Lexical specifics and meaning theory (IID)

Modern linguistic theory teaches that the meaning . . . is not located in the word itself but is determined by the relationship the word has to other words . . . and by the contrast it forms with other words which share its semantic domain.  (Jobes 202)

Meaning is determined primarily by context.  The search for meaning may at times and with limitations be aided by lexicon/dictionary studies and by historical etymological factors, but each discrete text—taken as a whole, and sometimes including comparisons with other texts—will reveal meaning by virtue of comparisons and similarities.

To apply a music metaphor:  an 8th note has some meaning to a music reader who knows the language of musical notation.  However, it is only in the understanding of the musical context—the whole composition—that the musician may approach a full understanding of said 8th note.  Its style; its implied direction; its relation to quarter notes, half notes, and other 8ths . . . all these things and more are found in the note’s relationship to the whole musical context in which it is found.

The primacy of context is an important principle that I am hoping will guide all considerations of worship and service words.  I don’t want context to be lost in these posts that have been submerged in lexicography.

With that said, I’m going to offer more of a residual smattering of observations (those of Karen Jobes and my own) related to words she placed in the semantic domain for worship. Any preliminary conclusions drawn based on dictionary concerns must be made subservient to contexts in which the words are found.

The more frequently a given word is used in comparison to other words in its semantic domain, the more general and inclusive its meaning tends to be.  Proskuneō is the most frequently used of the verbs for worship. . . . Latreuō is the second most frequently used. . . . In contrast, eusebeō is the second most frequently used of the verbs in the extra-biblical works. . . .  (203)

Latreuō and leitourgeō share a very specific sense that distinguishes them from the other Greek verbs for worship that have a wider semantic range. (203)

The two related words latreuō and leitourgeō are more narrow in focus and application, denoting priestly “vocation.”  I would go a step further in asserting that these two words may not even belong in a discussion alongside proskuneo, kamptō to gonu, gonupeteō, sebomai, and sebazomai.  Actually, I don’t think Jobes would disagree:  she later depicted the relationships among three groupings of these words in circles that overlap each other but that do not touch the other circles.

. . . [T]he English word worship is both far too general and too conditioned by Western culture to adequately capture Paul’s vivid analogy of the Christian to the Old Testament priest.  (204, referring to Romans 12:1)

Jobes is right, right, right about this.  Once again, in case there’s any possibility that any reader has missed it:  the noun form of latreuō in Romans 12:1 should not be translated “worship.”  I am asserting this, not Jobes, and I suspect she would only partly agree.

The phrase kamptō to gonu (bend the knee”) may be a Semitic idiom and is included in the “worship, reverence” word grouping in Louw-Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, a very highly regarded work.

Jobes suggests that the lesser frequency of eusebeō in the NT, in comparison to secular literature, may indicate intentional choice against this word by NT writers.  To associate two separate passages in her article, and perhaps to extrapolate a bit, two things occur to me:

  1. Eusebeō’s association with pagan ritual could easily have given pause to a 1st-century writer.
  2. In any event, ritual was not what NT authors seem to have wanted to spotlight in terms of the “vertical” in the New Covenant relationship, and eusebeō seems generally to have denoted ritual.

The word eusebeō “refers to pious acts done for the benefit of or in obedience to an object of devotion,” Jobes comments.  Not incidentally, I have found that those who see worship largely from a vantage point of obedience to Deity’s demand are rarely the most exemplary worshippers.

The words eusebeō, sebomai, and sebazomai [1]share the root -seb.  While this factor is worthy of note, it should not be very significant in determining meaning.  Other etymological factors might be the “prefix” “eu” (which connotes “good”) and the differentiation of “voice” (sebazomai is in the middle voice, which edges toward the passive voice).  Context, however, is king:  it is best to depend primarily, and most heavily, on the context when we want to know what a word means.

Speaking of context, a reading of even isolated subcontexts using proskuneō will reveal that it has relatively predictable implications, although different applications.  Jobes notes,

[The word proskuneō is] always evaluated positively when used with respect to God or Jesus and always condemned when directed toward angels, Satan, demons, or pagan deity (e.g., Luke 4:7-8; Acts 7:43; Rev. 9:20). (207)

In the following post I will retransmit a Jobes image that displays graphically the relationship of all these words.  Then I will share some specific verses, inviting further examination of context, as each reader has time and interest.


[1] The word sebazomai, used only once in the NT (Romans 1:25), is related to a Greek honorific title for the Roman emperor.  This title, Sebastos, might be compared to the adjective “Reverend” today—a word that in my view should not be applied to a human, whether Caesar or not.

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