The Rev Thomas Kendall and Māori chiefs Hongi and Waikato, James Barry (1820). Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

When Christianity came to Aotearoa: 150 years of The Bible in te reo Māori

A tool of colonisation or liberation? Te Paipera Tapu (The Holy Bible) turns 150 this year, with the first full translation being published in 1868. Dr Hirini Kaa shares some of the cultural and historical significance of this book.

The late, great Māori academic Ranginui Walker, in one of his memorably powerful phrases, once described Christianity as ‘total colonisation… in that it involved cultural invasion and colonisation of the minds of the invaded as well’. In that he was describing missionaries and the Church as the vanguard of colonisation, he was of course right. However, there is another side to that argument.

Te Paipera Tapu (The Holy Bible) that underpinned Christianity was so much more than the missionaries understood. When combined with mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing) and indigenous agency, all around the world it became a source of liberation and release, inspiring multiple generations and countless movements to seek and achieve freedom.

The missionaries believed in te reo Māori. Their evangelical faith required every ‘convert’ to understand the message they were spreading, even if the analysis was to come from them. So as the missionary societies spread out across the globe as the vanguard of Empire from the beginning of the 19th century, they began to learn the local languages and to develop local orthographies (spelling systems). Here in Aotearoa the missionaries were no exception. The Church Missionary Society, after establishing the first permanent Pākehā settlement at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands in 1814, had established a school by 1816. They worked hard at acquiring te reo Māori and began translating elements of the Bible as soon as they could. But the reality is that they were stuck in their enclaves for the first couple of decades as inter-iwi wars raged around them. It wasn’t until the mid-1820s with the leadership of Henry Williams (of Te Tiriti fame) and others that full translating and printing of their message could go ahead.

Missionary settlement at Rangihoua, Bay of Islands, ca 1830. Image: W E & F Newton/ Alexander Turnbull Library

What we might nowadays call white privilege is not a new concept. The missionaries were unaware that they brought a culturally conditioned reading to their sacred texts; they simply assumed their reading and theology was supracultural and universally valid. Christianity, as expressed through the Bible, is actually always “translated” into a culture. So while the missionaries read it as English(men) influenced by centuries of European thought, Māori were always going to read the Bible as Māori.

Our ancestors saw in Te Paipera Tapu stories of a people and their Atua intimately connected to their whakapapa, their tīpuna, their whenua, their awa and their sacred maunga. Māori saw stories of oppression and liberation, of an intensely spiritual world full of tikanga and tapu and noa, being both transgressed and affirmed. And to get this story across the missionaries were forced to cross into our world, choosing language that would resonate with us and speak to our hearts as much as to our heads.

This was a global process. The Gambian missiologist Lamin Sanneh writes: “Language is the intimate, articulate expression of culture, and so close are the two that language can be said to be synonymous with culture, which it suffuses and embodies… Missionary adaptation of the vernacular, therefore, was tantamount to adopting indigenous cultural criteria for the message, a piece of radical indigenization far greater than the standard portrayal of mission as western cultural imperialism.”

So translation required transformation. And after the translation, things got even further away from missionary control. It wasn’t the missionaries who disseminated these ideas, in fact they were often not involved in the kōrero. Instead it was kaiwhakaako, the indigenous teachers, who took these stories out to their people. For Anglicans alone, figures are spectacular. In 1844 there were 12 European missionaries and 295 kaiwhakaako. By 1854 there were 23 European missionaries, one native clergy and around 558 kaiwhakaako (this figure is certainly understating kaiwhakaako numbers).

Iwi oral tradition informs us that the kaiwhakaako would spread Te Paipera in their own way, both speaking and being heard through their mātauranga-a-iwi. In Ngāti Porou we are proud that the process was entirely ours – that we managed our own change process. We still engage with Te Paipera though our own knowledge today, in haka, song and story, as much as through sermon or dogma.

This process of mātauranga engaging with Paipera produced some spectacular results. Apart from the huge and transformative uptake of literacy amongst Māori, it enabled a critique of the rapidly changing and very dangerous environment that Māori were encountering. Land loss, political exclusion, economic exploitation were a toxic blend facing Māori by the mid-1850s. Te Paipera Tapu enabled Māori to grapple with these unprecedented circumstances in a new and unique way. The powerful biblical messages were in both the Old and the New Testament: of liberation from oppression, that the biblical God would side with the oppressed and marginalised and enable miraculous answers to seemingly unsolvable situations. Prophetic and millenarian movements sprang up seeking the reinstatement of tino rangatiratanga – both in the form of the Kingdom of God and the full expression of mātauranga Māori. It could be argued that every major Māori resistance movement of the nineteenth century found its foundation both in mātauranga-a-iwi and in Te Paipera. From the Kingitanga to Pai ārire, from Parihaka to Ringatū, and hundreds of others beside, Te Paipera was a key intellectual motivation. Te Tiriti o Waitangi – whose key language was biblically derived – even became a Kawenata, a biblically-inspired Covenant, because that was a concept Māori could embrace.

This radical dynamic carried through into the twentieth century. The Young Māori Party, the great political and social movement led by Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Maui Pomare and others began its life as essentially a Māori Biblical movement and continued to have iwi-led Christianity at its core. The greatest Māori prophet ever, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, whose followers dominated Māori politics for the second half of the century, held Te Tiriiti o Waitangi in his left hand, and Te Paipera Tapu in his right. And on November 8th this year te ao Māori will celebrate 100 years of his biblically-centered vision.

We are an inherently spiritual people. It is our way of understanding the world. Therefore, Te Paipera Tapu could never remain solely an external tool, nor a mere political manifesto. Key spiritual ideas and concepts have entered into our reo, our philosophy and our practice. ‘Aroha tētahi ki tētahi – love one another’ is Jesus’ great commandment, and the apex of both the Old and New Testaments. This manifestation of an expansive, inclusive God of love who asks us to live lives of forgiveness and reconciliation was a radical innovation to most cultures, including ours. And of course no culture is static, and our best iwi theologians and thinkers spent generations integrating these ideas into our culture. Te Paipera changed us fundamentally, and we need to think about the implications of that.

Now as we move into the 21th century many assume that whatever value Te Paipera had for Māori will dissipate, either due to some kind of cultural wokeness or from a middle class ennui where instruction manuals for our latest consumer icon is the new sacred text. Instead, we now have our best opportunity to think about this text using our own indigenous mātauranga-based criteria and methodologies – kaupapa Māori anyone? Te Paipera still has a powerful critique for the issues that confront us as a people including racism, colonisation and economic inequality, as well giving us as a way of critiquing our own tikanga as we embed our renaissance. It continues to give us a lens to look at everything from our exploitative commercial fishing businesses through to our gendered tikanga practices.

I suspect that we will have Te Paipera Tapu at the heart of our culture for the next 150 years, guiding, provoking, challenging and changing. Amine.

Dr Hirini Kaa (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakaata) is a minister in the Anglican church and kaiārahi (Māori and Pacific Advisor) in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland. He’s also a historian and is currently undertaking a Marsden Fund research project on the Young Māori Party.

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