Barbarians in the New Testament

It is not too often I laugh out loud at something I find while studying a passage. In Romans 1:14 Paul provides us a chuckle when he writes, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.” The word non-Greeks is the Greek word “Barbarois” where we get the word Barbarian. This word has an interesting etymology that you can find in Cranfield’s commentary on Romans or in the wikipedia entry for the word Barbarian. Apparently the Greeks thought their language was somewhat superior to the surrounding and outlying cultures and the other languages sounded to them like gibberish. That would make this word an Greek example of onomatopoeia (don’t you just love that word?)…hearing the other culture’s gibberish as a constant stream of “bar, bar, bar…” almost like Charlie Brown’s teacher. It would be like if we called them the Blablahs today.

Other instances of this word in the New Testament are found in:

  • Acts 28:2,4 – “The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.” The islanders are called Bar-Bars.
  • 1 Cor 11:14 – “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner (bar-bar) to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.”
  • Colossians 3:11 speaks for itself.

What is also funny in this verse is when you re-read it and the following vers with this in mind: “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” – Paul says he is obligated to the foolish and gibberish speaking bar-bars…that is why he is so eager to come to you who are at Rome!

I have to throw in a disclaimer here. Words often become so used that we no longer think about the etymologies when we use them so it is most likely that Paul wasn’t really thinking about the gibberish aspect that I am emphasizing here, just like when you use the word automobile you aren’t thinking about the two words that form it and all the underlying meaning of a machine that moves itself. But I still think it is funny.

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