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Chapter 7. When Proskyneō is Used of Jesus, Does it Mean Divine Worship?

Chapter 7

When Proskyneō is used of Jesus, Does it Mean Divine Worship?

Worshipping Jesus or paying homage to Jesus?

When the magi visited the infant Jesus (Mt.2:11), did they “wor­ship” Jesus (ESV) or did they pay him “homage” (NJB)? Here we see two rather differ­ent ways of translating the Greek word proskyneō by two mainstream Bibles.

As we will see, Greek-English lexicons give two basic definit­ions of proskyneō, one of which is primary and fundamental, and the other of which is secondary and der­ivat­ive. The primary meaning is “to kneel before some­one” or “to prostrate oneself before some­one”. This is a bodily expression of pay­ing hom­age to some­one without nec­ess­arily ascribing deity to him (e.g., bowing before a Roman centurion). But in some contexts, proskyneō can have the deriv­ative sense of worship. Whereas the primary meaning does not necess­ar­ily in­volve the attribution of deity, the second may involve divine worship.

When we encounter proskyneō in the New Testament, the quest­ion of which is its intended meaning can often be resolved by seeing who the ob­ject of the proskyneō is. If the object is God, then proskyneō would mean divine wor­ship (e.g., Mt.4:10, “You shall wor­ship the Lord your God”). But if the object is a human dignitary such as a Roman commander, then proskyneō would mean kneeling or paying hom­age with­out the attribution of deity.

Hence the intended mean­ing of proskyneō is often gov­erned by the object of the proskyneō, whether he is viewed as divine. The mere use of the word proskyneō does not, in itself, confer deity on a person, for an act of kneeling does not necessarily involve divine worship.

In the ancient Near East, kneeling or bowing was a com­mon ges­ture of reverence or courtesy, and was not in itself under­stood as divine wor­ship. We see this not only in the NT but also in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. To give two examples, Abraham bowed before the Hittites (Gen.23:12) and David bowed before Saul (1Sam.24:8; v.9 in LXX). In the LXX of these two verses, proskyneō is the word that is used. Hence it is erron­eous to conclude that Jesus is God solely by the fact that proskyneō is used of him.

What does proskyneō mean when it is used of Jesus?

There are exactly 60 instances of proskyneō in the New Testament, of which 17 are used of Jesus (as the object of proskyneō in all 17 cases). A full list of the 60 instances will be given below.

Where pros­kyneō is used of Jesus, ESV would often trans­late it as “worship” (e.g., the dis­ciples “worshipped” Jesus after he had calmed a storm, Mt.14:33) but occasionally as “kneel” (Mt.20:20). ESV, NIV, and NASB tend to trans­late proskyneō as “worship” when it is used of Jesus, presup­posing his divin­ity.

But many other Bibles differ from ESV in the way they tend to translate proskyneō when it is used of Jesus. Instead of saying that the magi “wor­shiped” the infant Jesus (Mt.2:11), these translat­ions give no indication of worship: “did him homage” (NJB, NRSV, NAB, Darby); “honored him” (CEB); “adored him” (Douay-Rheims); “bowed low in homage to him” (REB); “prostrated them­selves in rever­ence to him” (ITNT). This is despite the fact that some of these Bibles have trinit­arian cred­ent­ials, either by reputation or by the Impri­matur, the Catholic Church’s “seal of approval” (for NJB, NAB, Douay-Rheims).

ESV renders Mt.2:11 to mean the “worship” of the infant Jesus, but this reading is rejected by many trinitar­ian commentaries in their study of this verse. For example, Tyndale Commentary says that “the verb worship (pros­ky­neō) need mean no more than to pay hom­age to a human digni­tary”. John Cal­vin in his commentary says emphatically that the magi did not come to worship Jesus but to salute him as “a very emin­ent King”. Dr. Consta­ble’s Expository Notes says that the magi’s statement “does not necess­arily mean that they regarded Him as divine” but “that they wanted to do Him homage”. Exposit­or’s Bible Commentary says that the magi’s “statement sug­gests hom­age paid to royalty rather than the worship of Deity”.

The divergence is seen in other verses such as Mt.14:33 where ESV says that the dis­ciples “wor­shiped” Jesus after he had calmed a storm. But most of the afore­men­tioned Bibles speak instead of bow­ing to Jesus or pay­ing homage to him. For example, NJB has “bowed down before him,” and NEB and REB have “fell at his feet”.

