When Proskyneō is used of Jesus, Does it Mean Divine Worship?

When Proskyneō is used of Jesus,
Does it Mean Divine Worship?

Worshipping Jesus or paying homage to him?

In Matthew 2:11 when the magi visited the infant
Jesus, did they “worship” Jesus (ESV) or did they pay
him “homage” (NJB)? Here we see two rather different
ways of translating the Greek word proskyneō.

This word has two principal meanings. Its fundamental
meaning is “to kneel before someone” or “to prostrate oneself before someone”;
it is a physical expression of paying homage to someone without
necessarily attributing deity to that person (e.g. bowing
before a Roman officer). But in some contexts, the word
can have the additional sense of worship. Whereas the
first and fundamental meaning does not necessarily
involve the attribution of deity, the second may involve
divine worship.

When we encounter proskyneō in the New Testament,
the question of which is its intended meaning can
often be resolved by seeing who is the object of the
proskyneō. If God is the object, then proskyneō would by
definition involve divine worship (e.g. Mt.4:10,
“You shall worship the Lord your God”). But if the object is a
human dignitary, then proskyneō would mean kneeling
or paying homage without the attribution of deity
(assuming that no idolatry is involved).

Hence the meaning of proskyneō is governed by who
is the object of the proskyneō, and whether that person
is regarded as divine. The mere use of proskyneō does
not, in itself, confer deity on a person, for an act of
kneeling does not necessarily involve divine worship.

In the ancient Near East, kneeling or bowing was a
common gesture of reverence and courtesy, and was not
in itself understood as divine worship. We see this not
only in the New Testament but also in the LXX (the
Septuagint or Greek Old Testament). Abraham bowed
before the Hittites (Gen.23:12) and David bowed before
Saul (1Sam.24:8; v.9 in LXX). In the LXX of these two
verses, proskyneō is used. Hence it is erroneous to conclude
that Jesus is God solely by the fact that proskyneō is used of him.

What does proskyneō mean when used of Jesus?

There are 60 instances [4] of proskyneō in the New
Testament, of which 17 are used of Jesus (as the object
of the proskyneō in all 17 instances). Where proskyneō is
used of Jesus, the ESV would sometimes translate it as
“worship” (e.g. the disciples “worshipped” Jesus after he
had calmed a storm, Mt.14:33) and sometimes as
“kneel” (e.g. the mother of the sons of Zebedee knelt
before Jesus, Mt.20:20). ESV, NIV, and NASB exhibit a
tendency to render proskyneō as “worship” when it is
used of Jesus, presupposing his divinity.

But some other Bibles differ from ESV in the way
they tend to translate proskyneō when it is used of Jesus.
Whereas ESV says in Mt.2:11 that the magi “worshiped”
Jesus, several other Bibles have “did him homage” (NJB,
NAB, NRSV, Darby), or “honored him” (CEB), or
“adored him” (Douay-Rheims), or “prostrated themselves
in reverence to him” (ITNT [5]). In these cases, a
non-trinitarian rendering of Mt.2:11 is preferred by
Bibles with trinitarian credentials (e.g. the Catholic
Imprimatur, or the Catholic seal of approval, for NJB,
NAB, and Douay-Rheims).

There are conflicting opinions about the meaning of
proskyneō for some verses even among trinitarian
commentaries. Whereas some trinitarian commentaries
take Mt.2:11 to mean the worship of Jesus, others offer
alternative interpretations. For Mt.2:11, Tyndale Commentary
says that “the verb worship (proskyneō) need
mean no more than to pay homage to a human dignitary”.
UBS NT Handbooks says, “In the context it may mean
either divine worship or homage paid to a king
but goes on to conclude that the latter is the better
reading. John Calvin’s commentary says that the magi
did not “come to render to Christ such pious worship as
is due to the Son of God,” but intended to salute him as
“a very eminent King”. Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes
on the Bible says that the magi’s statement “does not
necessarily mean that they regarded Him as divine” but
“may have meant that they wanted to do Him homage”.
Expositor’s Bible Commentary says that the magi’s
statement suggests homage paid to royalty rather than
the worship of Deity”. All these are trinitarian commentaries.

