Bible Translation and Study 

Worship or Obeisance?


CARM, a website critical of the New World Translation, makes the following observation:

"The word "proskuneo"[1] occurs 55 times in the Watchtower Kingdome [sic] Interlinear.  Of those 55, 15 are in reference to Jesus with 40 used of others.  27% of the usage is of Jesus and not a single reference is translated as 'worship' even though in reference to the devil, demons, idols, etc., they do translate it as worship.  If this doesn't demonstrate their bias, then what does?"[2] 

The statistics mentioned on the above website are not entirely correct.  Actually, the Greek word 'προσκυνέω[3], proskuneoproskuneo' occurs 60 times in Westcott & Hort Edition of the "New Testament", on which the Kingdom Interlinear Translation is based.[4]  Sometimes, the New World Translation uses the verb 'worship', other times, the expression 'do obeisance'.  So let us discuss whether the above website's criticism of the New World Translation is valid.  To do this, we need to examine (a) the range of meaning of the Greek word proskuneo, (b) criteria for determining which of the possible renderings should be used in any given situation, (c) whether the New World Translation has adhered strictly to these criteria.


Range of Meaning of προσκυνέω, proskuneo

To establish what proskuneo means, we shall examine both lexical definitions and the use of the word in the Bible, both the Greek Septuagint and the New Testament.[5]

The United Bible Societies (UBS) Lexicon gives the following definitions for proskuneo:

worship; fall down and worship, kneel, bow low, fall at another's feet

The Friberg Lexicon states:

(1) from a basic sense bow down to kiss someone's feet, garment hem, or the ground in front of him; (2) in the NT of worship or veneration of a divine or supposedly divine object, expressed concretely with falling face down in front of someone worship, venerate, do obeisance to

Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon says:

Plut.:-to make obeisance to the gods, fall down and worship, to worship, adore, ...

2. of the Oriental fashion of making the salam or prostrating oneself before kings and superiors,

The renowned  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, 3rd edition, (BDAG) gives the following definition:BDAG Lexicon

Freq. used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before persons and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment, the ground, etc.; the Persians did this in the presence of their deified king, and the Greeks before a divinity or someth. holy.) to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully.

It adds that such respect is paid:

to human beings, but by this act they are to be recognized as belonging to a superhuman realm ... —Jesus, who is rendered homage as Messianic king and helper.[6]

An examination of above dictionary references indicates two basic possible meanings for proskuneo:

  1.  Worship.  There can be no doubt that proskuneo is the word most frequently translated worship in the New Testament.

  2. Obeisance, homage, bowing down to a superior, for instance, a king. 


Defining the English Terms

To prevent any possible confusion, let us now examine the meaning of the English terms worship, obeisance, homage, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, third edition.

Worship (verb):

1. To honour or revere as a supernatural being or power or as a holy thing; to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies. ...

2. To honour; to regard or treat with honour or respect; to salute, bow down to.

Obeisance:  a respectful salutation; a bow or curtsyA leper pays homage to Jesus.  Public domain

Homage: acknowledgement of superiority; dutiful respect or honour shown

Although the verb 'to worship' in the sense of 'honour, regard, respect' has been widely used in the past, this usage is basically obsolete in modern English.[7]  Hence, the only way the term 'worship' is currently used in English is that cited under definition number 1 above, namely "to honour or revere as a supernatural being or power ... to adore with appropriate acts."[8]


Use of Proskuneo in the New Testament

The article referred to above identifies a number of different persons to whom the verb προσκυνέω, proskuneo is applied:



15 times


19 times


1 time

Dragon, beast, image

9 times


2 times


6 times


1 time


1 time


1 time


CARM's supposed "generic" category reveals a methodological error, bringing together a number of different items.  In John 12:20, Acts 8:27, Acts 24:11, Revelation 11:1 and possibly Revelation 3:9, the verb is used in the sense of worship, with the object 'God' implied, e.g. "he came to Jerusalem to worship [sc. God]".  However, CARM has also 'smuggled' another, quite significant, verse into this category: Matthew 18:26.  We shall discuss this verse in greater detail shortly.

