Christian worship has been very important to the question of whether or not Jesus is God. The New Testament (NT) records certain instances in which Jesus was “worshipped.” Christians generally have regarded these as evidence that those practitioners believed Jesus was God, since only God should be worshipped. But what does “worship” mean?
The most prominent word in the Greek NT which usually is translated “worship” is proskuneo. It and its cognates occur sixty-one times in the Greek NT. Most of these occurrences are in the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Revelation, the first and last books of the NT. The etymology of proskuneo is that pros means “motion,” either “from” or “towards” some object, and kuneo means “to kiss.” Lexical authority Walter Bauer in BAGD informs that proskuneo was “used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing his feet, the hem of his garment, the ground, etc.” He adds that proskuneo can be translated “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully.”
(The other two words in the Greek NT which occasionally are translated “worship” in English Bibles are latreuo and its related latreia. But most English Bibles usually translate them “serve.”)
So, according to lexicographers, during antiquity the Greek word proskuneo almost always signified a physical act. It indicated the oriental custom of either genuflection, i.e., bowing down by bending the knee(s), or prostration. Practitioners, however, adopted either of these two postures toward a superior in order to convey their humble attitude of respect, honor, and perhaps submission in the sense of readiness to defer to the will of that superior. They frequently performed proskuneo towards those possessing imperial authority, especially kings. Such physical acts usually indicated no more than a humble attitude of submission.
In contrast, our English word “worship,” whether used as a noun or a verb, does not designate a physical act. Thus, it does not serve as a suitable translation of proskuneo. Furthermore, the definition of our word “worship” has a very wide range of meanings. So, to translate proskuneo in the NT with the word “worship” can be ambiguous if not misleading.
When the gospel Evangelists report that someone performed proskuneo toward Jesus, Bible translators invariably reveal their Christological bias by rendering it “worship,” suggesting that that person thought Jesus was “divine” or “God.” But when the Evangelists relate that a person performed proskuneo toward someone other than Jesus, they translate it “bowed down,” “bend the knee,” “kneel,” “prostrate,” or the like. So, they translate it “worship” when done to Jesus (e.g., Matt 2.2, 11; 14.33; 28.9, 17; John 9.38), but a physical act when done to someone else. Particularly telling in Rev 3.9, in which Jesus says of his faithful ones in the church at Philadelphia that those “who say they are Jews, and are not” will “come and bow down (proskuneo) at your feet.”
For instance, besides the infancy narrative in Matt 2, the Gospel of Matthew records a total of seven times when people performed proskuneo before Jesus. In three of these instances, they were Jesus’ disciples, and in the other four instances they were other people. The New International Version (NIV) translates it “worship” when done by Jesus’ disciples (Matt 14.33; 28.9, 17), but “knelt” or “kneeling” when done by others (Matt 8.2; 9.18; 15.25; 20.20). The NIV renders proskuneo “fell” in Luke 8.47. All of this is quite typical of other English Bible versions.
Sometimes, the NT Greek text includes with proskuneo the word pipto, meaning “fall down” or “bow down.” For example, the book of Revelation records four times when angels in heaven performed proskuneo before God (Rev 5.14; 7.11; 11.16; 19.4), and in each case it includes pipto, thus to “fall/bow down and worship.” Sometimes, pipto appears with proskuneo in the gospels when it is performed before Jesus. Both together indicates that no more was meant than that the person demonstrated respect for Jesus.
The author of Hebrews lists seven Old Testament (OT) quotations in an effort to prove that Jesus is superior to angels (Hebrews 1.5-13). Many Christians have cited one of these as an indication that Jesus is God. It is a quotation from Deuteronomy 32.43 in the Septuagint (3rd c. BCE Greek OT). It reads, “let all the angels of God worship him” (v. 6). The author of Hebrews likely meant that the angels of heaven honor Jesus in the same way Paul describes in Philippians 2.10, in which he says of the exalted Jesus, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.” That is, when Jesus returns with his glorious kingdom, all will perform genuflection at the public announcement of his name, which does not necessarily indicate he is God.
The book of Revelation presents vivid and striking accounts of angels doing homage to both God and Jesus in heaven. But in each case they perform pipto (“to fall down”) followed by proskuneo, e.g., Rev 5.14, and it is not clear if they worshipped Jesus in the sense of his being God. Maurice Casey insists that in this book Jesus Christ “is not actually hailed as divine even in the pictures of him being praised in heaven.”
Twice, the author of Revelation, who is “John,” says of the angel who related these prophecies to him that he fell down at his feet to “worship” (proskuneo) him. But both times the angel forbade John’s act and said, “worship God,” that is, the Father (Revelation 19.20; 22.9). The angel may have regarded these as more than acts of honor. This arouses the question of whether only God, and not also Jesus, should be worshipped in this sense.
Sir Isaac Newton was a devout Christian who wrote more on theology than science. The main precept of his faith was, “whenever it is said in the Scriptures that there is one God, it means the Father.” He cited mostly 1 Corinthians 8.6 for support. It says “there is but one God, the Father,… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” He explains, “We are forbidden to worship two Gods, but we are not forbidden to worship one God and one Lord.” I wholeheartedly agree with all of this.
Anti-Trinitarian Newton also distinguished degrees of worship. He assigned ultimate worship to God as Creator and a lesser worship to Jesus as God’s agent in creation and redemption. He argued that worshipping two or more beings equally, as in the doctrine of the Trinity, is an infraction against the First of the Ten Commandments and thus idolatry. I don’t concur with this.
In conclusion, an increasing number of conservative NT scholars, including many Trinitarians, now acknowledge that in the NT gospels, proskuneo directed toward Jesus does not necessarily indicate that those practitioners believed that he was God. Trinitarian D.A. Carson cautions regarding the Gospel of Matthew, saying, “it is very doubtful if proskyneo by itself or in connection with pipto suggests anything more than obeisance, homage.” And J. Lionel North asserts that there is “nothing” in the NT “that requires us to conclude that Jesus is regarded as divine because he is worshipped.” Wendy North and Loren T. Stuckenbruck conclude that what should be “gained from the New Testament” is “that ‘worship’ is too imprecise a word to point necessarily to the conclusion that Jesus is divine.” Amen!
(To see a titled list of over fifty, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)