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Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception

Volume 17
Editor(s): Christine Helmer, Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas Römer, Jens Schröter, Barry Dov Walfish, Eric J. Ziolkowski
De Gruyter (Berlin, Boston) 2019

I Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Ancient Near East

Thomas Römer

1. Terminology

Contrary to many modern languages, biblical Hebrew does not make a distinction in vocabulary between “love” and “friendship.” The same root ʾāhab is used for both terms (Wallis).

There are other roots that belong to the semantic field of “love”: the root y-d-d is used mainly in substantives, like dôd (the loved one or the lover); famous names constructed with this root include David as well as Solomon’s other name Jedidiah (Yĕdîdyâ) (2 Sam 12:25, “YHWH’s beloved one”). In the plural form, the term dodîm indicates “lust, sexual desire,” especially in the Song of Songs.

Other roots related to love are d-b-q (“to cling, to stick to,” cf. Deut 11:22; Prov 18:24) and ḥ-p-ṣ (cf. 1 Sam 18:22, “to take pleasure, to desire”).

The root ʾ-h-b is used mainly to describe the following relations:

a)the love between a man and a woman (e.g., 1 Sam 18:20, Michal’s love for David);
b)the love between two men (e.g., 1 Sam 1:26, David and Jonathan);
c) the love of a father for his son (e.g., Prov 13:24);
d)a slave’s love of his master (e.g., Exod 21:5–6);
e)the love of neighbors (Lev 19:18) and of foreigners (Lev 19:34);
f)the love of a vassal towards his suzerain (e.g., 1 Kgs 5:15);
g)Israel’s love towards YHWH (e.g., Deut 6:5);
h)YHWH’s love towards individuals (e.g., Cyrus Isa 48:14) or his people (e.g., Isa 43:4).

2. Love and Marriage

As is still the case today in some parts of the world, marriage is not directly related to the sentiment of love between a man and a woman. In the ANE, it was a social obligation, and it was inconceivable that young people would remain unmarried. Often marriages were arranged inside a tribe (see Gen 24, where Abraham charges his servant to seek a wife for his son), and the wife became part of her husband’s family. Marriages were related to economic interests, but above all, were intended to provide offspring for the husband’s line. A wife who was unable to bear children could easily be divorced. Therefore, Assyrian marriage contracts stipulate that a sterile wife can adopt the son of her female servant (this practice is presupposed in Gen 16). Depending upon his economic situation, a man could have several wives and/or concubines (as Jacob, David, or Solomon). Although marriage was primarily an arrangement between families, some married couples in the Bible are presented as loving each other (e.g., Isaac and Rebecca in Gen 26).

3. Homosexual Love?

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit sexual intercourse between two men, and Lev 20:13 even prescribes capital punishment for such a “transgression.” Generally, Lev 18 and 20 forbid incest and other sexual relations that cannot produce offspring. It seems that for the priestly authors of these passages sexuality is to be limited to procreation. The story of David’s rise to the throne contains, however, a secondary plot, which is centered on Jonathan’s love for the young David, and many scenes of their encounters are depicted in a very erotic way (Schroer/Staubli; Römer/Bonjour). It is quite possible that the author who narrated the story about David’s rise knew the description of the erotic relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which can be described as “heroic love” (Ackermann), and used some of these motifs to describe the relationship between David and Jonathan. Although David and Jonathan would not qualify as a “gay couple,” David characterizes Jonathan’s love for him after his death as greater to him than the love of women: “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26).

4. Dangerous Love

Some biblical narratives focus on the idea that falling in love can have dangerous or even deadly outcomes. The story of Gen 34 tells how Shechem fell in love with Jacob’s daughter Dinah after having had extramarital sex with her (34:2–3; it is disputed whether he did “rape” her, cf. Macchi). Shechem’s father then agrees to have the whole city that he rules circumcised so that his son can marry Jacob’s daughter. But before the men recover from their circumcision, they are killed by Simeon and Levi, who justify their act by claiming that Shechem treated their sister like a whore (34:26–31). Another episode of dangerous love is the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson fell in love with Delilah (Judg 16:4), but she betrayed him by appealing to his love for her in order to learn the secret of his strength. After he revealed to her that his strength is related to the length of his hair, she cuts it and sells him to the Philistines who capture and blind him (16:15–31). Both stories deal with “mixed marriages” which are presented as dangerous.

5. From Divine to Human Erotic Love

The Song of Songs (which was probably composed in the Hellenistic period; see Heinevetter) makes clear reference to sensuality and to a relationship of physical love. It does so already in the first few lines: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (Song 1:2). The text depicts two lovers who are trying to meet so that they might express their love despite several obstacles. This compilation of erotic poems describes all the different types of love, including its sexual dimension. The wish, “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!” (Song 2:6, and 8:3), evokes an iconographic scene that has often been reproduced in the ANE: a naked couple embracing each other before sexual intercourse. In contrast with many erotic poems, the Song of Songs describes not only the body and beauty of the woman, but also that of the man, and understands love and sexuality as a gift offered to humankind. The compilers of this text also understand love as giving sense to human life, which is limited by death: “Love is as strong as death” (8:6). The rhetoric of love and sexuality in this text is quite similar to ANE texts that describe the erotic love between a goddess and a god, especially between Ishtar and Tammuz, or Nabu (mentioned in Isa 46:1) and his consort Tashmetu. The dialogues between these two deities are very similar to the speeches of the young man and woman in the Song (for a translation see Foster: 944–48). They describe how Nabu and Tashmetu go to a bedroom, have sex there and then go out to a garden. Apparently, this reflects a ritual during which priests and priestesses brought statues of both deities to special places in order to represent their erotic encounter. Like in the Song of Songs (1:17), Thashmetu invites Nabu to meet her “under the shade of the cedar,” and Nabu compares Tashmetu, again with great similarity to the Song of Songs, with a gazelle of the plain or a delicious apple. And both deities desire their lover’s “fruit.” Apparently, the author of the Song of Songs knew and adapted poems about divine sexual love in order to apply them to a young unmarried couple, transferring the divine character of love to human love (Nissinen). It has sometimes been argued that women were the authors of this kind of love-poetry (Carr: 95–100), and the same may be the case for the Song of Songs.

6. YHWH’s Love for his “Wife” Israel

During the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, YHWH was worshipped in association with a goddess, either Asherah or the “Queen of Heaven” (cf. Jer 44). It is possible that during this period there were similar ideas about YHWH and the goddess as there were about Nabu and Tashmetu. When Asherah was eradicated from the official Judean cult (perhaps under Josiah, cf. 2 Kgs 23:6–7), YHWH’s wife was replaced by his people Israel. This is especially the case in prophetic books, particularly in Jer, Ezek, and Hos. According to Jer 2:2–3, Israel, YHWH’s fiancée, loved her husband and followed him in the wilderness, but as soon as she entered the land she became a harlot and followed other lovers (other gods, Jer 3:1–5). Similar pictures appear in Hos 2, where Israel, despite YHWH’s love, followed other lovers (2:15), and in Ezek 16:8–43, where YHWH’s love is again betrayed by his wife Israel. In order to punish her, YHWH announces that he will gather all her lovers so that they can collectively rape her (16:36–37). Contrary to the Song of Songs, this depiction of YHWH’s betrayed love and his punishment clearly reflects male fears and fantasies (see also Ezek 23, where YHWH is depicted as a polygamous husband of the two sisters Oholah [Samaria] and Oholibah [Jerusalem]).

7. Other Depictions of YHWH’s Love

Theologians often tend to emphasize the importance of YHWH’s love for the understanding of the theology of the HB/OT (Spieckermann). However, as shown above, the description of the relationship between YHWH and Israel in the husband-wife metaphor has a very patriarchal background and appears especially in prophetic oracles of judgment. Some texts, however, claim that YHWH will love Israel forever (Jer 31:3). Other descriptions of YHWH’s love for Israel compare it with the love of a father towards his son (Hos 11:1), or are used, in the book of Deuteronomy, in order to give a reason for his election of Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:8). YHWH’s love of individuals is directed to righteous people (Ps 146:8), but also to the Persian king Cyrus (Isa 48:14), whom he chooses to deliver his people from captivity.

8. Love and Loyalty

The exhortation of Deut 6:5 to love YHWH with all one’s heart, soul, and might reflects a political use of the term “love.” It is taken over from Assyrian vassal treaties (Moran), and especially Esarhaddon’s loyalty oaths from 672. He admonishes his vassals to love his son and successor Assurbanipal and to serve him alone in this treaty. In this context, the root ʾ-h-b comes close to the lexeme ḥesed, which is sometimes considered as an equivalent for “love” (Sakenfield), but which denotes more the idea of loyalty and faithfulness. Equally, the texts that deal with a servant’s love for his master, or a son’s love for his father, denote an attitude of respect and solidarity, rather than the idea of affection.


  • Ackermann, S., When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David (Gender, Theory and Religion; New York 2005).Google Scholar

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  • Heinevetter, H.-J., “Komm nun, mein Liebster, Dein Garten ruft Dich!”: Das Hohelied als programmatische Komposition (BBB 69; Frankfurt a. M. 1988).Google Scholar

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II Greco-Roman Antiquity

Herwig Görgemanns

The semantic field of “love” is in Greek (and Latin) represented by a number of terms with distinct meanings: ἔρως/amor (sexual attraction, also transferred to desires of all kinds); φιλία/amicitia (association and sympathy with a partner, mostly freely chosen, mutual understanding and support); the verbs ἀγαπᾶν and στέργειν (familiarity and closeness in everyday life, “to be happy or satisfied with,” φιλοστοργία often stands for the natural affection between parents and child); εὔνοια/benevolentia (good will, helpfulness).

On the other hand, Biblical Hebrew has a verb ʾāhab with many aspects and a theological dimension (God loving men, men loving God). The LXX generally translates it with ἀγαπᾶν (and the noun ἀγάπη, which is not attested in earlier sources). The choice of this translation is hard to explain from the original rather unemphatic meaning. It has been suggested that the reason was phonetic similarity. Ἀγάπη (and Latin caritas) became standard in theological contexts, and equivalents in modern languages took over its wide scope and metaphysical overtones. Ἔρως/amor is avoided, probably because of its sexual connotation.

In the conceptual field of “love,” Greek and Roman culture developed several distinct lines of thought.

1. Eros

Sexual activity as an important part of life has gods as its protectors, Aphrodite and Eros. The capricious arrow shots of Eros symbolize the irrationality of “falling in love.” Their irresistible power over humankind as well as gods is often pointed out in poetry. Even Zeus becomes a victim of sexual desire (Homer, Ilias 14). In Hesiod’s Theogony (120), Eros is one of the three primeval entities, presumably because the origin of the world is seen (with certain exceptions) as a series of sexual procreations. Greek mythology is full of love stories, happy and unhappy. Poetry, especially tragedy, presents vivid pictures of erotic passion. It can be seen as a kind of mental disease (μανία “madness”); the beginning of Euripides’ Hippolytos describes lovesick Phaedra in pathological detail. In cosmological theories of the Presocratics Eros appears as the power of physical attraction between the elements (Parmenides fr. 12,3 δαίμον, Empedocles fr. 17,7 φιλότης and fr. 22,5 Aphrodite). Hellenistic literature (new comedy and novel) develops a more optimistic picture of erotic love: a chaste and faithful love overcomes obstacles of all kinds and finds its consummation in a harmonious marriage. Philosophical psychology tried to find a place for sexual desire in the structure of the soul; the Stoics made sexual impulses one of the seven parts of the soul. There were numerous essays entitled On Love (Περὶ ἔρωτος). Many books by Peripatetics and Stoics are lost; the Epicurean position is found in Lucretius, De rerum natura 4. Notable extant treatises from imperial time: Plutarch, Amatorius; Maximus of Tyrus, Diatribes 18–19; Plotinus, Enn. 3.5. Marriage is a related subject (books Περὶ γάμου). Some philosophers took a skeptical view of it because it seemed incompatible with a philosophic life. A fervent diatribe against marriage is attributed to Theophrastus (Fr. 486 Fort.), but marriage is highly appreciated by Plutarch, Musonius Rufus, and the Stoic Hierocles.

2. Platonic Love

This is a complex of ideas which originated in the circle of Socrates and Plato. The starting point was the archaic custom of “boy love” (παιδικὸς ἔρως). This institution came under criticism in the 5th century, while defenders stressed the educational and minimized the sexual aspect (see “Homosexuality”). Socrates’ famous discussions with adolescents had this background, and it became a subject of discussions among his disciples. Plato (in Symposion and Phaedrus) developed an elaborate explanation: fascination by sensual beauty, he claimed, could open the way to appreciation of spiritual beauty and in the last instance to a philosophical vision. These ideas became widely known and discussed, accepted, or rejected. The famous phrase in Aristotle’s theology that the “unmoved mover” sets things in motion “like a thing loved” (ὡς ἐρώμενον Metaph. 7, 1072b3) may be understood as an allusion to the Platonic concept of a transcendental beauty being loved. Plutarch in his Amatorius undertook to transfer this Platonic love into the context of marital love.

3. Philia (φιλία, “friendship”)

This is the most general word for friendly relations; it is a key word in social life; persons may be classed as φίλος or ἐχθρός, friend or foe. The divine protector of friendship is Ζεὺς φίλος. Aristotle gave a penetrating analysis of the concept in his three ethical treatises (Eth. nic. 8–9, Eth. eud. 7, Mag. mor. 2.11–17). For him, φιλία is essential for human life and happiness and at the basis of all social coherence. The ideal friend is ἄλλος αὐτός, “another self” (Eth. nic. 10.4, 1166a32). A side issue is self-love (φιλία πρὸς ἑαυτόν, later termed φιλαυτία) which is often disapproved; Aristotle takes it as a legitimate counterpart of φιλία.

The concept remains a subject of philosophical discussion and literature; most notable is Cicero’s Laelius De amicitia. In epistolography we find a type of letter (φιλικὸς τύπος) which serves to cultivate friendly relations between persons widely separated (Ps.-Demetrius, De forma epistolary 1.1–9).

There are two lines of thought extending φιλία to humankind in general. One is the “oikeiosis” theory which is part of Stoic ethics. Humans at the beginning of their lives become conscious of and “attached” to their selves, i.e., to their organs and faculties, and start to take care of themselves. “Attachment to oneself” (οἰκείωσις πρὸς ἑαυτόν) is the key phrase. (The point is that these first impulses are not directed towards “pleasure,” ἡδονή, as the Epicureans claim.) This “attachment” is later extended to other beings seen as “belonging” to the self, first their own offspring, then other persons in widening circles, and finally to all humankind. Structure and origin of this theory are much debated; perhaps it was stimulated by Aristotle’s reflection on self love.

A related development is the rise of the concept of φιλανθρωπία (“love of humankind, Menschenliebe”), beginning in the 4th century BC. It implies good will and helpfulness towards all human beings, especially strangers. It is often used in praising politicians and rulers who take care of the interests of human beings. The idea of general human solidarity is present in the plots of many Hellenistic comedies; “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto” (Terence, Heautontimorumenos 77, translated from Menander). With religious overtones: “Deus est mortali iuvare mortalem,” “It is a god [i.e., a manifestation of god] for a mortal to help a mortal,” (Pliny the Elder, Nat. 2.18). Philosophical ethics, however, did not adopt the term φιλανθρωπία. Only a few authors, such as Plutarch and Emperor Julian, had a personal preference for it. In the case of Julian, it seems to serve as a contrast to Christian charity.

4. Religious Aspects

Greek gods can make selected humans their friends (θεοφιλής, “beloved by a god”). In archaic time, this applies to kings, priests, and especially poets. In a singular case (Homer, Odyssey 8.330) Athena says that she loves Odysseus for his cleverness, apparently because this is her own province. (In later discussions, similarity is often mentioned as a basis of φιλία.) Philosophers, however, tend to make divine love dependent on the ἀρετή of a human. But it is very questionable if there can be mutual φιλία between humans and god, because there is no equality between the partners. “It would be preposterous if somebody would say that he loves (φιλεῖ) Zeus” (Aristotle, Mag. mor. 1208b31).

A god’s love for humankind in general is, however, possible. This begins with a dramatic effect in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (11, cf. 28): Prometheus is punished “in order to learn to give up his human-loving ways” (φιλανθρώπου δὲ παύεσθαι τρόπου). For a non-human, this love is a kind of treason. In other cases a god can be praised as φιλάνθρωπος without reserve, especially Asclepius. Philosophers who develop the idea of divine providence can speak of φιλανθρωπία of the gods in general and human confidence in their care (e.g., Plutarch, Suav. viv. ch. 22).


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III New Testament

Peter Rodgers

Several Greek words are translated by “love” in English versions of the NT. Each contributes to the richness of this cardinal Christian virtue. Φιλέω and its cognates often carry the connotation of friendship. Most important is ἀγάπη.

Although love is a key idea throughout the NT writings, it is especially prominent in the writings attributed to Paul, Peter, and John. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Cor 13 emphasizes the selfless character of ἀγάπη, which “does not insist on its own way.” The heart of Paul’s gospel is found in Rom 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This gracious act of love is, for Paul, both source and motive for Christian love: “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:15). According to Rom 5:5, “God’s love” (ή ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ) has been “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). The genitive here is probably both subjective (God’s love for human beings) and objective (love for God; Wright: 517). Both senses are otherwise found in the Pauline writings (Rom 5:8; 8:28).

Ephesians merits special attention. Ephesians 5:2 commands: “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” The love of Christ, “the great love with which he loved us” (2:4), has a practical outworking: readers should bear “with one another in love” (4:2) and speak “the truth in love” (4:15). The same correlation between Christ’s love and human love appears in 5:25: husbands are to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

In First Peter, the noun ἀγάπη occurs twice (4:8; 5:14), the verb ἀγαπάω four times (1:8, 22; 2:17; 3:10). 1:22 (“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart”; cf. John 15:12) emphasizes the group rather than the individual (Elliott: 386–87), and the love of which it speaks is to be constant and enduring (“deeply,” ἐĸτενῶς). Such love “covers a multitude of sins” (4:8) and is expressed with affectionate greeting (5:14). In 2 Pet 1:7, as elsewhere in the NT, love (ἀγάπη) is the pinnacle of virtues.

