The Barbaric Text

The Barbaric Text June 11, 2020

I recoiled the first time I read the words Acts concerning St. Paul’s shipwreck. Luke says in 28:2 that they were helped by the “barbarians.” It was a strange word to use. But there it was in the Greek text. Modern translations often use the word “native” or even “islanders.” Using the word barbarian seems a little to…well…barbaric for our ears. My initial emotional response was based on my own prejudice reacting to the prejudice of ancient Greeks and Romans. How could the Holy Bible stoop so low as to call people who helped others “barbaric?”

Barbaric To The Ancient Mind

The ancient Greeks and Romans considered themselves to be civilized. The had art, law, commerce, military might, and high agriculture. They entertained great thoughts and ideas. And they spoke in a precise and musical language.

Other people’s may have had some of these achievements. But they did not have them in the abundance of the civilized conquerors of the world. The languages of the other nations was gibberish. Greeks who found spoken languages with no advanced writing to be indecipherable. They imitated the sound their ears perceived as “bar-bar” and the accents to go with them. Today, we borrow this ancient practice to describe anything we deem less than civilized as “barbaric.”

Barbaric To The Modern Mind

The Americas and Europe developed a new sense of barbarism is. We generally view an action, often a violent one, to be barbaric. Other “barbaric” practices could relate to hygiene and food preparation.  However, particularly heinous acts of violence are regarded as barbaric. We believe we are justified in using the term in this way.

The ancient Maltans who aided the survivors are described as we moderns would hunter-gatherer native peoples. We would say they were savages and feel no remorse for doing so. We use that word for violent actions and those who commit them. But we do not say such people are barbarians because that word is understood to be negative in all senses it can be used.

The Emotional Response

The major lie modern Western people tell ourselves is that we are “above all of the evils of the past.” We condemn actions that indicate otherwise. And we allow ourselves to pursue the fiction.

Ancient Christians of the Mediterranean area were troubled by the seemingly barbaric aspects of the biblical text. Divinely sanctioned actions like the genocide of the Canaanites, raping women of conquered territories are troublesome. They pale in comparison to the righteous celebrating vengeance by bathing their feet in the blood of the wicked (Psalm 58:10) or bashing the heads of the children of their enemies against the rocks (Psalm 137:9). These are just a few examples.

The responses of modern Christians in the global North to these passages in holy writ are varied. They are also unsatisfying. I suspect that’s because we are unsatisfied when we look at our own motivations for actions. I have never been as angry as those who wrote the Psalms quoted above. There has never been a reason to. It cannot be dismissed though. Even though I do not live in a situation they lived through does not mean I don’t live in a time when such things happen and such anger is expressed. This realization gives me pause.

Responding To Devastation

It surprises many religious people that anger will be expressed violently. Our response is to say, “but it should not be that way.” Perhaps not. But it is. We justify violent reactions when we commit them. And we condemn violent actions done to us as barbaric. We have no answer to the question of why the innocent suffer. But we assume the guilty should.

I am glad the writers and compilers of the Bible did not excise the difficult parts. Modern editors would be very tempted to do so. After all, what do such texts say about the nature of God? The next question we could ask (because the scripture forces us to) is what is the nature of humanity? And then follow it with the idea that human beings can be better if and only if we are ready to wrestle with the harshest parts of our nature.

The question about the nature of God is tied into our view of what humans are and what we should be. Is violence part of the divine nature? Why would we ever consider such a question? Because we have not fully grappled with asking if violence is just human nature. Have we been fooling ourselves? Are we simply too barbaric?

Browse Our Archives