Every Nation Under Heaven: Using Scripture to Understand Scripture
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
Scoffers who attack God’s Word are famous for proving how tough they are by bludgeoning a “straw man,” a supposed biblical problem that has no real substance or validity. Rather than substantiating their accusations, this approach only shows reckless reading, or deliberate deception.1
But in real-world apologetics, the scoffer’s “straw man” is only half of the problem. The other half involves the trickier scenario of the well-intentioned (yet not so diligent) interpreter of Scripture.
This is a shoe we all wear at one time or another. The only preventive remedy to this kind of trouble is extremely careful research and analysis, and studying what the entire Bible says on a given topic.2
Consider the events reported in Acts 2:5-11, the miracle at Pentecost.
And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. (emphasis added)
Note especially the phrase “devout men, out of every nation under heaven.” Although we expect skeptics to ridicule this historic miracle, even godly scholars sometimes stumble at the plain meaning of Luke’s report.
Consider, for example, the attempted resolution of this puzzling situation by David O’Brien, a Christian who routinely (and commendably) proves his high view of Scripture:
How could people from every nation under heaven have been present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5)? The text itself tells us where the visitors to Jerusalem had come from. Since they were described as Godfearing Jews, and since they were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, we know they were pilgrims there for religious reasons. They had come from those nations in the Mediterranean basin where Jews had been found since the dispersion of the [Jewish] nation had begun in 586 B.C. Were they joined by wild Celts from Ireland, ancestors of the Aztecs from Mexico, and the Incas from Peru? Were there representatives from the forefathers of the Iroquois nation and the Sioux? Not according to verses 8-11. Luke named representatives present on that first Christian Pentecost, and they didn’t extend beyond the ones known to Jews of Ezra’s day. If there were only people from the Mediterranean world, how could Luke say they were from every nation under heaven? He could say it by using hyperbole.3
What assumptions were made by O’Brien? And how do those assumptions drive his syllogistic outcome that Luke must have used literary “hyperbole” and must be read as if his phrase “under heaven” can only apply to a local (regional) context?
Some criticisms of O’Brien’s analysis are minor. For example, Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation of Jews began before 600 B.C. (e.g., Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, plus many others), with the remainder of the dispersion occurring in 586 B.C. Also, O’Brien ignores archaeological and linguistic ethnology data.4
Other interpretive assumptions by O’Brien are more serious. For example, Luke does not claim to list every nation that belongs to his phrase “every nation.” Rather, Luke accurately quotes (or paraphrases) some sayings of the multitude, giving representative quotations (or paraphrases) of the crowd’s reaction to the linguistic miracle. Luke does not claim to report literally every saying of everyone present. Even if Luke had done so, the individuals themselves could have erred by failing to list all of the “nations” whose languages were miraculously spoken then. (The crowd was not inerrant.)
But this leads to a much more important question: How do we understand the word “nation” in this context? We have a choice. Do we look to Scripture as the first and final authority for understanding the words of Scripture? Or do we “add to the Word” by taking extra-biblical notions and imposing them onto the meaning of biblical words, as if extrabiblical definitions are authoritative?
To recognize God’s inerrant truth, which always stands up to close scrutiny, it is first needful to carefully read what the biblical text actually says. However, this includes carefully reading in contextual comparison what the Bible itself says elsewhere.
Why? Because Scripture is the best—and only authoritative—guide to understanding Scripture. The message and meaning of Scripture are interwoven as one seamless cloth, logically and literarily speaking.
Consider our modern word “Germany,” which has had a variety of meanings over the centuries. The boundaries of Germany have changed, repeatedly, especially where it borders France and Denmark. For about a half-century, it was split into East and West Germany. So what does the word “Germany” mean? Its meaning is established by the intent of the speaker (or author) who uses it. The author’s intent is what counts, if one wants the author’s meaning.
Now consider the biblical word “nation.” When God directed Luke to use this word, what did Luke (and God) mean by “nation” in that context? Although the confused crowd’s reaction may give a clue, the reacting crowd is not the authority for reliably discovering what Luke (and God) meant by “nation.” How, then, can we learn its meaning?
Simple—we go to Genesis. Isn’t it amazing how every major doctrine in the Bible, and every theological question, has a root in Genesis? The puzzle of Pentecost is no exception. Pentecost is a redemptive sequel to the Tower of Babel incident. The confusion of languages at Babel is inerrantly summarized in Genesis 11. And the ethnic results of that language-driven dispersion of peoples is inerrantly summarized in Genesis 10 (the “Table of Nations”):
These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood. (Genesis 10:32, emphasis added)
When translated into Greek, the Hebrew word for nations (goyim) is rendered as a plural form of the noun ethnos (as the Greek Septuagint translation of Genesis 10:32 shows). So, the Greek equivalent of what Genesis 10 calls a “nation” is ethnos. When Luke refers to “every nation under heaven” in Acts 2:5, he uses a form of ethnos.
Thus, using Scripture to understand Scripture, we have Genesis 10:32 informing our understanding of what “nation” means in Acts 2:5. The word, as used by Luke, is not like our political jurisdiction-defined word (as in “United Nations”). Rather, in Scripture the word is an ethnic term; it points to the historic division of Noah’s descendants, driven by language and ultimately manifested in “ethnic” people groups, of which Genesis 10 indicates about 70.5 Consequently, there is no reason, logically or historically, to prevent descendants of those 70 people groups from having been present, by divine appointment, on that Pentecost.
Likewise, there is no reason to reduce the miracle at Pentecost to an ethnically limited (or regional) event, as though it had to be restricted by Luke’s finite knowledge or observations of who was or was not present. Without any supposed need for “hyperbolic” exaggeration, God’s providence would have ensured that the pilgrims then present included at least one descendant from all 70 nations, as the biblical word “nation” was already defined by Genesis’ Table of Nations.6
In sum, to change the Bible’s own definition of “nations” is to erect a “straw man” interpretation of that word that is mismatched to Luke’s report.
This short analysis of the Pentecostal event is not intended to suggest that there is never a literary usage of hyperbole (context-defined exaggeration for emphasis) in Scripture.7 Rather, the main point here is that even believers sometimes rush too quickly to stretch or alter the meaning of the text to resolve a so-called “problem passage”—when a better solution is to diligently and completely search the Scripture’s own solution to the question.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Tackling Charges of Biblical Inconsistency. Acts & Facts, 39 (7): 8-9.
- 2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11; Matthew 22:29.
- O’Brien, D. E. 1990. Today’s Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 140-141.
- Morris, H. M. 2006. The New Defender’s Study Bible. Nashville, TN: World Publishing, Inc., footnote to Genesis 10:2 (regarding the Celtic Welsh); Chittick, D. E. 2006. The Puzzle of Ancient Man, 3rd ed. Newberg, OR: Creation Compass, 62-67 and 190-193 (regarding Incas, Aztecs, Africans, Asians, etc.).
- Cooper, W. R. 1995. After the Flood. Chichester, England: New Wine Press, 170-208.
- Morris, H. M. 2006. The New Defender’s Study Bible. Nashville, TN: World Publishing, Inc., text and footnotes to Genesis 10.
- See, for instance, Matthew 23:24.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Every Nation Under Heaven: Using Scripture to Understand Scripture. Acts & Facts. 39 (11): 8-9.