There are similar disagreements over the meaning of
proskyneō in a few other verses. Whereas ESV says that
the disciples “worshiped” Jesus after he had calmed a
storm (Mt.14:33), and that the women at the empty
tomb “worshiped” Jesus (Mt.28:9), most of the aforementioned
Bibles speak of bowing to Jesus or paying homage to him.
For example, for Mt.14:33, NJB has “bowed down before him”
and NEB has “fell at his feet”.

Since proskyneō can mean either pay homage or
worship, which is the intended meaning when the word
is used of Jesus? Is it possible for us to arrive at a
translation that does not depend on doctrinal presuppositions?
Can we break the deadlock in which trinitarians
interpret proskyneō to mean worshipping Jesus,
and non-trinitarians interpret to mean kneeling before
Jesus? Compounding the problem is that a verse such as
Mt.2:11 (the magi “worshipped” Jesus) has no obvious
internal evidence to support the one interpretation over
the other. In other words, if you presuppose that the
magi worshipped Jesus, then proskyneō would mean
“worship” to you. But if you believe that the magi paid
homage to Jesus, then proskyneō would mean “pay homage”.
So are there any external and objective factors
that can break the deadlock?

Fortunately, we do have a way of breaking the deadlock
because there are at least three verifiable facts at
our disposal which do not depend on doctrinal presuppositions.
None is conclusive by itself, but when the
three are taken together, they guide us to the correct
meaning of proskyneō when it is used of Jesus.

Fact #1: Worship is not the fundamental sense
of proskyneō but only a derivative meaning

 

Two standard Greek-English lexicons, BDAG and
Thayer, indicate that the sense of worship is only a secondary
or derivative meaning of proskyneō. BDAG gives
the following glosses (i.e. summary definitions), shown
here verbatim and in the same order as in BDAG (the
boldface is mine):

  • to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete
    dependence on or submission to a high authority figure
  • (fall down and) worship
  • do obeisance to
  • prostrate oneself before
  • do reverence to
  • welcome respectfully

Thayer’s lexicon similarly gives the following definitions
of proskyneō, listed here verbatim and in the same order
as in Thayer (citations omitted, boldface mine):

  • to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
  • to fall upon the knees and touch the ground
    with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
  • kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one)
    or make obeisance, whether in order to express
    respect or to make supplication
  • It is used a. of homage shown to men of superior rank;
  • b. of homage rendered to God and the ascended Christ,
    to heavenly beings, and to demons:
    absolutely (or to worship)

The striking fact is this: In BDAG and Thayer, the
words in boldface are the only meanings of proskyneō
which imply worship! Hence, in both these authoritative
lexicons, the idea of worship is given far less prominence
than the idea of physical kneeling or paying homage.
In fact, only a quarter of the literary citations
in BDAG are assigned to the definition “worship,”
indicating that in New Testament, the fundamental
meaning of proskyneō is not worship but kneeling or paying homage.

Fact #2: Proskyneō is almost no longer used of
Jesus after his ascension despite its continued
use in the New Testament!

The word proskyneō occurs 60 times in the New Testament:
29 times in the four gospels, and 31 times after
the gospels. Hence the use of proskyneō is about evenly
divided between the gospels and the rest of the New
Testament. This is seen in the table below, which is
divided into the same two sections. We immediately see
an even balance between the two sections.
Note: If proskyneō occurs more than once in a verse, the verse is
repeated in the table (e.g. John 4:23).

The equal division becomes significant in the light of
an astonishing fact: After Jesus ascended into heaven,
the word proskyneō is no longer used of him (with two
exceptions) despite the continued use of proskyneō in
the New Testament! See the verses in boldface in the
table, indicating where proskyneō is used of Jesus.

