Worship in [the] [s/S]pirit and [in] [the] truth. John 4:24.
What does that mean? Don’t think of the Greek behind it. What does that “English” mean? Don’t analyze it, just read it. Doesn’t work does it?
Many translations have variations of the above. Some have one or both articles. Some capitalize ‘spirit’. Some provide only one preposition while others repeat it. But, basically, the clause is rendered something like, “Worship in spirit and truth.” But, what does it mean?
The problem is: it isn’t English. That conclusion comes easily to mother tongue English readers when they are asked to read it and then asked, “What are you to do?” Or, “What are you to be?” If the clause uses language that doesn’t connect the reader to the real world, then the clause isn’t using the real world language of the reader. It’s using something else. Ultimately, no author intended change in the reader can take place. By translating poorly—by not communicating clearly—(and to make use of an archaic, religious idiom) “the Word returns void.” To say it more clearly, the text does not achieve its author intended effect.
To me the clause, as translated, says, “Worship, blah, blah, blah, spirit, blah, blah, truth.” For me, it could be translated with all those “blahs” and would communicate the same “meaning” (other than the fact that the incomprehensibility would be, well, more clear with the “blahs”.)
I’d like to take us on a little journey exploring how to translate this clause. I want to focus on the linguistic process which supports the translation.
So, what does the Greek mean? The clause is: ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. Let’s pull it apart and put it back together.
Let’s start with the main verb: δέω (glosses: bind, imprison, compel, restrict, prohibit, cause illness; Louw and Nida; other lexicons offer similar glosses with a core sense of bind). However, when used with an infinitive, it forms a single, verbal, idiomatic construct.
Examples of this use of δέω are as follows (references are NIV):
John 3:7 δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν (“You must be born again.”)
John 3:14 οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (“the Son of Man must be lifted up”)
John 3:30 ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι (“He must become greater”)
John 4:20 ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐστὶν ὁ τόπος ὅπου προσκυνεῖν δεῖ (“we must worship in Jerusalem”)
The cognitive metaphor (ie. word picture) presented by the Greek δέω is formed in the mind by the sense of ‘binding’. So, the agent was thought of as bound by the activity expressed by the infinitive. In English we express the same sense by using the word ‘must’. Sometimes we emphasize the requirement by using the phrase “it is necessary that…” English grammars refer to must as an auxiliary verb. Truth is it works more like an adverb pre-positioned to the main verb much like some prepositions are attached to the end of verbs (eg “You brush off my objections too easily.”). ‘Must’ modifies the verb giving it a sense of necessity.
In other words, in English we don’t use a verb to express the activity of “must-ing.” We say, “Agent must action-word.” In Greek it’s a main verb (δέω) coupled with an infinitive. (BTW, there is nothing more Biblical—there is no deeper meaning—obtained by somehow capturing the cognitive metaphor of an ancient language. This observation of the use of δέω simply offers a more certain insight into the original meaning.)
So, that means we need to consider δεῖ προσκυνεῖν together as unit.
Προσκυνέω is the word which refers to “prostrating oneself.” When one prostrates oneself before a deity (or a deity surrogate), the word takes on the sense of “worship.” When used in this latter sense, I don’t think the word loses its core sense of prostration. In English we think of these two senses as unrelated. How do I know that? When was the last time you saw someone prostrate themselves in a typical worship service? We don’t associate prostration with worship. Προσκυνέω (that is, prostrating oneself) was much more common-place in their culture; even used in cases where one simply showed extraordinary respect. They thought of the senses as close together. We think of the them as quite separate. A translator must decide which effect the author intended and translate accordingly.
So, we have “must worship.”
Lastly, δέω is 3rd person, singular. The uses of the verb are almost always singular. Interestingly, here the antecedent is plural. So, did δέω simply gravitate toward its more normal, idiomatic use, or did Jesus (and John) intend a more precise meaning? Since “δεῖ infinitive” is an idiomatic unit, I believe it is highly likely the former is the more true. So, 3rd person plural is the more accurate translation in English.
So, summing up what we’ve done so far, we have “they must worship.” We have arrived at this translation by “substituting” an adverb (auxiliary verb) for a verb and a main verb for an infinitive. We have also replaced the singular suffix with a plural pronoun. In doing these so-called “substitutions” we’ve arrived at an accurate rendering in English of the meaning expressed by the Greek. We’ve supported these “substitutions” with a linguistic rationale.
The rendering of δεῖ προσκυνεῖν is very non-literal (it’s not morpho-syntactic) in nearly all the translations. A rendering which follows the English idiom stands as quite accepted. Even the ASV has “must worship.” Ironically, we will see that the prepositional phrase, the one which is inextricably associated with the phrase we’ve just translated, is not rendered idiomatically.