Although proskuneo can mean to worship, its basic meaning is unquestionably  'to bow down'

The NT usage of the verb proskuneo demonstrates the range of meaning given in the BDAG and other lexicons.  There are cases where the verb clearly means 'to worship', but there are also cases where it can not mean anything other than 'to bow down' to.

In the Western world of the 21st century, we are not accustomed to bowing down to people.  We might stand up when a judge enters the room, or nod our heads as a sign of respect, but that is usually as far as it goes.  But we should not impose our understanding and culture on our reading of the New Testament, which was written in the 1st century C.E. and reflects the culture and customs of the time.

One verse that demonstrates this quite clearly is Matthew 18:26.  This is Jesus' parable of the unforgiving slave.  When his master tells him that he intends to sell him, his family and possessions, we read the slave's reaction:


πεσων ουν ο δουλος προσεκυνει [prosekunei, from proskuneo] αυτω, λεγων κυριε, μακροθυμησον επ' εμοι και παντα σοι αποδωσω


The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me and I will pay the all.


The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'


Therefore the slave fell down and began to do obeisance to him,  saying,  'Be patient with me and I will pay back everything to you.'


 "The slave fell down and did obeisance to him".  Taken from a Bible Story book now in the public domain.

Is this verse telling us that the slave worshipped his master, in the sense of 'honouring or revering as a supernatural being'?  No.  It is true that the King James Version tells us that the slave worshipped his master, but that is because when the KJV was produced, the word 'worship' still included the simple meaning of bowing down.  Thus, the modern-language New International Version correctly says that the slave "fell on his knees" before his master.[10]

This text, then, confirms the comments of numerous lexicons cited above, that proskuneo can mean, simply to bow down.

This usage of proskuneo is also found in the Greek Septuagint.  For example, at Genesis 23:7, we read about an incident in the life of Abraham:



αναστας δε Αβρααμ προσεκυνησεν [prosekunesen, from proskuneo] τω λαω της γης, τοις υιοις Χετ


And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth


Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites.


Thereupon Abraham got up and bowed down to the natives,  to the sons of Heth,


Similarly, we read in 1 Kings 1:23 about Nathan's approach to King David:



και εισηλθεν κατα προσωπον του βασιλεως και προσεκυνησεν [prosekunesen, from proskuneo] το βασιλει κατα προσωπον αυτου επι την γην


And when he was come in before the king, he bowed himself before the king with his face to the ground


So he went before the king and bowed with his face to the ground.


After that he came in before the king and prostrated himself to the king with his face to the earth.


Some other instances where the Septuagint uses proskuneo to refer to bowing down as a mark of respect are:

·         Genesis 33:3: Jacob bowed to his brother Esau

·         Exodus 18:7: Moses bowed to his father-in-law

·         Ruth 2:10: Ruth bowed to Boaz

·         1 Samuel 20:41: David bowed to Jonathan

·         1 Samuel 24:8: David bowed to King Saul

·         1 Samuel 25:3: Abigail bowed to David

·         Daniel 2:46: Nebuchadnezzar bowed to Daniel

These, and many other, occurrences of the verb proskuneo in the Septuagint help us to understand two points:

1.   In a variety of cultures in Bible times it was customary to bow down before someone as a gesture of respect, with absolutely no religious meaning at all.

2.   The verb proskuneo is frequently used to describe such actions. 

Selecting the Correct Rendering

If translating the word proskuneo implies separating two shades of meaning, then on what basis can the translation decision be made?  In other words, how can the translator decide whether to render the word "worship" or "do obeisance, bow before, pay homage"?

First, we must acknowledge that rendering proskuneo as 'did obeisance' or 'bowed before' is never wrong when describing a physical action.  If such an action is prompted by reverence for God or a divinity, then the rendering 'worship' is appropriate.  But even in that case, the rendering 'bowed before' is not inappropriate.  The difference between simple bowing down and worship is a matter of the heart and mind of the one performing the action.

Worship is not difficult to distinguish from respect, obeisance or homage.  The basic distinction is this:  the person performing an act of worship views it as an acknowledgement of divinity.  He considers that he is worshipping God or possibly one or more of many gods.