A crucial question for trinitarians

Since proskyneō can mean either “pay homage” or less commonly “worship,” which is the intended meaning when it is used of Jesus? Is it possi­ble for us to arrive at a correct understanding of proskyneō that does not depend on doctrinal presuppositions? Can we break the dead­lock in which trinita­rians take proskyneō to mean wor­ship­ping Jesus, and non-trinit­arians take to mean kneel­ing before Jesus?

Adding to the problem is that Matthew 2:11 (the infant Jesus and the magi) has no obvious internal evid­ence in fav­or of the one inter­pret­ation over the other. So if you pre­sup­pose that the magi wor­shipped Jesus as God, then proskyneō would mean “worship” to you. But if you believe that the magi paid homage to Jesus, then proskyneō would mean “pay homage” to you. So are there external and objective factors that can break the deadlock?

Fortunately, we do have a way of breaking the deadlock because there are four verifiable facts at our disposal that do not depend on doc­trinal presup­positions. None is conclusive by itself, but when the four are taken in com­bination, they guide us to the correct meaning of proskyneō when it is used of Jesus.

Fact #1: Worship is not the fundamental meaning of proskyneō but a derivative meaning

Two standard Greek-English lexicons, BDAG and Thayer’s, indi­cate that “wor­ship” is only a secondary or derivative mean­ing of pros­kyneō. BDAG gives the following definit­ions of pros­kyneō, quoted here verbatim with citations omitted (the lone boldface is mine):

  • to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure
  • (fall down and) worship
  • do obeisance to
  • prostrate oneself before
  • do reverence to
  • welcome respectfully

Thayer’s lexicon gives the following definitions of prosky­neō, quoted here verbatim with cita­tions omitted (the lone boldface is mine):

  • to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
  • to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
  • kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
  • It is used a. of homage shown to men of superior rank;
  • b. of homage rendered to God and the ascended Christ, to heavenly beings, and to demons: absolutely (or to worship)

We note this important fact: In BDAG and Thayer’s, the two tiny words in boldface are the only definitions of proskyneō that have to do with divine wor­ship. In both these lexi­cons, the idea of worship is given far less prom­in­ence than the idea of kneeling or paying hom­age. In fact, only one quarter of BDAG’s citations have to do with “worship,” indicating that in the New Testament, the fun­damental mean­ing of proskyneō is not worship but kneeling or paying homage. The sense of “worship” is poss­ible in some contexts, but is derivative.

What it means is that we cannot conclude that Jesus is God merely by the fact that proskyneō is applied to him; we need more evidence beyond that bare fact.

Fact #2: Despite its continued use in the NT, proskyneō is almost no longer used of Jesus after his ascension!

The word proskyneō occurs 60 times in the New Testament: 29 times in the four gospels and 31 times after the gospels. Hence the occur­rence of proskyneō is about even­ly balanced (29-to-31) between the gospels and the rest of the NT.

This 29-to-31 balance stands in stark contrast to the following 15-to-2 imbal­ance: proskyneō is no longer used of Jesus after the four gospels (with two exceptions) despite the contin­ued use of proskyneō in the New Testa­ment! To give specific numbers, proskyneō is used of Jesus 15 times in the four gos­pels but only twice after the gospels. This 15-to-2 imbal­ance is seen in the following table which we call the “shorter” table:

 

The 17 occurrences of proskyneō applied to Jesus Christ in the New Testament

The Four Gospels (15x)

After the Gospels (2x)

Matthew 2:2

Matthew 2:8

Matthew 2:11

Matthew 4:9

Matthew 8:2

Matthew 9:18

Matthew 14:33

Matthew 15:25

Matthew 20:20

Matthew 28:9

Matthew 28:17

Mark 5:6

Mark 15:19

Luke 24:52

John 9:38

Hebrews 1:6

Revelation 5:14

 

 

Note the imbalance between the two columns.

The next table—the longer one—lists all 60 occur­rences of prosky­neō in the NA28 Greek New Testament. The table is div­ided into the same two sections: the four gos­pels with 29 occur­rences and after the gospels with 31 occur­rences. 17 of the occurrences refer to Jesus; these are highlighted in boldface and cor­respond to the 17 verses listed in the shorter table.