Love is likewise central to the Johanine writings. Jesus’ command to the disciples that they “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) is grounded in the love of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Jesus’ prayer to the Father is that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them” (17:25). This is a love that the Father had for the Son “before the foundation of the world” (17:24). In John 15, “Jesus loves just as the Father loves (v. 9) and he commands his disciples to love one another just as he has loved them (v. 12)” (Whitacre: 378). The disciples are to abide in that love (15:10). John seems to use the words ἀγαπάω and φιλέω interchangeably in 21:15–19, and this is probably “a rhetorical alteration designed to avoid undue repetition” (Louw/Nida: 294). It is probable that “synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry created almost a predisposition for employing interchangeable synonyms” (Brown: 499).

Love is also a keynote of 1 John. In 4:16 the author asserts that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” In 3:1 he marvels: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” In 3:11, the command in the Gospel of John to “love one another” (15:12) is reiterated. In 4:19, the author asserts that “we love because he [God] first loved us.”

In the synoptic tradition, love for God and love for neighbor are fundamental to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). When brought together these two principle demands are perhaps designed to recall the two halves of the Decalogue and so to sum up the Mosaic law in its entirety (Allison: 152–68). Jesus expands the understanding of the neighbor to include outsiders, as shown in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). He even enlarges the scope of love to include one’s enemies (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28, 32–36). Such love entails a commitment to peacemaking and conflict resolution. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) depicts the costly, unexpected, undeserved love of the Father, thus exposing the deepest meaning of the cross found anywhere in the NT (Bailey).

Hebrews 12:6 quotes Proverbs 3:12: “for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” The words are intended to encourage readers to endure trials by interpreting them in terms of divine discipline and love. Revelation 3:19, which belongs to a rebuke of the church of Laodicea, is more harsh: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent!”


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  • Stauffer, E./G. Quell, “ἀγαπάω ĸτλ.,” TDNT 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1964) 21–55.Google Scholar

  • Whitacre, R. A., John (Downers Grove, Ill. 1999).Google Scholar

  • Wright, N. T., “The Letter to the Romans,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (ed. L. E. Keck; Nashville, Tenn. 2002) 395–770.Google Scholar

IV Judaism

A Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism

Lori Baron

Second Temple Jewish literature draws upon the HB/OT commands to love God (Deut 6:5) and neighbor (Lev 19:18). The expression “those who love God” (οἱ ἀγαπῶντες τὸν θεὸν) functions as shorthand for those whom the author deems faithful to God’s covenant. Jewish authors commonly divided the commandments into two groups (1) commandments governing the relationship between God and humans; and (2) commandments governing relationships between humans.

1. Apocrypha

An illustration of the typical link between love for God and faithfulness to the covenant is found in Tobit:

All the Israelites who are saved in those days and are truly mindful of God will be gathered together; they will go to Jerusalem and live in safety forever in the land of Abraham, and it will be given over to them. Those who sincerely love God (οἱ ἀγαπῶντες τὸν θεὸν ἐν ἀληθείᾳ) rejoice, but those who commit sin and injustice will vanish from all the earth. (Tob 14:7; see also Sir 1:10; 2:15, 16; Bel 1:38; 1 Macc 4:33)

2. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (OTP)

a. Love for God

Psalms of Solomon uses the expression “those who love God” to separate the faithful from the unfaithful; with the appearance of the Messiah, those who love God and keep God’s commandments will be vindicated and find relief from the suffering of the present age (Pss. Sol. 4:25, 28; 6:6; 10:3; 14:1; see also Jub. 20:7; 23:31).

b. Love for God and neighbor

This pairing is found in several OTP works; e.g., “Be humble in heart, hate bitter power, and, above all, love your neighbor as yourself, and love God from the soul and serve him” (Sib. Or. 8:480–482; see also T. Iss. 7:6; T. Zeb. 10:5; T. Ash. 5:4; T. Dan 5:3). On love for one’s neighbor or brother, see Jub. 7:20; 20:2; 36:4, 8; 37:4.

c. God’s Love for Israel

Love for God is predicated upon God’s love for Israel: “And they all shall be called children of the living God, and every angel and every spirit shall know, yea, they shall know that these are My children, and that I am their Father in uprightness and righteousness, and that I love them.” (Jub. 1:25; see also 25:23; Pss. Sol. 18:3). These expressions hark back to Deuteronomy, where God’s love for Israel is the basis for Israel’s election (Deut 4:37; see also 5:10; 7:7–8; 10:15; 23:5).

3. Dead Sea Scrolls

a. Love for God

In Qumran literature, references to “those who love God” (ʾhby ʾdny) are closely bound to the Deuteronomic context of the Shemaʿ, which involves a pledge of loyalty to the God of Israel, e.g., “I love you (wʾhbk) lavishly, with (my) whole heart and with all (my) soul I have purified … [I have] imp[osed on myself not] to turn aside from all that you have commanded” (1QH 7:12–14; see also 8:21, 25; 1QHa 6:26; 4Q393 3:2; 4Q525 frg. 5:13; 11Q11 6:12; 11Q19 54:12–13; 11Q22).

b. Love for Neighbor

Love for one’s neighbor is limited to other members of the sect. Initiates are to seek God with all their heart and soul “in order to love all the sons of light, each one according to his lot in God’s plan, and to detest all the sons of darkness, each one in accordance with his guilt in God’s vindication” (1QS 1:9–11; see also CD-A 6:20–21). The covenant bond thus excludes those Israelites who are not members of the Qumran community.

4. Philo

Like other Jewish authors of this period, Philo divides the Mosaic commandments into two groups: those focused upon piety (love for God) and those focused on ethics or duties toward one’s fellow humans (see esp. Decal. 1:106–110).

a. Love for God

Philo’s use of love for God (ἀγαπᾶν τὸν θεὸν) often retains its HB/OT covenantal context (e.g., Post. 1.12, 69; Fug. 1.58; Spec. 1.300).

b. Love between God and humans

φιλόθεος and θεοφιλής frequently appear together to express mutual love between God and humans (e.g., Abr. 1.50; Mos. 2.67; Virt. 1.184).

c. Love for God and Love of Self

In discussions of ethics and justice, love for God (φιλόθεος) is contrasted with love of self (φίλαυτος; e.g., Fug. 1.81; Sacr. 1.3; QG 1.60).

d. Love for the Stranger

On loving the stranger as oneself, see Virt. 1.103–104.


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B Rabbinic Judaism

Alan J. Avery-Peck

The concept of love in Rabbinic Judaism encompasses three main areas: a) the love required of individuals towards other human beings; b) the love that exists between man and wife; and c) the love that God has for the people of Israel and that Israel concomitantly must show to God. In each of these areas, the rabbis focus on the feelings of empathy, generosity, selflessness, and understanding that love entails. Most importantly, these traits are attributed to God in his relationship to the people of Israel and are the model for what the people are expected to experience through their observance of God’s commandments.

1. Love of Other Human Beings

While the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is biblical (Lev 19:18), the rabbis attribute to it a meaning and centrality missing in its biblical expression. In Scripture, the term commonly translated “your neighbor” (reʿakha) probably encompassed only fellow Jews. The presence of a separate verse (Lev 19:33–34) enjoining love of the resident stranger (ger) suggests that “neighbor” in v. 18 did not intend to include all people, but commanded only that one “love” fellow members of the Israelite people. By contrast, both Hillel and Meir (mAv 1:12; 6:1) are explicit that the commandment in fact is to love all of humankind (beriʾot). Aqiva (Sifra, Qedoshim 4) goes further, asserting that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is the single, encompassing principle of the Torah. While Ben Azzai disagrees, selecting instead Gen 5:1, “This is the book of the generations of Adam,” this is a distinction lacking a real difference. Ben Azzai’s point is that all humanity is the creation of God, in the image of God, with a single father. Therefore, all people, Jew and Gentile, are subject to neighborly love. This is because all people in fact are alike. Indeed, Aqiva himself makes a similar point (mAv 3:14), noting that, as an act of love, God informed all people that they are created in the divine image.

In the context of the obligation to love one’s neighbor, the emotion of love reflects one’s empathy for and understanding of the other. Hillel’s focus on this commandment thus parallels his phrasing of the Golden Rule. If one empathizes with and feels a sense of mutuality towards one’s neighbor, then one will not do to him what is despicable to oneself. This is the principle that Hillel deemed the entirety of the Torah (bShab 31a). This same idea is reflected in his statement (mAv 2:6) upon seeing a skull floating on the water: “Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.” Human goodness, in this perspective, comes down ultimately to the feeling of love that we must have for each other.

Notably, in early Judaism, the rabbis were not alone in setting out love as defining appropriate relationships among the people of Israel and between the people and others outside of the Israelite community. This idea appears as well in the DSS, the product of a community that evaluated its relationship to the rest of the world through the emotions of love vs. hate. Entrance into the Dead Sea community was understood to be a consequence of God’s love in choosing the individual inductee. The initiate correspondingly was bound to love all whom God loves – that is, members of the group – and to hate those whom God hates, meaning, all outsiders. In this way, and especially through an open and unselfish sharing of knowledge and reproof only with those similarly loved by God, the individual affirmed his place in the community, and the community as a whole demarcated its boundaries.

2. Love Between Man and Woman

While the rabbis spend a great deal of time articulating rules for family life, marriage, sexual relations, and divorce, little attention is dedicated to the intricacies of romantic love. Still, the rabbis make explicit the central importance in marriage of mutuality and respect, the emotions that are primary to love. The rabbis thus rule (bQid 41a) that a man should not betroth a woman he has not personally met, lest he turn out to despise her and thereby violate Lev 19:18’s commandment to love one’s neighbor. A woman, similarly, should not accept betrothal through an agent, although, in this case, the rabbis institute no firm prohibition, holding that “It is better to dwell with a load of grief than to dwell (alone) in widowhood” (bYeb 118b). Finally, in recognition of the importance of the rapport between husband and wife, the rabbis restrict a man from giving away in marriage a daughter who is too young to accede to the union; she must, rather, be able to say unambiguously, “I want so-and-so” (bQid 41a). At the same time, the rabbinic ideal that one must at all costs find a husband for one’s daughter (WayR 21:8) suggests the centrality for the rabbis of the relationship between husband and wife that marriage made possible.

The rabbinic belief in the consequential power of love is perhaps best illustrated by the story of Aqiva (bKet 62b; bNed 50a). Aqiva began as a poor uneducated shepherd working for Kalba Savuʿa, whose daughter, Rachel, fell in love with him and secretly agreed to wed him on the condition that Aqiva study and become a sage. Their love and subsequent marriage persisted despite Rachel’s father’s rejection of her for having married Aqiva, despite their great poverty, and despite years of separation while Aqiva engaged in Torah study. The point of this story is that love is about more than simply a husband and wife’s living side-by-side. Love, rather, is the driving force behind the personal growth that turns Aqiva into the greatest rabbi of his age. It is the foundation of Aqiva’s self-actualization and recognition of the true purpose of his life. Looked at in this perspective, we can better understand why Aqiva proclaimed the absolute centrality in Scripture of the Song of Songs (AgShir 5, ll. 22–23), read as a book about the beauty and value of the love between God and Israel, even as others questioned whether it belonged in the canon at all. Aqiva’s valorizing of this love poem rejected both puritanism, which attempted to keep the Song of Songs out of Scripture, and licentiousness, which read it simply as a story of sexual escapades. Aqiva saw in it, rather, an expression of the true power and beauty of love.

3. The Love Between God and the People of Israel

The rabbinic reading of the biblical Song of Songs as an allegory of the love between God and the people of Israel is key to understanding the rabbis’ depiction of the covenantal relationship. On the one hand, the rabbis work from biblical foundations in portraying God in human terms and imputing to God the human emotion of love. At the same time, the rabbis move beyond Scripture’s perspective that balances the assertion that Israel is to serve God out of love with an equally weighted idea that they must serve God out of fear of punishment and retribution. For the rabbis, by contrast, love alone should be the primary motive for service of God, and this means that Deut 6:5, the commandment to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” is central in rabbinic thinking (and, thus, in the liturgy the rabbis developed as well). Interpreting this verse, the rabbis explain that acting towards God out of love brings double the reward of serving out of fear. This is because fear, unlike love, is not internal to the individual. It is fleeting and, as soon as it is gone, correct behavior cannot be guaranteed (SifDev 32).

In focusing on the obligation to observe the terms of the covenant as a manifestation of one’s love for God, the rabbis seem conscious that, as a selfless emotion, love endures through suffering and might even find its ultimate expression in martyrdom. In thinking of the relationship between God and the people of Israel as one of mutual love, the rabbis thus asserted that even horrifying experiences – whether national catastrophes or personal suffering – that appear to be the result of divine punishment or even abandonment in fact reflect God’s love for and commitment to the Jewish people. While the rabbis maintained the biblical perspective that God, as a matter of justice, appropriately metes out punishment for sin, they are also explicit that suffering is not always a punishment. Suffering, rather, might be the result of divine correction or chastisement, which God brings only upon those he loves the most (bBer 5a). The challenge of suffering, imposed upon people God knows can withstand it, improves the individual’s character (BerR 55:2) and thus is a true sign of God’s love and care. In the first centuries CE, this perspective defended the continued validity of the original covenant and proved that the beleaguered people of Israel – and not those who persecuted them – in fact were the ones most loved by God. Even as this ideology proved God’s continuing love for the people of Israel, it also explained why one must love God in times of adversity (thus, “with all your soul,” even to the point of martyrdom) as well as in times of prosperity (“with all your might”; see mBer 9:5; bBer 61b). This love, for the rabbis, was the essence of the people of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God.


  • Levenson, J. D., The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton, N.J. 2016).Google Scholar

  • Mermelstein, A., “Love and Hate at Qumran: The Social Construction of Sectarian Emotion,” Dead Sea Discoveries 20.2 (2013) 237–63.Google Scholar

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  • Rothenberg, N., Wisdom of Love: Man, Woman and God in Jewish Canonical Literature (trans. S. Sermoneta-Gertel; Boston, Mass. 2009).Google Scholar

  • Schechter, S. (ed.), Agadath Shir HaShirim, Edited from a Parma Manuscript (Cambridge 1896).Google Scholar

C Medieval Judaism

Gerold Necker; Barry Dov Walfish

The medieval concepts of love are rooted in rabbinic literature, which set the direction for the halakhic development. In addition, both philosophical and mystical trends affected the approach of how to love God, the understanding of divine love, and the love between human beings. A new dimension for the expression of love was offered by medieval poetry. Thus, the biblical terms for love are emphasized in different medieval genres, indicating also their particular context in the HB/OT.

1. Love of God

a. Love as Apprehension and Practice (Maimonides)

Maimonides (1138–1204) begins the second book of Mishneh Torah (MishT), called Sefer Ahavah (The Book of Love), with laws about the recitation of the Shemaʿ prayer. The first section (Deut 6:4–9) refers to the love of God, which Maimonides defines, together with God’s unity and Torah study, as “the great principle upon which everything depends” (MishT, Hilkhot qeriʾat shemaʿ [Laws of reading the Shemaʿ] 1:2). Continual practice and commemoration – prayer and reciting blessings, donning phylacteries and tsitsit (ritual fringes), mounting mezuzot (doorpost amulets), writing a Torah scroll, circumcision – instill the love and fear of God, concomitant with the knowledge of God (based on science and philosophy), which is stimulated by the study of Torah; apparently that’s why Ps 119:97 (“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day”) serves as the motto for the Book of Love (Kellner: 15). The highest degree of loving God, i.e., the constant awareness of God’s presence, surpasses all sensual affection (see Lasker; cf. MishT, Hilkhot teshuvah [Laws of repentance] 10:3–6, and Guide 1.39; 3.35; 3.44).

b. Love as Joy and Sacrifice (Medieval Ashkenaz)

Love is the main principle and starting point of Sefer ha-Roqeaḥ, a halakhic compendium by Eleazar of Worms (ca. 1160–1230). The first order (Hilkhot ḥasidut [Rules of piety]) begins with the two paragraphs on love, Shoresh ahavat ha-shem and Shoresh ha-ahavah (“The Root of the Love of of God [lit. ‘the Name’]” and “The Root of Love”). The first one includes classic rabbinic statements on selfless love or love for God’s sake, culminating in the maxim “whatever you do, do out of love” (Eleazar b. Judah: 5; quoted from SifDeut 41; cf. Rashi on Deut 11:13). The second one stresses that the soul is in a state of great joy when filled with the love of God, and eager to do his will (Eleazar b. Judah: 6; re Ps 100:2), up to martyrdom (ibid.: 6; cf. Rashi on Deut 6:5). The motif of joy and complete happiness is taken up in Sefer Ḥasidim: “Even a young man, who has not gone to his wife for many days, and his sexual desire (taʾavah) is great, the pleasure he enjoys at the moment his semen shoots like an arrow is nothing compared to the increasing strength of the joy of the love of God” (Parma ed. §815).

Ashkenazic piyyutim (liturgical poetry) glorify the love of God, too, and compare martyrdom on the one hand to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (see “Aqedah”), and on the other hand, to the wedding ceremony under the bridal canopy, while those, who are murdered, recite the Shemaʿ. Another spiritualization of bridal love appears in illuminated manuscripts of Ashkenazic maḥzorim. At the beginning of Benjamin ben Zeraḥ’s (11th cent.) piyyut “Come with me from Lebanon, my bride” (Song 4:8; recited on Shabbat ha-gadol, the Sabbath before Passover) a loving couple is shown which sometimes inverts the iconography of the Christian allegory on the Song of Songs, namely the couple Jesus and Mary (as mater ecclesiae): in front of a Jewish bridegroom the personified Synagogue takes the place of the honored heavenly bride and queen (Shalev-Eyni).

In early medieval times Simon ben Isaac of Mainz (ca. 950–1015) elaborated the traditional connection of the Song of Songs to the Exodus and the future redemption in his composition Ahuvekha ahevukha (Your beloveds love you; included in the prayer book as yotser for the Sabbath of the intermediary days of Passover, when Song of Songs is read in the Synagogue), presenting God as spouse, who responds to the love of his chosen people: “I brought you near to me with love (be-ʾahav; cf. Prov 5:19)” (Habermann).

