Ancient Jewish Quotations Regarding “Whole World”

is an easy verse to misunderstand:

[+] He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.   ()

Here’s Webster’s definition for “propitiation”:

PROPITIATION, n. propisia’shon.
1. The act of appeasing wrath and conciliating the favor of an offended person; the act of making propitious.
2. In theology, the atonement or atoning sacrifice offered to God to assuage his wrath and render him propitious to sinners.

In this article, I want to examine ancient Jewish figures of speech that have bearing on this verse, starting with an interesting tidbit from the Talmud:

* אין להן כפרה, “there is no propitiation for the Gentiles” – T. Hieros. Nazir, fol. 57. 3. Vid. T. Bab. Succa, fol. 55. 2.

It would seem that John is setting out to directly contradict this rabbinical teaching by saying that indeed there is propitiation – not only for the Jews (as is commonly taught), but for Gentiles across the whole world. But does John mean that the wrath of God has been removed for all men everywhere? If so, then this verse endorses Universalism, the doctrine that God has no wrath for man and therefore all souls will enter heaven. Since this is untenable for orthodox Christians who believe Jesus was serious when He said many people will go to hell (), something in this verse has to give. Either “propitiation” doesn’t mean “satisfy wrath”, or “whole world” doesn’t mean “every man/woman/child ever born”. Many evangelicals (today) are content to say that John means to say that Jesus is the “potential atonement” or “potential propitiation”, that He “opened the door so that propitiation might take place”, and that He did not actually appease the wrath of God for every man/woman/child. But is that a correct reading?

Or does it make more sense to read “whole world” as a reference to a specific set of people scattered about the world? (Here’s my take on the verse.)

Perhaps if we peruse some ancient Jewish literature we might get a better feel for what ancient Jews meant when they used universal language like “whole world” or “all the earth”.

The “Whole world” in ancient Jewish literature

The following quotations show that ancient Jews frequently used the phrase “the whole world” to describe a large group of people, or many people in a particular group, but not the entire world of all humans. That is, in reading each of these quotes, it is obvious that the speaker does not intend to mean “every man/woman/child across the entire globe”.

  1. “John: A Rabbinic Source Commentary And Language Study Bible” – By Al Garza Ph.D. 
    This Bible commentary examines the Gospel of John from a Jewish perspective, and frequently draws from ancient rabbinical literature to examine John’s writings. He quotes the following ancient Jewish sources:

    1.  “It happened to a certain high priest, that he went out of the sanctuary and the whole world went after him; and when they saw Shemaiah and Abtalion, they left him, and went after them” – T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 71. 2
    2. “Rabbi Aba proclaimed ‘whoever seeks riches, and whoever seeks the way of life in the world to come, let him come and study in the law, and the whole world will gather together to him'” – Zohar in Gen. fol 60. 4
    3. “Jonathan said to David, ‘Thou shall be king over Israel, and I will be next to thee’; what is the meaning of this? Perhaps Jonathan the son of Saul saw the world will gather to him” – T. Bab. Bava Metzia, fol. 85. 1.
  2. John Gill’s Commentary – 1746
    1.  “The whole world has left the Misna, and gone after the Gemara” – T. Bab. Bava Metzia, fol. 33. 2.
    2. “When [1st century rabbi] Simeon ben Gamaliel entered (the synagogue), כולי עלמא, the whole world stood up before him” – T. Bab. Horayot, fol. 13. 2.
    3. The whole world fell on their faces, but Raf did not fall on his face” – T. Bab. Megilla, fol. 22. 2
    4. “When a great man makes a mourning, כולי עלמא, the whole world comes to honour him” – Piske Toseph. Megilla, art. 104.
  3. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa – 1st century Jewish scholar
    1. “While traveling he was caught in a shower and prayed ‘Master of the universe, the whole world is pleased, while Hanina alone is annoyed.’ The rain immediately ceased. Arriving home, he altered his prayer: ‘Master of the universe, shall all the world be grieved while Hanina enjoys his comfort?’ Thereupon copious showers descended.
    2. “Hanina was very poor. Indeed, it became proverbial that, while the whole world was provided for through Hanina’s great merits, he himself sustained life from one Sabbath eve to another on a basket of carob-beans.”

Ancient Rabbinical sources are not the only places where we find universal language to describe a limited set of people. There are numerous places in the Bible that also use universal language when only a limited set of people are in view. In other words, despite words like “all the earth”, and “whole earth” and “whole world”, it is clear that peoples from India, China, Nigeria, Australia, etc, are not participating.

  • Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. ()
  • And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. ()
  • [The King of Assyria says…] “My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” ()
  • How the hammer of the whole earth is cut down and broken! How Babylon has become a horror among the nations! ()
  • Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad. ()
  • [Speaking to Babylon,] “Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain, declares the Lord, which destroys the whole earth; I will stretch out my hand against you, and roll you down from the crags, and make you a burnt mountain. ()
  • And I will cast you on the ground; on the open field I will fling you, and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you, and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you. () (Common sense dictates that we should not believe that the birds will fly across the Atlantic Ocean to go to Egypt for food.)
  • Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. () (Alexander only ruled from Greece to Egypt to Babylon, a very small portion of “all the earth”)
  • King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! (; same for )
  • “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces. ()
  • So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him!” ( NIV)
  • And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, ()
  • We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. () (Saints are not under the power of the evil one)
  • So the great dragon was thrown out — the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world. He was thrown to earth, and his angels with him. () (The elect are not deceived . They survive the Great Tribulation)
  • One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. ()

Understanding Jewish idioms brings us closer to understanding the mind of Jewish authors and audiences.  As these ancient citations amply demonstrate, just because we see an ancient Jewish phrase that uses universal language, we are not at liberty to immediately assume that the entire world of humans is in view. Therefore, it is completely appropriate to conclude that John does not mean “every man/woman/child across the entire world”, but rather, the “whole group of the elect across the world”.


