Worship-word domain(s) and proskuneō (IIC full)

The digest version of this post appeared a few hours ago.  My hope is that some who scanned that will have had their appetites whetted for more detail!

Toward a delineated, nuanced understanding and practice, this installment further discusses the semantic domain(s) for words translated “worship,” emphasizing meanings of proskuneō and related words.

After years of thought and observation, it’s admittedly gratifying to have my general conclusion about Romans 12:1-2 propped up by the scholarly work of Karen Jobes¹ in this area.  It does make perfect sense to read latreuō in Romans as a reference to the Levitical priesthood.  A morphed, New-Covenant understanding of the priestly “religious vocation” (as Jobes termed it)—in contradistinction to any notions of more vertically framed worship (e.g., humble adoration, praise, words of direct honoring)—seems to be what Paul is advocating.  To reiterate a couple items from the last post:  

  1. It is an interpretive mistake to make the word latreian in Romans 12 refer directly to things under the typical, modern Christian heading “worship.”
  2. It may not be assumed that all the biblical instances of the word “worship” refer to the same thing; however, various horizontal and vertical things may all be reasonably included in the same discussion, if one takes care.

Below are the words Jobes has identified as constituting the semantic domain for worship.  Here, she includes latreuō and leitourgeō in the broad category,² although she will subsequently explain that the range of meaning of these two words does not really overlap with the others.  I am adding gloss definitions, but please don’t hang your hat on these English-translation hooks.  I might point out now that several of these words may be used with secular meanings.

Five verbs
latreuō – perform priestly duty
proskuneō – give worship/homage, “kiss toward”
sebazomai – participate in religious revelry
sebomai – show honor (a pejorative term in the NT)
eusebeō – show piety

Three other expressions with close connections
leitourgeō – perform civil or prietsly duty
kampto to gonu – bend the knee
gonupeteō – petition on bended knee

Just prior to listing the above words, Jobes offered a sample of English NT verses with the word “worship,” noting that Rom 12:1, Matt 2:11, Mark 7:6-7, and Rom 1:25 each involves a different Greek word from the list above.  These verses do not all speak of the same thing!  Forgive my bold effusiveness; it might be better at this stage to point out more cautiously that

  1. The original words in each of those passages are different.
  2. The semantic relationships among the words are nuanced.
  3. Taken in the contexts of those passages, these words very likely do not speak of the same thing.

It is in learning which specific word was used in each specific context that we may begin to delineate and understand this whole concept-area more thoroughly and appropriately.  Giving attention to the document- or book-level context often reveals even more about the use of a word.

Now, I do note a slight discrepancy in Jobes’s article:  early on, she lists all eight of the above words as making up the whole:  “The range of meaning of these eight expressions comprises the semantic domain for worship.” (202)  Yet in a detailed discussion of proskuneō a few pages later, she notes, “However, gonupeteō is not a member of the semantic domain for worship.” (205)  This conflict is resolved in acquiring a more thorough concept of the two semantic senses of proskuneō (and then in extending thought into the range of meaning of gonupeteō):

Proskuneō’s “A” sense:  worship, homage shown by bowing (physically and/or in spirit), “kissing toward” in reverent adoration of God

Proskuneō’s “B” sense:  entreaty, petition made subserviently, on bended knee, i.e., request made of anyone in power, including a governmental/civil authority

Jobes believes that the magi’s proskuneō of Matt 2:11 falls into the 2nd category, i.e., that it is not hermeneutically justifiable to call this “worship” per se.  Her distinction—namely, whether there is a theologically motivated component—seems necessary because we are focusing on dictionary definitions.  While those men might have worshipped in the believing, Christian sense, what they did as “delegates of an eastern monarch” (Jobes 206) surely didn’t involve a developed understanding of the incarnation or of Jesus’ identity as Messiah.  As exegetes, we might well find a contextual reason to lean toward sense A or sense B, but all we can say, based on vocabulary, is that what they did was proskuneō:  that’s the word that was used.  And proskuneō isn’t restricted to spiritually motivated actions.

Context can give us clues as to the sense of the word, as in John 4, where a more theologically based sense A for proskuneō seems appropriate.  In the case of Matt 2:11 (and, e.g., Matt 20:20, from the mouth of James and John’s mother), either sense A or sense is possible, but the latter seems more likely.³

To return to the gonupeteō issue:  this word (used in Matt 17:14, 27:29; Mark 1:40, 10:17) is in the semantic domain with sense B of proskuneō.  In that sense, then, gonupeteō is not properly included in the semantic domain for theologically oriented “worship”; on the other hand, it is properly considered alongside proskuneō.

Most writers on worship seem to love the word proskuneō while ignoring kampto to gonu (bend the knee) and gonupeteō (petition on bended knee)This is a curiosity; at first blush, it seems to be an evidence of somewhat shallow study, and I’ve been both victim and the culprit in the past.  I’m impelled now to examine the NT (and other) passages that use these expressions—expressions that share in proskuneō’s general range of meaning.  A starter list of these passages is below.4

Through studies like this, we may gain a clearer understanding of the vertical and horizontal.  The expressions kampto to gonu, gonupeteō and proskuneo are all vertically oriented; some usages are spiritually/theologically specialized.

¹ PhD, Biblical Hermeneutics, Westminster Theological Seminary

² Why might one group latreuō and leitourgeō with proskuneo and related, vertical word-concepts?  Two possible explanations come to mind:

  • because almost everybody does it that way (to their hermeneutical detriment!)
  • because church life in most institutional churches—and particularly in high-church environments in which Jobes has made her home—naturally leads even the best scholars to lump every ostensibly churchy activity into the same category

³ Jobes appears to have made a mistake in referring to John 12:20 in this light; this instance of proskuneo does not relate directly to “petitioning Jesus for assistance or healing.” (205)

4 Matthew 17:14, Matthew 27:29, Mark 1:40, Mark 10:17, Mark 15:19, Luke 5:8, Luke 22:41, Acts 7:60, Acts 9:40, Acts 20:36, Acts 21:5, Romans 11:4, Romans 14:11, Ephesians 3:14, Philippians 2:10, Hebrews 12:12



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