2. God’s Love

a. Love as Divine Quality (Kabbalah)

The divine power of love as opposed to judgment or fear is characterized in kabbalistic literature by the fourth sefirah Ḥesed (kindness; see “Ḥesed”), and symbolized by the patriarch Abraham. The difference between the fourth divine quality (sefirah) and the sixth, Tifʾeret, which is also called Raḥamim (mercy), was developed in the 13th century, for in Sefer ha-Bahir (The Book of Brilliance; ca. 1180) love (ḥesed) and mercy (raḥamim) were still used synonymously, the latter being associated with God’s thirteen attributes of mercy (Exod 34:6–7). This development is reflected in Isaac of Acre’s (fl. end of 13th cent.) interpretation of the kabbalistic parable (Bahir §52) on the talmudic understanding of Gen 24:1 (“And the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything [ba-kol]”) that Abraham was blessed with a “daughter” (see bBB 16b). According to the parable, a king rewarded his trustworthy servant by recommending him to the king’s “great brother,” who loved him and called him “Abraham, my beloved” (Isa 41:8). The servant, in turn, “learned his qualities,” and received a beautiful vessel from the king’s brother, filled with pearls, signifying “with everthing” (i.e., the tenth sefirah Malkhut or Shekhinah, the reservoir of the divine qualities). Isaac of Acre (Meʾirat ʿenayyim [Enlightening the Eyes; see Ps 19:8; MT 19:9] 53; based on Naḥmanides’ [1194–1270] comm. on Gen 24:1) explains that the “king” refers to Tifʾeret (the “great mercy,” re Isa 54:7; cf. Isaac b. Samuel: 10), but the “brother” points to Ḥesed, and the “servant” to “Abraham below,” meaning the patriarch. In any case, “love (ahavah) always refers to [the sefirah] Ḥesed,” which belongs to Abraham (re Mic 7:20), who was a “perfect Ḥasid,” because of his deeds of loving kindness and mercy (re Gen 21:33, following MidTeh 37).

The classical kabbalistic concept of love applies an inner dynamic to the world of divine emanations (sefirot), which culminates in the sexual union of their male and female aspects. In so doing blessing is directed to the world below, but at the same time the deeds and prayers of Israel have an effect on the sefirot. This reciprocal relation is illustrated in the Zohar (2:152b, 176a, 277b) by referring to the talmudic tradition of the cherubim on the holy ark (Exod 25:18–21; 1 Kgs 6:23–28), which are said to face and embrace each other showing thereby the intimacy of the mutual love between God and Israel, but turning away from each other, when Israel does not fulfill God’s will (cf. bYom 54a; bBB 99a; see “Cherubim”). However, the love of the cherubim not only refers to the mystery of the divine couple (Tifʾeret and Shekhinah), but also to the “dwelling of brothers in unity” (Ps 133:1), that is, the love of the companions of the mystical circle mirrors the divine love (Zohar 3:59b). The special relationship between the mystic and the Torah is demonstrated in the famous parable of the beautiful maiden (i.e., the Shekhinah), who is hidden in her chamber within the palace, which her lover encircles ardently. She reveals herself entirely to her lover, who is called a “complete man” (cf. TO Gen 25:27) and “husband of the Torah” (Zohar 2:99a–b; Matt: 35).

b. Love as Cosmic Principle (Philosophy)

The aim of the whole creation, the Torah, and humankind, is love, according to Ḥasdai Crescas (1340–1410/11). To summarize his main ideas: God fills the universe “with nothing but the good and rules it with nothing but joy. It is through love that God gave the law to Israel, and it is through love, expressed as obedience to the law, that Israel can cleave to and conjoin with God” (Robinson: 405). God’s infinite love, absorbed in doing good, is the pleasure of his will. In contrast to Maimonides, who prefers the term ḥesed for God’s incorporeal love, Crescas finds exegetical proof for the passionate character of God as the ultimate lover: “When the Torah mentions the love of the patriarchs (ahavat ha-avot) for God, it does so by using the term ahavah, but when it mentions God’s love (ahavat ha-shem) for the patriarchs, it reads ḥesheq (desire), thus showing the passion of love (ḥesheq ha-ahavah): ‘Only the Lord desired your fathers’ (Deut 10:15) … for the greater the goodness, the greater the love” (Or Adonai 54b [2:6:1]). Pleasure and joy increase while drawing near to perfection, which is not achieved through the intellect, but by way of imitating God’s joyful will. The cosmic principle of God’s perfect love is the origin as well as the goal of love.

Crescas’ concept of divine love was popularized and developed by his disciple Joseph Albo (ca. 1380–1444; see Weiss); there might also be a link to Judah Abarbanel (ca. 1460–after 1523), whose celebrated Dialogues of Love present the theme of cosmic love in a universal way, complementing quotations from the HB with classical Greek sources (see “Abarbanel, Judah”).

3. Love between Human Beings

a. The Pain of Love (Poetry)

Secular and religious Hebrew poetry in medieval Spain shared the common topic of love. In different contexts the role of the female lover, often with allusions to the Song of Songs, could be taken on by a lovely girl or the (poet’s) soul or the people of Israel. Special cases are lyrics of love and yearning for Zion (see “Judah ha-Levi”), or homoerotic love poems, which are also enriched by biblical phrases (see Lowin: 51–64). All three types of longing lovers (secular/individual, neo-platonic/spiritual, biblical/religious) are unified by experiencing the unsatisfactory condition of an unrequited desire, referring either to the dismissive attitude of the beloved, or to the earthly imprisonment of the soul, or to the exile of the Jewish people.

A striking example of the amalgamation of secular and religious love is Judah ha-Levi’s poem “From time’s beginning you were love’s abode” (Scheindlin: 76–83), which is actually a translation of a secular Arab poem, and would fit well into the category of erotic poems of desire/delight (Arab. ʿishq, Heb. ḥesheq). The unhappy lover identifies in such a complete way with the beloved that he welcomes the punishment, his abasement, and reacts ton hate with self-hatred: “I love my foes, for they learned wrath from You … The day You hated me I loathed myself / For I will honor none whom You disdain” (77). But Judah ha-Levi added a last line, which invokes the traditional hope for redemption with biblical key-words (Isa 26:20; Ps 111:9), recalling the Exodus (Deut 9:26): “Until Your anger pass, and You restore / This people whom You rescued once before.”

b. Love of One’s Neighbor (Exegesis)

The theoretical question, whether the definition of “your neighbor” in Lev 19:18 may include gentiles or not, was secondary for the medieval exegetes. While Rashi just followed Rabbi Aqiva’s statement (“this is a basic principle of the Torah,” Sifra, Qedoshim 4), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) focused on the plain sense (“for your neighbor” [le-reʿakha]), meaning to love what is good for one’s fellow man (la-ḥavero) as well as for oneself. Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; d. ca. 1158) reserves the love for those, who are good, and excludes wicked people (re Prov 8:13). Naḥmanides (1194–1270) viewed this command from a psychological perspective: the Torah speaks here in a hyperbolic way, for it is not characteristic of human nature to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Therefore, the commandment means not a person, but everything concerning others should be loved in the same way as if it would pertain to oneself. No-one should begrudge a beloved friend the attainment of an equal level in property, honor, or knowledge. Hence, no limit should be placed on love. Such was the love of Jonathan for David, “for he loved him as he loved himself” (1 Sam 20:17), that is, his love was complete, without jealousy – though Jonathan was heir to the throne, he said to David (1 Sam 23:17): “You shall be king over Israel” (comm. on Lev 19:17). (GN)

4. Love in the Song of Songs

There is an ancient tradition, elaborated in rabbinic sources (Mishnah, Talmud, Targum, Midrash), that the Song of Songs describes the love between the Jewish people and God. This tradition is best expressed in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim and Targum Song of Songs. Rabbi Aqiva stated that “no day was as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to the Jewish people, for all the Writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies” (mYad 3:5). This and other statements encouraged the tendency to allegorize the book and stress that it was not merely dealing with love between two human beings but with loftier matters, on a higher plane.

In the commentary tradition of the Middle Ages, this trend continued. Even in Spain and in the Northern French peshat school, where attention was paid to the literal, plain, or contextual meaning of the text, almost always the allegory was given pride of place. One prominent exception was an anonymous Northern French commentary, written in the late 12th century, which treats the book as a series of vignettes describing the love between two young lovers, King Solomon and a beautiful maiden. This unusual commentary has not the slightest hint of allegory in it (see Japhet/Walfish). There are only a few others like it (see e.g., Japhet).

In addition to medieval commentaries that followed the midrashic tradition, there also developed two new trends, one philosophical, the other kabbalistic, that interpreted the Song in these traditions. Philosophical commentaries treated the Song as “a spiritual dialogue between the rational human soul (the maiden) and the Divine Intellect (the male)” (Fishbane: 276). Mystical commentaries stressed the esoteric nature of the Song, which can lead the mystical adept to facilitate the union between the elements of the divine, symbolized by the sefirot and thus create harmony in the supernal realm. For example, according to Ezra b. Solomon of Gerona (d. ca. 1235), “the Song formulates the desire of the feminine Glory (Shekhinah) to conjoin with her masculine partner (Tifʾeret) through ‘kisses’ symbolizing the interfusion of all beings” (ibid.: 295).

The 13th-century Zohar portrays the Song as a “supernal wedding song for the sake of all existence” establishing divine harmony in all spheres of being, above and below (ibid.: 300). The Song begins with a call by the bride (Shekhinah = Malkhut, the divine counterpart of the Assembly of Israel, Keneset Yiśraʾel) that the most hidden and unknown divine dimension, kiss her with the kisses of his mouth: she does not address her lover directly, as the second half of Song 1:2 implies (“your mouth”), but uses the third person “He” (grammatically called nistar, “hidden”), referring to the highest sefirah (Keter), and “He” reveals himself by way of the sefirah Ḥokhmah (wisdom). Here the arousal of kissing begins, stimulating the kisses between bride and groom (symbolized by Jacob kissing Rachel, Gen 29:11). Love joins the lower to the upper world, and the divine kiss, desired by the Assembly of Israel, was given to every single Israelite after accepting the commandments at Mount Sinai, because there is no true cleaving of spirit to spirit except through a kiss, especially on the mouth. The mutual kissing reveals the secret of divine love: the breath (or spirit) issuing from the male to the female together with breath of the female to the male, form the four letters a-h-b-h (love, Heb. ahavah), which correspond to the four letters YHWH (the numerical value of the tetragrammaton [Y-H-W-H = 26] is twice that of “love” [a-h-b-h = 13]), i.e., the sefirah Tifʾeret, symbolized by Jacob (Zohar 2:146a–b; Matt: 331–35); thus, the ultimate goal is the “Kiss of His Mouth (i.e., that of the most Supernal Reality), which blesses these actions and makes the many One” (Fishbane: 301) (see “Kiss”). (BW)



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D Modern Judaism

Ariel Mayse

1. Hasidism

In the kabbalistic stream of early modern Jewish thought, the flow of divine energy into the world is described as an ever-flowing river of sacred vitality and beneficence. The Hasidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, often refer to the entire project of creation as an expression of God’s inestimable love. Recasting elements of Safed Kabbalah that had focused on the origins of evil, Hasidic sources claim that God lovingly contracted the infinite expanse of sacred light, in order to form a space in which to create the cosmos. Even the physical world is studded with fragments of the original divine light, sparks of divinity that must be uplifted and returned to their origin in God through humanity’s loving service. But the rather abstract theology of love found in Hasidic sources appears alongside concrete, personal descriptions of God’s intimacy with Israel. The divine love is expressed as that of a tender parent, as well as the fiery yearning of the beloved for the lover.

Hasidism as a whole may thus be accurately described as a renewal movement founded in devotional love. Tradition recalls Israel Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) as having taught that the religious life pivots on three loves, all of which are interrelated: love of God, love of Torah, and love of the Jewish people. The passionate quest for God, a burning and all-consuming love for the Divine, is a cornerstone of Hasidic piety. This longing for God, manifest in Hasidic prayer, is coupled with a loving commitment to encountering the Divine through the sacred text. The Hasidic masters understood Scripture to be nothing less than the ineffable Divine expressed through language. But in Hasidism, the love of God and the divine writ are inextricably intertwined with the ethical commitment to helping others. Such interpersonal encounters, founded in love, are another opportunity for witnessing the Divine.

Communion with the Divine, called devequt by the Hasidic masters, takes many forms of varying intensity. The highest degree of devequt is at times described as an overwhelming passion for the Divine that eradicates the very boundaries of the self. The Hasidic masters are well aware that such love for God can be dangerous, for the worshiper’s longing for mystical rapture can become an inescapable siren call that leads even unto death. Many Hasidic sources read the story of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 11 and 16) as a tale about the mortal hazards of spiritual enthusiasm:

How exalted, lofty and elevated was the death of these two sons of Aaron “as they drew near to Y-H-W-H” (Lev 16:1). They approached the sweet pleasantness of the highest delight. “And died” – they themselves sensed that their souls were connected to the highest pleasantness, and that this would bring about their death, yet nevertheless they did not hold themselves back from giving over their souls and spirits. They refused to disconnect themselves from the beloved intimacy and highest, sweetest affection. Understand this. (Abraham Joshua Heshil: 175)

The author of this source, Abraham Joshua Heshil of Opatów (d. 1825), describes the death of Nadab and Abihu as the inevitable consequence of their love and devotion to God. Drawn to the Divine, Nadab and Abihu enter the sanctum and encounter the sublime sweetness of God with no hesitation. This unmediated proximity, not sin, led to their end. Nadab and Abihu sensed that such attachment would cause them to expire, but it did not dissuade them in the least. Loving death amidst blissful ecstasy in God, for some Hasidic mystics, is worthy of the highest sacrifice.

Hasidic leaders such as Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (d. 1797) teach that all human experiences of love are rooted in God. Humankind’s innate capacity for love may be expressed in a variety of manifestations, from the entirely positive to the expressly forbidden, but all share a common origin in God’s love for humanity. Even “fallen” forms of affection must be traced back to their sacred origins. This process allows the worshiper to bring all parts of the self into the service of God.

2. Martin Buber, Zionism, and Abraham Isaac Kook

The 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) was drawn to the Hasidic emphasis on love in divine service. Buber was attracted to Hasidism’s holistic vision of love, its embrace of all love including bodily desire, and the Hasidic emphasis on loving presence in all of one’s deeds, ritual and especially interpersonal. In his later years Buber was particularly inspired by the Hasidic masters’ embrace of love for other human beings as a foundational religious precept. In a 1943 essay, Buber wrote:

You cannot really love God if you do not love men, and you cannot really love men if you do not love God … One shall, says Kierkegaard, have to do essentially only with God. One cannot, says Hasidism, have to do essentially with God if one does not have to do essentially with man … The uniqueness and irreplaceability of each human soul is a basic teaching of Hasidism. God intends in His creation an infinity of unique individuals, and within it he intends each single one without exception as having a quality, a special capacity, a value that no other possesses; each has in His eyes an importance peculiar to him in which none other can compete with him, and He is devoted to each with an especial love because of this precious value hidden in him. (Buber: 112, 125, 128)

As translated into Buber’s more universalistic vision, Hasidism looked beyond the false dichotomy of the love of God and the love of other human beings. The key to the life of the spirit is cultivating a posture of humility and open-heartedness, which enables the seeker or worshiper to lovingly embrace the immeasurable worth of every human being.

Buber was only one of many modern Zionists who rediscovered the erotic elements of Jewish theology, which had become anathema to many westernized 18th- and 19th-century Jewish thinkers. Zionist ideologues now applied this loving eros to the return to the land of Israel, to the embrace of the body and physicality, the reclamation of Hebrew poetry and literature, and the fervent energy of Zionist youth movements.

R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), a scholar of Jewish law as well as a mystic, philosopher, and poet, witnessed this cultural rebirth and was inspired by its vitality. Rather than fearfully demanding that religious communities retreat into traditional structures, R. Kook sought to answer the challenge of modernity with a robust call for creativity and renewal. He drew on the lively energy of Zionism, articulating a tolerant religious vision deeply rooted in the language, literature, and practices of the Jewish past, that could address the spiritual and national call of the hour. For R. Kook, all human flourishing and prosperity, in the arenas of religion, society, culture, and politics, is grounded in the cultivation of love. He writes:

The heart must be filled with love for all … The love of all creation comes first, then comes the love for all mankind, and then follows the love for the Jewish people, in which all other loves are included … All these loves are to be expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and to seek their advancement. But the highest of all loves is the love of God, which is love in its fullest maturing. This love is not intended for any derivative ends; when it fills the human heart, this itself spells man’s greatest happiness. (Kook: 135)

R. Kook’s approach has a universal element, which is counterbalanced, however, by an emphasis on the unique place and spiritual power of the Jewish people. Though he was shaken by the 1929 Arab riots, R. Kook still interpreted Lev 19:18 to command Jews to love their non-Jewish neighbors, as well as their fellow Jews, and that by a display of loving respect, dignity, and honor, they would cultivate a relationship with their Arab neighbors.

3. After the Holocaust

The fires of the Shoah and the Nazi death machine threatened, and for many, shattered the ancient understanding of God’s love for Israel. Some traditional religious thinkers maintain a belief that, although the Divine’s loving countenance was hidden during the trauma of the Holocaust, God’s faithful covenant, forged in love, was tested but unaltered. Other modern Jewish writers, such as Elie Wiesel (1928–2016), have argued that God’s silence and even powerlessness during the Shoah signaled a new theological paradigm in which humanity’s moral obligation to effect peace is amplified. Taking a more radical tack, a number of prominent post-Holocaust theologians have suggested that the biblical and medieval notions of God’s undying love for Israel must be fundamentally reconceived. And for many of these thinkers, such as Richard L. Rubenstein (1924–), Israel’s loving commitment to God’s covenant must be similarly rebuilt in the wake of the death camps.

