Word Study #22 — “My Friends…”

I owe this study to my 12 year old grandson, Thomas, who asked me, “Grandma, did you ever work on ‘friend’?”  I hadn’t — didn’t really think there was much to investigate, but his comment, “Some people say they’re your friends, but they really aren’t,” got my attention.  Jesus had that problem, too.  Who hasn’t?  So I started to dig, and — no surprise — saw some very intriguing patterns emerging.

Two words are traditionally translated “friend” in the New Testament, and two more have been added by modern translators, completely muddying the communication.
Hetairos is used only four times, and only in Matthew’s gospel.  Classically, the word referred primarily to political partisans, business or religious associates, or casual companions.  Matthew uses it of children’s playmates (11:16), in the landowner’s reply to his disgruntled workers (20:13), in the host’s response to the improperly clad man at his feast (22:12), and Jesus’ addressing Judas in the betrayal scene (26:50).  None carry any personal level of involvement or affection, and certainly no mutuality.

Philos, used 29 times, covers a broader spectrum, although a greater degree of personal involvement is usually implied.  (Not always:  it is used in Lk.23:12 of Pilate and Herod, in their shared frustration at the case against Jesus.)  Jesus uses it in parables, often paired with “neighbors” or “family members” (Lk.15:6,9; 21:16; 14:10; Ac.10:24), or referring to a cordial relationship (Mt.11:19, Lk.7:34, Lk.7:6; 11:5,6,8; 15:29; Jn.3:29; Ac.19:31; 27:3).  Two instances seem to fit better with the flavor of hetairos — Lk.12:4 and Jn.19:12 — but there, philos was the writers’ choice.
There seems to be a change of the depth of meaning in John’s gospel, where Jesus speaks of Lazarus (11:11) as “our friend” and John notes (11:5) that Jesus “loved” (egapa) that whole family.  And in his farewell word to the disciples (15:13-15), “promoting” them from the status of “servants” to “friends” for whom he is prepared to lay down his life, an even deeper relationship is indicated.

The most interesting and, I think, significant observation is that both hetairos and philos almost entirely disappear from the text after Pentecost!  The faithful, after that time, consistently refer to one another as adelphoibrethren!  Please note that, although the preponderance of uses are masculine in form, this does NOT indicate the preferential treatment of males.  It is simply the generic form of the word — all words have “gender” (not necessarily related to fact) in many languages.  (For example, in Greek, “hand” is feminine, and “leg” is masculine, regardless of the gender of its possessor.)  The point is, identification with the Kingdom/family of the Lord Jesus has introduced an entirely new level of relationship to his people.
“Brother” still does refer to physical family relationships, as it did in the Gospels, but from the time (Ac.9:17) when Ananias addressed the newly-enlightened Saul as “Brother”, it is the term of choice among fellow-disciples.
This usage is not unique to the Christian community:  it was used classically of religious associates, or even military companions, and Peter (Ac.2:29), Paul (Ac.22:1), and Stephen (Ac.7:2) all used it in addressing their unbelieving (even hostile) Jewish audiences.  However, the vast majority of the 346 New Testament references are to committed fellow-disciples.
Jesus had used it that way (Mt.28:10, Mk.3:33-34, Jn.20:17).  Especially notable is his statement in Mt.23:8, flatly forbidding any hierarchical structure among his followers (which many still ignore, at their peril).  Even John, an acknowledged apostle and elder, learned that lesson so well that he refers to himself in the introduction to his Revelation (1:9), as “your brother, and companion in the hassles, and the Kingdom, and endurance (that is) in Jesus.”  “Brother” is the highest — and only — “title” legitimately applied to any follower of Jesus.  As members of Jesus’ own family (Mt.12:49, Mk.3:34, Lk.8:21), we belong to one another in unique and wonderful ways.  So-called “contemporary translations” do us a great disservice in reducing that God-given bond to the casual status of “friends.”

To top it off, the revisionists manage also to throw agapetos (watered-down to “dear friends”) into the mix.  Agapetos is the participial/noun/adjectival form of the much-preached verb agapao, which seems to grow in its glow with every fresh-hatched “theologian” who gloms onto it.  I will only say here that the word itself is far less “sanctified” than is usually proclaimed.  If you need a “f”r instance”, how about Jesus’ disparaging comment (Lk.6:32) “Even sinners [losers] also love (agaposin) those who love (agapontas) them”?  That doesn’t sound much like “godly love” to me!
Liddell/Scott lists “regard with great affection or fondness; hold in high esteem; used of affection between children and parents, or God and man, or husband and wife.”  Theologizing aside, a genuine depth of relationship is definitely in view.  If you have a problem with the slightly archaic “beloved”, “dear people” or “loved ones” is more to the point than simply “friends.”  And when it is paired with adelphoi “dear (or even “dearest”) brethren” is accurate.  Reducing both of these to mere “politician-speak” (“my friends”) seriously cheapens the vocabulary.

This is a classic example of the poverty of language and understanding created by “translators” who are either bound to an agenda, or who have not troubled themselves to treat the original vocabulary with the precision and integrity it deserves.  Here are four words, with four distinctly different meanings, merged into one term so vague as to communicate virtually nothing.  Lowest common denominators simply do not work!

As casual associates progress through deepening friendship to Christian brotherhood, and thence to the precious gift of the mutuality of love learned in the Kingdom of our Elder Brother, we are privileged to grow together into his very image — no longer servants, but friends, and beloved brethren, whom Jesus has designated as members of his own family!
There IS a difference!


2 Responses to Word Study #22 — “My Friends…”

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Thanks for this one, Mom. I have been irritated for a long time at the reduction of the filial language of “adelphoi” to mere friendship in a translation I otherwise enjoy very much–the New RSV.

    I am intrigued by your discovery of the vanishing of “friend” language in Acts and beyond.

    But perhaps the reduction of the language, while inappropriate in its scriptural context, is an accurate description of far too many of the relationships that exist in today’s churches…

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Unfortunately, I think you are probably right. One could speculate, in a chicken-or-egg fashion, which is cause and which is effect — the deterioration of the language or of the relationships — but such often go together. Probably the main reason for the textual change is caving in to the “gender police”, though. In any case, it is a sad commentary.

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