In cases when the object of the verb proskuneo is God: the rendering 'worship' is obviously appropriate, and probably no-one disputes it.  True, certain verses might be translated "bow before God", even as Abraham's servant is said to have 'bowed down before Jehovah' (Genesis 24:26).  Even if that is so, the meaning is certainly that of worship, as there could be no conceivable reason for bowing down before God, except to worship him.

In cases where the verb's object is an idol, an image, or a false god, such as the devil, the demons, the wild beast of Revelation: again the rendering 'worship' is appropriate, because the one performing the action is attributing (wrongly) to the thing worshipped the qualities of God.  Here, too, a rendering like 'bow down' or 'do obeisance' might be used.  But all of the above are false gods.  They are false gods because people worship them.  That is what makes them gods.  The meaning of respect or honour here is improbable, since false gods are unlikely to be respected by anyone but their worshippers.

In cases where the verb's object is a human or an angel, either translation might conceivably be possible, but that would depend on what we are able to establish about the motives of the one performing the act of obeisance.  In Genesis 23:7, LXX, the gesture seems to have indicated little more than politeness.   In 1 Kings 1:23, we have the action of a loyal subject to his king, a gesture of submission and respect, but certainly not worship.  Likewise, in Matthew 18:26, quoted above, it would simply be wrong to translate the word as 'worship'.  The slave was not attributing any divine qualities to his master; he was simply throwing himself on his mercy.

On the other hand, there are cases where people do worship other humans.  Emperor worship was rife in the Roman world.  Did Cornelius intend to worship Peter?  (Acts 10:25).  In view of the context, that is unlikely, as Cornelius is said to be a God-fearing man.  The New World Translation says that he 'did him obeisance'.  The New International Version and the Good News Translation have similar renderings. 


The Fifteen Cases Involving Jesus Christ

The above principles provide us with more than enough guidance in order to decide how to translate the 15 occurrences of proskuneo with regard to Jesus Christ. 

Three instances of the verb proskuneo involving Christ have to do with his birth.  It is said that the three magi came to visit Jesus in order to 'do him obeisance' and that Herod, too, wished to 'do him obeisance'.  (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11).  Did the astrologers believe that Jesus was the Son of God?  Did Herod?  All they knew was that Jesus was called "King of the Jews".  (Matthew 2:2).   We have already established that it was customary to do obeisance to kings.  Nothing in these accounts indicates that the translation 'worship' would be appropriate.  They did not refer to the child even as the 'Son of God', not to mention God himself!

Numerous people approached Jesus and bowed down before him during his earthly ministry.  Matthew 8:2 recounts how a beggar did obeisance to Jesus and asked to be healed.  This man "entreated him on bended knee" (Mark 1:40).  Nothing indicates that the man believed Jesus to be God.  He was simply begging Jesus for a favour, just as the slave in Jesus' parable did obeisance to his master and begged for a favour.

Similarly, Matthew 9:18 tells us that Jairus 'did obeisance' to Jesus.  Again, a parallel account gives a synonym: he 'fell at his feet' (Luke 18:41).  These are the actions of a man requesting a great favour.  Nothing points to an act of worship in this passage.  The Phoenician woman mentioned in Matthew 15:25 also belongs here; she was begging Jesus to cure her demonized daughter.  So, too, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who asked a favour (Matthew 20:20), and a man from whom Jesus expelled demons (Mark 5:6)

Mark 15:19 tells us that the Roman soldiers 'did obeisance' to Christ.  It is scarcely possible that anyone would contend that this was an act of worship!  As far as the Romans were concerned, Jesus was being executed for claiming to be "King of the Jews".  As we have already established, the correct way to behave in the presence of a king was to bow down.  The soldiers were mocking Jesus' claim to be a king by cynically bowing down to him.[11]

We have seen, then, that in the above cases, there is absolutely no reason to conclude that the persons involved - most of them not believers - were actually worshipping Christ.  They simply fell at his feet, in harmony with the prevailing custom of the day.  What about cases where Christ's disciples 'did obeisance' to him, before and after his resurrection.  Do these prove that Christ was worshipped?

