‘All’ in the Bible


Mathematical theorems are universal truths about numbers, geometric figures, and other mathematical objects. When words like “all” and “every” appear in mathematical statements, they are meant in an absolute sense.

For example, one theorem about numbers says that for all odd numbers x and y, the sum x+y is an even number. In other words, the sum of two odd numbers is always even, with no exceptions.

Outside of mathematics, though, words like “all” and “every” typically are used less carefully. When we say that “everybody’s doing it,”’ we mean that something is popular, not that every single person is doing it. As one humorous tee shirt says, “Surely not EVERYBODY was kung-fu fighting.”

In the Bible “all” is sometimes used in a mathematical sense to make a universal statement, as when Paul says that “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”’ in Romans 14:10. Another example appears in 1 Corinthians 15:27, which states that Jesus the Messiah will one day rule over the entire universe, with the exception of God himself.

In other passages “all” is intended less precisely, as in Acts 19:10, which says that after Paul had shared the gospel in Ephesus for two years, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” This verse is saying that both Jews and non-Jews heard the gospel, not that every last person heard it.

Ancient battle accounts tend to use universal language loosely to emphasize that one army won a decisive victory. This is somewhat comparable to modern sportswriting. If we say that a game was a “complete rout,” we mean that the final score was not close, not that the winning team chased every member of the losing team out of town.

This is helpful to keep in mind in reading verses like Joshua 10:40, which declares that in a victory over the Canaanites, Joshua’s forces “struck the whole land” and “left none remaining but devoted to destruction all that breathed.” As we read on, we find that many Canaanites remained among the Israelites, and Joshua instructed the Israelites not to intermarry with them (Joshua 23:12-13). Joshua 10:40 is employing hyperbole for the sake of emphasis, not using “all” in a mathematical sense.

Being aware of ancient writing conventions and reading verses in context, not in isolation, can help us determine what the Bible means when it uses universal language. Remembering these principles will enhance our understanding of Scripture.

Dr. Doug Ward is an elder at Church of the Messiah in Xenia and an avid reader.

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