Re: Semantic range of PROSKUNEW

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu Jun 25 1998 - 08:37:32 EDT

Dear all,

In our quest for the semantic range of PROSKUNEW, we must not forget the
Jewish background of many of the situations where the word is used. Both
those writing the gospesls and the persons who did PROSKUNEW to Jesus, had
the Hebrew HAWA as a part of their presupposition pool, so the semantic
range of PROSKUNEW cannot be found without taking the semantic range of
HAWA into account.

The LXX translates HAWA as PROSKUNEW in 148 instances, and there is
absolutely no doubt that PROSKUNEW in the LXX simply means to prostrate
oneself. The context will help us see which side of PROSKUNEW is
illuminated or stressed in each case. There is no other reason to
"prostrate onself" for God than to worship him, so in such instances is
"worship" made visible. In all other instances should we rely on the "core
meaning" "prostrate onself", except when the context shows that a more
restricted area of the concept PROSKUNEW is illuminated.

The nature of the act PROSKUNEW indicates that it more often than not is
done towards a superior, but it is very difficult, if not impossible to
prove that inferiority/superiority is included either in the concept HAWA
or PROSKUNEW. Two LXX examples: PROSKUNEW was done before strangers without
any intention of viewing them as superior ( Gen 23:7,12). In 2 KINGS 5:18
is PROSKUNEW used two times by Naaman with the meaning to "bow down"
without any superior in view.

>From one point of view may the question of finding the "semantic range"
lead us astray, because some are led to believe that the semantic range is
the sum total of the English glosses used to translate a given Greek word,
or the sum total of the uses of a given word in a part of the NT or in the
whole NT, as it is understodd by lexicographers or others. It veils the
truth that meaning (= semantic range) is a function of the MINDS of people
having the same presupposition pool and neither the entries on a word in a
lexicon nor its uses in a particular text. In order to get the best clues
as to the semantic range, therefore, it is better to start with the core
meaning "bow down" and map its different uses to try to find a pattern,
than to start with a restriction such as "Apart from worship, the word is
used only with superiors in view" Such restrictions are methodologically
speaking very problematic.


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

>As one who has not participated in this discussion, I hope maybe I can shed
>a point or two. First, your references to Origen and the later Iconoclast
>debate are interesting and correct. However, they are beside the point.
>The references demonstrate that at least as early as the second century CE
>the Church (or at least Origen's corner of it) was beginning to attempt to
>deal with the issue being debated here and to clarify that "worship" to God
>is, must be, of a different degree than that offered to humanity and that
>this clarification was still occurring 500 years later. It does not
>however, shed much light on what is happening in NT Greek.
>Next, you mention that BAGD doesn't rule out PROSKUNEW being used in
>reference to inferiors or equals. While this in and of itself is true, it
>is required of you that in order to make this assertion, you must also
>provide evidence. So I ask: are there uses of this word in Koine in the
>circumstances you posit? I am not aware of one, nor have I seen any
>referred to in the usual tools that we use. Without such supporting
>references, your argument doesn't carry much weight.
>In reply to your question regarding Mark 5:6, the point Jonathan has made
>is that PROSKUNEW is used of one of lesser stature giving "respect" (an
>attempt to use a word that gets the idea across and not one with loading-I
>suspect that this isn't doing the job, but I have no other) to one of
>greater stature. So to translate this verse as the demon-possessed man
>"falling on his knees" (or face or genuflecting or doing obeisance) is
>fine, but it the declaration of Jesus as Son of the Most High demonstrates
>that the demoniac is "respecting" one of greater stature than he. So
>again, your citation of Earle is not really germane to the point you wish
>to make. More to your point about this verse would be a discussion of the
>semantic field of LATREUSEIS-how should/can it be translated here.
>Matt 4.10 similarly-the problem here however is not a linguistic or
>grammatical one, but rather an interpretive one, which is beyond the limits
>of this list. That is: is Jesus greater than Satan or will Jesus recognize
>Satan as greater? The rest of the discussion surround the meanings of
>things obfuscates the issue.
>Getting down to the end of your last post you indicate that your main
>argument is that PROSKUNEW does not necessarily have religious import. I
>don't think Jonathan or anyone else would disagree with this. IN fact I
>seem to read Jonathan saying the same thing.
>At the end you cite a couple of verses in support (chiding Jonathan to read
>in context). The first one, Gen 23.7 where Abraham prostrates himself
>before the Hittites-yes, they were "superior" to him in two ways. First,
>he is a sojourner among them and is conscious that as a guest he is very
>dependent on their good will. Basic Near East hospitality customs-one
>"respects" one's hosts. Second, the context of the passage suggests that
>Abraham is here addressing the leaders of the community, and again as
>people of position over a guest among them he offers them his respects
>before asking the favor he has to ask.
>The Isaiah 49:23 passage only works in fact IF PROSKUNEW is a lesser
>offering respect to a greater. The whole passage is talking about the
>great reversal God will affect for Israel-those who now are Kings and
>Queens will be as servants to them-those who now receive genuflection from
>you will genuflect to you. That is to say the first shall be last the last
>first. A reversal of roles is what is in view here, and it loses its punch
>and makes much less sense in my opinion if PROSKUNEW simply means to bow
>I'm not at all certain what meaning you attach to the observation that only
>the One on the throne receives "worship" in that passage.
>My .02
>Academic Computer Specialist
>Rocky Mountain College
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