What Does the Bible Mean by the Term "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 them. 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 peasants.

"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 offer a welcoming embrace" (Jason D. BeDuhn, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament, University Press of America, 2003, pp. 41-49).

The point we are making is this: Some older versions of the Bible, notably the King James Version, are now highly MISLEADING when they present you with the view that the Messiah was "worshipped," i.e. that the Messiah is GOD, equal to YEHOVAH God in Deity. Dr. BeDuhn, whom we quoted, 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 today those meanings have been lost to the extent that they do NOT cover the same function as they once did. 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."

What is meant by the KJV when the Messiah is said to be "worshipped"? Not necessarily that he is God! "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]."

General "Worship"

In the Bible "worship" was offered to both YEHOVAH God (YHVH) and human beings. This is reflected in the OT Hebrew words: shachah (Gen. 37:7; 47:31; Josh. 23:7; Jdg 7:15; 1 Kings 1:47; 1 Chron. 29:20; Zeph. 2:11); qadad (Gen. 24:26; 43:28); and the Aramaic verb segeed, corresponding to the Hebrew sagad (Dan. 2:46; 3:28; cf. Rom. 12:1). The NT uses the Greek proskuneo for angels (Rev. 19:10; 22:8), human beings (Matt. 20:20; Acts 10:25), and false gods or idols (Acts 7:43; Rev. 13:8; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). In Revelation 3:9 human beings are to be worshipped! They are NOT God.

A leading authority on the Bible is most helpful: "Some indefiniteness attaches to this subject [of "worship"], 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 Dictionary of the Bible, 4:943).

Thus "worship" of the Messiah tells us NOTHING about his precise status or nature. "The examples of proskuneo which have been discussed do NOT greatly strengthen the evidence for the worship of Christ [i.e. as God]. 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, p. 104).

"Divine" Service and Worship

The Bible uses other words to indicate the exclusive "worship" and external or official divine service to the one God of Israel, YHVH. The OT uses the Aramaic palach, found in Daniel (7:14, 27; cp. 6:16-17, 20-21; 3:28; 7:24) and describes the activity of "servants" of the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 7:24). In the Greek Septuagint this is translated as latreuo (worship; cp. latreai=service worship, Ex. 3:12; 7:16; Deut. 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 YEHOVAH God alone:

A key question would then be, Does anyone in the NT "latreuo" -- offer divine worship -- to the Messiah?

"There is NO INSTANCE of latreuo [to do religious service to] which has Christ as its object" (Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament, p. 103). And NO ONE worships the holy spirit in the NT. The spirit is NOT a third Person but the operational presence of YEHOVAH God and His Messiah.

"It is equally notable that [the apostle Paul applies] the normal prayer terms (deomai, deesis) to God AND NEVER TO CHRIST. [He] is neither simply the content of the thanksgiving. Such uniformity in Paul's usage should certainly make us hesitate before asserting that Paul 'worshipped' Christ, since the evidence more clearly indicates otherwise" (Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 257-260).


It is PRESUMPTUOUS to suggest that early Christians were under some kind of "obligation" to render the same type of worship to the Messiah as to YEHOVAH God. I say this 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 Shema (1 Cor. 8:1-6; Phil. 2:5-11; Gal. 4:1-7; Col. 1:15-20; cp. Deut. 6:4) somehow took place. This ALLEGED moving away from Jewish monotheism CANNOT be justified in view of the Messiah's own affirmation of the Shema in the NT (where it remains CONSISTENT with the UNCHANGING and UNITARIAN monotheistic, Jewish belief he expressed) and cultural, social and functional meaning of "worship" throughout the Bible:

"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 Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 16, Christianity Macropaedia article, p. 274).

-- Carlos Jimenez

Hope of Israel Ministries
P.O. Box 853
Azusa, CA 91702, U.S.A.