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Another “oldie but goodie”: On Worship

December 13, 2011

A recent application for PhD studies, the applicant interested in researching the historical context of earliest Christian worship, reminded me of a book of older vintage that may not be noted sufficiently:

Johannes Horst, Proskynein: Zur Anbetung im Urchristentum nach ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Eigenart, Neutestamentliche Forschungen, no. 3/2 (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1932).

I’ve referred appreciatively to Horst’s volume in at least a few of my own publications over the years.  He surveys in particular use of the Greek verb, proskynein (which literally means to prostrate before a superior), in the ancient historical context in which early Christianity emerged, and explores how early Christian worship represents any innovation in worship practice.  To my knowledge, there is no subsequent volume that covers the same material with this focus and depth.

Some readers have expressed an interest in having important works from the past highlighted.  Well, this is one to note.  (Also, at the risk of dredging up a controversy from a few months ago, the book illustrates why I place importance on learning to read German, and French too.)

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  1. John Moles. permalink

    The Greek verb proskynein does not literally mean to prostrate before a superior. It means ‘kiss to, or near’. It can of course be used of ‘prostrating before a superior’ but that is not what the word literally means. It comes to be used of ‘prostrating before a superior’, because some Greeks (not others) misconstrued the Persian ritual of ‘proskynesis’ as being more servile than it actually was. This point is important – indeed, absolutely vital, if one is properly to understand how language actually works, because one is dealing with an absolutely basic distinction between meaning and application. It is surely vital for competence in NT (as in other) studies to grasp this simple but crucial distinction.

    John Moles.

    • Well, yes, John, the gesture perhaps originally was “to kiss the hand”, as Horst notes clearly. But for readers of Roman-era Greek texts such as the NT, this is simply an interesting footnote. For in the uses we have, the term is used in sentences where the action is clearly prostration before a superior, including offering worship to a deity.
      Since you so forthrightly assert what you think are important matters to do with language, I’ll return the favour by correcting your comments in light of linguistics. What you refer to as the “meaning” of proskynein is more correctly its original designation or referent (the “hand-kiss”). What you call the “application” is more correctly the referent and usage of the word in Koine Greek texts. Words don’t have “meaning”; they have a range of meaning possibilities, and a specific one appears when the word is used in sentences, which are the primary semantic unit. I should think that all those dealing with language and texts should acquaint themselves with the basics of linguistics, precisely to understand better how languages work.

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