Re: Semantic range of PROSKUNEW

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu Jun 25 1998 - 17:59:30 EDT

Steve Long wrote:

>If we take the mindset of the individuals into account, considering their
>backgrounds etc., Abraham was of Chaldean background, his customs would
>have included bowing of respect, Naaman was an Assyrian, he also would have
>bowed out of respect. It is a very oriental way to show respect. But would
>a Jew of Jesus' day bowed out of respect?
>Acts 10:25,26 is the key, I think to unscramble the different mindsets.
>Cornelius would have been trained to prostrate himself as a sign of respect
>and submission. He would have been acknowledging Peter's spiritual
>authority in the same way he acknowledged Caesar's political authority. But
>Peter refused to accept this oriental sign of respect and submission. His
>statement KAGW AUTOS ANQRWPOS EIMI would indicate, to me at least, that his
>mindset meant bowing indicated a sign of not only respect, but also
>indicated a sign of something more than respect. Something not done between
>equals and something not done to men at all, hence his emphatic use of
>People use the same words differently depending on their background.
>Actions have different meanings to one culture and to another. Cornelius
>understood PROSKUNEW based on his culture and experience. Peter based his
>understanding on a Galilean Jewish perspective. Finding one meaning for
>PROSKUNEW won't work because the action meant different things to different
>people. It could have meant respect to Cornelius and worship to Peter.
>The definition is clear, it means to bow down, what people are thinking
>when they bow down is harder to pin down. That is a problem with
>translating PROSKUNEW as 'worship', the modern English gloss carries the
>connotation of devotion to God. Of course, when Jesus uses PROSKUNEW in
>John chapter 4, he is definitely talking about devotion to God, the idea of
>physically bowing down is not really conveyed in context. I guess this
>shows my Occam's razor idea not working so good.

Dear Steve,

Your words contain much wisdom. Particularly is it important as you do, to
start with the core meaning "to bow down" and not with a restricted sense
which is based on theology or on something else. I find your conclusions
logical and would like to expand a little on your differentiation between
*use* and *meaning*.

I will argue that PROSKUNEW generally speaking signals just *one* concept
in the minds of those having the same presupposition pool, and the
different senses we construe in different situations do not stem from
different concepts in the minds of the people, but rather because different
sides of the one concept is stressed. If this is true, it means that while
Cornelius may have viewed his act of PROSKUNEW as more than just respect
*in this particular* situation, he would also be aware of other uses of the
word, such as for instance "do obeisance".

This one-word-one-concept approach to lexical semantics (some words can
signal more than one concept), teach us the important lesson which you also
stress, that we cannot draw sweeping theological conclusions on the basis
of just *one* word. The question whether the act of PROSKUNEW can be done
toward a person of the same rank is just a sidetrack, what is important,
is that the core of the concept is to bow down, and that the only way to
know when this bowing down means worship is the context.

BTW, PROSKUNEW is the only example of which I am aware where the principle
of Athanasius (which he borrowed from Plato) works , namely that an OUSIA
may change the meaning of a word (I would say: pinpoint the sense of a
word). When GOD is object, the meaning is always worship, when a creature
or thing is object, it may or may not indicate worship.


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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