What was that all about? (IIIb)

This blog has in the last few days looked intently into words relating to worship and service.  Maybe we understand much better than we did last week.  What was that all about?  So what?  What do all the meanings mean?

Some more biblical instances. . . .

Here is a slightly different use of proskuneō:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.   (Matthew 20:20)

Here, the English translation is not “worship,” but the word is still proskuneō.  Zeb’s wife is not serving Jesus religiously (latreuō) or even necessarily honoring Him “worshipfully,” as I pointed out with the two different senses of proskuneō, toward the bottom of this previous post, but she is at least kneeling to request something of the greater one.

Now, words from Paul’s mouth as he is defending himself:

. . . a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night.  It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews!  (Acts 26:7)

The word “worship” here is latreuō, not proskuneō.  Paul is not speaking here of praying or singing words of adoration or reverent awe.  His emphasis is something different; I might speculate that author Luke has Paul intentionally attempting to connect himself with Jewish priestly ritual, in order to spotlight the irony of the persecution Paul was enduring at the hands of his Jewish countrymen.

And next, words Paul penned through Tertius:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. . . .  (Romans 9:4)

“Worship” here is latreuō.  Again, there would appear to be a strong Jewish connection. Not that Jews didn’t engage in proskuneō; they surely did.  But it would be a hermeneutical mistake to suggest, based on this text, that proskuneō-type worship “belongs” in any sense to the Israelites.

In Acts, Lydia of Philippi next provides an interesting example:

A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.  (Acts 16:14)

The word “worshiper” here is from sebō/sebomai, and this word is not closely connected with either proskuneō or latreuō.  Therefore, it cannot be assumed, based on this verse, that Lydia prayed words of thankful adoration, sang hymns to Jesus as Christ (which might have been denoted by proskuneō), or engaged in any sort of priestly ritual or religious “service” (latreuō).

This kind of differentiation has been what all this has been about.  In other words, it’s all been part of an effort to show 1) what each word is (likely) all about, 2) what individual verses/texts might logically be about, 3) what worship is about, and 4) how horizontal “service” differs.  In all, specific contexts must be allowed their primary, meaning-determining function.

It ought to go without saying that, when the words “worship” and “service” are concatenated into the term “worship service,” there is no biblical reason for doing so.  This unjustifiable amalgam has been one of the culpable historical developments as we look critically at the scenario in Christendom.  Lack of understanding and off-base practice have resulted from various teachings and verbalizations, but the notion of a “worship service” is a crucial one.

This blog will now take a few days’ break from a comparatively intense verbal focus on worship, and then a few more posts will return to the topic of worship from other vantage points.  If there are any particular areas of interest within the general area of worship that you’d like to see addressed (or if you’d like to write a guest blog!), please comment here, or send me an e-mail at BLCasey 14 ~ at ~ gmail ~ dot~com.

Some of the data below might seem unduly esoteric, but it’s interesting, just the same:

Category 1proskuneō in Greek (compared with English renderings)
The word proskuneō (in different forms) appears 53 times in the current Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament.  Of these,

  • 47 are translated “worship” in most English Bibles.
  • Most of the rest are translated “knelt” or “fell on his knees” or “bowed down” (e.g., in the New Revised Standard Version).

Category 2 worship in English (correlated backwards to Greek antecedents)
34 times in 33 verses in the New Revised Standard Version when the word “worship” appears, proskuneō is not the antecedent.  Of these,

  • 22 times, the root is latreuō or leitourgeia (or a related word).
  • 10 times, the root is sebazomai (or a related word).
  • 1 time, the root is eusebeō (Acts 17:23).
  • 1 time, the root is threskeia (Col. 2:18, a word not identified by Jobes in her semantic domain).

When we try to interpret verses in “Category 2,” we should not assume that what is typically thought of¹ as “worship” is connoted in the biblical text.  Examination of specific contexts may reveal vertical components, and vertical worship may well have been simultaneously in the hearts of the human subjects (or the rocks, Luke 19:40!), but expressions other than proskuneō (or gonupeteō or kampto to gunē) should not be assumed to mean the same things.


¹ That is to say, what is typically thought of in this age, in English-speaking churches, at least.  Other vertical expressions include these and more:  “bowing the knee,” “kissing toward,” “honoring,” or “praising,” “glorifying,” “adoring,” and “exalting.”


What was that all about? (IIIa)

I have friends and acquaintances who sometimes don’t get me.  Even though they generally appreciate me as an OK guy, they may wonder, Why does he spend time on that?

This blog has in the last few days looked intently into words relating to worship and service.  Maybe we understand 146% better than we did last week.  So what?  What was that all about?  What do all the meanings mean?

Why on earth would I bother quoting and trying to provide some commentary on portions of Karen Jobes’s article on the semantic domain for worship (and service) words?  Even if someone were to read every word thoroughly and come out understanding the whole ball of wax in the same way I do, what difference could it all possibly make? 

Jobes, op. cit., p. 211

Today’s post, which helps me to hone in purposefully, is especially for anyone who has had, or might have, any of those questions.

Please look carefully at the image to the left.  This visual can make things clearer.  (Click on it to get a larger version, if need be.)

One take-away here is that the words in each set of overlapping circles are closely related to one another.  A verse, then, that uses leitourgeō and one that uses latreuō (from the top circles) are likely referring to fairly similar things.  On the contrary, a verse that uses proskuneō (middle circles) and one that uses sebomai (bottom) are likely referring to different things.

Zooming in and looking more intently at the image now, even without a linguist’s knowledge of “improper synonymy” or “hyponymy,” we can see that the inner relationships are different.  The words in the center circles share relationship, as do the words in the bottom circles, but the nature of each relationship is different.

The import of this is that a biblical writer might well use sebomai, for instance, as a synonym for eusebeō (both in the lower group), but eusebeō, in turn, would not likely be used as a synonym for latreuō (top group).

Now, for some biblical instances. . . .

Consider this stark text, part of the “temptation” scene:

. . . “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” (Matt 4:9-10)

Matthew has Satan using proskuneō, and Jesus’ response uses both proskuneō and latreuō.  It’s easy to see two different referents here, although I would hasten to point out that interpretation is never quite this easy.  Whatever Jesus meant by following proskuneō with latreuō, it probably either redoubled the emphasis somehow or added to it.  The two are not synonyms, so I favor the second, contrastive option.

Next, a response of the disciples:

And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  (Matt 4:33)

Matthew uses proskuneō, and it would have been surprising, in this instance, to find latreuō or leitourgeō.  In other words, it’s difficult to imagine the disciples’ response in this situation being one of priestly duty, or carrying out rituals associated with religion.

The next post, which continues this line, leads with a slightly different use of proskuneō, proceeds to some other biblical instances, and then finalizes the word-oriented portion of this investigation.

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