Re: Semantic range of PROSKUNEW

From: Edgar Foster (
Date: Wed Jun 24 1998 - 17:45:07 EDT

---Jonathan Robie wrote:

> I think that the question about the meaning of >PROSKUNEW is
probably fairly
> clear: the two basic meanings seem to be (1) to >prostrate oneself,
or (2)
> to worship (probably by extension of the first >meaning).

That sums the matter up well.

> Let me depart from the Greek a little and state that >I'm a little
> about an objectioin someone made to various English >words used to
> PROSKUNEW. I'm not sure what distinction is being >made between
> obeisance, and homage in English.

There IS a difference, Jonathan. "Worship" (in English) is only
properly rendered to God. Lexically speaking, homage COULD be directed
toward a human. But, obeisance does not necessarily imply worship. It
can simply mean to "bow" or "fall down before" someone or something
(See Rev. 3:9 NIV).

>If worship is seen in the sense of
> "devotion", then I can't see a reason to object to >"obeisance" as a
> translation of PROSKUNEW, since it basically means >bowing before
someone as
> a sign of respect or submission.

In the English language, "worship" often is used to denote: "the
reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred
object." It can also mean "ardent devotion" or admiration. Based on
these definitions, it would not be Biblically fitting for humans to
"devote" themselves to any created animate or inanimate object.
Worship should only be directed toward God. Conversely, obeisance
neither always involves worship nor devotion (cf. the Hebrew SHACHAH).

In Jaroslav Pelikan's wonderful series _The Christian Tradition_, the
great Iconoclastic Controversy is discussed. The iconoclasts were very
disturbed that the orthodox were rendering devotion to icons. The
orthodox retorted, however, that "the worship of mortals, for example
of kings, was nevertheless permissible" (Pelikan 2:126).

What was the conclusion derived from this observation?

"If this was permissible in the case of kings and other earthly
rulers, it was even more appropriate in the Christian attitude to the
saints and their icons. There was a "worship of adoration, which we
pay only to the God who is by nature adorable." But there was also a
worship paid to "the friends and worshipers of God, for his sake . . .
this included both angels and saints" (2:126). See also John. D. Imag.

The point I want to make here is that the Greek Church (even back to
Origen of Alexandria in Contra Celsum) has persistently made a
distinction between "worship" rendered to BOTH God and creatures, and
"worship" (hE LATREUTIKH) that is to be directed only to God (Pelikan
2:126). PROSKEUNEW can be gievn to BOTH God and man; hE LATREUTIKH is
only to be given to God. But even in the case of PROSKEUNEW, there is
a distinction made between PROSKEUNEW rendered to creatures and
PROSKEUNEW directed toward God.

>I would be rather surprised - it isn't a normal thing
> to do to anybody who isn't a king, your owner, a >god...someone who
> absolute authority over you. I think any of these >phrases would be
> perfectly appropriate to express our response to God.

Semantically, I could express PROSKEUNEW to you, Jonathan, without any
pangs of conscience. :-) I really don't think that PROSKEUNEW is
restricted to those who have absolute authority over you (See below).

> Edgar Foster points out Matthew 18:26 and Revelation >3:9 as
examples of
> PROSKUNEW used with respect to someone other than God >(without
anyone else
> objecting). In Matthew 18:26, the slave, falling >before his master,
> worships (PROSKUNEI) him, saying, "have patience with >me and I will
> you everything". This guy is holding nothing back, throwing himself
> completely on the mercy of the master, who is a human >being. In
> 3:9, the speaker says that the "synagogue of Satan" >will be made to
> (PROSKUNHSOUSIN) before the feet of the church at >Philadelphia. In
> case, the implications are prostating oneself, >holding nothing
back, and
> honoring. This is not a casual greeting!

Concerning Rev. 3:9 David Aune makes the following pertinent points:

"The occurrences of PROSKUNEIN in Revelation can be grouped into three
overlapping meanings . . . PROSKUNEIN is used (1) in connection with
the cult of the Beast . . . in connection with hymns of praise
directed toward God or the Lamb . . . the prostration of the Jews
before the Philadelphian community . . . those who worship in the
temple (Rev. 11:1) . . . the prohibition of worshiping an angel . . .
This prostration [in Rev. 3:9] has no religious significance but is
simply the traditional (oriental) expression of homage and honor,
which we have chosen to translate "grovel" (Aune 52A:238).

Cf. Isa. 49:3 where it is prophesied that kings and queens will

I stick with my original contention that PROSKUNEW can properly be
expressed to a creature (whether he or she is your superior).


Edgar Foster

Classics Major

Lenoir-Rhyne College

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