Does Proskuneo Mean Worship in the New Testament?

Jehovah's Witnesses and Worship

Jehovah's Witnesses deny that Jesus is God the Son. Instead, Jesus was the first created being by God who was Michael the Archangel in heaven. In order for Jehovah's Witnesses to support their viewpoint, they have to deal with passages in the Bible that appear to teach that Jesus receives worship (cf. Matt. 2:2; 28:9 for just two examples).

The Jehovah's Witnesses translation of the Bible known as the New World Translation translates these passages that use the term worship (as in the King James Version (KJV), New American Standard (NASB), etc.) as "pay homeage to," or "bow before," etc. They use these terms in order to minimize the notion of Jesus receiving worship which is a term that is reserved for God alone. According to Jehovah's Witnesses thinking, since Jesus is not God, he could not receive worship.

The Jehovah's Witnesses argue that the Greek word most frequently translated as worship in the New Testament (proskuneo) can refer to people, etc. Therefore, it is not a term that is reserved for God alone. Therefore, one should not use the word "worship" to translate proskuneo. Instead, one should use terms that show respect as one would before a king such as  "page homage to," "bow before," etc.

Does the New Testament Teach Jesus Received Worship?

In order to understand the Jehovah's Witnesses objection, we must first look at all of the uses of the term proskuneo in the New Testament.

The Gospels and Proskuneo

In the Gospels, the NRSV translation does not always translate proskuneo as worship. The term is used in the Greek to refer to a demon possessed man bowing before Jesus, worship in reference to Satan...

Appendix 1: Proskuneo

The NRSV translates it as
“bowed down” in relationship to a demon possessed man bowing before Jesus.
“pay homage” in reference to the child Jesus (Mt. 2:2, 8, 11),
“worship” in reference to Satan (Matthew 4:9//Luke 4:7) and God (Matthew 4:10//Luke 4:8), and the disciples confessing Jesus as the Son of God in a confessional sense after witnessing his miraculous power over nature (Mt. 14:33), and the disciples before Jesus when they witness him resurrected (Matthew 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52).   
“knelt before” or similar language in reference to a demon possessed man bowing before Jesus (Mark 5:6), soldiers mockingly bowing before Jesus (Mark 15:19), those asking for healing (Mt. 8:2; 9:18; 15:25) or a special request from Jesus (Mt. 20:20), or falling down before in the context of a debtor asking for mercy from his lender (Mt. 18:26)
List: Matthew 2:2, 8, 11
Proskuneo in Matthew
x-1. Child Jesus
Matthew 2:2: “Asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”
•    No parallel
•    Pay homage to the child Jesus.
x-2. Child Jesus 2
Matthew 2:8: Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
•    No parallel
•    Pay homage
x-3. Child Jesus 3
Matthew 2:11: On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
•    No parallel
•    Pay homage
4. Satan
Matthew 4:9: “And he [Satan] said to him [Jesus], ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”
•    Parallel: Luke 4:7
•    Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if he will worship him.
5. Worship only God
Matthew 4:10: “Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
•    Parallel: Luke 4:8
•    Worship
6. Leper before Jesus
Matthew 8:2: “And there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’”
•    Leper kneels before Jesus and asks for healing
7. Leader of the Synagogue before Jesus
Matthew 9:18:  “While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’”
•    The leader of the synagogue knelt before Jesus and asked for healing for daughter
8. The Disciples’ Response to Jesus’ Power over Nature
Matthew 14:33: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God.”
•    This is the response of the disciples to Jesus’ power over nature.
9. Woman before Jesus
Matthew 15:25: “But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
•    Parallel: (Mark 7:24-30//Matthew 15:21-28)
•    Matthew substitutes proskuneo for prospipto (Mark 7:25//Matthew 15:25).
x-10. A Debtor
Matthew 18:26: “So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’”
•    No Parallel
•    Part of a parable or illustration of Jesus regarding a debtor.
11. Mother of Sons of Zebedee before Jesus
Matthew 20:20: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.”
•    Parallel (Mark 10:35-45//Matthew 20:20-28//X)
•    Matthew adds proskuneo to this passage where Mark does not have anything reminiscent of it other than that they “came forward to him,” (Mark 10:35).
x-12. Disciples before Jesus
Matthew 28:9: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”
•    No parallel
x-13. Disciples before Jesus
Matthew 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
•    No parallel
Proskuneo in Mark
1. Demon Possessed Man
Mark 5:6: “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him.”
2. Soldiers Mocking Jesus
Mark 15:19: “They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.”
Proskuneo in Luke
1. Satan
Luke 4:7: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
•    Parallel: Matthew 4:9 above.
2.  God
Luke 4:8: Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "
•    Parallel: Matthew 4:10 above.
x-3. The Disciples before Jesus
Luke 24:52: “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
•    No parallel

Matthew 2:2: “Asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”
pay homage to the child Jesus
Matthew 4:9: “And he [Satan] said to him [Jesus], ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”
Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if he will worship him.
Matthew 8:2: “And there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’”
leper kneels before Jesus and asks for healing
Matthew 9:18:  “While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’”
leader of the synagogue knelt before Jesus and asked for healing for daughter
Matthew 14:33: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God.” This is the response of the disciples to Jesus’ power over nature.

Matthew 15:25: “But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
Woman asking Jesus for healing.
Matthew 18:26: “So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’”
Part of a parable or illustration of Jesus regarding a debtor.
Matthew 20:20: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.”
Matthew 28:9: “”

Appendix 3: Prospipto
Matthew 7:25, "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock."
•    Unique to Matthew
Mark 3:11, "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!'"
•    Unique to Mark with demons falling down before Jesus. Matthew and Luke do not include this reference. [evidence for Markan development]
Mark 5:33, "But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth." (Mark 5:21-43//X//Luke 8:40-56)
•    Luke keeps prospipto as the passage below states.
Mark 7:25, "but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet." (Mark 7:24-30//Matthew 15:21-28//X).
•    Matthew 15:25 uses proskuneo as a substitute for prospipto.
Luke 5:8, "But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!'"
•    [Unique to Luke]
Luke 8:28, "When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, 'What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me'" (Mark 5:1-20//X//Luke 8:26-39).
•    Mark 5:6 is the parallel which has proskuneo. Therefore, it appears that Luke takes the two terms as somewhat synonymous.
Luke 8:47, "When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed."
•    See Mark 5:33

Appendix 4: Gonupeteo
Matthew 17:14, “When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him,” (Mark 9:14-29; Matthew 17:14-21; Luke 9:37-43a).

Matthew 27:29, “And after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’”

Mark 1:40, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”

Mark 10:17, “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.