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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:4, Fall 2020

Epistles: Text Arcana: What “God Is Love” Actually Means

By Ben Witherington III

Biblical Archaeology Review

Over decades of studying the Bible, I’ve noted how much emphasis many scholars place on the adjectives used to describe the biblical God—God is righteous, God is holy, God is merciful, and so on. This is helpful up to a point, but not to the exclusion of studying the nouns used to characterize God—God is Spirit, God is One, and God is Love. Here, I will focus just on the last of these statements, noting from the outset that it is one thing to say God is loving; it is another to say God is love.

The problem, of course, for most people in English-speaking countries is that they associate the word “love” with particular kinds of human feelings, but in the Greek New Testament physical or tangible human love is referred to by the term eros, from which we quite appropriately get the word “erotic,” not by several of the other Greek words for love. English, unfortunately, doesn’t have the versality of Greek when it comes to having different words for different kinds of love.

In 1 John 4, where God is called love not once but twice, God is called agape, a very different word for love than eros. The verbal form of the noun agape (agapao) is used to say God loves the world of humanity in perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16: “God loved the world in the following manner—he gave his only and beloved Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life” (author’s translation). There, we hear about a self-sacrificial God.

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