Without bothering or boring you with too many dry details, the interpretation of Rev. 3:10 is important in the ongoing disagreement between Premillennialists and Preterists regarding the correct paradigm for the interpretation of the entire book of Revelation. It is not my concern here, but this text is also central to the debate between Pretribulation and Posttribulation interpreters. The text reads (Rev. 3:10),
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” (NIV)
Two terms are especially important in this disagreement, the Greek terms translated “world” and “earth.” The term rendered “world” is oikoumenē (Greek, οἰκουμένη), and the term rendered “earth” is gē (Greek, γῆ). Before going farther I need to mention what the “person-in-the-street” in the time of John the prophet believed about the extent and shape of the earth. I posted previously in this blog that as early as Aristotle Greek thinkers were asserting the sphericity of the earth, and, beginning in the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic culture (and later Roman culture) assumed the spherical dimensions of our planet. The image was everywhere in art and literature; it was not imagined to be flat like a plate. Most credit for this development goes to a Hellenistic geographer and mathematician named Eratosthenes (276-195 BC). He invented the idea of the lines of latitude and longitude we use, and is the one credited with determining the circumference of the earth, with fair accuracy (for a presentation, with drawings, of the mathematical and geographical techniques he employed see http://todaslascosasdeanthony.com/2012/07/03/eratosthenes-earth-circumference/); and there is even a lunar crater named after him.
Contrary to popular American culture and education, folks prior to Christopher Columbus already believed that the earth was a sphere. Hollywood also got this so wrong. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier one of the leading characters challenges Kirk with these words:
Sybok: “What you fear is the unknown. The people of your planet once believed their world to be flat…. But Columbus proved it was round. They said the Sound Barrier couldn’t be broken… But it was broken” (Scene 175; Jr Sheets, former student, helped me locate which movie this scene was from. Kudos for Jr).
Sybok was incorrect, for Columbus already knew it was spherical; Columbus was just wrong, terribly wrong, about distances between locations on the spherical earth.
Sepulchral monument from Roman Germany showing two Capricorns guiding the planet earth. Capricorn was the symbol associated with Augustus. Copyright holder is Richard E. Oster.
Back, now, to ancient texts. It has been my experience that many folk have been largely influenced by vague translations of the Bible and by scholars unaware of ancient geographical beliefs and sometimes about Greek hyperbole.
Regarding geographical views, many American Christians believe that John’s audience thought that their “world” basically ended with the limits of the Roman Empire. This is totally inaccurate. Any time silk was used in Rome, people knew that it was not produced originally within the Roman Empire. Silk came from the other end of the Silk Route, from the Far East. Looking into the NT, one just needs to read Acts chapter 2 with its “catalogue of nations,” and it becomes clear that early Christians would not have been scratching their heads in wonderment when Luke mentions “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia” (Acts 2:9), or when Paul mentions “barbarians and Scythians” (Col. 3:11). John’s own audiences certainly understood from John’s prophecies of the 6th trumpet and 6th bowl (Rev. 9:14 and 16:12) that large kingdoms existed east of the Euphrates.
Some misunderstandings also arise because modern readers of Scripture often forget that ancients, like moderns, employed hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration in their descriptions of things, all kinds of things. I am certainly not denying that many times descriptions are literal, but I am just questioning whether they must always be. Does the innocent sounding phrase “upon the whole earth” in Rev. 3:10 really require a literal interpretation? The post-exilic writings of 2 Chron. and Ezra show that literalism is unneeded when looking at some geographical statements in Scripture.
“The LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (2 Chron. 36:22-23= Ezra 1:2, NRSV).
Notwithstanding the enormous extent of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus could not have believed his own statement literally. Whatever the final eastward outpost of his kingdom, he knew that other regions, other cultures, and other governments existed still farther eastward.
Also worthy of consideration in this discussion is Isa. 37:11, when the king of Assyria (Sennacherib) sends this message to king Hezekiah to intimidate him into surrender, “See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered?” Within the same story, if one consults the Greek translation of the nearby text of Isa. 37:18 (LXX), he sees that the two Greek words used in that verse were the same used by John in his phrase “the whole world” in Rev. 3:10. An English translation of this Greek text of Isa. reads, “For truly the kings of the Assyrians have made desolate the whole world and their country.” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint = NETS)
οἰκουμένης ὅλης (oikoumenēs holes, Rev. 3:10) “the whole world”
οἰκουμένην ὅλην (oikoumenēn holēn, Isa. 37:18) “the whole world”
Certainly the “kings of the Assyrians” had not desolated the entire planet earth.
Turning to the NT, a well known example of this phenomenon of hyperbole is found in Luke 2:1, which the NRSV renders, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world (pasan tēn oikoumenēn, Greek πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην) should be registered.” Clearly Augustus, as Julius Caesar before him and many Roman emperors after him, knew that much of the world known to him, stretching as far south as Tanzania and as far east as China, was not under his control (cf. Acts 11:28). Keeping in mind that Augustus could only order a census in regions that he controlled, the rendering of the NRSV is very misleading. To state the obvious, Augustus clearly could not have sent a decree to any empire, and there were many, outside the Roman Empire. The NIV is a far better translation of this Greek phrase since it makes it clear that this term “world,” even when it is modified by the adjective “all,” cannot mean the entire planet earth. Accordingly, the NIV correctly renders the phrase “the entire Roman world.” Although the adjective “Roman” is not found in the Greek text, that is clearly what Luke had in mind.
