is further support for the position I took. In John 11:3, Jesus loves Lazarus (philía, not agápē). In John 11:5 Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters -- philía again. I have selected to respond to two comments that were sent in:

"If Jesus spoke primarily in Hebrew or Aramaic, wouldn't that render moot any effort to dissect the Greek words for 'love' in this passage? I understand that Hebrew is like English, with only one word for love, with the meaning based on context." -- Stan (U.S.)

Yes, that’s right -- sort of. Since the author of John gives us a dialogue in Greek, it is certainly possible he expects us to pick up on certain nuances. It’s the lack of direct access to the speech of Jesus and the apostles that forces us to be somewhat tentative with any dogmatic interpretation turning on a fine point of Greek grammar. One can argue that there are numerous love-words in Hebrew, just as in Greek), although you raise an important point about context.

"My favourite counter-example to the fallacy is where 'Amnon loved Tamar' [2 Sam 13:4]. The LXX [Greek translation] here uses agapân." -- Simon (U.K.)

Thanks for that example, Simon. Amnon rapes his sister, and yet surprisingly the translators described his feelings as agápē, not philía or (more to the point?) erōs. As you have pointed out, a hard and fast agápē / philía distinction doesn't work in the O.T. any more than it does in the N.T.