Looking beyond the confines of the Jewish community, scholar and activist Irving (Yitz) Greenberg (1933–) has suggested that the Holocaust must lead to a fundamental reconstruction of Jewish-Christian relations, since the dogmas of Christianity, from deicide to supersessionism, had a role in setting the stage for the Holocaust. Greenberg argued that the terrible failure of the “Gospel of Love” theology, which did not save the Jews from the death camps, should bring about a profound shift in Christian attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism. And, in an age of renewed Jewish sovereignty, Greenberg warns that Jews must also become wary of the misuses of power, and must avoid delegitimizing the religious love that is expressed by other political groups and faith traditions (Greenberg 1974; id. 2006).

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) wrote extensively about God’s loving pathos for human suffering; this theme is a common refrain that cuts across Heschel’s entire corpus of writings. The divine love for humanity is manifest in our innate yearning for wonder and amazement at the world. But Heschel’s God is vulnerable, a longing lover in search of people who will respond to the divine call for justice and mercy. The prophet is one who experiences God’s suffering in the face of human iniquity, callousness, and cruelty, and therefore calls humankind to task and exhorts them to lovingly embrace those less fortunate or in need.

The prophets attacked what may be called the fallacy of isolation. Things and events, man and the world, cannot be treated apart from the will of God, but only as inseparable parts of an occasion in which the divine is at stake … We are taught to believe that where man loves man His name is sanctified; that in the harmony of husband and wife dwells the presence of God … Beyond all mystery is the mercy of God. It is a love, a mercy that transcends the world, its value and merit. To live by such a love, to reflect it, however numbly, is the test of religious existence. (Heschel: 95, 162)

Michael Wyschogrod (1928–2015), a Jewish theologian whose works were in dialogue with Christian thought, explored the election of Israel as founded in God’s love. He rejected as a caricature the fundamental distinction between eros and agape, claiming that biblical love includes both the passionate fire of lovers as well as the selfless and giving love of the parent. The everlasting covenant with Israel – for indeed Wyschogrod saw it as such – is the result of God having inexplicably fallen in love with Abraham. God’s love is neither idealized or abstract, but concrete and grounded in its true encounters with the complexities of human beings:

The love with which God has chosen to love man is a love understandable to man. It is therefore a love very much aware of human response. God has thereby made himself vulnerable: he asks for man’s response and is hurt when it is not forthcoming … In the Bible, it is not Abraham who moves toward God but God who turns to Abraham with an election that is not explained because it is an act of love that requires no explanation. If God continues to love the people Israel – and it is the faith of Israel that he does – it is because he sees the face of his beloved Abraham in each and every one of his children as a man sees the face of his beloved in the children of his union with his beloved. (Wyschogrod: 63–64)

The writings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), a scion of a dynasty of talmudists, offer a very different picture. Soloveitchik believed that God’s love for Israel is most profoundly expressed in his gift to them of the Torah, which invites the Jewish people to become participants and partners in the unfolding process of creativity. This covenantal relationship of scholarship and innovation extends across the generations. Soloveitchik’s theology should not be misconstrued as purely intellectual or cerebral, however, for he describes the person of faith as being totally overwhelmed by his love for God. Like Buber and Heschel, Soloveitchik underscores that this amorous passion for God must intensify one's service to the community and help to those in need.

In spite of this rich theological legacy, it is worth noting in conclusion that many, if not most, contemporary Jews are deeply uncomfortable with the language of love found in earlier Jewish sources. This unease is due in part to the dramatic rupture of the Holocaust, as well as an ongoing wish to distinguish Judaism from Christianity. But the tamping down of theological eros among Jews has its roots as well in the Jewish experience of modernity in Europe. Passionate love of God came to be associated with Kabbalah and Hasidism, which were entirely delegitimized for Western European Jews in their attempt to present a philosophically sophisticated image of Judaism. Instead of fiery passion, these modern thinkers – liberal and Orthodox – sought to broadcast bourgeois respectability by emphasizing loyal obedience to law rather than brooding, all-consuming love for the Divine. Rejecting such dispassionate religiosity as colorless and arid, Jewish revival attempts since the 1960s, including the Havurah movement, Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal, have sought to reinfuse contemporary Jewish life and theology with a devotional spirit inspired by that of the Baal Shem Tov.


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V Christianity

A Patristic and Early Christianity

Michael Cameron

1. Greek Patristic and Early Orthodox Christianity

Love was a many-splendored theme among writers of Christianity’s first millennium. They assiduously explored the multiple theological and pastoral dimensions of the Bible’s teaching on love for purposes ranging from ethics and apologetics to epistemology and mystical union.

The earliest post-apostolic writers, in line with the Jewish scriptures and the teaching of Jesus, focused on love’s importance for living the Christian life. The Didache, influenced by wisdom teaching on “the two ways,” saw love for God and neighbor (Matt 22:37–40; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18) as “the way of life” (Did. 2). Clement of Rome praised love’s power to overcome division; hoping to ward off schism among the Corinthian Christians, he appealed to 1 Pet 4:8 (“love covers a multitude of sins”), and to Paul’s hymn to the majesty of love in 1 Cor 13:4–7 (1 Clem. 49–50; cf. 2 Clem. 16.4). For the Epistle of Barnabas, “the way of light” consists in loving the Creator and – intensifying the command of Lev 19:18 – loving neighbors “more than [ὑπέρ] your life” (Barn. 19.5). In characteristically provocative language, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “My love (ἒρως) is crucified” (Ign. Rom. 2.7.2); some interpreters understand this as mortifying earthly desire (cf. Gal 5:24), though since the time of Origen (who quoted Ignatius’ this saying; Comm. Cant. Prologue; ACW 26:35), some have seen ἒρως as an Ignatian title for Christ (Ramelli: 614). Polycarp asserted that our hope of future resurrection like Christ’s depends on whether we “walk in his commandments and love the things he loved” (Pol. Phil. 2.2; cf. John 15:9–12). For the Letter to Diognetus, love and not mere knowledge leads to life, which is why Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (Diogn. 12:5; 1 Cor 8:1).

But love was destined for broader and deeper analysis as Christian thinkers came to dialogue with wider spiritual and intellectual trends. An admixture of biblical reflection and with ancient philosophical teaching characterized early Christian teaching on love. Plato had taught that love is a medium between the beautiful and the ugly, and between the heavenly and earthly (Symp. 201D–212A; Phaedr. 243E–257B; McGinn 1991: 26–29). Love, constituted by desire (ἒρως), longs for the perfection of beauty; beginning with one beautiful body it comes to love all bodies, then the beauty of souls, laws, institutions, and ultimately all knowledge. The lover, who strives to contemplate Beauty and the Good, brings forth virtue. Continuous moral effort leads to the gradual purification of love and knowledge, and prepares the soul for sudden glimpses of ultimate Reality, described variously as Beauty, the Good, and the One. The Enneads of Plotinus goes on to identify the One with Love (ἒρως), or self-Love, a super-intellect that does not have knowledge but is the knowing that it loves (Enneads 6.8.13).

Early Christian teachers, agreeing with the philosophers that love is a heavenly reality and a mystical force, made love a perennial subject of Christian exegesis and resource for theological speculation. Ancient biblical thought on the figure of Wisdom, nourished especially by the Hellenistic Jewish speculation that gave rise to the Johannine Logos (John 1:1, 14), was a flowing spring of spiritual teaching of love. That spring became a fountainhead for Christian wisdom in Origen of Alexandria, who elaborated the theme Christologically. For him the paradigm of contemplative love was the communion of the pre-incarnate soul of Christ joined to the Logos. The Christ-soul’s unbroken adherence to contemplation of God allowed him to take on a body as the medium for those returning to God through the magnetic power of contemplative love, for which he became “the model and teacher for all other souls” (McGinn 1991: 115). The Logos came to inhabit the words of scripture as a sort of extension of the Logos’ incarnation. Origen’s theology and mysticism was thus not free-form: he saw spiritual ascent as an ordered process guided by the medium of the written Word, and exegesis was key to the divine-human exchange of spiritual love.

Origen discerned a biblical frame for the three-fold pedagogy familiar to ancient philosophers in three HB/OT books ascribed to Solomon that mapped the soul’s spiritual ascent: the book of Proverbs provided beginners with moral instruction for virtue; the book of Ecclesiastes taught wayfarers natural science and learning; the Song of Songs was the spiritual person’s source for “epoptics,” the introspective discipline wherein the image of the Bride and Groom instills within the soul “the love of things divine and heavenly.” The Song “teaches us that communion with God must be attained by the paths of charity and love” (Comm. Cant. Prologue; ACW 26:41). Origen wrote, “The power of love is none other than that which leads the soul from earth to the lofty heights of heaven, and the highest beatitude can only be attained under the stimulus of love’s desire” (ibid.: ACW 26:23–24). Origen based the differences between heavenly and earthly love on two versions of humanity’s creation in Genesis: one pictures spiritual humanity created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26); the other sees, fleshly humanity is “formed from the slime of the earth” (Gen 2:7). Conceptually, this corresponded with Paul’s notion of the inner and outer person (2 Cor 4:16), i.e., spirit and flesh (ibid.: ACW 26:25). Origen’s theory of “the spiritual senses of the soul” discerned scriptural links between the realms in the use of homonyms, that is, identical terms describing different senses of the body that doubled as descriptions of movements of the soul. The fleshly-minded – those unable to move from bodily to spiritual understanding – should avoid altogether the danger of reading the Song of Songs (ibid.: ACW 26:22–23). But the soul that has been “moved by heavenly love and longing when, having clearly beheld the beauty and fairness of the Word of God, it falls deeply in love with his loveliness and receives … from the dart Himself a saving wound [Song 2:5], will be kindled with the blessed fire of his love” (ibid.: ACW 26:29–30). One who possesses this amor caelestis “finds in the Song the central message of the Bible” (McGinn 1991: 121).

For Origen, the Song’s image of “the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2) conveys the love of “the Spouse Himself, that is, the Word of God” (Comm. Cant. 1; ACW 26:61); that of “breasts better than wine” (Song 1:2 LXX) portrays the treasures of wisdom and knowledge within the bosom of Christ hidden in the law and the prophets (ibid.; ACW 26:64, 69); that of the “dart and wound of love” interrelates Isa 49:2 (“He set me as a chosen arrow”) and Song 2:5 LXX (“I am wounded with love”) to picture divine love so piercing that the soul “yearns and longs for Him by day and night, can speak of nought but Him, can think of nothing else, and is disposed to no desire nor longing nor yet hope, except for Him alone” (Comm. Cant. 3; ACW 26:198). Indeed, the erotic language of the Song affects the very conception of the divine. “Origen, adapting Platonic eros to his Christian faith, makes a daring breakthrough – God himself must be Eros if the eros implanted in us is what returns us to him” (McGinn 1991: 119). “I do not think,” wrote the Alexandrian, “one could be blamed if one called God Passionate Love (eros/amor), just as John calls him Charity (agape/caritas; 1 John 4:8)” (Comm. Cant. Prologue; ACW 26:35).

For Origen, love is effectively a component of spiritual knowledge; the soul knows by participating in its object, or “mingling” with it in love. But this Platonic idea too is christologized. For Origen, spiritual knowledge involves a personal relation to Jesus, of which Origen often speaks movingly (e.g., Hom. Isa. 5.2). Commenting on John 8:19, “If you knew me you would know my Father also,” Origen wrote that “knowing” results from the conjoining of spirits in love (cf. 1 Cor 6:15–17), as when Adam “knew” Eve (Gen 4:1) and thus portrayed the form of mystical knowledge (Comm. John 19.23). By “ordering all human affections according to the truth of the scriptures,” Origen is “the first to make the order of charity an important element in theological speculation” (McGinn 1991: 126).

Under Origen’s influence, Gregory of Nyssa thinks the soul’s passions do not impede the formation of virtue, as the Stoics had suggested. After all, God approved of the “desire” of Daniel (Dan 10:12), the “anger” of Phineas (Num 25:11), and the “fear” that leads to wisdom (Prov 9:10), suggesting that the passions can be “helpful in achieving virtue” (Anima Res.; PG 46:57A). Their enduring principle is a “yearning for the Good,” whose constant coefficient is “the disposition of love” (ἀγαπητιĸή διάθεσις; ibid.; PG 46:93C). The soul “clings to and mingles” with the Good, wrote Gregory, reporting the words of his sister and teacher, Macrina, “through the movement and activity of love, fashioning itself to that which is being grasped continually and discovered” (ibid.; PG 46:93C); that is why Paul wrote, “Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8) (ibid.; PG 46:96A; Wilken 1995: 151–52). Gregory can say that the Bride’s love-wound in Song 2:4 was inflicted by Christ’s fiery arrow of ἒρως, “for when ἀγάπη is aroused it is called ἒρως” (Hom. Song 13, commenting on Song 5:9 [Jaeger VI: 383, line 9]). The Pseudo-Dionysius later equated ἒρως with ἀγάπη by invoking the passionate love for wisdom (i.e., Christ) urged in Prov 4:6. He also recalled David’s description of Jonathan’s love as “wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Kgs 1:26 LXX = 2 Sam 1:26), which unexpectedly twice used a form of ἀγάπη rather than ἒρως. Quoting the logion of Ignatius, “My ἒρως has been crucified,” he mused that as a name for Christ, ἒρως might even be “more divine” (θειότερον) than ἀγάπη (De divinis nominibus 4.12; PG 3: 709B; Ramelli: 621). Maximus the Confessor echoed Origen, Gregory, and the Areopagite by speaking of spiritual persons who turn human desire into a “blessed passion of holy love (ἀγάπη) which binds the mind to spiritual realities and persuades it to prefer the immaterial to the material and intelligible and divine things to those of sense” (Capitum de Caritate Centuria 3.67; PG 90:1037B; Berthold: 70; Wilken 1995: 157). This recalls the love-infused, participatory knowledge described by Origen and Augustine. In the 10th century, Symeon the New Theologian is still ringing the changes on the theme of love as affective knowledge: “Love is the divine Spirit (1 John 4:13, 16) … Love is outside of all creatures, then again it is with all things (Wis 6:24); it is fire, it is dazzling light, it becomes a cloud of light (Matt 17:5), it completes itself as a sun (Wis 6:29). And so as a fire it warms my soul, and inflames my heart (Luke 24:32)” (Hymn 17, ll. 236, 323–39; Griggs: 100, 103).

2. Latin Patristic and Early Medieval Latin Christianity

In the Latin west, Tertullian made love a main plank of his apologetic campaign against Christianity’s detractors. For him love for God par excellence appeared in the martyrs; having overcome fear of suffering, they were perfected in the love that “casts out fear” (Fug. 9; 14; 1 John 4:18). Tertullian famously reported the pagan observation about the Christian community, “See how they love one another!” (Apol. 39; cf. John 15:12). He pointed skeptics to the Christian practice of loving one’s enemies (Matt 5:44) as an intensification of the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18) that displayed an ethical perfection unknown in the pagan world (Marc. 1.23). Against the claim that the law of Moses belonged only to Jews, Tertullian wrote that when God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:9), the entire law was given to humanity embryonically. Had they obeyed that command, Tertullian added, the couple would have preemptively fulfilled the double command to love God and neighbor. Like a womb, this “primordial law” of love gave birth to all the law’s commands (Adv. Jud. 2). Elsewhere Tertullian countered Marcion’s rejection of the OT by asserting that the double command to love God and neighbor (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18) anticipated the NT’s “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6); this suggested that divine grace rooted in love united the Testaments (Marc. 5.4). On the other hand, Tertullian condescendingly used the law of love to reproach women he thought too concerned with external appearances (Cult. fem. 2.2); primping made them accessories to men’s illicit desire, and therefore transgressors against the law of love for one’s (male) neighbor!

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage during the persecutions and schisms of the mid-3rd century, sought to actualize the church’s unity and purity through love. Despite the church’s many martyrs, idolatry and desertion had sullied the church’s purity, and internal strife had threatened its unity. Cyprian sought healing from schism from Scripture’s injunction to “bear with one another in love” (Unit. eccl. 8; Eph 4:2). Cyprian reminded them of Paul’s observation that even martyrdom gained nothing without love (ibid. 14; 1 Cor 13:3). Jesus’ double command of love for God and neighbor (Matt 22:37–40), wrote Cyprian, was a lesson in unity because it concentrated the entire law and prophets in two precepts (ibid. 15; cf. Dom. or. 28). Cyprian sought to preserve the community purity partly by way of rigorous discipline. He urged members to turn from “love for the world” (1 John 2:15), and not to be “lovers of mammon” (Matt 6:24), since evil’s deepest root lay in the love of money (1 Tim 6:9; Eleem. 10; Laps. 12). If young virgins were irked by his instructions to reject immodest dress, then they should consider this discipline a spiritual work of love (Hab. virg. 1; cf. Prov 3:11). Almsgiving most clearly expressed love of neighbor; for Cyprian, the earliest Christians displayed the model of true spiritual rebirth in love when, acting with one heart and one soul, they sold their goods and property to feed the poor (Eleem. 25; Acts 4:32).

Ambrose of Milan remains noted for his versions of “christologized platonic theoria” (McGinn 1991: 71), but also for his spiritualization of erotic love inspired by Origen’s reading of the Song of Songs. Threading imagery from the Song through many works, Ambrose practiced an “ecclesial mysticism” wherein the individual soul aspired to union with the Word though the church and sacraments (ibid.: 203). For Ambrose, as for Origen, the Song “expresses the inner meaning of all the books of the Bible” (ibid.: 209) by portraying “a complex game of love” (ibid.: 212) wherein the Word alternately woos and withdraws from the soul-lover, stirring spiritual passion and prompting moral effort that strives to delight in the total union of love (e.g., Exp. Ps. 118.6.18).

Ambrose’s protégé, Augustine of Hippo, also placing love at the center of his teaching, both creatively invents and eclectically “draws together and provides a structure for earlier tendencies” (Osborn 1992: 696). Though eschewing earlier tradition’s preoccupation with the eroticism of the Song of Songs, Augustine nevertheless goes beyond it in the scope and depth of his biblical exploration of love. Not a technical exegete like Origen or Jerome, Augustine was fermentive and fertile as an assiduous believing Bible student. On that basis he became perhaps the most profound expositor of the biblical theme of love in early Christianity.