 

All the 60 occurrences of proskyneō in the Greek NT

Matthew 2:2 2:8 2:11 4:9 4:10 8:2 9:18 14:33 15:25 18:26 20:20 28:9 28:17

Mark 5:6 15:19

Luke 4:7 4:8 24:52

John 4:20 4:21 4:22 4:22 4:23 4:23 4:23 4:24 4:24 9:38 12:20

Acts 7:43 8:27 10:25 24:11

1 Corinth 14:25

Hebrews 1:6 11:21

Revelation 3:9 4:10 5:14 7:11 9:20 11:1 11:16 13:4 13:4 13:8 13:12 13:15 14:7 14:9 14:11 15:4 16:2 19:4 19:10 19:10 19:20 20:4 22:8 22:9

 

From both tables, we see that proskyneō is no longer used of Jesus after the four gospels, with two exceptions: Hebrews 1:6 and Revelat­ion 5:14. But Hebrews 1:6 does not qualify as an exception because it is not post-Gospel but a reference to Jesus’ physical birth:

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Heb.1:6, quoting Psalm 97:7, LXX 96:7)

This verse comes from a passage in Hebrews that declares Jesus’ sup­er­iority over the angels. Yet the idea of worship is not entrenched in this verse. NJB avoids using the word “worship” in Hebrews 1:6 when it says, “Let all the angels of God pay him homage”; ITNT has “All God’s angels must revere him”; REB has “Let all God’s angels pay him homage”.

But the more significant verse for trinitarians is Revelation 5:14 be­cause it is the only verse in the New Testament that has anything close to the explicit worship of Jesus, by the fact that pros­kyneō is applied to Jesus together with God. This verse will be dis­cussed soon.

Why the sudden drop?

What could account for the sudden drop—indeed, the near disap­pear­ance—in the application of proskyneō to Jesus after the gos­pels (only twice, but in reality only once, i.e., a 16-to-1 imbalance) despite the contin­ued use of proskyneō in the New Testament?

An answer can be found in an important fact: The divid­ing line between the gospels and the rest of the New Testament is also the dividing line between the earthly Jesus and the ascended Jesus. While Jesus was still on earth, people offered him pros­kyneō in his physical presence. But after he had ascended into heaven, people no longer offered him proskyneō in his physical presence.

Hence, when proskyneō is used of Jesus, it ought to be understood as paying homage to him or kneeling to him rather than worship­ping him as God. After Jesus ascended into hea­ven, he was no longer physical­ly present on earth for people to kneel or to bow to him in his physical presence. That is why the New Testament stops applying proskyneō to Jesus after his ascension into heaven.

But if we take the trinitarian view that proskyneō means the divine worship of Jesus as God, there would be no obvious rea­son for the worship to stop after his as­cension into heaven. For if Jesus is God as he is in trin­itarianism, then divine worship ought to contin­ue even in Jesus’ absence, for an omni­pres­ent God can be worshipped anywhere in the universe. In fact, if Jesus were God, we would expect an increase, not a decrease, in the application of pros­kyneō to Jesus after his ascension, because the risen Jesus is now the exalted Lord who has been given the name above every name.

Chronologically, the very last time prior to Rev­elation 5:14 that proskyneō is used of Jesus is in Luke 24:52, at precisely the point of his ascension into hea­ven! This is not a coincidence. Luke 24:52 is most signi­ficant for fix­ing the cutoff precisely at the demarcat­ion of the earthly Jesus and the ascended Jesus.

Fact #3: Proskyneō is used mainly by John, yet he almost never applies it to Jesus

Of the 60 occurrences of proskyneō in the NT, 35 are found in John’s writ­ings versus 25 in the rest of the NT, which would make proskyneō a pre­dom­inantly Johannine word. Yet John applies this word to Jesus only twice in all his writ­ings! (See the longer table above.) These two occurrences are in John 9:38 (a man healed of blindness bows before Jesus) and Revelation 5:14 (the verse we have noted and will be discussing soon).

On the other hand, John applies proskyneō ten times—in the full sense of worship—to Satan or the beast or its image! [1]

Although proskyneō is a pre­dom­inantly Johannine word, John almost never uses it of Jesus, a surprising fact giv­en that trinita­rians regard John’s writ­ings as espousing a high Christolo­gy. But there is really nothing shocking about this at all, for it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus declares that his Father is the only true God (Jn.17:3). In this same gospel (of John), we see the intentions of Jesus’ heart when he exhorts us to worship his Father: “worship the Father” (Jn.4:21); and “true worship­ers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (v.23).

Fact #4: The latreuein group is never applied to Jesus

We explain this fourth point as follows:

  • By “word group” we mean a group of Greek words which are related as cognates. We are now looking at the latreuein group which consists of three words: latreuein, latreia, leitourgein.
  • Respectively, these three words mean: (i) to serve/minister as a cultic act­ivity; (ii) cultic devotion; (iii) to render cultic ser­vice. The word “cultic” pertains to religious devotion to God.
  • Here is a crucial fact: The latreuein word group expresses div­ine worship more strongly than any other word group in the NT, yet it is never used of Jesus!

