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All-rounder on the OT

15 August 2014

John Rogerson looks at the exceptional legacy of James Barr

Bible and Interpretation: The collected essays of James Barr. Volume 1: Interpretation and Theology
John Barton, editor
OUP £120*
Church Times Bookshop £108 (Use code CT640 )

Bible and Interpretation: The collected essays of James Barr.
Volume 2: Biblical Studies
John Barton, editor
OUP £120*
Church Times Bookshop £108 (Use code CT640 )

Bible and Interpretation: The collected essays of James Barr.
Volume 3: Linguistics and Translation
John Barton, editor
OUP £120*
Church Times Bookshop £108 (Use code CT640 )

 *£350 for three volumes  (978-0-19-826192-6)  (Church Times Bookshop £315 - Use code CT640 )

JAMES BARR, who died in 2006, aged 82, was the outstanding British Old Testament and Hebrew scholar of his generation. He towered above his predecessors, and it is doubtful that the scholarly world will see his like again. This is because he not only mastered the fields of Old Testament and Semitic studies, but had also mastered linguistics; he had wide philosophical and theological interests, and could engage not only in the minutiae of his field, but also in its broader questions and their implications.

Another side to him was his eminently practical and common-sense attitude to academic study. In the essays under review here, there is a long critique of a grammar of biblical Hebrew. The review includes telling criticisms of aspects of the technical side of the book; but Barr is also critical of the way in which the grammar will be difficult for beginners to understand and use profitably in order to learn Hebrew. It is noteworthy that one who was obviously so highly gifted at learning languages could also appreciate and speak out on behalf of those for whom elementary Hebrew did not come easily.

Barr was born in Glasgow in 1924, and educated at school and university in Edinburgh. He seems to have inherited that Scottish tradition of sharpness of intellect which goes back to David Hume. His classical studies in Edinburgh were interrupted by war service in the Fleet Air Arm, after which he completed undergraduate study and training for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. He was Chaplain at the Scottish Church in Tiberias, Israel, before holding university chairs in Montreal, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford, and Vanderbilt.

His first important book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), made an immediate impact on Old Testament studies, and inspired a generation of students (including the present reviewer) and younger scholars to appreciate that Old Testament studies could not be done in isolation from neighbouring disciplines such as linguistics, and that, however good Old Testament scholars were at various Semitic languages, this knowledge could be misapplied if the underlying theory was wrong or inadequate.

Barr's work was many-sided, but it would not be unfair to say that he had a concern that the Bible should be translated and interpreted in accordance with the highest possible scholarly standards and latest research. As the third volume of his collected essays, Linguistics and Translation, shows, this involved the question of establishing the best text of the Old Testament, the most adequate way of translating it in the light of modern Semitic and linguistic knowledge, and the important question how translations would be used by, and would help, modern congregations.

Barr was particularly critical of the New English Bible Old Testament for its sometimes speculative renderings, and his criticisms played their part in its revision as the Revised English Bible. At the level of the interpretation of the Bible, Barr was profoundly disturbed by Christian fundamentalism. Its distrust and often misuse of biblical scholarship, and its imposition on the text of dispensational and other narrow and inappropriate dogmatic schemes of interpretation, were targets of his criticisms. Besides an influential book on fundamentalism, the second volume of the collected essays, Biblical Studies, contains seven essays on aspects of fundamentalism.

Two non-fundamentalist ways of interpreting the Bible with which Barr engaged critically were the Biblical Theology movement popular in Britain and North America from the 1950s, and the canonical approach pioneered by the American scholar Brevard Childs in the 1980s and 1990s. The first volume of the essays, Interpretation and Theology, contains seven items dealing with the Biblical Theology movement. A long review article on Childs is found in the second volume.

Barr's wider interests included the authority of the Bible (seven essays in Volume 1); natural theology (there are five essays in Volume 1, including one in which Barr engages closely with Karl Barth); and the use of the Bible in modern debates, such as the debate about the present ecological crisis.

This review has spoken of Barr as an Old Testament scholar, which he was, but he also focused his attention on the New Testament from time to time. One target of his criticism was the oft asserted view that the Aramaic word "Abba" meant "daddy". His article "Abba isn't daddy" is reprinted in volume 2, which also contains an essay "Which Language did Jesus Speak?" Here, although Barr concluded that the traditional view that Jesus's main language was Aramaic was still the most likely view, he pointed out that recent research, including that on the Dead Sea Scrolls, left the question more open than had previously been the case.

A masterly essay on words for love in biblical Greek (also in volume 2) is a comprehensive survey of usage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), and how this affects the understanding of words for love in the New Testament.

Barr's work is so important, not only because of the incisive criticisms that he made of many aspects of modern biblical studies, but also because of his suggestive work on biblical interpretation and theology, that John Barton and Oxford University Press are to be congratulated on producing this comprehensive collection of his essays. The three volumes add up to close on 2000 pages (including indexes). They include book reviews (many of them long and penetrating) and obituary essays on older colleagues, as well as articles in scholarly journals, and essays in collected volumes and encyclopaedias.

An extended biographical essay on Barr and his work by John Barton and the late Ernest Nicholson prefaces the first volume. Scholars present and future will find here a veritable treasury of insight and information, and teachers will want to refer undergraduates to some of the less technical but, none the less, important items. 

Canon John Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University.

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