Love in Paul (3) Why the emergence of agapē?

So why is agapē so dominant in Paul – and the other writers of the NT?

To be honest, no-one can know for sure (since no-one in the NT writes a footnote explaining their use of language). But we can make an educated guess.

First we need to understand the different histories of agapē (love) and agapaō (to love).

The verb agapaō was around for a long time before the NT was written. It appears in classical Greek literature and has a wide range of meaning actually not that different to how the verb love is used in modern English. For example, to have an extremely high regard for someone or something. Only rarely does it refer to sexual love. And now and then it might refer to the love of a god for an individual.

In the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Old Testament c. 3rd century BC) agapaō takes centre stage as the word of choice to translate a variety of Hebrew words for love. It occurs over 250 times or so, most frequently as a translation of āhab, the most common Hebrew word for love. In the LXX, other Greek verbs for love, like phileō, appear much less often and usually translating friendship love.

When it comes to agapē it’s quite a different story. The word only appears much later in history, the first occurrences being in the Septuagint. And it is a truly ‘biblical’ word in that it appears only once outside the Bible. In the LXX it is still relatively rare. It appears only about 18 times, most of which occurrences are in the Song of Songs referring to sexual love.

So there is a major shift by the time we get to the NT. There agapē becomes Paul’s (and the other authors of the NT) favourite world word for love. It also develops a much richer and deeper meaning, as we’ll explore in some more posts to come. Save to say here that three big love themes run through Paul’s theology

  1. God’s elective and saving love
  2. Human response to God’s love
  3. Love within the covenant community

So why this development in the use, and understanding of, agapē in Paul? My take is that it’s tied to the apokalypsis (revelation) of Jesus Christ. The Christ-event dramatically changes Paul’s understanding of God to such an extent that it leads to a comprehensive reimagining of what divine love looks like (the cross) and what a response to it entails (sacrificial love).

This revolution in the understanding of love calls for a ‘new’ word.  Paul would have been aware of agapē from the LXX, and its close connection to agapaō. So does he choose agapē as a word which can then be filled with new meaning in light of the love of God poured out in the incarnation, mission, death and resurrection of the Son of God?

We’ll explore the content of that new meaning in a few other posts.

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