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The Pacific is the world’s largest ocean, and contains many islands. Between 1250 AD and 1300 AD explorers reached arguably the remotest island of them all: an island they called Aotearoa, meaning ‘the land of the long white cloud’. That land is today named New Zealand.
The explorers who reached Aotearoa are known as the Maori, an abbreviation of ‘māori tangata’, meaning common men. Centuries later, following the threat of invading Europeans, the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, ceding sovereignty of the land to the British Crown.
Currently about 15% of New Zealanders consider themselves Maori, thus numbering around 734,000. About 150,000 would claim to be Maori speakers, but perhaps only 50,000 are fluent in the language. Maori is an official language of New Zealand and is also known as ‘Te Reo’, which literally means ‘the language’.
Christianity in New Zealand
One result of the eighteenth century ‘Great Awakening’ was the increased burden for global evangelisation, especially among the likes of William Wilberforce, William Carey and Henry Thornton. In 1794 Wilberforce sent Samuel Marsden as second chaplain to Australia. There he met two kidnapped Maori men on Norfolk Island—part of his Australian ‘parish’—and thus formed a lasting connection with the Maori. Marsden conducted the first public Christian service in New Zealand on 25 December 1814; the Maori were pleasant and polite, but unimpressed. It was nine years before the first person was baptised. However, in the 1830s the Gospel advanced so much that missionary Richard Davis wrote: ‘The kingdom of Christ is taking root rapidly in New Zealand’.
'Paipera Tapu', the Maori Bible
In 1820 Thomas Kendall published a grammar and vocabulary for the Maori language. That same year Samuel Lee created a systemised written form of Maori. In 1824 James Shepherd began to translate portions of the Bible into Maori, to which William Williams greatly added. Upon William Colenso’s arrival in 1834, printed editions of the Scriptures began to appear, starting with Philippians and Ephesians. By 1837 the New Testament was published. In 1841 William Williams noted that copies of the Maori Scriptures were far more sought after along the East Coast than European clothing.
Hebrew scholar Robert Maunsell then commenced work on the Old Testament, and in 1848 the Māori Hexateuch (Genesis to Joshua) was published in London by the British and Foreign Bible Society. The whole Bible was published for the first time in 1868. Once the entire Bible was available the Maori people became avid readers, and demand for the newly-published Bible was high. Scripture memorisation was highly respected, and the text became surrounded with as much tradition as the English Authorised Version.
Revisions after 1868
In 1889 a new edition appeared, though this did not receive widespread acceptance. Further translations were made in 1925 and then again in 1952. In 2014 the New Zealand Bible Society printed a new translation of the Gospel according to Luke, the first sample of a translation in contemporary Māori.
TBS Maori Bible
In 1987 the TBS opened an auxiliary in New Zealand and the TBS committee soon contemplated reprinting the Maori Bible. An evaluation of existing Maori Bibles found the 1868 version to be the most textually and translationally faithful edition. Furthermore, this was the edition that the Lord had clearly blessed most. It was also highly valued: old copies were scarce and being sold for a high price.
After digitising the 1868 edition the TBS began a project to correct its minor problems in consultation with TBS Head Office and Maori scholars. The TBS Maori Bible was published in 2012, and has been well received amongst the Maori people, both in New Zealand and around the world.