Augustine’s predominant word for love was caritas, though he made no hard distinction from alternatives he used interchangeably, dilectio and amor (cf. Civ. 14.14; Cameron 2018). Love was the subject of some of Augustine’s best one-liners: “My love is my weight” (Conf. 13.9.10). “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new” (Conf. 10.27.38). “Two loves have created two cities” (Civ. 14.28). It grounded many important discussions across the range of Augustine’s thought, from theology proper (“You see the Trinity if you see love”; Trin. 8.8.12), to epistemology (“No one enters into truth except through love”; Faust. 32.18), and ethics (“Love and do as you please”: Tract. ep. Jo. 7.8). Love was a coinhering principle of both understanding and morals; as John Burnaby observed, for Augustine “perfect knowledge of what is good necessarily implies the love of it, else we would not be knowing it as good” (Burnaby: 48; emphasis in text). At one point Augustine turned a sentence of the Song of Songs, “Set charity in order within me” (Song 2:4 LXX), into a thumbnail sketch of Christian ethics: “It seems to me that a brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love’” (Civ. 15.22 [WSA 1.7.173]). (Augustine was perhaps influenced by Origen, who had seen in this verse degrees and kinds of love hierarchically arrayed; Comm. Cant. 3; ACW 26:187–95).

Along with Origen, Augustine interrelated Greco-Roman philosophical reflection with the biblical vision of divine and human love. In his earliest post-conversion period as a lay Catholic apologist (387–91), love was already central to his thinking, both philosophical and biblical-theological. He focused on the church’s thinking about love in the first book of The Catholic Way of Life and the Manichean Way of Life: because the happy life comes from a life of virtue, therefore “virtue is nothing but the highest love of God” (Mor. 1.15.25 [WSA 1.19.43]). From that standpoint, the four classic philosophical virtues are understood to derive from “a certain varied disposition of love itself” (ex ipsius amoris vario quodam affectu; ibid.; PL 32:1322). Augustine continued, “Temperance is love offering itself in its integrity to the beloved. Fortitude is love easily tolerating all things on account of the beloved. Justice is love serving the beloved alone and as a result ruling righteously. And prudence is love that wisely separates those things by which it is helped from those things by which it is impeded” (ibid.). But then he went on to use biblical teaching on love to show the unity of scripture by recourse to a battery of biblical texts (Mor. 1.8.13–13.23). Love for God with the whole heart and soul and mind (Deut 6:5) harmonized with both Christ’s teaching on love for God as the greatest commandment (Matt 22:37–40) and with Paul’s teaching on the love of God (i.e., for God) in Rom 5:5. For Augustine, only love unlocked the divine-human exchange portrayed in Matt 7:7: “Love asks; love seeks; love knocks; love reveals; love, finally, remains in what has been revealed” (Mor. 1.17.31; WSA 1.19.46).

Augustine’s biblical focus on love intensified in his first works as a bishop. On Christian Teaching (396) exploited love’s hermeneutical dimensions. A climactic statement of Book 1 fused 1 Tim 1:5 and Rom 13:8, portraying the love of God and neighbor as “the fulfilment and end (plenitudo et finis) of the law and of all the divine scriptures” (Doctr. chr. 1.35.39; BA 11.2.126). Augustine asserted flatly that anyone who failed to build up the double love of God and neighbor from reading the Bible had not understood it (ibid.: 1.36.40). Love as interpretive key is a recurring theme of the massive Expositions of the Psalms, a collection of more than 200 homilies and tracts produced throughout his time in Hippo. “Whatever truth may be dug out from any page of divine scriptures, it tends toward one end only, and that is charity … Wherever there is any obscure passage in scripture, charity is concealed in it, and wherever the sense is plain, charity is proclaimed” (Enarrat. Ps. 140.2; WSA 3.20.301–2). Collectively the Expositions are clearer than On Christian Teaching that this love is rooted in Christ; from different angles, love (1 Tim 1:5) and Christ (Rom 10:4) are each “the end of the law” (e.g., ibid.: 54.1). The Christological shape of love is particularly clear in Augustine’s expositions of the “Step Songs” of the Psalms (Pss 119–33 [MT 120–34]), where he shows that love is not a disembodied principle, but rather bound concretely and specifically to the humility of Christ in his incarnation and crucifixion (Enarrat. Ps. 119.1; 122.1). Because believing in Christ leads to loving Christ, love in him leads upward to God (Enarrat. Ps. 123.2). The Pauline image of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12–28) allowed Augustine to praise the unity and intimacy of love’s unity while sidestepping the spiritualization of erotic love familiar in Origen and Ambrose. It also tapped some of the richest veins of Christian teaching in all of Augustine’s works. Love, he explained, so infuses Christ’s presence within believers that he and they exchange identities, and one speaks in the voice and in the name of the other. This is Augustine’s teaching of totus Christus, “the whole Christ,” grounded in the incarnation and realized in love. By it the Lord declares, “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me” (Matt 25:40), and asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4; Enarrat. Ps. 142.6). Christ and church had become one flesh (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:30–31). Searching out the identity of the speaker in the Psalms, Augustine asked, “If two in one flesh, why not two in one voice?” (Enarrat. 2 Ps. 30.1.4; WSA 3.15.324); cf. Enarrat. Ps. 142.3). Thus the triangulation of love, exegesis and the body of Christ created a hermeneutical frame for understanding the Psalms (Cameron 2015: 26–28).

Another short work of the early 400s, On Instructing Beginners (De catechizandis rudibus), made love its central theme (Cameron 2018). Written for a frustrated teacher named Deogratias, who had asked how he might better to teach the biblical story, it used a plethora of biblical texts to demonstrated love as the heart of scripture. No stronger reason for Christ’s coming can be found, Augustine explained, than to reveal God’s love. By laying down his life for us (1 John 3:16), who were his enemies (Rom 5:8), Christ disclosed God’s preemptive love (1 John 4:19). Because we were unable to love God, God “took the initiative in loving” by refusing to spare his only Son (Rom 8:32), and did so in order to secure human love in return (Catech. 4.7). In a finely crafted statement (Catech. 4.8), Augustine interwove salvation history, high Christology, the parable of Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), and the double love command as the key to reading Scripture (Matt 22:37–40).

Christ came chiefly so that people might learn how much God loves them, and might learn this so as to flame up with love for him who first loved them, and might also love their neighbor by way of him who both commanded them to love and gave his example of love … All divine Scripture written before Christ’s coming had the distinct purpose of announcing that coming; and whatever was committed to writing and confirmed by divine authority after he came tells of Christ and counsels love [narrat Christum et dilectionem monet]. One thing is crystal clear [manifestum]: on these two precepts of love for God and neighbor hang not only the entire Law and Prophets [which were still the only sacred Scripture that existed at the time our Lord said this], but also whatever any other books with divine lettering that later were set apart for our salvation and marked for handing down to us. (Catech. 4.8; BA 11.1.68)

Augustine’s famous couplet on scriptural unity that culminates this passage turns on the dialectic of hidden and revealed of love throughout the Bible. “Thus we say, ‘In the Old Testament is the veiling of the New, and in the New Testament is the unveiling of the Old’” (ibid.; BA 11.1.70).

Augustine did not stop there. Turning from the content of teaching to the person of the teacher, he grounded the Christian instructor’s being in the imitation Christ’s love. That made love the soul not only of Christian life but also of teaching practice (Cameron 2018). Love is the essential attitude of good teachers, the method by which they work, and their persistent aim for their hearers. By explaining and modeling the teacher’s attitude, and not just teaching content, Augustine deftly pushed Deogratias not only to teach love from scripture but also to incarnate the humble love he was teaching about. Since scripture everywhere “tells of Christ and counsels love,” Augustine told Deogratias, you will succeed as a Christian teacher by “keeping this love in front of you as a kind of goal to which you direct everything that you say,” telling the story of the scriptures in such a way that the listener “by hearing may believe, by believing may hope, and by hoping may love” (Catech. 4.8; BA 11.1.72).

Augustine’s Answer to Simplicianus, written ca. 396, about the same time as On Christian Teaching, looked at love from a different perspective based on his new understanding of unilateral or operative divine grace that precedes, transforms, and prompts the human will to love God. Before this time, the Pauline phrase “letter and spirit” (2 Cor 3:6) had framed for him the hermeneutical paradigm for literal and spiritual levels of reading of scripture. But after reading Paul more closely, Augustine further discerned Paul articulating the dynamics of law and grace in the soul’s striving for righteousness. For unredeemed persons, the “letter” of the law referred to the law without the transformative power of love. Augustine wrote, “The law is the letter for those who do not fulfill it through the spirit of love, which is the domain of the New Testament” (Div. quaest. Simpl. 1.1.17; WSA 1.12.184; cf. Rom 7:6). Writing a little later against the Manichean Faustus, he noted that Paul did not impugn the law by saying, “the letter kills and the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6), any more than he impugned knowledge by saying, “knowledge puffs up and love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). For Paul knew that “with love, knowledge not only does not puff up but even gives strength” (Faust. 15.8). For Augustine thought that, one particularly striking phrase of Paul’s expressed this well. The expression “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6), Augustine wrote, concisely teaches how the law’s commands are fulfilled in the conscience of one who lives rightly (Faust. 19.18).

Love is central to Augustine’s series of Homilies on the First Epistle of John, the only extended treatment of this letter to survive from the ancient church. While John “said many things,” Augustine observed, “nearly everything was about charity” (Tract. ep. Jo. Prologue; WSA 3.14.19). Love is examined broadly, if not exhaustively, from many angles treated in 1 John, particularly God as love (7.4–5) and God giving love (7.7; 9.10). Strikingly, in treating the declaration that “love is from God” (1 John 4:7), he daringly reversed the famous declaration of the next verse, “God is love” (Deus dilectio est), to say, “Love is God” (dilectio Deus est) (Tract. ep. Jo. 7.6; WSA 3.14.108; cf. 9.10). Among other subjects discussed: believers’ love for God (9.10; 10.3–7); believers’ love for one another, which equates to love for Christ and the “one Christ loving himself” (10.3; WSA 3.14.148; 1 Cor 12:26–27; Eph 5:30–32); and the pernicious character of love for the world (2.8–14; 5.9; 7.3). Brief treatments abound for love’s relation to, e.g., the Holy Spirit (6.8–10; 7.11), knowledge (2.8), discipline (7.11), beauty (9.9), faith (10.2), sin (5.2–3), works (8.9), deification (2.14). Augustine even covers a theme not addressed in the letter, love for enemies (1.9–11; 8.4).

Gregory the Great fittingly recapitulated in a pastoral mode early Christianity’s broad reflections on love’s theological, ethical, mystical and epistemological dimensions. Gregory made “the compunction of love” critical to his approach to spiritual life and to counseling penitents. A particularly fresh application of Gregory’s biblical understanding of charity appears in the prescriptions of his Pastoral Rule that accommodated people of different temperaments and conditions of heart. In order to counsel the impatient, he wrote, one should learn particularly how love adapts itself to them, for “charity is patient” (1 Cor 13:4; Regula Pastoralis 3.9). One should use scripture as a tool for learning how to attain and maintain the virtue of patience. Love is realized by “ruling one’s spirit” (Prov 16:32), by “possessing one’s soul” (Luke 21:19), by practicing love for enemies (Matt 5:44), by learning to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2), by “putting away bitterness” (Eph 4:31), by removing the beam from one’s own eye before correcting another (Matt 7:3; Regula Pastoralis 3.9–10). Love also formed the core of Gregory’s ethical thought. For him “charity is the key to his understanding of all the virtues,” for which it is “the ‘root,’ ‘source,’ ‘mother,’ and ‘guardian’ … a type of stability, soliditas, a firmness and enduring strength that is a true sign of election” (Straw: 92–93). Finally, Gregory a succinctly expressed love’s role in the formation of spiritual wisdom in a sentence that echoed readers of scripture since Origen and Augustine even as it bequeathed to Latin medieval thought and mysticism an axiom that would inspire writers like William of St. Thierry. “Love,” wrote Gregory, “is itself a form of knowledge (amor ipse notitia est)” (Homiliarum in evangelia 27.4; PL 76: 1207A; McGinn 1994: 58).



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B Medieval Times and Reformation Era

Olli-Pekka Vainio

In medieval theology, the perfection in love towards both God and neighbor was taken to be the ultimate aim of Christian life. In the debates on the scientific nature of theology, especially Franciscan theologians underlined the role of love: loving God more perfectly was the aim of theology as an academic discipline.

Due to sin, however, medieval theologians argued that human love is inordinate. Instead of love, fear rules the human heart. For Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), filial fear (timor filialis) directs the believer to love God more, and this reduces the fear of punishment (timor poenae). Love is the highest of Christian virtues (1 Cor 13). Love, along with faith and hope, are infused virtues, which means that they are not acquired like other virtues (through habituation and practice) but they are given by God without merits to those who believe.

An intellectualist strand of thought is visible in Aquinas’ explanation of John 4:16 (Summa theologiae I, q.20). If love is an emotion, which entails change in the subject, how can God be love? Aquinas responds by claiming that love is the first movement of the will that tends towards two things; to the good that one wills, and to the person whom one wills it. Aquinas sees love as the medium of union, or a binding force, between persons. Thus faith needs to be infused with love, which redirects, or gives form to faith so that it unites the believer with God. Without love, faith is worthless.

In the Reformation, we see a growing suspicion towards human love, which is seen as tainted by concupiscence. The human (essentially impure) love is contrasted with divine, completely selfless and pure agape, manifested in God’s self-giving acts. Martin Luther defines God’s love as a transformative force. God loves things not because they are good but because God wants to make them good. More particularly, God’s love means that God donates what God asks for.

For Luther, love between humans and creation is regulated by two principles. The Golden Rule offers a general framework for properly ethical actions, while the Decalogue gives more accurate form to love, i.e., how one should express the Golden Rule in particular cases. Against Antinomians, who saw themselves as freed from the law and able to interpret the rule of love by themselves, Luther underlined the binding nature of the NT commandments. The main problem, however, according to Luther, was not that humans do not know what is good; instead they do not love the good and act upon it (Rom 7). John Calvin shared a similar view, being perhaps slightly more pessimistic regarding the natural knowledge of the good that is the object of human love.


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C Modern Europe and America

Christophe Chalamet

Theologians throughout the 16th century reflected on the topic of love in relation to the primary soteriological topics of justification by grace and by faith.

The Roman Catholic Church, with the aid of its Catechism (1566), aimed to help pastors kindle love for God’s goodness. The Catholic Church taught that God ought to be loved “above all things” (pt. 2, “Qualities of Sorrow for Sin”). It also instructed husbands and wives to cherish one another: their love mirrors the love of Christ for his Church (Eph 5:25). Mystical thinkers, such as Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) and John of the Cross (1542–1591), viewed loving God and one’s neighbor as the “perfection” which all monastic and religious practices must serve (Interior Castle, 1577, third mansions, 44). In order to progress toward the center of the soul, “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much” (fourth mansions, 49).

The Reformed Heidelberg Catechism (1563) barely touches on the theme of love, except to restate Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets in the double commandment of love (qu. 4, 94, and 107; Matt 22:34–40). It is “by faith alone” (i.e., not through love!) that one becomes “right with God” (qu. 61). Among Lutherans, the Formula of Concord (1577) rejects the idea that “righteousness before God is not entire or perfect without [the] love and renewal” which faith produces (ch. 3, 8th antithesis).

The 17th century saw a major revival of mysticism, which occurred mainly among Catholics. There was also a notable revival among Protestants, who, with the emergence of Pietism, became fascinated with the subjective, affective experience of God.

Francis of Sales’ (1567–1622) Treatise on the Love of God (1616) can be read against the background of Rome’s massive effort at spiritual renewal and the education of the clergy and the faithful. Love is the only way to bring the Protestants and their “Jerichos” back into the fold: “It is through charity that we must shake the walls of Geneva, we must invade this city through love, through love we must overtake it” (December 1593, Œuvres 7:107). What is love, according to Francis? It is “no other thing than the movement, effusion, and advancement of the heart towards the good” (Treatise on the Love of God, 1:7). Human beings have “a natural inclination,” but not the power “to love God above all things” (ibid.: 1:16; most Protestant theologians of the time, unlike many modern Protestants, would have disagreed with the first part of that claim).

Toward the end of the 17th century, “pure love” became a topic of debate. This debate involved Madame Guyon (1648–1717) and François Fénelon (1651–1715), who both argued that disinterested love, being utterly focused on God, banishes all self-centered consideration for one’s salvation. Francis of Sales had already written that a true Christian “prizes hell more with God’s will than heaven without it” (Treatise on the Love of God, 9:4). However, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) bitterly fought these “quietist” ideas.

Among Protestants, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) called for a renewal of Protestantism in order to put an end to the endless doctrinal debates: “[D]isputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary” (Pia desideria 1675: 40). Johann Arndt (1555–1621) had already discussed the topic of love at length in his highly popular book, True Christianity. After Spener, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) created a community, the Herrnhut-Brotherhood, whose members, on August 13, 1727, “learned to love one another.” His vision of the Christian life was one of “brotherly love,” philadelphia (cf. John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”).

Romanticism, like Pietism, emphasized love as a lived experience and feeling. But Christian theology, even when it was influenced by Romanticism, maintained that love is, first and foremost, a divine reality. Schleiermacher (1768–1834) concluded his Christian Faith (1821/22, 1830/31) with a discussion of God as love. Love is not just another divine attribute, but the very essence of God: “[O]nly love and no other divine attribute can be equated with God in this fashion” (Schleiermacher: §167; 2:1008; see 1 John 4:16: “God is love”). Schleiermacher conceptualized divine love in conjunction with divine wisdom. Almost a century later, in 1940, Karl Barth (1886–1968) intimately linked divine love with divine freedom, and derived all of God’s other perfections from these two fundamental ones (Barth 1940). Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), in the 1870s and 1880s, conceived of God’s loving will as “the only adequate conception of God” (Ritschl: 3:273–74).

