This last weekend I heard a talk in which it was claimed that the word ἀγάπη (agapē) was little used prior to the New Testament in Greek and was infused with new and special meaning by the writers of the NT, a meaning that reflects a divine, selfless, love. This is not a new claim, and any search for the term “agape” across the internet will uncover many making exactly this claim. Indeed, if you venture to view the Wikipedia entry on the term agape you will find some similar claims.
From what I can tell, however, the special divine meaning for the term ἀγάπη (agapē) is spurious.
Indeed, my immediate response to reading the Wikipedia entry was that perhaps the best thing to do would be to scrap it altogether and start over again!
So what are the problems?
First, although the term does appear frequently in the New Testament, it is not at that time a neologism. It appears in the LXX almost as many times as other words commonly meaning “love,” frequently translating אהב, the most common Hebrew word for “love” which isn’t usually supposed to have any special connotations. It appears elsewhere in Greek literature predating the NT. And it appears to mean “love” in a fairly generic sense, not in a special divine sense. It is worth noting what Don Carson has written of the verbal cognate to this word:
Convincing evidence has been advanced that the verb agapaō was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from about the fourth century BC onward, as one of the standard verbs for ‘to love’. One of the reasons for this change is that phileō has taken on the additional meaning ‘to kiss’, in some contexts.1
Second, even within the NT the word is not exclusively used of some type of divine love — in 2 Tim 4:10 it is used to describe Demas’ love for the world which leads him to abandon the Way. Similar examples of non-divine, selfless contexts can also be added from the LXX and other ancient Greek literature.
Where I think readers have gone astray is in failing to note that most of the references to love in the Bible are in reference to God’s love, or at least to love derived from or reflecting God’s love. So it ought to be unsurprising that ἀγάπη mostly refers to divine love in the Bible. This does not, however, substantiate the claims frequently made for the term itself.
Ultimately it is best understood as a generic word for ‘love’ in the NT. To be sure, it is invested with special significance in many of the contexts in which it is employed by the content of those contexts, but it is illegitimate to then transfer those nuances into all contexts in which the term appears. To do so is to impute meanings to texts which are not necessarily present.
1. Carson footnotes that this semantic shift occurred as a result of the decline of an older verb for ‘to kiss’ (κυνεω, kuneō) due to that verb’s similarity to the verb κυνω (kunō) which meant ‘to impregnate’ which could have resulted in “salacious puns” and so prompted the adoption of a term less open to double entendre. See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 676; cf. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984) 51–54; Robert Joly, Le vocabulaire chrétien de l’amour, est-il original? Φιλειν et ’Αγαπαν dans le grec antique (Presses Universitaires de Bruxelles, 1968).