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“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”

“in its rising.” Most Bible versions say the Magi saw the star, “in the east,” instead of “when it rose.” However, studies have shown that when the Greek reads like it does in the Bible, en tē anatolē (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ ) in the singular, it has a special astrological meaning, that is, “when it rose” or “at its rising,” referring to a heliacal rising, that is, when a star appears on the horizon in the early dawn before sunrise. The reason it was important to be able to see a star when it first rose was that the horizon line gave a point of demarcation that made it easier to see where it was in relation to other stars, as well as how far north or south it was when it rose in relation to other times it appeared. When the Greek reads en tē anatolai (in the plural), then it means “in the east,” but in the Bible the phrase is singular, referring to a heliacal rising.

Although “in the east” is not the most accurate translation of the Greek text, it does tell us that most English Bibles give enough information to dispel some of the traditional mythology that has arisen about the Magi. In other words, if we would just read the Bible carefully, many traditions could be dispelled. For example, the Magi did not see the star in the western or southwestern sky—the direction of Jerusalem from where they lived. If they did see the star “in the East” and followed it, they would have traveled to India. Also, there is no verse that says they “followed” the star to get anywhere. The idea that they “followed” the star comes from tradition that was popularized by Christmas music. The Magi saw celestial events that led them to conclude that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Israel. Therefore, they made a decision based upon logic and knowledge, and went to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and asked the king where to find this new Messiah. Matthew 2:1 makes it clear they came to “Jerusalem,” not to Bethlehem. There they got an audience with King Herod, who directed them to go to Bethlehem.

“pay homage to him.” This phrase is usually translated “worship him,” and the reason for translating it “pay homage to him” is detailed below. The Greek verb is proskuneō (#4352 προσκυνέω; pronounced prōs-cue-nayˈ-ō, a compound word built from the preposition pros, “to, toward,” and the verb kuneō, κυνέω, ‘to kiss’). The BDAG Greek-English lexicon has this to say about the verb proskuneō:

It is “frequently used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before a person or 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 something holy. It is to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to an authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully” (BDAG).

The act of prostrating oneself, or at least bowing low, is very ancient and goes all the way back to Genesis. In the Old Testament the act of prostration or bowing low is often described by the word shachah (#07812 שָׁחָה), which is often translated by the Greek word proskuneō in the Septuagint. A study of shachah in the Hebrew Old Testament will reveal dozens of times people fell prostrate before God or others.

Jesus understood the custom of falling prostrate before rulers, men of God, and other great people (cp. 1 Sam. 25:24; 2 Kings 4:37; Esther 8:3; Matt. 18:29; Mark 5:22; 7:25; Luke 5:12; 17:16; John 11:32; Acts 10:35; Rev. 1:17; 19:10; 22:8), and he accepted that public display of homage and respect when people fell before him (cp. Mark 5:22; 7:25, Luke 5:12; etc.).

The problem with always translating proskuneō as “worship” is due to the fact that the act and meaning of “worship” has changed through the ages. In the Eastern world in general, falling prostrate was an accepted and expected act of honor, respect, and worship. Among the Greeks, as noted above, prostration was much more limited, but was done before gods and things considered holy. Among the Romans, prostration was even more limited than that, but still could occur.

As we can see from the Bible, the words shachah and proskuneō were both used to represent a physical act, the act of kneeling on the ground before someone and placing the forehead on the ground, or falling full length on the ground before someone, or at least bowing low before someone (the Latin and Latin Vulgate would use adoro (cp. “adore”) and veneror (cp. “venerate”) to represent that act. Prostration or kneeling then touching the forehead to the ground was an act of respect and honor, and was supposed to represent an attitude of the heart, but often it was just done because otherwise the ruler would be offended and angry, just as Haman was angry when Mordecai would not get down on his knees and bow before him (Esther 3:5).

In 1611, when the KJV was written, the English word “worship” was used of the worship of deity, but it was still also used of bowing down before men of higher rank, which was an expected act of respect and deference at that time. Kings and nobles expected people to bow before them. Thus, it was expected at the time of Jesus and in the 1600’s as well, that someone would prostrate themselves or bow down before a superior, especially someone such as a king. It should be noted that kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground is still seen among the Moslems when they pray, prostrating themselves before Allah.

The act of bowing before a king or dignitary then led to some rulers being designated as “Your Worship,” taking the act of worship they received and making it into a title. Because the act of bowing to rulers was still common in 1611, translating proskuneō as “worship” worked very well and was not confusing to the average reader, who still connected “worship” with a physical act of some kind (this also fits with the liturgy of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, which considers “worship” to be a form of prescribed action, not “just” a subjective act of the heart). However, in the four centuries since the King James Version, the meaning of “worship” has changed. For one thing, we stopped bowing and prostrating ourselves (worshipping) before those of higher rank. In fact, the idea of “worship” as deeply bowing or falling in prostration before a person of higher status has completely left modern English vocabulary (as per Merriam-Webster’s 11th edition Collegiate Dictionary). Also, today people think of “worship” as an attitude of the heart that can be accompanied by a physical action, but does not have to be. Today “worship,” in many cultures, is basically a mental act, so much so that if someone does something without “meaning it,” it would not be called “worship.” Also, today most people only use the word “worship” when speaking of God, never people with the exception of those few instances when we use it in a hyperbolic and idiomatic sense, such as “He worships that new car,” or, “She worships the ground he walks on.” Even in those cases, however, “worship” it is used as a term of extravagant respect that occurs in the heart, not something that is necessarily connected to a specific action. The shift in meaning of “worship” causes problems for translators, because if we talk about biblical people “worshipping” Jesus, people reading the Bible can be confused as to exactly what that worship entailed, and think it means Jesus is God.

Thus, while it was appropriate to translate proskuneō as “worship” in 1611, if we today translate proskuneō as “worship,” it often makes the verse take on a meaning that is not in the biblical text at all. For example, the Magi did not think of Jesus as God, and did not “worship” him as they would a deity. Rather, they paid homage to him as they would have to another king, understanding, of course, that they realized he was a very special king.

The meaning of “worship” has shifted from being represented by a physical act to being a mental act, but that does not mean that proskuneō should never be translated “worship.” For example, the Devil asked Jesus to fall down and “worship” him. The Devil wanted Jesus to prostrate himself before him with the same adoration Jesus would have had for God, and therefore it seems the best way to portray that is to translate proskuneō as “worship.” The Devil wanted Jesus’ full devotion, not just the act of falling prostrate.

The homage and “worship” that the Magi paid to Jesus Christ is still appropriate for us today, although we would not tend to express our homage the same way. The honor we pay to Jesus also fits with Hebrews 1:6, which says that when the Son came into the world God said, “And let all the angels of God worship Him” (Heb. 1:6 NASB). Hebrews 1:4-7 is about angels, but God wants people to worship the Son too. We can see this because Philippians 2:10-11 tell of a time when “every” tongue will confess and every knee will bow (i.e., in worship or as an act of submission), willingly or unwillingly, but it seems clear that God would much prefer that everyone bow willingly, and sooner rather than later. The honor we pay to Christ fits the “worship” he accepted when he walked the earth.

We have seen that proskuneō properly means “kiss toward” and the ancient act of worship often involved actually kissing the ground, or feet of the one being honored, or the hem of his garment. Psalm 2:12 is to be understood as a part of the act of worship. It says:

“Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (NIV2011).

The Psalmist is saying that the person who prostrates himself before the Son in respect and homage, including kissing the feet or robe, will be blessed, while those who refuse to honor the Son will be destroyed in their selfishness and rebellion.


Commentary for: Matthew 2:2