Matthew 14:33 informs us that the disciples 'did obeisance' to Christ after he had silenced a great storm.  John 9:38 tells us that a blind man who had been healed by Christ put faith in him and 'did obeisance' to him.  Matthew 28:9 tells us that women who saw the resurrected Jesus 'did obeisance' to him, and Luke 24:52 tells us that other disciples did so too.

Is the New World Translation correct in rendering these verses as 'did obeisance' rather than 'worshipped'?  Remember that 'do obeisance' is a broader term than 'worship'.  It describes a specific act, which, in certain circumstances could imply worship, but does not always.  If we can demonstrate that the disciples believed Jesus to be God, then we are justified in using the word 'worship'.  Otherwise, we are better off sticking with 'did obeisance' or something similar.  Since a physical act of bowing down is being described, the rendering 'did obeisance' is definitely correct, regardless of whether the disciples believed that Jesus was God or not, whereas the term 'worshipped' would only be correct if the disciples did believe such a thing.  So the New World Translation can not be faulted for choosing the rendering that is definitely correct in these verses.[12]

Did the disciples believe that Jesus was God?  That is a topic for another discussion, but there is one very interesting point raised by Professor Jason Beduhn.  It concerns Matthew 28:17:



και ιδοντες αυτον προσεκυνησαν αυτω, οι δε εδιστασαν


when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.


When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.


and when they saw him they did obeisance,  but some doubted.


Can a person worship and doubt at the same time?  As we have established above, the narrower rendering 'worship' can be justified only if we can prove that the disciples believed Jesus to be God.  This verse indicates that some of them not only doubted that he is God, but they even doubted that it was Jesus.  In these circumstances, the rendering 'worshipped' is very hard to justify.

The apostles could not have 'worshipped' and 'doubted' at the same time!

This leaves us with Hebrews 1:6, which in the New World Translation reads: "Let all God's angels do obeisance to him [that is, Christ]."  The footnote very honestly admits that the phrase could be rendered by the alternate reading "worship him".  Since Christ, as the Son of God, occupies a position much higher than that of the angels, it is only right that they should do him obeisance.  But, again, we can not read more into Hebrews 1:6 than it is actually saying.  If you believe Christ is God, then, clearly you will feel that the proskuneo here refers to worship.  But if you are trying to use the proskuneo here to prove that Jesus is God, then your argument would be circular.  It would be like saying that the verb must mean 'worship' because Jesus is God, and that he must be God because he is worshipped!  You would be assuming the very thing you're trying to prove!

No wonder, then, that Professor Beduhn comments: "There are passages where many translators have interpreted the gesture referred to by the Greek term proskuneo as implying 'worship'.  They have then substituted that interpretation in the place of a translation."[13]


Other Translations

Other translations, too, have recognized that a rendering like 'do obeisance' or 'bow before' is appropriate.


New English Bible[14]

Jerusalem Bible[15]

New American Bible[16]

Matthew 2:2

pay him homage

do him homage

do him homage

Matthew 2:8

pay him homage

do him homage

do him homage

Matthew 2:11

bowed to the ground in homage to him

did him homage

prostrated themselves

Matthew 8:2

bowed low

bowed low in front of him

did him homage

Matthew 9:18

bowed low before him

bowed low in front of him

knelt down before him

Matthew 14:33

fell at his feet

bowed down before him

did him homage

Matthew 15:25

fell at his feet

was kneeling at his feet

did him homage

Matthew 20:20

bowed low

bowed low

did him homage

Matthew 28:9

falling prostrate before him

falling down before him

did him homage

Matthew 28:17

fell prostrate before him

fell down before him

worshipped [NB: not 'worshipped him']

Mark 5:6

flung himself down before him

fell at his feet

prostrated himself

Mark 15:19

paid mock homage to him

do him homage

knelt before him in homage

Luke 24:52


worshipped him

did him homage

John 9:38

bowed before him

worshipped him

worshipped him

Hebrews 1:6

pay him homage

worship him

worship him


Is it true, then, as the CARM website asserts:

"As you can see, the NWT is very bias [sic] in how it translates the word "proskuneo."  Whenever it is in reference to Jesus, they absolutely will not let it be translated as worship.  Why?  Because they erringly deny that Jesus is God in flesh and their Bible reflects their bias.  This is not how proper theology is done.  ...      The Watchtower Organization has changed the Bible to suit its needs"?