In contrast, Ludwig Feuerbach severed God from love using philosophical terms and claimed that love “is a higher power and truth than deity” (Feuerbach: 53). If “God is love,” does that mean that “love is God”? This question was posed in the wake of Feuerbach's reversal of the predication that God is love. In attempting to answer this question, Christian theologians have concentrated on specifying the type of love assigned to God. Love is, as stated in 1 John 4:7, of God.

In addition to being a significant divine attribute, love is also a divine command. Can love, however, be commanded? The Lutheran theologian Søren Kierkegaard took up this question in a number of his writings, especially The Works of Love. He considered love in relation to obedience, inwardness, and sin. Some have argued that his views, which convey his convictions regarding human distortions of love, are individualistic, antisocial, and otherwordly. However, recent scholarship (Ferreira) has shown that his views have been misinterpreted.

In the 20th century, love continued to be a significant theological topic. It is hard to imagine sermons being preached in the 20th century on “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (Jonathan Edwards, 1703–1758), even if that century was marked by sin. And yet, in 1914, leading European theologians (Troeltsch, Herrmann, Harnack) were motivated by a misbegotten patriotic love. The instrumentalization of God for sinful political purposes, particularly by the German Christians in Nazi Germany, led other theologians to distinguish God from the world. By doing this, these theologicans who were primarily from the “dialectical school” could stress the pronouncement of God’s judgment on the world.

In Agape and Eros (1930–1936), Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren (1890–1978) posited a fundamental contradiction between eros and agape. He suggested that authentic love is spontaneous, i.e., not extrinsically motivated and disinterested, whereas eros, springing out of need and desire, is possessive and egocentric. Nygren opened the floodgates to protests against his dualistic approach to love: many authors (Burnaby, C. S. Lewis, Pieper, Outka, Jüngel, C. Keller, V. Burrus, and others) have challenged this dualism. Other thinkers, such as Emmanuel Levinas, consider love from a philosophical perspective by positing a primacy of ethics over ontology: “[P]hilosophy is the wisdom of love in the service of love” (Levinas: 162). Josef Piper, a modern Thomist, aptly points to an important aspect of love that is captured by the exclamation: “It is good that you exist; it is good that you are in this world!” (Piper: 163–4). Contemporary feminist theologians Catherine Keller and Virginia Burrus have focused constructive theological efforts on formulating a theopoetics of love.

In its relation to faith and hope, love is a complex phenomenon. Specifically, because it is the theological virtue that has primacy (1 Cor 13:13). Proponents of the Social Gospel were committed to love in its relationship to justice (1 Cor 13:6) (Rauschenbusch). This commitment was also later expressed by left-wing theologians (Tillich) and philosophers (Weil, Ricœur), and, since the 1960s, by liberation theology (Gutiérrez) and other contextual theologies. Other thinkers are interested in the relationship between disinterested love and human emotions (Frankfurt) and desire (Coakley). Christian theologians have, on the whole, tended to critique sentimental and individualistic reductions of “love” in contemporary culture. Feminist theologians have also criticized uses and abuses of “self-sacrificing love” that mitigate against women’s flourishing. Critical and constructive proposals take up the topic of love in view of Jesus of Nazareth’s life of service, his practice of radical, fulfilled love (John 13:1). His life, including his death on the cross and his resurrection, manifests the precedence of God’s love, which stands over against any human response (1 John 4:19; Rom 5:8), whether that response is positive or negative.

In the face of two immensely destructive World Wars, the Shoah, and other massacres perpetrated on a scale previously unseen, major 20th-century figures have advocated love and its ramifications for justice in societies torn by violence, hate, and fear. Gandhi, André Trocmé, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Desmond Tutu have all applied the concept of love in different ways and contexts in order to overcome the cycle of violence and revenge. The roots of their non-violent resistance are found, in part, in Jesus’ message, including Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies (Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5–7). If love and peace are indeed eschatological realities (“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky”; Ps 85:10–11), these realities beg to be concretely embodied, even if imperfectly, in the world.

Notable other witnesses in recent and contemporary history to the kind of love that seeks justice – together with many other anonymous figures – include Pope John XXIII, Mgr Romero, Nelson Mandela, br. Roger of Taizé, Jean Vanier, sœur Emmanuelle, and Christian de Chergé.


  • Avila, T. of, Interior Castle (Mineola, N.Y. 2007).Google Scholar

  • Barth, K., Church Dogmatics (CD), vol. 2/1 (London/New York 1957); trans. of id., Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. 2/1 (Zurich 1940).Google Scholar

  • Brümmer, V., The Model of Love (Cambridge 1993).Google Scholar

  • Burnaby, J., Amor Dei (Norwich 1938).Google Scholar

  • Coakley, S., God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge 2013).Google Scholar

  • Ferreira, M. J., Love’s Grateful Striving (Oxford/New York 2001).Google Scholar

  • Feuerbach, L., The Essence of Christianity (trans. G. Eliot; New York 1857).Google Scholar

  • François de Sales, Œuvres de St François de Sales, vol. 7 (Annecy 1896).Google Scholar

  • Frankfurt, H. G., The Reasons of Love (Princeton, N.J. 2004).Google Scholar

  • Gutiérrez, G., A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1988).Google Scholar

  • Hall, A. L., Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love (Cambridge 2002).Google Scholar

  • Jeanrond, W. G., A Theology of Love (London/New York 2010).Google Scholar

  • Jüngel, E., God as the Mystery of the World (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1983).Google Scholar

  • Keller, C./V. Burrus (eds.), Towards a Theology of Eros (New York 2007).Google Scholar

  • Kierkegaard, S., Works of Love (ed. H. V. Hong/E. Hong, Princeton, N.J. 1995).Google Scholar

  • Levinas, E., Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (Dordrecht 1994).Google Scholar

  • Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves (London 1960).Google Scholar

  • May, S., Love: A History (New Haven, Conn. 2011).Google Scholar

  • Nygren, A., Agape and Eros (London 1953).Google Scholar

  • Outka, G., Agape: An Ethical Analysis (New Haven, Conn./London 1972).Google Scholar

  • Pieper, J., Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco, Calif. 1997).Google Scholar

  • Rauschenbusch, W., A Theology for the Social Gospel (New Haven, Conn. 1917).Google Scholar

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  • Ritschl, A., The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive Development of the Doctrine, vol. 3 (Edinburgh 1902).Google Scholar

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D New Christian Churches and Movements

George D. Chryssides

In his spiritual classic The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis distinguishes between στοργή (affection), φιλία (friendship), ἔρως (sexual love or lust), and ἀγάπη (love, or esteem). The last of these, being the cardinal Christian virtue, is emphasized by most, if not all, new Christian groups.

In common with the KJV, the Book of Mormon prefers to use the word “charity” to describe Christian love. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) teaches that Jesus Christ showed love for the Nephites when he reappeared in America after his resurrection. The Book of Mormon teaches that “it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22), and that the kingdom of heaven cannot be inherited without it. Love is manifested in God’s love for God’s children and in Christ’s sacrifice. The Book of Moroni presents an extended passage which parallels 1 Cor 13, extolling the virtue of charity above faith and hope (Moroni 7:39–47). Love should be shown to the Jew as well as the Gentile (2 Nephi 33:8–10). The LDS Relief Society, founded in 1842, has as its motto “Charity never faileth” (1 Cor 13:8; Moroni 7:46).

A number of groups that took the rise in the 1960s were believed to engage in “love bombing” – in particular the Children of God (now The Family International), The Way International, and the Unification Church. The practice consisted of showing an undue degree of warmth and friendship, in order to make new seekers feel wanted. In the case of the Children of God, the type of love that was shown was more akin to ēros or sexual desire: new seekers, particularly women, were offered sexual gratification, allegedly on the grounds that one’s basic sexual needs had to be satisfied before one could be receptive to the group’s religious message. Founder-leader David Berg (a.k.a. Moses David) taught the need to show the love of God through sexual relationships. In 1995 The Family introduced the Love Charter. This defined the rules to be observed within its communities, including those relating to the “sharing” of marriage partners – a practice which has been characteristic of the organization.

By contrast, the Unification Church officially deplores extramarital sexual relationships, holding that members should only engage in sexual activity after undergoing the Blessing ceremony. According to the Unification Church’s teaching, God desired men and women as the object of his love. However, Adam and Eve exercised selfish love by engaging in sexual activity before they reach the age of maturity, succumbing to the false love of Satan rather than God’s own true love. This love can only be truly fulfilled, it is held, when humans achieve God’s three “blessings”: to be “fruitful,” to “multiply,” and to “have dominion” (Gen 1:28). The first involves the perfection of individual love, while the second relates to the marriage of husbands and wives who are free from sin and who can raise sinless children, who can then create a perfect world (the third blessing). God’s love was demonstrated in God’s successive endeavors to restore humanity to its original pre-fallen state, which was accomplished through the sending of various figures, including Jesus, whose mission is believed to have been completed by the Lord of their Second Coming, who has restored families of true love. Such a claim has proved problematic, however, in the light of sexual indiscretions of which founder-leader Sun Myung Moon and some members of his family have been accused. One important Unification festival is the Day of the Victory of Love, which commemorates the death of Moon’s son Heung Jin, who was killed in a car crash. Unificationists believe that he lovingly sacrificed his life in order to save fellow passengers. Most new Christian groups subscribe to traditional teachings about love, acknowledging that Christ’s teaching that one should love God and one’s neighbor is the greatest commandment of the law, and that love is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).

By contrast, however, Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible contends that it is impossible to display universal indiscriminate love towards everyone, and that both love and hate are fundamental emotions that humans intensely feel. While Satanism does not condone cruelty or violence, one should adopt a realistic view regarding the expression of love: “Satanism represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!” (LaVey: 64).


  • Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, Building a World of True Love: An Introduction to the Unification Principle (New York 1992).Google Scholar

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  • Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves (London 1960).Google Scholar

  • The Family, The Love Charter (Zurich 1998).Google Scholar

VI Islam

Marie Nuar

The language of love, centered on the root ḥ–b–b and its derivatives, is not central to qurʾānic vocabulary expressing the personal relationship between God and humanity. Many commentators would have considered the term too human and not worthy of God, preferring instead to use words describing his loving qualities, such as clemency, compassion, or mercy, although the emotional connotation is removed from the terms when applying them to God.

Unlike in Christianity, where God’s love is often spoken of as a parent for his child, or a bridegroom for his bride, in Islam, a more abstract understanding of God’s love is adopted. For, God’s love is greater than that of a parent for a child. Much of the literature on love in Islam is found within Sufi Islam, which focuses on man’s love for God as the highest good. The love of God is considered the culminating stage of the Sufi path when one goes beyond the desires of the ego.

Love is not one of God’s “eternal attributes” (al-ṣifāt al-azaliyya) although, al-Wadūd, “the loving towards his servants,” is one of the ninety-nine names of God, often simply translated as “the loving” or “He who loves.” Utterly transcendent, humanity’s love of God can in no way effect him. He is neither sad at one’s indifference nor glad at one’s response. The Qurʾān nowhere states that God loves humanity. Divine love differs from human love in that divine love is substantive and eternal (S 2:29; 45:13). His love is conditional (S 3:30) based on the merits of the one he loves. Love is often mentioned in conjunction with ethical injunctions, for God loves those who follow his commands and do good. God does not love those who do not follow his commands and do evil. There are different degrees of God’s love. God has a general love, which brings the world and individuals into being, including wrongdoers. God has a higher love for true believers who attract God’s love to themselves by their works. God has a special love for those who are perfect, such as the prophets. On the other hand, God does not love those who do not follow his commands.

Everyone is drawn to love God, whether consciously or not. For all are drawn to what they believe to be the ultimate good, which a Muslim knows is God. Humanity does not love God for two reasons, either ignorance or a preoccupation with transient and baser objects of worldly love. Humanity ought to love God as a servant loves the creator from whom one derives perfection. Al-Ghazālī defined love as an inclination of the subject towards a pleasure-giving object. Knowledge of the object is a necessary prerequisite for one cannot love what one does not know. For al-Ghazālī, humanity ought to love God because God created and holds each person in existence, gives them everything they possess, does good, is the most beautiful and most excellent being, and, there is an affinity between humanity and God, for the soul of each person is a part of the divine soul according. Loving God means complete submission and obedience to his commands, finding pleasure in such acts of servitude. One who truly loves will always prefer his beloved’s will over his own (S 3:31). Aware of God’s greatness one strives to avoid anything that might invite God’s wrath. Ethical rules are guidelines to this path of love, enlightened and orientated by teachings of the intellect and the prophets.

After God, one must love the Prophet (and the household or Ahl al-Bayt, according to the Shiʾā) because God has loved him, because he is the ideal of perfection personifying the virtues to the highest degree, and because he has guided humanity on the path of morality and attaining God’s pleasure. Finally, there is love amongst fellow Muslims is known as ʾukhkhuwwa, that is, fraternal love or brotherliness.


  • Bin Muhammad, G., Love in the Holy Qurʾān (Chicago, Ill. 2010).Google Scholar

  • Ibn al-ʿArabī, Kitāb al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Cairo 1911); ET: The Meccan Revelations (trans. M. Chodkiewicz et al.; New York 2002).Google Scholar

  • Ibn Hazm, The Ring of the Dove (London 1951).Google Scholar

  • Al-Ghazzālī, “Kitāb al-Maḥabba waʾl-shawq wʾl-uns waʾl-riḍā,” in Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (Cairo n.d.); ET: Al-Ghazali on Love, Longing, Intimacy and Contentment (trans. E. Ormsby; Cambridge 2011).Google Scholar

  • Valiuddin, M., Love of God: Sufi Approach (Dehli 1968).Google Scholar

VII Hinduism and Buddhism

Herman Tull

Western observers of the Indian tradition have suggested that the Hindu concept of spiritual love (bhakti) only flowered with the arrival of Christianity in India in the early centuries CE. In part, this assertion looks to the time frame of bhakti’s rise in India, generally understood to be the first centuries CE, which is also the period of Christianity’s arrival in India (see, e.g., Grierson: 143; Winternitz: 431). Viewed in a critical light, however, this assertion suggests a subtle disparagement of the Hindu tradition; as R. S. Sugitharajah has observed, it not only “perpetuates the claim that anything religiously good can only come out of the Judeo-Christian religion,” but also rejects any possibility of parallelism between Indian religions and Christianity (Sugirtharajah: 197). Looking beyond the search for possible historical linkages, however, the effort to establish an association between the Hindu and Christian notions of divine love played a prominent role in the 19th century encounter between India and the West.

As the British East India Company (EIC) attained political dominance in India at the end of the 18th century, enlightened English administrators began to cultivate India’s intellectual class. This situation was viewed as an opportunity by the Protestant missionaries in India (despite the EIC’s active discouragement of their program) to gain converts from this prestigious and culturally influential class of natives. Essential to this encounter was the search for a common medium of religious terminology. The concept of divine love, which in India had a highly developed theology rooted in the 15th-century writings of the Hindu saint Chaitanya, formed a natural element for this medium. Thus, in one of the earliest works to arise from the Hindu-missionary interaction, Ram Mohan Roy’s The Precepts of Jesus; the Guide to Peace and Happiness, Extracted from the Books of the New Testament (1820), Roy identifies the concept of love as the essential element of Christianity (Crawford: 24). In another context, Roy, who was one of the earliest and most prominent Indians to interact with the missionaries in discussions of religious matters, claimed that “love of God” also represented Hinduism’s “true system of religion.” Significantly, Roy’s assertion here seems to have been intended not only to express a common ground between Hinduism and Christianity, but also to show that Hinduism, despite the “errors of the puerile system of idol worship,” was in essence a religion of love, and so stood on the same religious plane as Christianity (Roy: ii–iii).

This articulation of a religion based on love of god continues throughout the 19th century in the writings of Roy’s successors, and even assumes a pseudo-biblical form in Debendranath Tagore’s famed “Brahmic Covenant”: “I will worship, through love of Him, and the performance of the works He loveth, God the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer, the Giver of salvation, the Omniscient, the Omnipresent …,” predicating the chief Indian gods (the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer) to the “Giver of salvation,” which suggests a Christian, rather than a Hindu conceptualization of the divine (Murdoch: 143).

By the close of the 19th century, as Indian intellectuals wearied of the missionaries’ dismissive attitude toward their traditions, the concept of divine love became a means of suggesting the superiority of Hinduism over Christianity; as one writer declared: “Bhakti as preached in the Gita is not to be found in Christianity. Love for love’s sake, love that knows no fear, knows no return and knows no hatred is not [sic] where clearly preached in the Bible” (“Notes and Thoughts”: 390).In a similar vein, the Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist Angarika Dharmapala, observed sharply that “No loving god would send countless millions to an eternal hell, even if he had the power” (Barker/Greg: 244), while describing (albeit in a different context) the gods of India as “all love, all merciful, all gentle” (Barrows: 868). At the World’s Parliament of Religions (Chicago, 1893), Dharmapala famously berated the missionaries in South and East Asia for their intolerance and selfishness, and then, in another address to the Parliament’s audience, declared that, in contrast to this, “the fundamental teaching of Buddhism” was “universal love and sympathy with all mankind and with animal life” (Barrows: 868).


  • Barker, G./S. Greg (eds.), Jesus Beyond Christianity: The Classic Texts (Oxford 2010).Google Scholar

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VIII Literature

Caroline Sauter

Almost every biblical book is occupied with the topic of love. This abundance has given rise to innumerable exegeses and sermons on love, yet has also given rise to ample reception of the Bible in secular love literature. This mutual reference between biblical love and literature can be observed on at least three levels: first, numerous biblical texts that deal explicitly with love employ figurative language, most prominently metaphor and/or allegory. Second, biblical motifs, narratives, and allusions are frequently used or evoked in secular love literature. Third, biblical writings on love have long been interpreted as allegories (Song) or typologies (Ruth), and have therefore brought about an extensive reception history not only in theological exegesis, but also in literary theory.

1. Love Metaphors and Allegories within Biblical Literature

Within the biblical canon, metaphors and allegories of love are especially present in the prophets, Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Ruth. For instance, in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, the covenant faithfulness between God and Israel is introduced via the metaphor of engagement or marriage. Common to the HB/OT is also the figure of motherly love, as an image for God’s faithfulness to his people (Isa 49:15) or his care for the individual believer (Ps 131:2).

