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.

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


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

If you’re not interested in many academic details, or if you only have 1 minute instead of 5-10, here is a condensed version of what will appear in full form in a few hours.

  • When the word "worship" appears in a Bible verse, one should ask what is behind that English word.  The answer to this question depends on the specific verse.  In order to understand, both the Greek vocabulary and the literary context must be considered.
  • According to Karen Jobes,¹ a list of eight Greek expressions constitutes the "semantic domain" for worship (and service).
  • Romans 12:1-2 refers to OT priestly service, and this text does not correlate directly to what believers generally put in the (vertical) worship category.
  • Even proskuneō (the most common Greek word translated "worship") does not always mean "worship" in a spiritual sense.  Comparing Matt 2:11 and John 4 reveals the likelihood that this vertical-worship word has two different senses.

More detail will be available at noon Eastern time!

¹ PhD, Biblical Hermeneutics, Westminster Theological Seminary

Words: Romans 12 and the latreuō relationship (IIB)

This post discusses latreuo, the Romans 12:1 semantic subdomain, and a more delineated understanding and practice (part B)

Most Christians have not understood the distinction between horizontal and vertical, and they sometimes gush forth about “such great worship this morning” when there has been no vertical component.  Not that there must be a vertical component in every gathering, but when the nature and purpose of any activity is clearly understood, its practice will be enhanced.

When I first read Karen Jobes’s fine word study[3] on worship words about six months ago, it gave me a new lease on thought-life in this area, so it’s probably bad form to begin a treatment of her work with a criticism.  I think this will really amount to a clarification, not a criticism, because there is good reason for her to have done what she did in writing for English Bible readers.

Jobes takes as her jumping-off-point all the words in the semantic domain for the English word “worship” rather than beginning with Greek words and concepts.  In other words, she takes as her sample a complete list of the English-Bible instances of “worship” and investigates what’s beneath them.

Her premise is fine, given that she’s explaining things primarily for English readers.  But I think the water actually gets a little muddy right off the bat for those trying to get to the bottom of all this.

If our goal is to understand what the referents are when we see “worship” in Bibles, OK.  If our goal, rather, is to understand how the earliest Christians thought about and practiced vertical worship, we might want to exclude a few things from Jobes’s study, or at least treat them separately.  You make the call for yourself.  In the end, I think you’ll see the differentiation, regardless.

Here, I’ll start with the very two words that could throw the unsuspecting reader off track:

Latreuō and leitourgeō[1] share a very specific sense that distinguishes them from the other Greek verbs for worship that have a wider semantic range.  In the New Testament[2] latreuō is used to designate duties performed in a religious vocation.  Forms . . . are used  . . . to refer to the temple service of Anna (Luke 2:37) and the altar work of the Old Testament priests (Heb. 8:5). [3]

The observation that latreuō in the NT refers to OT priests is crucial before we notice another text—Romans 12:1—and in it, an often-quoted NT instance of a noun form of latreuō, one of the words captioned above:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.*

* “Worship” (here in the ESV) is latreian in the original.

It is not within my intended scope in this post to treat Romans 12:1-2 contextually, and I’m not currently qualified to do that.  I do know enough about Romans to know that Israel’s history and theology are involved, so it makes perfect sense to read latreuō in Romans as a reference to the Levitical priesthood.  The priestly “religious vocation” (as Jobes termed it) of course gets a facelift under the New Covenant, and a morphed understanding seems to be what Paul is advocating.  Here is Jobes again:

Paul is drawing a close parallel between Israel’s priests and the priesthood of all Christian believers.  The priests of Israel offered sacrifices of dead animal flesh. . . .  What sacrifice, if any, is logikén—that is, reasonable or appropriatefor the corresponding Christian priesthood of believers to offer?  According to Romans 12:1, . . . his or her own living human flesh. . . .  [4]

Paul, then, is speaking of what Hebrew priests did in their vocational life and then is putting the offering of the Christian’s body into that frame.