To be specific, proskyneō is used of Jesus 17 times in
the New Testament: 15 times in the four gospels but
only twice after the gospels (Heb.1:6 and Rev.5:14)!
See the verses in boldface:

table1
Matthew 2:2; 2:8; 2:11; 4:9; 4:10; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33;
15:25; 18:26; 20:20; 28:9; 28:17;
Mark 5:6; 15:19;
Luke 4:7; 4:8; 24:52;
John 4:20; 4:21; 4:22; 4:22; 4:23; 4:23; 4:23; 4:24; 4:24; 9:38; 12:20
Acts 7:43; 8:27; 10:25; 24:11
1 Corinthians 14:25
Hebrews 1:6; 11:21
Revelation 3:9; 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 9:20; 11:1; 11:16; 13:4;
13:4; 13:8; 13:12; 13:15; 14:7; 14:9; 14:11; 15:4; 16:2; 19:4;
19:10; 19:10; 19:20; 20:4; 22:8; 22:9

The first of the two verses after the gospels,
Hebrews 1:6 (“Let all God’s angels worship him,” quoting Psalm 97:7 or LXX 96:7), is found in a context that proclaims Jesus’ superiority over the angels.
But even the idea of worship is not entrenched in this verse.
New Jerusalem Bible avoids using the word “worship” when it renders
Hebrews 1:6 as, “Let all the angels of God pay him
homage”; ITNT has “All God’s angels must revere him”.

But the more significant verse for trinitarians is
Revelation 5:14 because this is the only verse in the New
Testament that comes closest to the worship of Jesus, by
the fact that proskyneō is used of Jesus together with
God who is seated on His throne. The case of Revelation
5:14 is discussed below.

What would account for the sudden drop—indeed,
the near total disappearance—in the application of
proskyneō to Jesus after the gospels (only 2 instances as
opposed to 15 in the gospels) despite the continued use
of proskyneō in the New Testament?

An important clue lies in the fact that the dividing
point between the gospels and the rest of the NT is
chronologically also the dividing point between the
earthly Jesus and the ascended Jesus. Hence proskyneō is
used of Jesus in his earthly presence and not in his heavenly
absence. Moreover, when proskyneō is applied to
Jesus, it is always in his physical presence.

This striking fact suggests that when proskyneō is
used of Jesus, it means kneeling before Jesus rather than
worshipping Jesus. After his ascension, Jesus was no
longer physically present on earth, and this would
explain why there was no more kneeling to him.

But if we take the trinitarian view that proskyneō
means the divine worship of Jesus, there would be no
obvious reason for the worship to stop after his ascension
into heaven. For if Jesus is really God as he is in
trinitarianism, then divine worship would still continue
even in Jesus’ absence, for an omnipresent God can be
worshipped anywhere in the universe. In fact, if Jesus
were God, we would expect an increase, not a decrease,
in the application of proskyneō to Jesus after his
ascension, because the risen Jesus is now the exalted
Lord who has been given the name above every name.

Chronologically, the very last time (before Heb.1:6 and Rev.5:14)
that proskyneō is used of Jesus is Luke 24:52,
which is precisely at the point of his ascension into heaven!
This is not a coincidence. Lk.24:52 is significant
for fixing the cutoff point precisely at the demarcation
of the earthly Jesus and the ascended Jesus!

Fact #3: The word proskyneō is used mainly by
John, yet he almost never applies it to Jesus!

Of the 60 occurrences of proskyneō in the NT, 35 are
found in John’s writings versus 25 in the rest of the NT,
which makes proskyneō a predominantly Johannine
word. Yet John applies proskyneō to Jesus only twice in
all his writings! The two verses are John 9:38 (the formerly
blind man bowed before Jesus) and Rev.5:14 (the
worship of the Lamb and the One seated on the throne).
See the above table under “John” and “Revelation”.