On the other hand, the Song of Songs is the most explicit representation of erotic love within the biblical canon. It passionately celebrates sensual love and sexual desire in poetic and rhetoric abundance, rich in metaphorical language.

In contrast to the HB/OT, love is generally not much used as a metaphor in the NT (apart from the wedding feast/bride metaphor in Rev), even though it is one of its core teachings.

2. Bible Reception in Love Literature

Due to its abundant metaphorical language, the Song, “the only … purely secular love poetry from ancient Israel” (Alter: 185), has become a main reference text for literary representation of love and eroticism throughout the centuries. Figures and images such as “the rose” or the “garden closed” (Song 2:1; 4:12–16; cf. Alter: 200–201) had a prominent afterlife in Western love literature. They are present in numerous medieval love allegories, most famously Guillume de Lorris’ and Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose (vv. 129–30; cf. Heller-Roazen; Lewis: 119–20). But also later love novels, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or The New Heloise (1761), refer to similar hortus conclusus images clearly derived from the Song’s tradition (cf. de Man 1983: 202–3). In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), a classic of Western love literature, the Bible, and especially the Song, is evoked when depicting the adulterous heroine’s seductions. The biblical love ideal here stands in sharp contrast to both Emma’s unhappy marriage and her romantic illusions. The Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, in his 1917 novel Song of Songs (Shir hashirim), quotes the Song as a counterpoint to the narrative’s development, as the youthful protagonist’s failure to express his love to his beloved (and sexually taboo) “sister-bride” ironically contrasts with its rhetorical abundance.

Especially after the “secular” paradigm shift in modernity, biblical love imagery is often evoked, but emptied of its symbolic power. Thus, one of the most intriguing female characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is called “Rose of Sharon,” referring back to Song 2:1. Albert Cohen’s 20th-century “love classic” Her Lover (Belle du Seigneur) (1968) also transposes the Song’s lyricism into an exuberant failure, since all verbal passion still fails to express true love. And Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon juxtaposes biblical love to a grim earthly world: while the novel’s title and the first names of the protagonist’s sisters (“First Corinthians 13” and “Magdalene”), and mother (“Ruth”) evoke the most prominent love stories from the OT and NT respectively, the narrative itself is a tale of pain and loneliness, and the name “First Corinthians 13” is merely random. On the other hand, in Umberto Eco’s 1980 mystery The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa), Adso’s only, but fervent sexual encounter with an unnamed peasant girl (“perhaps the Rose,” as the dramatis personae has it) is verbatim told in the dense language of the Song, followed by the narrators reflections on allegorical expression.

3. Afterlife in Theory: The Song of Songs in Literary Criticism

The Song has not only been quoted, adopted, and adapted in numerous works of fiction, but, unlike other biblical books, it has also been widely discussed in literary theory (cf. Exum 2005a; Alter: 185–203). In and after poststructuralism the Song became newly prominent in theories of allegory (de Man 1979), in studies on narratology (Alter), or as a paradigm for literature as such (Kristeva); later it was one of the key texts of feminist literary theory (Pardes; Brenner/Fontaine; Brenner). Moreover, it has become the epitome for reading the Bible as literature – a tradition that could be said to have started in the 18th century with the German philologist, poet, philosopher, and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder (who in turn, was highly influenced by Lowth and Hamann; cf. Baildam: 58–59). In his interpretation of the Song, Herder engages with the tradition of allegorical reading, as well as with contemporary exegeses, for the most part rejecting their interpretations (Herder: 95; cf. Baildam: 55–56; Gaier: 318–20). For Herder, the Song’s “meaning” is nothing but “love, love” (Herder: 63–64), a fundamental human experience, which makes it “the most human of all books,” just like the Bible itself (cf. Gaier: 326, 330). The Song, for Herder, is a part of the biblical canon precisely as a poetic masterwork.

One metaphor from Song 4:12–16 had an especially prominent afterlife in literary theory: the orchard, an image which of course refers back to the paradise narrative (Gen 1–3). As early as in rabbinic midrashim, the “locked garden” has been interpreted as the place of delight in Torah, i.e., as a place of interpretation and commentary of Scriptures (Krochmalnik: 10). Thus, the garden metaphor has been the symbol for the very questions that connect theology and literature: how to read and interpret. Since there have been, in the wake of de Man’s readings of Rousseau, convincing attempts to establish a “theory of literature as the language of love” (Hamacher: 166), biblical love can be said to be a foundational aspect of literature and literary theory.



    • Aleichem, S., The Song of Songs (trans. C. Leviant; New York 1996).Google Scholar

    • Cohen, A., Her Lover (trans. D. Coward; London 2005).Google Scholar

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    • Alter, R., The Art of Biblical Poetry (Edinburgh 1985).Google Scholar

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    • Flasch, K., “Das Buch der menschlichen Liebe,” in Lieder der Liebe [1778] (J. G. Herder; ed. K. Flasch; Munich 2007) 163–80.Google Scholar

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IX Visual Arts

Michael Altripp

Love is first and foremost given to God, however, the love of God is also given to each person, insofar as each human being is created in God’s image, and this is then expressed as love of one’s neighbor. Love of one’s neighbor takes various forms: love for a partner, love of a parent, or love of one’s children to name just the most intimate forms, each of which appears in art.

Abraham’s obedience presents perhaps one of the strongest examples of the love of God (Gen 22:1–12). Abraham unconditionally accepts the demand to sacrifice his son (Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359, Treasury of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome), even before the implementation of the Law. This love is also reciprocated, as is shown in images of the Last Supper (St. Martin, Zillis, panel paintings on the ceiling, early 12th cent.). One of the disciples, identified as John, is depicted leaning on Jesus’ breast because of Jesus’ particular love for him (John 13:23: ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ Ἰησοῦς). One could also mention the Visitation in this context (Codex Egberti, between 977–93, Trier, Stadtbibliothek Ms. 24, fol. 10v), it is called ἀσπασμὸς in Greek (Luke 1:41), which can also mean “to like.” The affection between Mary and Elizabeth probably relates to the fact that one of them carries God’s son while the other bears his forerunner. We can also interpret the Visitation in terms of neighborly love, which is also expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus himself exemplifies the principle of humble brotherly love by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17; 1st half of the 11th cent.; Katholikon, Hosios Loukas). The anointing in Bethany (John 12:1–3; Bernward Column, 1020, Hildesheim Cathedral) can also be understood as a gesture of humility and as an expression of the love of God.

In common parlance, however, the word love is generally understood as romantic love. Husband and wife pairs appear often in the Bible, although their relationships to one another can vary widely. Some, such as Isaac and Rebekah, David and Bathsheba, Sarah and Tobias, and Samson and Delilah, chose each other. Others were brought together by God, like Adam and Eve, or by the bride’s father, like Othniel and Achsah. In the case of Anna and Joachim, the story of how they came together is not told, and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were not lovers.

Such pairs of lovers understandably provided rich material for visual imagery. The most intimate loving moment (at least, the most intimate that was considered appropriate to depict) is certainly the kiss of Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gate. While this subject was depicted frequently, Giotto’s rendering in the Arena chapel in Padua (after 1303) stands out for its depth of emotion. The relationship between Jacob and Rachel must also have been intimate, as Jacob had to serve Rachel’s father Laban twice, each time for seven years, in order to win her hand. Hugo van der Goes (The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, 1460–82, Christ Church Gallery, Oxford; and Palma il Vecchio, Jacob and Rachel, ca. 1520–25, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) depicts Jacob embracing and kissing Rachel. Jacob’s father Isaac is also portrayed embracing his wife Rebekah in the Vienna Genesis (6th cent., Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 8v). Rembrandt (The Jewish Bride, 1667, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) depicts Isaac with his hand on his wife’s breast, perhaps suggesting an increase in intimacy verging on the sexual. We find the same motif in the image of the fathering of Cain in the vestibule of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (13th cent.), in which two curtains are pulled back to reveal Adam and Eve lying on a bed with Adam touching Eve’s breast. The conception of Cain is also depicted independently in the monastery church of Dečani (1327–35). Here, Adam and Eve embrace each other while standing next to Cain. These pairs of relationships sometimes begin with marriage. An image in the church of S. Maria Maggiore (432–40, Rome) shows the marriage of Moses and Zipporah, represented by the dextrarum iunctio, the clasping of their right hands.

Such partnerships, however, did not always turn out well, as shown by Delilah’s treachery. Samson had chosen her from among the Philistines, but she betrayed him by cutting his hair. This moment of betrayal is commonly chosen in representations of the story (Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, 1495, National Gallery, London).

Parental love can also be found in Christian iconography. An impressive example of this appears in the Chora Church in Istanbul (1315). Here, Joachim and Anna embrace their daughter, Mary, who stands between them. Images of Adam and Eve mourning the dead Abel also express parental love (Johann Liss, Adam and Eve Lament Abel’s Death, 1st third of the 17th cent., Galleria dell’ Adademia, Venice) (see → plate 1.a). In the monastery church of Dečani (1327–35), we see the mother embracing her dead child while the father laments. The (non-biblical) “threnos,” that is, the lament for the dead Jesus (1164, Sv. Panteleimon, Nerezi), represents a similar subject. Apart from these examples, it is primarily motherly love that has drawn artists’ interest. Examples include that of Hagar (Gen 21:14–21), who was cast out by Abraham with her son, Ishmael, at Sarah’s request and God’s command. In the desert of Beersheba, the mother and child nearly died of thirst. Because she could not bear to watch her son die, Hagar sat down some distance away (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Hagar and Ishmael, ca. 1732, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice). An angel finally rescued them, showing them a well. A mother’s deep care and fear for her child appears again and with more intensification in depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, where despairing mothers mourn their dead children (Duccio, 1308–11, Siena Cathedral).

The epitome of a mother’s love, however, appears in the relationship between Mary and her son. Aside from the nursing mother (Maria lactans [current nave, 14th cent., San Giusto, Trieste] or Galaktotrophousa [El Greco, The Holy Family, 1594–1604, Hospital de San Juan Bautista, Toledo]; see also “Maria Lactans” and plate 12), the intimacy of this relationship is reflected most clearly in the Eastern Orthodox Glykophilousa (an intensification of the Eleousa; fresco, before 1335, Chora Church, Istanbul), where the child twists his head at a nearly impossible angle in order to nestle against his mother’s cheek. Because of Mary’s status as a role model, her love for her son also becomes a model for human beings’ love for God.

The relationship between fathers and sons, by contrast, appears less frequently and primarily in the story of Abraham’s family and those of his descendants Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The account of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, Isaac, is particularly emotionally charged. Rembrandt presents a compressed version of this story, depicting the young Isaac in his father’s arms (Abraham Caressing Isaac, ca. 1637, Collection of J. de Bruijn). Rembrandt was apparently particularly fond of this subject, which he revisited in a similar form in the image of Joseph retelling his dreams to his father, Jacob, who holds the young Benjamin in his arms (Joseph telling his Dreams, ca. 1638–43, Albertina, Vienna). The Vienna Genesis twice depicts Jacob and Benjamin in a similar pose, just as Reuben (6th cent., Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 20v) and then Judah (fol. 21r) are insisting that their youngest brother should come to Egypt with them. Jacob resists, worried that he will lose this son as well, a fear that proves unfounded. Instead, Jacob eventually goes to Egypt with his sons, where he finally embraces Joseph again after many years of absence (Throne of Maximian, 546–56, Museo Arcivescovile, Ravenna). The mourning of the dead Jacob (Vienna Genesis, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 24v) serves as an antitype for the so-called “threnos.”

The story of Jacob and Joseph also provides rich material for the subject of brotherly love. Despite the fact that Jacob, with his mother Rebekah’s help, tricked his father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of his brother Esau, in the end the two brothers are reconciled. Francesco Hayez depicts this moment (Meeting of Jacob and Esau, 1844, Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia), showing Esau embracing his brother and forgiving him for the wrong he committed. The story of Joseph, who wanted to keep his brother Simeon as a hostage in Egypt, is also emotionally charged. The brothers discuss this hostage-taking without knowing that Joseph not only understands them (he had used an interpreter to speak with them), but is also their brother. Joseph is so touched by his brothers’ laments that he turns away from them and weeps (Vienna Genesis, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 19r). The story culminates when Jacob moves to Egypt with his sons, at which point Joseph reveals his identity to his family. It is no surprise that this moment is often captured in art, and that the embrace between Joseph and the young Benjamin takes center stage (for example, Peter von Cornelius, fresco cycle from the Casa Bartholdy in Rome, 1816–1817, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

The bond between David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, who “took great delight in David” (1 Sam 19:1: ᾑρεῖτο τὸν Δαυιδ σφόδρα), represents a male relationship resembling the relationship one would find between brothers. Rembrandt depicts the pair repeatedly, illuminating different aspects of their relationship, such as their brotherly bond (ca. 1632–33, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham), Jonathan comforting David (ca. 1640–44, Louvre, Paris), and their parting (1642, Hermitage, St. Petersburg).

X Music

Nils Holger Petersen

Love as a notion, even if restricted to what is traceable to biblical traditions, is broad and difficult to circumscribe briefly. As is made clear in the HB/OT and NT articles above, love appears in a variety of ways in the Bible, also through the employment of different words. Many of the various aspects of love mentioned above have been importantly reflected in music over the centuries. However, in addition to the variety of the biblical vocabulary to express what has been received as “love,” biblical texts, which have been understood to express love, have been rendered differently in different Bible translations. For example, the idea of God’s “steadfast love” is expressed repeatedly in Psalms in the NRSV Bible: Pss 13:5; 42:8; 51:1; 66:20; 98:3; 103:4, 8, 11, and 17; 115:1, 117:2; 118:1–4, 29; 136:1–26; 147:11 to mention only some instances. In Ps 136 each of the twenty-six verses repeats the clause “for his steadfast love endures forever” as a refrain. The Vulgate Bible (Vg.; Ps 135) here gives “quoniam in aeternum misericordia eius” which in the (mainly) early modern Catholic English Douay-Rheims translation (originally made in the late 16th century) is rendered as “for his mercy endureth for ever” (Edgar/Kinney: 522–25). The German Luther Bible (1545) gives “denn seine Güte währet ewiglich” (which translates as “for his goodness lasts forever”). The King James Bible (AV) also has “for his mercy endureth for ever.” God’s love for a righteous individual, as mentioned in the HB/OT entry above, is given as “The Lord loves the righteous” in NRSV, “Dominus diligit iustos” in Vg. (Ps 145:8), rendered as “the Lord loveth the just” in the Douay-Rheims translation (Edgar/Kinney: 546–47), as in the AV. The Luther Bible similarly gives “Der HERR liebt die Gerechten.” In different languages (or communities of different Bible translations), thus, the notion of biblical love may have been received in slightly different ways. This entry will draw on musical settings of a variety of texts in several different languages, mainly Latin, German, Italian, French, and English, thus drawing on a linguistically wide reception of a biblical notion of love.

In the following, the discussion is divided in two main categories: 1. music for liturgical ceremonies, 2. music for non-liturgical performance, which, in modern times, may well also include liturgical pieces, which have been received into Classical Music (see “Classical Music”).

1. Liturgical music

Psalmody, the singing or chanting of Psalms was an essential part of Jewish as well as Christian liturgy as far back as we have any knowledge and up through the centuries in different ways and languages (Gillingham: 40–55; 68–71; 120–23; see also “Cantillation” and “Chant”). Thus, the already mentioned idea of God’s steadfast love was always liturgically present in song among Jews and Christians alike, for instance in the penitential psalm Ps 51:1, “have mercy on me, O God,/ according to your steadfast love;/ according to your abundant mercy/ blot out my transgressions.” Also the idea of God loving the righteous, and the righteous being those who love God and God’s commands is expressed in Ps 97:10, “The Lord loves those who hate evil,” and similarly in Ps 103:11, “for as the heavens are high above the earth so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.”

In a Christian context, New Testament statements concerning Christ’s self-sacrifice in order to save mankind were also sung in liturgy: Sic deus dilexit mundum ut filium suum unigenitum daret ut omnis qui credit in ipso non pereat sed habeat vitam aeternam alleluia (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, hallelujah,” cf. John 3:16). This text was sung as an antiphon in numerous places throughout the Middle Ages on Pentecost Monday (Cantus Database). Mandatum (or footwashing) ceremonies during the Middle Ages (and beyond, in many places held on Maundy Thursday) were rituals that represented Jesus’ command to the disciples to love each other. Here antiphons were sung with texts from the biblical narrative (John 13:1–17, 34–35) as well as from other biblical texts about love, including 1 Cor 13:13 or about the woman anointing Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:37–50 (see “Footwashing”).

Also in medieval Latin hymns one finds expressions of God’s love through Christ, as in Veni, creator Spiritus for Pentecost by the Carolingian abbot, scholar, and later archbishop Hrabanus Maurus (ca. 780–856) including the stanza “You who are called the Comforter,/ the gift of God who dwells on high,/ the living spring, and fire, and love,/ anointing of the spirit too” (Qui Paraclitus diceris,/ donum Dei altissimi,/ fons vivus, ignis, caritas, et spiritalis unctio; Walsh/Husch: 260–61). In the hymn Gaude, virgo by Peter Abelard (see “Abelard, Peter”) to the Virgin Mary, one finds the formulation “The mother is loving,/ and the Son is love” (Pia mater,/ pietas filius; Walsh/Husch: 294–95).

