The Language of Friendship

Sometimes it’s difficult to know who your friends are. Strangely, this truth extends beyond head-shaking experiences of betrayal, and into more trivial domains of linguistics. We’ve already noted the potential dangers of attempting to find out friendship through a simple word study, as though a dictionary entry could tell you what it means to shake a man’s hand, slap him on the back. But we cannot do conceptual work without words, and in particular, we cannot trace the figure of the friend through the biblical-canonical history without knowing his (or her) name. What words do we use to say ‘friend’.

The linguistic problems are complex. It’s difficult enough to pin down the meaning of the word ‘friend’ in English. We use ‘friend’ with a huge variety of referents and shades of meaning, consider the difference between these phrases: ‘facebook friend’; ‘man’s best friend’; Dave and I have been friends since University’. We have been educated into a linguistic community that enables us to almost intuitively distinguish three quite separate (although not unrelated) concepts of friendship behind these phrases. When we operate within one language, its structures and our participation in a linguistic community enable us to work through this complexity without breaking a sweat. The real difficulties arise when we attempt to trace a concept through multiple languages.

Each language divides up its semantic space differently: the family of words which in English cluster around the concept of ‘friendship’ do not neatly map onto a similar family of words in Greek or Hebrew. The various word-families are like jigsaw puzzles which picture the same scene, take up the same surface area, but whose pieces are cut in different shapes.friend wordle A piece from one puzzle won’t properly fit into another. So, when we come to the Bible looking to discover the meaning of friendship, we can’t go to the index, find the equivalent word in the biblical languages, and look up all the references. While Greek writers employ the noun φιλος in a way that is quite similar to the English ‘friend’, the related verb (φιλεω) is much broader, ranging through various versions of the english word ‘love’. So, while a φιλος is quite distinct from a neighbour, master, father, or brother, it is perfectly possible to φιλεω them all.

When we turn to the Old Testament the problem becomes more difficult. Our English concept ‘friend’ fails to map neatly onto any particular noun or verb at all. Old Testament authors most commonly choose between two quite distinct words to talk about friendship. The first, the Hebrew word ra‘ , is usually translated ‘neighbour’. At its broadest semantic range, ra‘ simply denotes mutuality, i.e., those who are in some form of reciprocal, symmetrical relation, leaving context to specify how that relation arose or of what it consists. The second Hebrew word that concerns us is ’ahab, denoting intimacy (including sexual intimacy). In many contexts (for example, Song of Songs), ’ahab approximates to our English word, ‘lover’. Translators will tend to render either of these terms as the English word ‘friend’ when either the reciprocity is clearly more than mere spatial or economic proximity, or where the intimacy is clearly of a non-sexual kind, i.e., in situations where something like the English/Greek concept of ‘friend’ appears to be present. It’s easiest to see the distinction and overlap between these words when we view them in context:

A man with many friends (ra‘) may be harmed, but there is a friend (’ahab) who stays closer than a brother.
(Proverbs 18:24 HCSB)

A friend (ra‘) loves (related verb to ’ahab) at all times, and a brother is born for a difficult time.
(Proverbs 17:17 HCSB)

In Proverbs 18:24, the Sage distinguishes between two different kinds of friendship. Although he uses the two distinct words ‘neighbour’ and ‘lover’, he is clearly playing upon the fact that they can both be used to describe more or less intimate types of the same kind of relationship. The HCSB translation (above) seeks to draw out this comparison by rendering both the Hebrew words using the same word in English: ‘friend’. The second example, from Proverbs 17:17, also demonstrates the overlap between the words. In this case, the ‘friend’ (translating the word ‘neighbour’) ‘loves’ (using the verbal form related to ‘lover’). In both cases, the author is seeking to express the concept of a relationship characterised, on the one hand, by the kind of intimacy enjoyed between sexual partners, but without the sexual component; and on the other, by the kind of mutuality that exists between neighbours, but with a stronger affective disposition. The solution is to juxtapose the concepts of ‘neighbour’ and ‘lover’ to capture a semantic space for which Hebrew has no precise word.

My suggestion is that, rather than looking for particular words within the biblical-canonical history that might signal the presence of friendship, we look for patterns, juxtapositions, moments that gather a halo of significance, both in their telling and their retelling. Obviously, we can’t afford to ignore the use of certain words or phrases – what we might call the language of friendship – but even when these words don’t appear, we must look out for the particular configurations of mutuality, the patterns of a distinct kind of love, which mark out the presence of a friend. Perhaps from loneliness or loss we can learn the patience, the sensitivity, the subtlety, to recognise the friend when he appears?

Sorry about the rubbish Hebrew transliterations. It’s the result of a surprisingly complex problem with my WordPress installation.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Friendship

  1. Hi Arthur,
    Thanks for the comment. To be brief and to the point. I disagree with Mister Witherington the Third. The fact that the word 'philos' can denote patron/client relationships in the NT is perfectly true, but it doesn't follow that all references to 'philos' have this reference. There is very clearly another strand within Greco-Roman thought that views friendship in terms much closer to how our modern concept functions (Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Cicero's De Amici are clear examples). Context is therefore very significant for NT usage. The fact that Jesus says, "Greater love has no man that this, that he lays down his life for his friends" suggests a context in which intimacy and love are on view. "Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his clients" just doesn't really fit (to my mind anyway).
    Thanks for the heads up though, I'll have to go and read Witherington's stuff properly.


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