Although proskyneō is a predominantly Johannine
word, John almost never uses it of Jesus, a fact that is
surprising given that trinitarians regard John’s writings
as espousing a high Christology. But there is nothing
shocking about this at all, given that it is in John’s Gospel
that Jesus declares that his Father is the only true 
God (John 17:3).
To the contrary, in the very same Gospel (of John),
Jesus exhorts us to worship his Father:
“worship the Father” (4:21); “the true worshipers will
worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is
seeking such people to worship him” (4:23).

Conclusion

None of these three facts is conclusive by itself, but
when they are taken together, they show beyond doubt
that proskyneō, when used of Jesus, means kneeling to Jesus
or paying homage to him
, rather than worshipping him as deity.
Indeed Jesus exhorts us to worship the One whom he calls,
“my Father and your Father”
and “my God and your God” (John 20:17).

The special case of Revelation 5:14

The word proskyneō occurs 60 times in the New Testament,
with 24 of the occurrences (40%) found in the Revelation.
That is a high percentage for one book, yet
none of the 24 instances of proskyneō in Revelation is
used of Jesus with the possible exception of Rev.5:14!

The word proskyneō fundamentally means “bowing the knee”.
It can be used in a weak sense (bowing the knee without worship)
or in the strong sense (worship).
An example of the weak sense is seen in Rev.3:9:
“I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge
that I have loved you” (NIV). Here the prostration
is not an act of divine worship but an expression
of submission to believers.

In Revelation, proskyneō is never applied to Jesus,
neither in the weak sense nor the strong sense, except in
Rev.5:14: “And the four living creatures said ‘Amen!’
and the elders fell down and worshiped”. Here the
worship (proskyneō) is expressed not to Jesus alone, but
also to God who is seated on His throne.

Here is a crucial observation: In the book of Revelation
apart from Rev.5:14, proskyneō always refers to God
and never to Jesus, without exception. Hence it is clear
that when proskyneō is applied to both God and Jesus in
the sole verse Rev.5:14, it is God and not Jesus who is
the principal reason for the use of proskyneō. This is
consistent with the fact that in the immediate context of
Rev.5:14, the central figure is God who is seated on His throne.

We are reminded of the way the people of Israel
bowed before God and before King David (note the words in boldface):
1Chr.29:20 David then addressed the whole assembly:
“Now bless Yahweh your God!” And the whole assembly
blessed Yahweh, God of their ancestors,
bowing down in homage to Yahweh, and to the king. (NJB)

In the Hebrew of this verse, YHWH occurs three times.
In the LXX of this verse, the word corresponding
to “bowing down in homage” is proskyneō, the very
word used in Rev.5:14. The use of proskyneō in
1Chr.29:20 is crucial because it tells us that the LXX translators
did not hesitate to apply proskyneō to David when
proskyneō is also applied to Yahweh! The parallel
between 1Chr.29:20 and Rev.5:14 is heightened because
Jesus is the prophesied Messiah from the Davidic line.
We note that in 1Chr.29:20, the main intended recipient
of the worship (proskyneō) was not David but Yahweh,
by the fact that David said, “Now bless Yahweh your
God.” Yet that does not rule out David participating
with Yahweh as the recipient of the proskyneō!

In the Revelation, the central object of worship is not
the Lamb but the One who is seated on the throne.
The 
Lamb is not the main occupant of that throne, for it
belongs to God, who is mentioned 12 times as being
seated upon it. Jesus has his own throne, but it is distinct
from God’s (Rev.3:21). In John’s heavenly visions,
no one but God is worshipped above all else, and He is
the One who sits on the central throne.

[4] A full list of these 60 verses is given later.
[5] Idiomatic Translation of the New Testament by William G. MacDonald,
author of The Greek Enchiridion.

SOURCE: Chapter 3 of Theological Metamorphosis

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