Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What does the Bible mean by "worship"?

“Ancient Mediterranean societies tended to be very hierarchical. It was a world where everyone knew their place in relation to countless superiors and inferiors. Those who neglected or forgot this stratification of rank would be readily reminded by those around. In the highest place stood God or the gods. Below that in the Roman Empire ranked the emperor, followed by senators, governors, and a very complex system of local officials, priests, and landowners. The very bottom was occupied by slaves who might be owned by the lowliest of peasant.

Social convention dictated gestures of deference and respect from inferior to superior at every point along this hierarchy. In the presence of someone of high rank, low bows or prostrations were expected. The Greek verb that expresses making such a prostration was proskuneo. In the modern world the best example of a prostration can be seen in the prayers of Muslims. Dropping to your knees, you bend forward and lower your head to the ground.

In the time of Jesus, prostrations were common throughout the eastern Roman Empire, both in official circles and in the less formal daily dealings of people of widely different rank…proskuneo gradually expanded its meaning to include a wide variety of formal gestures of respect. It even came to be used colloquially with the meaning ‘kiss’ or a welcoming embrace.” Jason D. BeDhun, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament, University Press of America, 2003, p41-49.

BeDhun goes on to make the point that “worship”, in its Old English sense, still retained the “range of meaning” that was closest to that of the Ancient world. But that today, those meanings have been lost to the extent that they do not cover the same function of meaning. He argues for better, modern translations of the Bible which reflect this social and cultural change since translators “mislead their readers into thinking that every greeting, kiss or prostration in the Bible is an act of worship directed to a god” [ibid, emphasis added].

In the case of Jesus, “they are gestures of respect made to a superior, in either the spiritual, social or political sense”. With this in mind “we can see how theological bias has been the determining context for the choices made by [translators of today]”[ibid, BeDuhn].

So, what does the bible mean by the term “worship”?

General “worship

In the bible “worship” was offered to both God [YHWH] and human beings. This is reflected in the OT Hebrew words: sahah, (Gen 47.31; 1K 1.47; 1Ch 29.20; sahah, Gen 24:26; Gen 37:7; Jdg 7:15; Jos 23:7; Zep 2:11); and the Aramaic verb segeed, corresponding to the Hebrew sagad (Dan 2:46; Dan 3, 28; cf. Rom 12:1).

The NT uses the koine Greek proskuneo, for “angels” [Rev 19.10; 22.8], human beings [Mat 8.2; 18.26; 20.20; Acts 10.25] and false gods or idols [Act 7:43; Rev 13:8; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4].

“Some indefiniteness attaches to this subject, partly owing to the two senses in which the Greek word proskuneo is used, and partly owing to the ambiguous usage of the word kurios [lord]…But it cannot be proven that in any of these cases…more than an act of homage and humble obeisance is intended. Josephus uses the word proskuneo of the high priests…The physical act of prostration in profound humility, and as rendering great honor, is all that can be meant…The homage offered to Christ would vary in its significance from the simple prostration of the leper before the Great Healer to the adoration of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in presence of the risen Christ, its significance depending wholly on the idea of His nature that had been attained, and therefore not to be determined by the mere statements of the outward acts which we find in the Gospels.” Hastings, A Dictionary of the Bible, 4:943.

“The examples of proskuneo which have been discussed do not greatly strengthen the evidence for the worship of Christ. The ambiguity of the word proskuneo, which can be used of oriental obeisance, as well as actual worship, makes it impossible to draw certain conclusions from the evidence.” Wainwright, The Trinity and the New Testament, 104.

“Divine” service and worship

The bible uses other words to indicate the exclusive “worship” and external or official divine service spoken in reference to the one God of Israel, YHWH. The OT uses the Aramaic palach, applied generally to Daniel’s vision [7.14, 27; cp. 6.16-17, 20-21; 3.28; 7.24] and translated as “servants” of the Jewish Temple [Ezra 7.24]. In the Greek Septuagint this is translated as latreuo ["divine" worship; Cp. latreai=service worship, Ex 3:12; 7:16; Deu 4:28; Jdg 2:11, 13], the version most in use during the 2nd Temple period.

This word is also used in the same context in the NT, reserved for God alone:

  • in a religious sense to worship God (Mat 4:10; Luk 1:74; 2:37; 4:8; Act 7:7; 24:14; 27:23; Rom 1:9; Phi 3:3; 2Ti 1:3; Heb 9:14; 12:28; Rev 22:3);
  • used in an absolute sense (Act 26:7; Sept.: Deu 6:13; 10:12; Jos 24:15);
  • “worshipping creatures [other] than the Creator”, in other words, assuming Deity (Rom 1:25; Sept.: Deu 4:28; Jdg 2:11, 13);
  • particularly to the performing of the Levitical service (Heb 8:5; 9:9; 10:2; 13:10);
  • of the celestial temple (Rev 7:15);
  • to offer sacrifice, to worship (Heb 9: 9; 10:2; cf. Sept.: Ex 3:12; 7:16).

    “…there is no instance of latreuein [to do religious service to] which has Christ as its object.” Wainright, The Trinity in the New Testament, p 103.

    “It is equally notable that [the Apostle Paul uses] the normal prayer terms (deomai, deesis)…to God and never to Christ… [He] is neither simply the content of the thanksgiving (the phrase is dia with the genitive “through”, not dia with the accusative “on account of” [cp. Col 1.16]), nor its recipient…Such uniformity in Paul’s usage should certainly make us hesitate before asserting that Paul [divinely] 'worshipped’ Christ [as Deity], since the evidence more clearly indicates otherwise.” Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p 257-260 [emphasis added].

A derivative of latreuo is the feminine noun thrēskeúō, to worship God, which is from threskos, religious, pious worshiping or worship [Col 2:18, mentions the worship of angels]. This is probably a genitive of association and alludes to the false, Gnostic doctrine of celestial exaltation in which human worshipers were permitted to share in the worship activities of various grades of angelic beings. It also refers to the true worship of God (Act 26:5; Jam 1:26-27).

Thrēskeía is contrasted with theosébeia, external worship, meaning reverential worship, and eusébeia, piety or godliness, and eulábeia, devotion arising from godly fear or acceptance of what God directs or permits. Thrēskeía may thus refer only to ceremonial service or worship as Paul refers to the religion of the Jews (Act 26:5). James refers to "pure religion" (katharos threiska, Jam 1:26-27), indicating there is also an impure religion which would be external worship but not the practice of that which God demands of man.


It is presumptuous to suggest that early Christians were under some kind of “obligation” to render the same type of worship to the Son as to the Father. This is in view of the conclusion by some modern scholars[N. T. Wright, Challenge of Jesus; Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ; JDG Dunn, The Theology of Paul] that a “stunning adaptation [“mutation”, Dunn] of the Jewish prayer known as the Shema [1Co 8.1-6; Phil 2.5-11; Gal 4.1-7; Col 1.15-20; cp. Deu 6.4] somehow took place. This moving away from Jewish monotheism cannot be justified in view of Jesus’ own use of the Shema in the NT, where it remains consistent with the unchanging and unitarian monotheistic believe he taught.

As a result, we should not make the mistake this last quote states:

“…in the Christian understanding of Christ as being one with the Father, there is a constant possibility that faith in God will be absorbed in a ‘monochristicism’—i.e., that the figure of the Son in the life of faith will overshadow the figure of the Father and thus cause it to disappear and that the figure of the Creator and Sustainer of the world will recede behind the figure of the Redeemer.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 16, Christianity Macropaedia article, p 274.

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