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I've heard this argument a few different times for different verses. (Unfortunately, I can't remember exactly which verses as that would strengthen this question quite a bit.) However, the argument goes something like this:

Back in the days when the Bible was written, the people of that time only knew of the world as Eurasia and parts of Africa. Because of that, when the Bible talks about "the world", we can presume that they are only referring to that portion of the Earth.

Here's one example verse:

Mark 16:15 (NIV)
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation."

The idea is that since "the world" only meant a small portion of what we now consider the Earth, that this didn't apply to the actual entire Earth.

Another example:

Genesis 7:23 (NIV)
Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

Obviously, minimizing the value of the "earth" would imply that this may have been a local flood rather than a global flood.

Is this minimization of "the world" or "the earth" valid? Or is this interpretation unsound?

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3 Answers

There are places in the Bible where "the world" means less than the globe, yet it would still not include all of Africa or Eurasia. For instance, "all the world should be taxed" in Luke 2:1. Clearly, Augustus' decree only held weight in the Empire, its provinces, and protectorates. Acts 11:28 is similar "a great famine over all the earth." That would again be the empire because it states this happened in the days of Claudius.

Likewise, there are places where it refers to all the globe. Rom 1:20 "since the creation of the world."

There are also many times "world" is used when it might mean the globe, the empire, or somewhere between. Acts 19:27, "she whom all of Asia and the world worships." This is in reference to the goddess Artemis. I would conclude that this in one of the inbetween times. I doubt a case could be made that Artemis was worshiped by the Native Americans, but the speaker seems to be going beyond the boundaries of the empire.

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The usual hermeneutic rule is that words are interpreted to mean what they usually mean in the wider culture unless there's good reason to read it differently. For instance, in the New Testament, the word εὐαγγέλιον (gospel) begins to take on a specific sense related to the good news of Jesus Christ. It becomes a technical term.

In order for the term "world" to be limited to a small portion of the world, either the term must be used that way in general or there must be a specific context that requires that limited meaning.

Your first example1 roughly parallels Matthew 28:

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In this case, the clear view of the text is that the intention is to preach the gospel to all the nations of the world. Looking at how the early church followed that command in Acts, they set out to reach people of all nations wherever they are found. It may take a while ("even to the end of the age") so it doesn't seem out of the question that there may be entire continents that were unknown at the time to the listeners of the command that would still fall under the command.

Genesis is a bit more tricky. I've read about (but not actually read) John Sailhammer's theory that suggests the creation account is mostly an account of the creation of the garden of Eden and not the entire world. (God did create the entire world in Genesis 1:1, but according to this theory there is a gap before Genesis 1:2 which concerns itself with the creation of the Promised Land.) It's possible, under this theory, that the flood would be limited to the portion of the world that was known to be populated at the time. Unfortunately, there's a lot of heavy baggage that comes along with the theory which an interpreter may or may not be willing to carry.

A possible interpretation of the Flood passage is that it represents an observation rather than a declaration of truth. Perhaps Noah and his family got out of the Ark, saw total destruction, and naturally assumed that the entire world was destroyed. When I say that everyone ran for cover when the earth quaked I'm using a similar manner of speaking. There are certainly people who don't live near enough to the epicenter to even feel the earthquake. In the same way, it's possible the entire world wasn't flooded—only the parts the author knew about.

On the whole, I don't see much reason in these two passages to indicate that "world" ought to be used in a local or limited sense. I'd say the burden of proof would be on the interpreter who tries to use a particular word in a non-standard sense.

Footnote:

  1. The text starting with Mark 16:9 was certainly a late addition to the book. It's quite unlikely that the original text of Mark included the verse you quoted. Just so you know.
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I agree that the burden of proof is on the "it doesn't mean that" argument. On the flood, if one accepts divine authorship, then note that the author, not Noah, tells us that the flood covered the whole world, so that would seem to rule out the "Noah saw water everywhere and concluded incorrectly" interpretation (again, unless a stronger argument is made). –  Gone Quiet Jan 25 '12 at 18:42
    
@Monica: My understanding of what it means that God is the author of Genesis is pretty convoluted. When it comes to the extent of the flood, I'm almost totally split--a coin flip might as well decide it for me. On the one hand, the text seems to say that even the Grand Canyon was submerged, but on the other, it seems far more likely that only the Fertile Crescent was flooded. In those days, either would have been a devastation to humanity. (All of which is to say, I see your point, but I'm not ready to change my answer. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Jan 30 '12 at 23:16
    
"God did create the entire world in Genesis 1:1, but according to this theory there is a gap before Genesis 1:2 which concerns itself with the creation of the Promised Land." Sounds like John Sailhammer's theory. I remember reading it years ago. –  Frank Luke Feb 21 '13 at 4:26
    
@Frank Luke: That is exactly the theory I was thinking of. I updated the answer to make it more clear. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Feb 21 '13 at 17:13
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Not only is this interpretation of "the world" unsound, it is recent. If the world only refers to Eurasia and Africa then the founders of this nation would never have come here. A great deal of the motivation for explorers was to take the gospel into all the world in fulfillment of this command.

It is true that God inspired men to write the scriptures in a way that was relevant to those immediately reading it, and they would seek to fulfill the command to the best of their knowledge. God's knowledge is not limited to a single time frame and when He give us scripture it is still useful for us today just as it will be useful for those who live 500 years from now. I think your observation that by redefining terms other doctrines can be changed is a good one.

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By "this nation" you mean the United States? I think I understand your point, but would nitpick that explorers did not found this nation. –  Jonas Meyer Oct 5 '11 at 22:26
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