He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands…

By Dr. Samuel M. Frost

We are often told that oikoumene, the Greek word for “inhabited land” (land where people live), means in the New Testament, “the Roman world.”  Indeed.  The word itself has the form of a participle, but functions as a noun.  It’s an old word, going back to Herodotus (6th century BCE).  As a reference to culture, ‘it is secondary.’[1] However, ‘the term embraces the Roman Empire’(op. cit.).  That is, in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, in the years of Nero, and later Marcus Aurelius, there came to be a formulaic way, or ‘imperial style’ in which oikoumene was used.  It is explicitly in reference of the Roman Empire by Roman authorities writing about the Roman Empire.  The term, by itself, does not mean, ‘Roman Empire.’

                Allow me to explain.  If I was talking about America, or the USA, and spoke of ‘our great land and dwelling’ – if I were using Greek, I would use the word, oikoumene.  I would not be speaking about Viet-Nam, or Brazil, even though they, too, are oikoumenai.  I am speaking exclusively of America.  This is the way we see the term used in the imperial sense for Romans.  However, we find the term in the Greek Septuagint (translation of the Hebrew Bible from 3rd century to 1st century BCE), and it doesn’t mean “Roman Empire.”  We find it in Philo, who was living during the Roman rule, and he clearly used it ‘in a general rather than a political sense, i.e., inhabited land as distinct from uninhabited, and even for the universe’ (op. cit.).  Otto Michel, who I am quoting, sites a reference to Philo (first century CE), and being the nerd that I am, I checked it out.  Indeed, listen to this first century Jewish philosopher’s use of the word: ‘And you will find these actions not to be the making of long and unusual journeys, nor the passing over unnavigable seas, or wandering without stopping to take breath to the furthest boundaries of earth and sea: for good actions do not dwell at a distance and have not been banished beyond the confines of the habitable world, but, as Moses says, good is situated near you, and is planted along with you, being united to you in three necessary parts, in the heart, in the mouth, and in the hands: that is to say, in the mind, in the speech, and in the actions; since it is necessary to think and to say, and to do good things, which are made perfect by a union of good design, good execution, and good language’ (Philo, ‘On Dreams,’ 2.180).  Clearly, Philo is not limiting the term to the Roman World.

                Michel also sites Josephus, writing, too, in the first century, where ‘the political style’ is referred, ‘Rome is a witness to my filial affection, and so is Caesar, the ruler of the habitable earth, who oftentimes called me Philopater.’[2]  Here again we note the context or imperial setting.  The term itself simply means ‘inhabited world’ or ‘land.’  Michel goes on to quote Matthew 24.14 and Mark 13.10, noting that the phrase, ‘the whole inhabited earth’ derives ‘from current Hellenistic usage.’  Then the noted scholar writes, ‘It is certainly not to be linked here with the political imperial style.  The message is simply to the glad message which is for all nations and the whole earth’ (op. cit.).

                When we consult the Greek standard, Liddell and Scott, we find a wide range of usage for the term, again cementing that the word, in and of itself, does not ‘mean’ the Roman Empire.  It can mean that, given an imperial style or context (where the context is clearly meant to convey the Roman occupied lands).  However, Luke, in Acts 2.5-ff, mentions Parthians and Medes, and Arabia, lands in which the Romans did not occupy.