Many modern Christians become confused here.  Based largely on Romans 12:1-2, they make Paul out to be saying that vertical worship is superfluous and that everything is summed up in so-called whole-life worship.  The logical inference, then, would be that Paul was negating, for instance, humble prayer he would have known from the Psalms, the worship of Isaiah, or the unrestrained praise of Miriam.  No, Paul was not negating vertical worship.  He wasn’t even dealing with it in Romans 12.

Paradoxically, many of the same Christians seem to hold in mind a relatively consistent grouping of mostly vertical activities, placing them under the mental heading “worship.”  It is an interpretive mistake to make the word latreian in Romans 12 refer directly to things in that grouping.

Summing up, for today
A single discussion might include such diverse English terms as worship and service and OT priests and honor and glorification and praise and religious ritual.  One can maintain a clearer head if he will differentiate the meanings of the original Greek words.  Whether you want to place latreuō in your worship category or not, it is undeniable that latreuō is referring to a different set of things than those referred to by some of the other words translated “worship.”

The overarching point is this:  we mustn’t indiscriminately intermingle all the times we see “worship” in the Bible.  It may not be assumed that each refers to the same thing; however, they may all be reasonably included in the same discussion, if one takes care.

[1] In these posts, I will use transliterated English spellings of Greek words, although Jobes uses Greek.

[2] Among other salient aspects here above are the words “In the New Testament.”  While we Christians might simply pass over those words thoughtlessly, I would point out that it is often important to notice how a word is used in scripture as well as how it is, or isn’t, used in secular literature and in non-canonical sacred writings.

[3] Karen Jobes, “Distinguishing the Meaning of Greek Verbs in the Semantic Domain for Worship,” in Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (1994), 203.

[4] Ibid., 204

Words and understandings (IIA)

Worship words:  toward a delineated, nuanced understanding and practice

On Sunday mornings in many congregations, various men suddenly become active, having been assigned to do the “welcome” or “call to worship” or “table talk.”  Have you heard one of these speakers (we’ll call this person “John”) say something like this, just after a couple of songs led by “Jim”?

Wow, Jim. That was so great.  Y’all, you might think Jim and I planned that for several weeks together.  But it must have been the Holy Spirit working, because Jim just led two songs that talked all about the love and grace of God and Jesus and the way God gave us His grace to atone for our sins, and I was going to talk about sin and how I have to show grace to others when they sin, and if I don’t, I’m sinning too.  Isn’t this how to be a Christian by following Jesus who loves and forgives?  And He forgives me, too, so I’m so thankful.  What a great thing to focus on in this Christmas season as we worship the Lord together!

Actually, I’d prefer that such pseudo-inspired leaders didn’t attribute such definitional verbal haze, vague generality, and lack of purposefulness to the Spirit of God, thank you very much.

In less than a minute, John has gone all barista on us, making a Sunday morning smoothie¹ of inspiration, grace, atonement, sin, forgiveness, Christian identity, discipleship, love, gratitude, Christmas, and worship.

Where is the focus, actually?  Probably on John’s winsome personality. 

Where is the understanding?  Probably in the wind.

Everyone would have been better off if John had spoken clearly and specifically about just one or two of those things—perhaps grace and gratitude.  Like John, many men also spoon some presumptuous additives into their smoothies, deeming the songs to have been sung in order to serve their words.  (Preachers of sermons are probably the worst culprits in this.)

In the smaller conceptual context of worship, it is the same kind of smoothie—no matter how good it tastes in the moment—that I want to pour into a centrifuge in the next couple of posts, in order to separate the ingredients.

Most Christians have not understood the distinction between horizontal and vertical, and they sometimes gush forth about “such great worship this morning” when there has been no vertical component, or they are glad for the “blest tie that binds” when the order of the day has been closed-eye meditation on atonement.  When such elements are delineated and separated in our minds, I suspect we’ll be able to derive more benefits from the strawberry and the banana and the flax seed—or the worship and the teaching and the edification.

¹ Here, I am re-purposing a similar analogy from Gary D. Collier, who comments about the negative effects of throwing various scripture passages into a blender instead of treating each one separately within its context.