He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (ESV)


He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (ESV)


13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (ESV)


17 And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.” (ESV)


57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. (ESV)


24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. (ESV)


14 My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped.” (ESV)


23 How the hammer of the whole earth
is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations! (ESV)


Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand,
making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine;
therefore the nations went mad. (ESV)


25 “Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain,
declares the Lord,
which destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
and roll you down from the crags,
and make you a burnt mountain. (ESV)


And I will cast you on the ground;
on the open field I will fling you,
and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you,
and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you. (ESV)


39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. (ESV)


4:1  King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! (ESV)


25 Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: “Peace be multiplied to you. (ESV)


23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
and trample it down, and break it to pieces. (ESV)


19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” (ESV)


And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, (ESV)


19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (ESV)


And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (ESV)


24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (ESV)


One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. (ESV)

8 comments to Ancient Jewish Quotations Regarding “Whole World”

  • Excellent. Thank you for the clear, historically and biblically supported explanation.

    • admin

      Thanks. I was actually quite surprised when I came across a few of the quotes a couple of weeks ago. I started looking for more, and sure enough, I had no problem finding quite a few of them sprinkled across various ancient Jewish sources.

      To my mind, it’s a slam-dunk against the common modern reading of

      He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (ESV)

      , that Christ is “the [potential propitiation] for every [man/woman/child in the whole world]”.

  • Tony

    Well to suggest that early Christians believed in limited atonement is absurd. Only somebody who was desperate to distort history would make such an assertion. They were all a bunch of free willers who believed salvation could be lost etc….

    • admin

      Thanks for your feedback, Tony.

      However, I think you may have misunderstood the point of the article. In this article, I’m not advocating that early Christians believed in Limited Atonement. You’ll need to see other articles for that. (perhaps this will help: http://www.apuritansmind.com/arminianism/calvinism-in-the-early-church-the-doctrines-of-grace-taught-by-the-early-church-fathers/)

      In this article, I’m examining ancient Jewish uses of universal language in an attempt to shed light on what John might mean in 2:2. I think the article stands on its own. It should be pointed out that a number of these Jewish sources predate Pentecost by several hundred years, demonstrating a historically consistent use of universal language to describe a specific set of people.

      Although this article spends no time discussing free will, your comments on the ancient Christians as free willers is worth addressing.

      For starters, don’t forget that the ancient Christians were dealing with a flood of Gnostics and Greek philosophies infiltrating the Church. A prevailing philosophical view of the day rejected free will in favor of what we would call “hard determinism”, and much of that was creeping into the church. The Gnostics took this position and used it to claim that individuals were therefore not culpable before God for their actions. The early Christians rejected this view, insisting that we have free will and are therefore culpable for our thoughts and actions. But if you look at their use and explanation of free will, you’ll see that they often did not mean “libertarian free will” (what we usually mean today when we say “free will”), but rather, they meant something very close to what we call “compatibilism” ..something very different from both libertarian free will and hard determinism.
      (Paul makes a direct reference to compatibilism in Phil ch 2:12-13, and the doctrine of Inspiration absolutely requires it. So at the end of the day, I can’t help but see that this is a non-negotiable. Much more could be said about this.).

      It is beyond the scope of our discussion here to cover the gamut of these issues. But since philosophers and theologians do not agree on what free will is – let alone whether we have it – anyone wishing to enter this discussion should first spend a bit of time learning the sharp differences and nuances between the various kinds of “free will”. Stanford University has an excellent introductory article on the topic (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/), and Wikipedia has a longer article on the same (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will).

      I mention all of this to say: most people have no idea about the complexities involved in the discussion of free will, and because of that, anyone brushing all the early Christians comments under one specific kind of Libertarian free will blanket is usually doing themselves a disservice.

      Thanks!

  • Tony

    The article from purtians mind is filled with citations out of context. Also no when we look at their explination of free will it’s libertarian it takes a lot of intellectual dishonesty to assert the early Christians were compatablisits. The Stoics believed in compatablism but the early Christians argued against their beliefs on free will vs determinism.

    • admin

      I admit I didn’t vet the link, so I have no direct comment on the contents of it.

      As a general rule, I find the Puritans to be much more concerned about rigorous thinking, and I tend to put their theology a notch or two above the theological comments one finds common in the Church today. I didn’t Google for anything with Puritans as a search criteria, but if Google gives me a link on Puritans commenting on something, I generally find it worth the read. So I posted it.

      As for compatibilism – I gave you two direct Biblical references which cannot be understood in any way other than compatibilism. Are you sure the early Christians denied it?

      Specifically, do you deny that the Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible? If you affirm that it is, how do you conclude that the Bible is without error if God gives man libertarian free will? That free will must necessarily be suspended/compromised/directed in an infallible means such that the Bible is produced without error. I say ‘compatibilism’. What say you?

  • Tony

    Also the reason why I am putting the comments about free will here is because I couldn’t put comments on the page about early Christians and Calvinism

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