BARBARIAN, BARBAROUS bär bâr’ ĭən, bär’-bə rəs (βάρβαρος, G975, a foreigner, alien; speaking a foreign, unintelligible language; a person who is not a Greek). When the psalmist described the Exodus as the house of Jacob coming forth “from a people of strange language” (Ps 114:1), one has the kind of setting which defines the use of the word “barbarian.” In the same passage in the LXX, “a people of strange language” are called “barbarians.” This phrase is a sufficient definition of “barbarian,” but unfortunately, feelings of superiority, contempt, or downright animosity, came to be associated with the use of the word “barbarian.” Undoubtedly both the Hebrews and the Egyptians used the word when referring to each other.

In its Gr. origins the word first referred to the stammering attempts of someone to imitate the sounds of an alien language. No emotive overtones accompanied the word. With the defeat of the Persians, and the spread of the Gr. culture throughout the Near E, the tendency developed to conceive of the conquered people who were destitute of the superior Gr. culture as crude, uncivilized, and even immoral. For nations that quickly assimilated the Gr. manner of living, the derogatory connotations of the word “barbarian” were neutralized by speaking of such people as “Hellenic and Barbarian.” The Romans, for example, were referred to in such a manner by the Greeks. Jewish writers tended to reciprocate the Gr. attitude of superiority over others, as is neatly suggested in the rabbinic prayer of thanksgiving for not having been born a Gentile or a barbarian.

In the NT the writers were not concerned to engage in personal expressions of superiority over other nationalities, and when the occasion arose to refer to the various people of the earth, the word bárbaros was used in the older, non-pejorative fashion. The word is used six times. In two of these places (Acts 28:2, 4), it is tr. as “the natives” (RSV). Nothing derogatory is implied; the people of Malta were simply non-Grecian. However, in mentioning the unusual kindness that the Maltese people extended to the ship-wrecked travelers, Luke may have been showing that the lack of civility commonly associated with the barbarians is an unfounded prejudice. Two additional usages of the Gr. word βάρβαρος, G975, (1 Cor 14:11), also illustrate the classical way of referring to someone who is speaking a language not understood to the subject. The RSV correctly tr. the words in an exact modern idiom as “a foreigner to the speaker” and “a foreigner to me” which improves upon the KJV’s “barbarian.” Paul reflected the Gr. method of referring to all of humanity, i.e., Greeks, and non-Greeks, when he wrote, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians” (Rom 1:14). No judgment upon these diverse groups was intended, except that the same Gospel is intended for and needed by all. Normally the classes of people denominated by the words Gr., Jew, and barbarian would include all of the human race. Fearing that some men might think that the Gospel is not for the uncivilized tribes living beyond the outer limits of the Rom. empire, Paul placed the large group of people indicated by the word “barbarians” in direct antithesis to these uncivilized groups which he represented by the name of one such tribe, the “Scythians” (Col 3:11). Paul, then, passionately declared that the transforming Gospel of Christ extends even to those remote, uncouth members of the human race. Philips’ paraphrase calls these Scythians “savages,” which when contrasted with “barbarian” clearly shows the nonpejorative use of “barbarian” in the NT.


“Barbarians,” MSt, Vol. 1, (1878), 662; F. D. Gealy, “Barbarian,” IDB, Vol. 1 (1962), 354, 355; H. Windisch, “Barbarians,” TDNT, Vol. 1 (1964), 546-553.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

bar-ba’-ri-an, bar’-ba-rus (barbaros): A word probably formed by imitation of the unintelligible sounds of foreign speech, and hence, in the mouth of a Greek it meant anything that was not Greek, language, people or customs. With the spread of Greek language and culture, it came to be used generally for all that was non-Greek. Philo and Josephus sometimes called their own nation "barbarians," and so did Roman writers up to the Augustan age, when they adopted Greek culture, and reckoned themselves with the Greeks as the only cultured people in the world. Therefore Greek and barbarian meant the whole human race (Ro 1:14).

In Col 3:11, "barbarian, Scythian" is not a classification or antithesis but a "climax" (Abbott) = "barbarians, even Scythians, the lowest type of barbarians." In Christ, all racial distinctions, even the most pronounced, disappear.

In 1Co 14:11 Paul uses the term in its more primitive sense of one speaking a foreign, and therefore, an unintelligible language: "If then I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh will be a barbarian unto me." The speaking with tongues would not be a means of communication. The excited inarticulate ejaculations of the Corinthian revivalists were worse than useless unless someone had the gift of articulating in intelligible language the force of feeling that produced them (dunamis tes phones, literally, "the power of the sound").

In Ac 28:2,4 (in the King James Version of Ac 28:2 "barbarous people" = barbarians) the writer, perhaps from the Greek-Roman standpoint, calls the inhabitants of Melita barbarians, as being descendants of the old Phoenician settlers, or possibly in the more general sense of "strangers." For the later sense of "brutal," "cruel," "savage," see 2 Macc 2:21; 4:25; 15:2.