That the latreuein word group is never applied to Jesus is explained in section 1.2 of James D.G. Dunn’s Did the First Christ­ians Worship Jesus? The following excerpts are taken from pp.13-15 of his book (foot­notes omitted, boldface added). If you wish to skip the details, just read the bolded words:

The most common of the other near synonyms is latreuein, which basic­ally means ‘to serve’. In biblical literature, how­ever, the reference is always to religious service, the carrying out of religious duties, ‘to ren­der cultic service’ . . . .

And in sev­eral passages latreuein is trans­lated ‘worship’ in English trans­lations. It is noticeable that in each case the object of the verb, the one who is (to be) served/worshipped, is God. Apart from one or two references to false worship, the reference is always to the cultic service/ worship of God. In no case in the New Testament is there talk of offer­ing cultic worship (latreu­ein) to Jesus . . . .

As with latreuein, so also with the matching noun, latreia, ‘(cultic) ser­vice, worship’. It refers always to the worship of God … Here we need simply note that the number of latreia references is very limited, and here too the ‘service/worship’ is never thought of as offered to Jesus . . . .

Bearing in mind that the latreuein word group is the nearest expression for the offering of ‘cultic worship’, the fact that it is never used for the ‘cultic devotion’ of Christ in the New Testa­ment is somewhat surprising for Hurta­do’s main thesis and should be given some attention.

Conclusion of the four facts: Jesus is not worshipped as God

We have presented four facts that can be verified objectively, empiri­cally, and independently. None of the four is conclu­sive by itself, but when they are taken in combination, they show beyond doubt that proskyneō, when used of Jesus, means kneel­ing to Jesus, or reverenc­ing him, or paying homage to him—but not wor­ship­ping him as God. On the contrary, Jesus exhorts us to worship the One whom he calls, “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God” (Jn.20:17). True worship is not the worship of Jesus but worship with Jesus.

Appended note: The special case of Revelation 5:14

Of the 60 occurrences of proskyneō in the New Testa­ment, 24 are found in Revelation. That is a high percentage (40%) for one book, yet none of the 24 instances in Revelation is used of Jesus with the sole except­ion of verse 5:14 where the elders in heaven “worship” both God and Jesus. Here the wor­ship (proskyneō) is dir­ected not to Jesus alone but also to God who is seated on His throne.

Here is a crucial observation: In the book of Revelation outside verse 5:14, proskyneō is always used of God the Father and never of Jesus, without except­ion (we are not counting the worship of the beast or its image). Hence it is clear that when pros­ky­neō is applied to both God and Jesus in the sole verse, Revelation 5:14, it is God rather than Jesus who is the principal reason for the use of proskyneō. This aligns with the fact that in the immediate context of Revelation 5:14, the central figure is God who is seated on His throne.

This reminds us of the way the people of Israel bowed before God and before King David (note the words in boldface):

1 Chronicles 29:20 David then addressed the whole assembly: “Now bless Yahweh your God!” And the whole assembly blessed Yahweh, God of their ancest­ors, bowing down in homage to Yahweh, and to the king. (NJB)

Here the words “bowing down in homage” correspond to prosky­neō in the LXX. The use of proskyneō in this verse, 1Chr.29:20, is crucial because it tells us that the LXX does not hes­itate to apply proskyneō to David when it is also ap­plied to Yahweh! The parallel between David in 1Chr.29:20 and Jesus in Rev.5:14 is heightened by the fact that Jesus is the Messiah who comes from David’s line.

We notice further that in 1Chr.29:20, the main in­tended recipient of the worship is not David but Yahweh, by the fact that David said, “Now bless Yahweh your God.” Yet that does not rule out David (or Jesus in Rev.5:14) participa­ting with Yahweh as the recip­ient of the proskyneō!

A personal message

I will always offer heartfelt proskyneō to Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, the one who loved me and gave himself for me, but I will not do this in an idolatrous way. On the contrary, I will always follow his example in “worshipping the Father” (Jn.4:21). Indeed, “true worship­ers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (v.23).

Dear reader, may you and I be forever true worship­pers of Yahweh, our loving God and Father, the One whom Jesus calls “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (Jn.20:17). All this is to the praise and glory of the only true God and His Son Jesus Christ.



[1] Revelation 13:4 (2x); 13:8; 13:12; 13:15; 14:9; 14:11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.

 

 

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