Love (in the Bible)
LOVE (IN THE BIBLE)
To understand the place of love in the Bible, one must begin by examining the Biblical usage of the pertinent Hebrew root and of the Greek stem that corresponds to it in the Septuagint (LXX) and in the NT. Love, then, will be treated under three main headings: vocabulary, in the OT, and in the NT.
Vocabulary. Biblical Hebrew has a root (’āhab or 'āhēb ) that corresponds rather closely to the English term love. Like love, it can signify passion, desire, satisfaction, contentment, friendliness, intimacy, attachment, esteem. It regularly implies preference and often vehemence.
Greek has four stems for love: στέργω (affection founded on a natural bond such as family relationship), ἐράω (passionate, possessive love), φιλέω (friendship; intimate, respectful, often tender love), and ἀγαπάω(preference, esteem). The pagan poets and philosophers treat most often of the second (ἔρως) and third (φιλία) the translators and writers of the LXX show marked preference for the fourth (ἀγάπησις or ἀγάπη). Perhaps because ἀγαπάω sounds somewhat like 'āhab or because, like the Hebrew root, it implies preference, the translators regularly use it, employing φιλέω much less frequently, ἐράω rarely, and στέργω hardly at all.
The NT follows LXX usage: ἀγαπάω is the usual term for love while ἐράω is absent, στέργω almost so, and φιλέω (except in compound words) relatively rare (usually expressive of friendship, but in John of a particularly warm love).
Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible prefers other terms to describe the relationship between God and man. As partner to a covenant with His people, Yahweh shows them loyal attachment (ḥsd ), fidelity ('mn ), tenderness rḥm ), and active favor (ḥnn ). But to nuance the notion of covenant, Deuteronomy and Hosea point (ten times) to the gratuitous divine elective love that inspired it and to the enduring character of the divine love that will outlast the repudiation of the covenant at the time of the Exile. Later writers occasionally refer to this strong, gratuitous, preferential, and privilege-conferring divine love for Israel or for certain chosen individuals (e.g., David) or places (e.g., Zion).
The Israelites' relation to Yahweh is one of fear, service, and loyal attachment (the second and third of these terms referring to the covenant relationship), but also occasionally of love—most often in the stereotyped formula that usually appears in translation as "those who love Yahweh" but probably means simply "Yahweh's friends." Deuteronomy, however, uses love several times to present the really religious man—the convinced Yahwist—as a man wholeheartedly devoted to the God of the covenant and showing his devotion in obedience to all Yahweh's commands: obedient love is the equivalent of authentic religion.
Love for fellow man appears as a religious duty only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible. In texts that are neither characteristic nor central, it is commanded as the proper attitude toward fellow Israelites and aliens resident within the Israelite community (Lv 19.18, 34; Dt 10.19). The usual terms to designate this proper relation are righteousness (ṣ edāqâ ) and justice (mišpāṭ ), the former implying active beneficence and coming gradually to signify almsgiving.
The Septuagint contains nothing more than the Hebrew Bible on love for neighbor. It contains several additional references to love for God in the deuterocanonical books, but these are almost always instances of the stereotyped formula referred to above (God's friends). It also contains about twice as many references to divine love because of deuterocanonical usage or the translators' occasional rendering of other terms than ’āhab by ἀγαπάω. But the idea of divine love in these additional texts is that of the Hebrew books. Most often the participle ἠγαπημένος or the adjective ἀγαπητός occurs, and Israel (or some favored individual) is the object of the Lord's elective love.
New Testament. The stem ἀγαπάω occurs well over 300 times in the NT. It rarely designates reprehensible love. It represents a central notion in the NT conception of divine-human relations. The reason lies in the fact that in the NT the notion of covenant gives place to that of divine paternity. Father is the proper name of the God of Jesus. He is Father of Jesus and of all those who become one with Jesus.
Synoptic Gospels. Crucial texts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (baptismal theophany, transfiguration, parable of the wicked vinedressers) present Jesus as God's "beloved Son," i.e., His Son in a unique sense ("only" Son—Hebrew yāḥîd, Septuagint ἀγαπητός) and the object of His paternal predilection. At the same time Jesus occasionally uses the term love to designate the total devotion to the Father and to Himself that He demands, and He declares Deuteronomy's command to love God (Dt 6.5) the greatest commandment of the Old Law. But above all, with startling originality, He proclaims love of neighbor the second greatest commandment of the Law and like the first; He reinterprets it to extend to all men including religious persecutors; He declares it an imitation of the Father and the behavior that proves a man son of God, and He identifies it as the criterion by which men will be judged.
Pauline Epistles. St. Paul presents the divine beneficence to man as mercy, to emphasize the misery or undeserving nature of its objects; as grace, to underscore its gratuitous character; and otherwise as love (usually thereby implying its magnitude). Christ's Passion-Resurrection is the great manifestation of His own and the Father's love. In imitation of Christ (and God) the Christian, the man who is "in Christ," must love especially fellow Christians but also all men, with a sincere, active, self-sacrificing love. Such love for neighbor is ultimately love for Christ (and God) because of the relation in which the neighbor stands to Christ. Other references to love for God occur rarely, as e.g., the OT cliché, "those who love God" (or "the Lord"). Paul's usual term for man's proper relationship of total surrender to God in Christ is faith. Those who make this surrender then reflect the divine love in their lives by their love for neighbor.
Johannine Writings. St. John almost never uses any term but love for God's beneficence toward men. In His Passion-Resurrection Christ reveals that God is love. The Father shows unique love for the Son, passing on to Him His own glory. The Son shows love for the Father and maintains Himself in the Father's love by obeying His command to show supreme love for the disciples by His Passion-Resurrection. The disciples show love for the Son and maintain themselves in the Son's love by obeying His command to love one another with a self-sacrificing love like His own. Love is a divine reality coming to believers from the Father through the Son, returning from them through Christ to the Father, vivifying them, marking them as Jesus' disciples, and proving the divine origin of His mission.
See Also: faith, 1; grace (in the bible).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 1377–85. c. spicq, Agape in the New Testament, tr. m. a. mcnamara and m. h. richter (St. Louis 1963).