 Let us summarize the evidence:

(1) Lexicons.  All reliable lexicons list at least two meanings for proskuneo.  One meaning is 'worship'; the other is 'bow low, prostrate oneself, do obeisance'

(2) Bible usage.  It is clearly seen from a number of examples in the NT and the Septuagint that the verb is frequently used without any religious significance, simply as a gesture of respect, submission, and humility.

(3) Other Bible translations.  It may be seen that other Bible translations, on occasion, agree with the NWT in not translating proskuneo as worship, when it refers to Jesus Christ.


So who is really biased - the New World Translation Committee or its critics?  Let scholar Jason Beduhn answer:  

"In our exploration of this issue, we can see how theological bias has been the determining context for the choices made by all of the translations except the NAB and NW.  There are passages where many translators has interpreted the gesture referred to by the Greek term proskuneo as implying 'worship'.  They have then substituted that interpretation in place of translation.  ... The translators seem to feel the need to add to the New Testament support for the idea that Jesus was recognized to be God.  But the presence of such an idea cannot be supported by selectively translating a word one way when it refers to Jesus and another way when it refers to someone else. ... When we observe how these same translators choose 'worship' when the gesture is made to Jesus by certain persons, and choose other English words to translate the very same Greek term when the gesture is directed to someone other than Jesus ... their inconsistency reveals their bias. [17]




[1] 'Proskuneo' and 'proskyneo' are alternative transliterations of the Greek verb προσκυνέω.

[3] In this and other essays on this site, accent marks on Greek text have been deliberately omitted, as experience has shown that polytonic Greek fonts are seldom displayed correctly.

[4] The list produced by CARM is not entirely accurate.  A search of the Westcott & Hort Greek Text of the New Testament using the e-sword program yielded a total of 60 occurrences in 54 verses, six verses having the word twice (John 4:20, 22, 23, 24, Revelation 13:4; 19:10.) 

[5] In this essay, we are using the term 'New Testament' for convenience.  Jehovah's Witnesses feel it is more accurate and descriptive to refer to this portion of the Bible as the "Christian Greek Scriptures".

[6] These dictionary quotations are taken from reference works available through the Bibleworks 5 software.

[7] It has, however, left its mark on modern English in such terms as "Your Worship" (the correct form of address for a Justice of the Peace or a Mayor in England). 

[8] We are not here discussing the metaphorical usage of the word in expressions such as "he worships (or, adores) his wife", which might in most cases be classed as hyperbole.

[9] Abbreviations: KJV, King James Version; NIV, New International Version; NWT, New World Translation.

[10] The use of proskuneo at Revelation 3:9 is debatable.  It could either mean that the opposers would worship God in front of true worshippers (the object of the verb, 'God', being understood in Greek), or it could mean (as in the NWT) that they would 'do obeisance' to the true worshippers, bowing down in acknowledgement of the fact that Christians are servants of the true God.

[11] Of course, in the Roman world it was generally believed that emperors and kings were divine, so perhaps they were pretending to worship Jesus.  But the point is irrelevant for our purposes.

[12] The rendering 'did obeisance' does not in any case contradict the doctrine that Jesus is God.   We have seen in the Hebrew scriptures that servants of God did literally bow down to him on occasion.  So Trinitarians should have no real quarrel with the rendering 'did obeisance'.  However, this rendering deprives them of one of their principal arguments for the view that Christ is Almighty God.

[13] Truth in Translation - Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament, page 47.

[14] 1961 edition.  The New English Bible was made by representatives of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Methodist, Baptist and Congregationalist Churches, as well as the Presbyerian Church in England, Society of Friends, Church in Wales, Churches in Ireland, British and Foreign Bible Society, and National Bible Society of Scotland.

[15] The Jerusalem Bible is a Catholic Bible version published in 1966, under the supervision of Alexander Jones, Christ's College, Liverpool.

[16] The New American Bible was produced by team of approximately 50 Bible scholars, the majority of whom were Catholics.

[17] Truth in Translation - Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament, page 47.


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