Texts about love (between the bride and the bridegroom) from Song had a strong liturgical presence, not least for Marian feasts. In such contexts, they were understood metaphorically about the love between Christ and his bride, the Church. Many composers, especially in Early Modernity made polyphonic settings of these texts, as e.g., Palestrina and Monteverdi (in his Marian Vespers), and, in German, Schütz and J. S. Bach, but also in more recent times for instance Stravinsky (see “Bride VIII. Music” and “Lust VI. Music”). Many Latin liturgical texts were set in polyphony in early modern times (and later), in Protestant contexts often also in the vernacular. Sic deus dilexit mundum (John 3:16) for instance, was set by Palestrina, Josquin des Prez, and others in the 16th century, as well as by the Lutheran Hieronymus Praetorius (Oxford Music Online, q.v. Sic deus dilexit mundum). Heinrich Schütz set the same verse in German in his Musikalische Exequien (1636), a Lutheran burial service, based on brief biblical excerpts and Lutheran hymns (Schütz: 9–11). Also biblical psalms were set in polyphony to a high extent in Early Modernity as well as later, mainly for liturgical use. Among his Grands Motets, Jean-Baptiste Lully famously set the Miserere (Ps 51 = Ps 50 in the Vg.) in 1663 (La Gorce). As part of his Vesper compositions, W. A. Mozart set Ps 117 (= Ps 116 in the Vg.; Konrad: 24). Felix Mendelssohn’s German settings of e.g., Pss 13, 42, 66, 98, and 115, however, were partly to be used in a liturgical context but partly as concert pieces (Todd: 361–62, 407–8, 467, and 650).

The cantatas and Passions of J. S. Bach are among the most important examples of liturgical treatment of biblical notions of love in music. Bach’s cantata Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget (“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us”; Leipzig 1723) begins with a chorus setting 1 John 3:1a (“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” It continues with a chorale setting of the last stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1524) including the words “Das hat er alles uns getan,/ Sein groβ Lieb zu zeigen an” (“All this he has done for us/ To manifest His great love”; Stokes: 104; Dürr: 152–55). Bach’s cantata Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt (“God so loved the world”; Leipzig 1725) for Pentecost Monday takes its point of departure in John 3:16, quoted in the opening chorale setting the first stanza of a Lutheran hymn by Salomo Liscow (1675; Dürr: 407–9; Stokes: 110–11). Also cantatas for Christmas, notably the so-called Christmas Oratorio (Leipzig 1734) give strong expressions with strong musical emphases on God’s love, partly based (again) on the mentioned Luther-stanza (Stokes: 360, 364; Dürr: 131–33, 163). Both the St Matthew (1727 with later revisions) and the St John Passion (1724 with later revisions) have as their main theological focus to point to God’s and Christ’s love in the wish and the act to redeem humans, albeit represented in different ways in the two Passions, partly dependent on the different presentations of Christ’s Passion in the two gospels. A particularly explicit expression of this, and one musical highpoint in the St Matthew Passion, is the aria Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (“Out of love my Savior is willing to die”; Marissen: 58). The Bach works are main examples of German Lutheran liturgical music, but the main intentions of and biblical uses in these works are representative of a much broader German Lutheran liturgical repertory, based to a high extent not only on biblical texts, but also on Lutheran hymns, which again, naturally, are biblical receptions in their own right, as exemplified here.

Numerous Lutheran vernacular hymns in various languages have reformulated biblical notions of love in more or less similar ways. A major Danish example from the 19th century by N. F. S. Grundtvig may be chosen to point to a later (Romantic) style of hymn writing with a similar theological focus. In Grundtvig’s hymn O kristelighed (Oh Christianity; 1824, rev. 1853; no. 321 in the official Danish Hymnal), set to music by L. M. Lindemann (1862), the last two stanzas begin with invocations of love poetically connected to Christ and the Holy Spirit: “O kærlighed selv” (Oh love itself) and “O kærligheds Ånd” (Oh spirit of love) (Den danske Salmebog, 343).

2. Music not written for liturgical purposes

Many devotional works, which were not written to be part of a liturgical ceremony, represent divine love and/or human love in a biblical perspective. Many songs outside the liturgical repertory represent biblical narratives or notions including notions of love. For instance, Abelard wrote non-liturgical biblical songs of lament (see “Abelard II. Music”), among these a setting of David’s lament about Saul and Jonathan, including the biblical statement of David’s love of Jonathan being greater than his love of women (2 Sam 1:26). However, it is foremost in oratorios that biblical narratives or notions of love are primarily found. Partly many oratorios, by for instance Carissimi, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and others re-tell biblical narratives in which love is an important ingredient, whether stories about Samson, King David from the HB/OT or the basic narratives about the nativity of Christ, his Passion or other topics showing Christ as representing God’s love on earth. Passion Oratorios (as different from Oratorio Passions like the two famous Bach Passions) were oratorios, where the Passion of Christ was told through poetic re-writing of the biblical stories, rather than through the words of the Bible itself. They had the same theological and devotional intentions, i.e., to convey Christ’s Passion, his love of humans and thus to impress the notion of God’s love of mankind to their audiences. Numerous such works have been written since the 17th century (Smither).

In 17th-century Italy, it was common to write allegorical oratorios in which figures like “Celestial Love” and “Earthly Love” would dispute in order to convince an allegorical figure of a Christian about what was true and important. A biblical narrative (or a combination of more than one) would emphasize the superiority of the claims of “Celestial Love.” This is so, for instance in Antonio Caldara’s oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (ca. 1700), based primarily on the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at the house of the Pharisee (Luke 7:37–50), and also in Antonio Draghi’s sepolcro La vita nella morte (1688; a devotional staged music drama for Holy week, see “Drama VI. Music A. Music Drama”), where the important allegorical figure is “Amor divino” who convinces Humanità (Humanity) of Christ’s love and redemption by drawing on biblical “witnesses” such as Adam and Eve, and the Good Thief (on the cross at Golgotha) (Petersen: 150–54). A much later devotional allegorical music drama was composed by the eleven-year old W. A. Mozart, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (The Duty of the First Commandment; 1766/67), the first part of a trilogy, where the two other parts (by Anton Adlgasser and Michael Haydn) have not been preserved. The title refers to Jesus’ words in Matt 22:37: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Here it is the task of “Die göttliche Barmherzigkeit” (Divine Mercy) with the help of “Der Christen-Geist” (Christian Spirit) fighting especially against “Der Welt-Geist” (Spirit of the World) to convince the protagonist, a somewhat ambivalent Christian, to understand the necessity of his salvation. Although this happens foremost through the threat of damnation, Christian mercy and love is demonstrated through the activity of the main allegorical figures who want to help the lukewarm Christian (Schick: 233–34).

Biblical love, divine love and its mirror in human love of one’s neighbor has been represented in music also in the form of settings of Jesus’ parables, not least The Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Both of these were set by Benjamin Britten in short music dramatic works, his Church Parable III, The Prodigal Son, and his dramatic Cantata misericordium (Cantata of the Merciful).

Also operas have represented many aspects of biblical love. To a high extent, this has been done in operas representing biblical narratives, which deal with human love, very much like oratorios, and usually taking up dramatic stories from the HB/OT, as for instance the stories of David and Bathsheba (see Leneman and “Bathsheba VII. Music” and “David VIII. Music”) or Samson and Delilah, stories often also represented in the critical light in which human sexual coveting is often represented in the Bible, and in the history of Christianity (see “Coveting, Desiring” and “Lust VI. Music”). The same is true for Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Parsifal, although these are not biblical in terms of being based on biblical narratives. However, their medievalist religious plots are to a high extent put in a perspective informed by a Christian worried attitude concerning the (at least) potential sinfulness of human sexuality, ultimately biblically based. Also in Mozart’s Don Giovanni the plot is put in a traditional Christian moral perspective. Here it is not directed against sexual desires as such, but against Giovanni’s abuses. A very different use of biblical love, based on Song, is found in a recent Danish opera by P. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (2015; see “Lust VI. Music”).

Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) has been interpreted to stage true human love, in the person of the Countess when she forgives her husband the Count for having betrayed her, in a Christian perspective, reflecting notions of divine love and forgiveness. The British Mozart scholar Nicholas Till has expressed it in strong terms referring to Stendhal’s Vie de Mozart (Life of Mozart; 1815), “The marital fidelity upheld by the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro is an emblem of God’s own covenant to keep faith with mankind. Stendhal was quite right when he described the hymnlike music which follows the Count’s contrition and abasement and the Countess’ serene bestowal of grace as ‘le plus beau chant d’église qu’il soit possible d’entendre’ [the most beautiful church song which it is possible to hear].”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Das Wunder der Heliane (Hamburg 1927 to a text by Hans Müller, based on a mystery play by Hans Kaltneker) sets a story exhibiting both physical and spiritual love. The protagonists, Heliane and The Stranger are victims of a brutal ruler (Heliane’s husband) and the plot involves miraculous resurrections and the final transfiguration of the two loving figures ascending toward heaven. They are merciful and long for human love, generally as well as in their mutual also physical relationship (Dixon).

The French modernist and Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise (Paris 1983) includes biblical references to God’s love. In Act 1, tableau 3, which tells the story of how Francis came to kiss a leper to show brotherly love, the angel sings “But God, but God, but God is greater, greater than your heart … He is Love, He is Love, He is greater, greater than your heart, He knows everything … But God, but God, but God is all Love, and he who lives in Love, lives in God, and God in him” (cf. 1 John 4:16b; English translation of Messiaen’s libretto by Siglind Bruhn; Bruhn: 210).

In his Vier ernste Gesänge (Four serious Songs, 1896), Johannes Brahms set 1 Cor 13:1–3, 12–13, as the concluding song in this major biblical work in the genre of the lied (see “Lied [Song]”), thus rendering Paul’s central summary of Christian love musically (see “Corinthians, First Epistle to the III. Music” for other settings of the same text). Olivier Messiaen has also referred to divine love in some instrumental works, not least in titles for individual movements. Thus, the 5th movement in his orchestral piece Eclairs sur l’Au-delà … (Illuminations of the Beyond …; 1988–92) is entitled “Demeurer dans l’Amour” (to remain in love). His organ work Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) has “Dieu est immense, éternel, immuable – Le souffle de l’Esprit – Dieu est Amour” (God is immense, eternal, immutable – The breath of the Spirit – God is Love) as a subtitle for its 5th movement. And the 20th movement in his huge piano work Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for piano (Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus; 1944) is called “Regard de l’église d’Amour” (Griffith).


  • Bach, J. S., St Matthew Passion, Oratorio Passion (Leipzig 1727 with later revisions).Google Scholar

  • Britten, B., The Prodigal Son. A Parable for Church Performance (Aldeburgh 1968).Google Scholar

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  • Messiaen, O., Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for piano (Paris 1944).Google Scholar

  • Mozart, W. A., Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (text by I. A. Weiser), devotional music drama (Salzburg 1766/67).Google Scholar

  • Mozart, W. A., Le nozze di Figaro (text by L. Da Ponte), opera (Vienna 1786).Google Scholar

  • Wagner, R., Tannhäuser, opera (Dresden 1845, rev. 1861).Google Scholar

  • Wagner, R., Parsifal, A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage (“Bühnenweihfestspiel”) (Bayreuth 1882).Google Scholar


  • Bruhn, S., Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity: Echoes of Medieval Theology in the Oratorio, Organ Meditations, and Opera (Hillsdale, N.Y. 2008).Google Scholar

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  • Den danske Salmebog [The Danish Hymnal] (Copenhagen 2003).Google Scholar

  • Dixon, T. O., Synopsis of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (www.korngold-society.org).Google Scholar

  • Dürr, A., Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach (Munich/Kassel 102010).Google Scholar

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  • Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, P., Sol går op sol går ned: Musik og Skue Spil [The sun rises and the sun goes down: Music Drama and Spoken Play] (score; Copenhagen n.d.)Google Scholar

  • Kinney, A. M. (ed.), The Vulgate Bible with the Douay-Rheims Translation, vol. 6: The New Testament (Cambridge, Mass./London 2013).Google Scholar

  • Konrad, U., Mozart-Werkverzeichnis (Kassel 2005).Google Scholar

  • La Gorce, J. de, “Lully, Jean-Baptiste [Lulli, Giovanni Battista] (i),” Grove Music Online (www.oxfordmusiconline.com).Google Scholar

  • Leneman, H., Love, Lust, and Lunacy: The Stories of Saul and David in Music (Sheffield 2010).Google Scholar

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  • Petersen, N. H., “Sepolcro: Musical Devotion of the Passion in 17th–18th Century Austria,” Instruments of devotion: The Practices and Objects of Religious Piety from the Late Middle Ages to the 20th Century (ed. H. Laugerud/L. K. Skinnebach; Aarhus 2007) 145–56.Google Scholar

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XI Film

Sandie Gravett

Many films are built around conceptions of love, sometimes with direct reference to the Bible and other times via allusion. Connections to a specific text certainly get made on the screen. Places in the Heart (dir. Robert Benton, 1984, US), for example, tells the story of a widow (Sally Field) and her young children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James), an African-American vagrant (Danny Glover), and a blind boarder (John Malkovich) attempting to survive together in tough economic times, in a difficult agricultural environment, and in the face of opposition such as the KKK. The wider community, divided by race and class, gender, and ability, cannot support or accept this unlikely de facto family. The movie’s closing scene takes place in a church, where a relatively sparse crowd listens to the pastor reading the day’s lesson (1 Cor 13) which describes the qualities that define love: patience and kindness, the lack of jealousy or boastfulness, and the fact that love never ends. During the communion that follows, an actualized ideal of what that sacred space would look like if love prevailed unfolds imaginatively. In that scene, all the characters separated by the community’s brokenness serve one another and pass the peace. That image offers a melancholic critique of how love has failed in this place.

The same passage shows up in The Mission (dir. Roland Joffé, 1986, UK/FR), the story of Spanish and Portuguese political wrestling in South America and its impact on the work of Jesuits among the indigenous populations. When Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) visits with a jailed mercenary and slave trader named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro), he helps him find his penance and redemption among the Guaraní people he once hunted. When Mendoza wants to thank the Guaraní but does not know how, Father Gabriel hands him a book, saying, “Read this.” A montage of Mendoza reading 1 Cor 13 and working amongst the people ensues. His experiences inspire him to join the Jesuits and to make his life about embracing the love he has discovered. Indeed, in the end, he will defend this outpost, his home, with his life. But whether he acts out of love, at least as Father Gabriel understands and articulates it, is one of the central questions the film poses.

Or one might consider Bleu (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993, FR/PL/CH, Three Colors: Blue). The complications of realizing love come to the fore when Julie (Juliette Binoche), the wife and silent collaborator with her famous composer husband, loses both him and their daughter in a tragic accident. Unable to find her way out of the grief, she attempts to shun everything she knows. But life comes calling in the form of new acquaintances, her husband’s pregnant mistress, and his final unfinished composition. Part of that completed score plays over the final scene, a montage of all the lives intertwined in and through this tragedy, and it includes the singing of 1 Cor 13. The plaintive notes, the rising and falling furious chorus, and the dark sadness of the colors and the faces shown, all suggest that love does not lack sorrow or pain, but, in fact, love may invite them.

It comes as no surprise that religiously explicit films explore this territory. Indeed, discoveries about the true depth of what constitutes love stands out as a common theme. Speaking the truth to one another in love (Eph 4:15–16), for instance, appears in the story of Father Farley (Jack Lemon), a beloved Catholic priest who risks his reputation amongst his congregation by challenging them to support a young, brash seminarian (Zeljko Ivanek) who defies the rules and faces the censure of a dictatorial Monsignor (Charles Durning) in Mass Appeal (dir. Glenn Jordan, 1984, US). Father Farley tells the people he wants them to fight for their church by fighting for this young man and concludes by saying, “This is the first time I have ever said what I wanted to you; only now is love possible.”

In Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1996, UK/US), one finds Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) counseling death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) prior to his execution. While he confesses to the murder of Walter Delacroix (Peter Sarsgaard) and thanks Sister Helen for loving him just prior to his execution, there is love. But the families left behind continue to struggle. After Poncelet’s funeral, Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), the father of the dead young man, tells Sister Helen about his ongoing struggle with hating what has happened in his life and the man responsible for it. Much as Rom 12:9–21 encourages the community to let love be genuine and to overcome evil with good, she tells him, “Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.” The final shots of the movie show them meeting for prayer in a small church, acknowledging that the justice of the state does not heal the pain of the survivors.

More standard Hollywood fare also speaks to the topic of love. In As Good As It Gets (dir. James L. Brooks, 1997, US), three isolated and lonely people, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), and Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) learn – often with great awkwardness and pain – to both give and receive love in their interactions with each another. If the biblical standard is to love one another (Lev 19:8–18; Mark 12:31; 1 John 3:11), the movie demonstrates how showing kindness in simple acts such as caring for a neighbor’s pet, exhibiting patience with the idiosyncrasies of others, extending aid to a child, or taking in a person in need, forges the foundation for learning to accept others, imperfect as they might be (1 Pet 4:8).

Love as mercurial, a source of contentment and encouragement as well as suffering and loss, comes through in Tender Mercies (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1983, US). Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) drinks away his pain, while Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) raises her child Sonny (Alan Hubbard) alone after his father dies in Vietnam. Their marriage prompts Mac to begin writing songs again and even to reunite with his daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). But the love they share cannot shield him from the loss of Sue Anne to a car accident or help him learn to trust in happiness. It is, rather, in the quiet acts of daily tasks at their motel, or in tossing a football, that they follow the mandate to love one another as Christ loves (John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:11), showing the humility, grace, and patience that characterizes this bond (Eph 4:2).

The Bible also speaks of love beyond the human realm. Whether it be time (Ps 52:8) or space (Ps 36:5), height or depth (Rom 8:39), the love of God prevails in the universe. Insterstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014, US/UK) takes up this idea as two astronauts on a mission to save the people of earth discuss how to move forward. Brand (Anne Hathaway) wants to make the case for why love informs her decision-making to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He argues that the meaning of love resides in its social utility, while she struggles to express that there must be more, given its power. She tells him, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space.” He will discover that truth for himself subsequently when his love for his daughter Murph (played at various ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn) persists across the space/time dimension and allows them to communicate what is necessary to save the planet.

Another science-fiction film also covers this territory. In The Terminator (dir. James Cameron, 1984, US/UK), a hunted Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) must survive in order to give birth to the resistance leader who will fight against the machines in the future. While seeking refuge from the cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) chasing them, she asks her protector Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) why he chose this mission. He tells her, “I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.” Not only, it turns out, will he father her child, but he also gives his life to ensure her survival. This dimension of love is also, of course, biblical. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).


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Plate 1.a Liss, Johann, Adam and Eve Lament Abel’s Death: oil on canvas (1624); Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice/Italy ©akg-images/Cameraphoto.

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