                Now, in reference to another landmark work on the Romans, what are we to do with Roman expansion?  Rome grew as an Empire in the first century, notably in Europe (France, Germany, Scotland, Britain).[3]  Are we to suppose that the ‘inhabited land’ grew with it?  That’s a point of absurdity.  When imperial Rome (which used Latin and Greek as an official language) used terms like, ‘empire,’ they did so under the fact of lands occupied by Romans.  However, from all of the writings of the first century we have, they were fully well aware of regions, peoples and lands outside of their jurisdiction; and so was the NT authors.  Second, the expansion of Rome would not yield the idea that the ‘gospel’ was to be preached in some sort of ‘fixed boundaries’ of imperial Rome, to which there was some imaginary ‘line’ that could not be crossed with the gospel.  In the sixties CE, Roman expansion in Scotland does not mean that the Christians by this time had made it to Scotland.  My point is, there is no limitation to the NT usage of phrases like, ‘ends of the earth,’ ‘uttermost parts of the earth,’ the ‘whole inhabited earth,’ and there is no indication that the NT authors did so.  The gospel ‘to the nations,’ or ‘peoples,’ or ‘lands’ is to be preached where ever they are found.  Literally narrowing these terms to the Roman ‘world,’ or supposed, ‘Jewish world’ is untenable, and specious.[4]


[1] Otto Michel, ‘οικοuμενη,’ Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. V, Eds., G. Kittel, G. Friedrich, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), 157-159.

[2] Michel uses the Greek text chapter and listing (War of the Jews, 1.633), which in Whiston (Foreword by La Sor) is Ch. XXXII. 3. 

[3] Colin Wells, The Roman Empire, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984).  In my own work, one finds Aelius Aristides (120-189 CE), Orations, ‘To Rome,’ (14.207) wherein he greatly uses oikoumene for the Roman Empire, but it is made quite clear that his usage is of the imperial style and context.  In this context, Paul might have the imperial use in mind in Romans 1.8, using, ‘in the whole world (kosmos).’  The spread of Christianity, however, in terms of actual numbers, has brought some to consider Paul’s (and the NT authors) use of language as greatly exaggerated, or ‘hyperbole.’  Christian ‘growth’ is not truly marked until the fourth-seventh centuries; see, Ramsey McMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 3-ff. We have no real information as to ‘growth’ in terms of numbers in the first century. Primarily, Christianity ‘grew’ among Jews and Gentile proselytes, but was met with a greater hostility (overwhelming majority) among the pagans. The growth and spread of the Gospel has been a long, hard road.

[4] It is quite true that the biblical authors in general use phrases like this in terms of the ‘world as they knew it.’  Our question is, what world did they know?  What was in their minds when they used such phrases?  We  must be very careful not to impose on them some sort of ‘fixed boundary’ or conception of the world we construct in the modern knowledge of the ‘globe.’  Equally, it is quite plausible to consider that Isaiah, or Paul did not know of the distant continents of the ‘globe’ and the ‘peoples’ there.  It appears that the first century writers, whoever they are, viewed the spherical ‘orb’ of the ‘earth’ as a mass of land and islands surrounded by ‘the seas.’  They knew the lands and peoples extended far beyond Roman control, but how far is another matter.  It appears best, then, to consider these phrases as literary terms of the known world, yet not limited to the known world, thus being ever aware of the growing expansion of the knowledge of the world as the centuries moved on.  Thus, while Paul may have had in mind ‘the whole world’ in his imagination as it were, there is no reason that he would have limited his imagination upon discovery of yet more lands and peoples.  Thus, we run into the issue of imposing our conception of ‘earth,’ and theirs (ancient authors), but, at the same time, not limiting their conception of earth so that our conception can be included, unless otherwise clearly noted in the context.  Thus, when we read, that the waters rose ‘greatly on the earth, and all the high hills under the entire heavens were covered’ (Genesis 7.19), we can certainly understand that Moses (the author) did not have in mind a Neil Armstrong perspective.  Yet, logically, we cannot infer from this that the Neil Armstrong perspective is entirely impossible.  Moses is expressing universal terms as best as he knew them, which can be inclusive of ours.  Likewise, who would limit the psalmist’s cry that the ’heavens declare the glory of God’ which goes ‘into all the earth’ (Psalm 19) to his own conception of ‘earth’ and ‘heavens’?  Was the glory of God only proclaimed in the Jewish earth, and not in the Persian earth?  Here we find that the author is being as universal as he can conceive, and that we can infer our universalism, too, without any damage to the ‘original author’s intent’ or ‘conception.’

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