Similarly, the description of the “town” in Mark 1:33 should probably be taken as a hyperbole when Mark writes, “The whole town gathered at the door,” (holē hē polis, Greek, ὅλη ἡ πόλις). It should be historically unimaginable to assume a literal meaning of Rom. 1:8, written in the latter part of the 50s, when Paul wrote, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world” (holō tō kosmō, Greek, ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ). Paul had not yet gone to Spain, and he only wanted to go to Spain so he could plant the gospel where no one else had begun churches (Rom. 15:20-24). Accordingly, there were no Christians in Spain to hear about the faith of the Romans when Paul wrote Rom. 1:8 to them. From a similar perspective, it would be hard to find a scholar of any hermeneutical position that would take literally Paul’s statements to the Colossians, written in the 3rd quarter of the 1st century, that “All over the world (panti tō kosmō, Greek, παντὶ τῷ κόσμῳ) this gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (Col. 1:6) and “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (en pasē ktisei, Greek, ἐν πάσῃ κτίσει, Col. 1:23). No scholarly written history of Christian missions, at least that I know of, demonstrates that the entire planet was evangelized and had effective congregations (bearing fruit and growing) years prior to Paul’s own death.
Turning now to the term rendered “earth” (gē, Greek, γῆ) in Rev. 3:10. The best Greek dictionary for the NT lists several meanings of this term gē. In addition to the frequent gloss “earth,” it also defines it in this way: “portions or regions of the earth” for which it provides the glosses “region, country” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition by Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, p. 196). This means, then, that the term gē that translators too frequently and too routinely translate “earth” or “world” can refer to a much, much smaller area or physical region than the entire planet. The following list is selective, but chosen to show a variety of authors. Its purpose is hopefully to demonstrate how impractical it is, although translation committees do it all the time, to translate the following representative occurrences of the term gē with terms such as “world” or “earth.”
2 Chron 9:23 “And all the kings of the earth (gē) would seek out the face of Salomon to hear his wisdom, which God had given in his heart.” (NETS)
Ezek. 6:14 “And I will stretch out my hand against them and make their land (gē) into an annihilation and destruction from the wilderness of Deblatha, out of every habitation, and you shall recognize that I am the Lord.” (NETS).
Ezek. 8:17 “And he said to me. “Have you seen, son of man? Is it only a small thing for the house of Ioudas to commit the lawless acts that they have committed here? For they filled the land (gē) with lawlessness, and behold, they are like ones that turn their nose up.” (NETS).
Josh 9:24 “And they answered Iesous, saying, ‘It was reported to us what the Lord your God instructed his servant Moyses, to give you this land (gē) and to destroy us and all its inhabitants from before you.’” (NETS)
Luke 4:25 “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land (gē).” (NRSV)
Luke 5:3 “He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore (gē).” (NRSV)
Luke 23:44 “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land (gē) until three in the afternoon.” (NRSV)
Acts 27:43 “But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land (gē).” (NRSV)
Heb. 11:9 “By faith he made his home in the promised land (gē) like a stranger in a foreign country.” (NIV)
It is hoped that this brief and selective exercise enhances the possibility for the idea that the terms “the whole world” and “the earth” in Rev. 3:10 could be better translated by terms such as “the entire region” and “the land,” referring to a region in Asia Minor or even perhaps the entire known Roman world, but not the entire planet earth. This perspective I advocate would be the perspective of the Preterist hermeneutic. Another advantage to this Preterist rather than Premillennial view (both Pre- and Post- tribulation) of Rev. 3:10 is that it does not have part of the promises given to 1st century believers and other parts to 21st century believers. The 2nd person pronoun, “you,” in the promise “I will also keep you,” ought to also be intended for the 1st century. It becomes very precarious exegetically when this “you” has to refer to a time when, the Premillennials insist, the hour of trial will come upon the whole planet earth.
5 thoughts on “Just How Big Was the “Whole World” to John (Rev. 3:10)?”
What greatly saddens me is that many innocent God-fearing people are so easily swayed by sensational interpretations. Many such people only want to honor God, feed their families, and be a good neighbor. Yet, they find themselves wrapped up in a frighteningly paralyzing view of God and the eschaton, maybe even legally swindled out of their hard-earned, meager finances, and convinced they can’t read a book like Revelation in any credible manner and must therefore trust certain TV evangelists to de-code it for them. I can think of several people over the years who struggle with Revelation because of these kinds of things. So, thanks for this blog as well as your class I took many years ago.
Terrell Lee’s experience has been my experience as well. Your commentary is blessing many students and scholars. Your commentary would make a fine gift for your minister or aspirig theological student. My four grown sons will thoroughly benefit from your careful and meticulous research. KUDOS to Rick Oster.
Richard Oster does his homework. More important–he strives to be a good man and a good disciple. He is a New Testament scholar without peer.