Search SBL
 











SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive James Barr (1924-2006)

With sadness and gratitude for a life lived in dedication to excellence I report on behalf of colleagues that James Barr died on 14 October 2006. He is survived by his wife Jane Barr and children Catherine, Allan, and Stephen. A memorial service was held in the chapel of Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, on Wednesday, 18 October 2006.

James Barr was born 20 March 1924 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of the Rev. Professor Allan Barr, Professor of New Testament at the Joint Congregational and United Free Church College in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the grandson of the Rev. James Barr, a Labour Member of Parliament 1924-31 and 1935-45. He served during WW2 as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, 1942-45. Following the war, he studied at Edinburgh University, completing the M.A. with first class honors in classics in 1948 and the B.D. with distinction in Old Testament in 1951. He also received the M.A. from Manchester University in 1969, and the M.A. and D.D. in, respectively, 1976 and 1981 from Oxford University. Over the course of his long academic career he has also been awarded numerous honorary doctorates.

In 1950 he married Latin scholar Jane J. S. Hepburn. After his ordination in 1951, he served as minister of the Church of Scotland in Tiberias, Israel, in 1951-53, during which time he acquired fluency in both Modern Hebrew and Arabic. His first academic appointment was as Professor of New Testament at Presbyterian College, Montreal, in 1953-55, following which he took his first OT position as Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology at Edinburgh University, 1955-61. He then moved to the United States to teach OT at Princeton Theological Seminary until 1965. During 1965-76 he was Professor of Semitic Languages and Literatures at Manchester University. His longest tenure occurred at Oxford University, first as Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in 1976-78 and then as Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1978-89 (Emeritus beginning in 1989). Following a year as the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University in 1989-90, he was appointed Professor of Hebrew Bible in 1990 and, beginning in 1994, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University, retiring in 1998. Through the years Barr has also held visiting professorships at a wide range of universities throughout the world and has delivered numerous major lecture series. He is a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society and is affiliated with various other learned societies. He served as president of the Society for Old Testament Study (1973) and the British Association for Jewish Studies (1978).

Barr's reputation as one of the most influential biblical scholars and Semitists of the second half of the twentieth century rests on both the range of his interests and the incisive character of his contributions. His first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), addressed the linguistic and theological problems associated with transferring a religious tradition from one language into another. He scrutinized several widely accepted features of biblical scholarship at the time and demonstrated fundamental flaws underlying each: the notion that there was a basic difference between the Hebrew way of thinking and the Greek way of thinking; the practice of associating the history of a given word with the history of a theological concept; the use made of etymologies; and the philosophical and linguistic underpinnings of much work in "biblical theology." Drawing on principles from the fields of semantics and linguistics, Barr argued that one cannot simply assume—as he shows many have done—that the linguistic structure of a language reveals the thought structures of the people speaking that language. He was especially critical of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a widely used multi-volume project underway beginning in the 1930s, which Barr found to be all too often guilty of what he called an "illegitimate totality transfer," i.e. the whole range of meanings that a word could have in its various semantic contexts is thought to be present in each individual case. According to Barr, it is much more appropriate to look for theology not in a word but in a sentence or combination of words, a principle that most subsequent scholarly efforts to produce a "theological dictionary" have tried to follow.

Barr published another landmark study on a related problem, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968). Here he criticized the widely attested tendency to attribute new meanings to difficult Hebrew words by comparing them to words in other Semitic languages, such as Arabic or Ugaritic. His careful argument had the effect of making subsequent philologists cautious about such speculations, and in a real sense his study put comparative Semitic philology on a new and firmer footing. He edited the Journal of Semitic Studies during 1965-76 and also served 1974-80 as the editor of the Oxford Hebrew Dictionary project. In addition to his numerous studies of specific Hebrew and Greek words and his work on the history of the Hebrew text and its translation into Greek, he produced a technical and detailed analysis of spelling variations in the Hebrew Bible.

While Barr's contributions to the study of biblical language are of direct interest primarily to specialists, his analyses of the role and authority of the Bible in contemporary life have had a much wider impact. The Bible in the Modern World (1973) dealt with the problem of cultural relativism and the radical questioning of traditional views of the Bible. In a subtle argument that attended to both biblical studies and theology, he sought to show how a modern understanding of Scripture can be theologically and hermeneutically sound when it regards the processes of revelation, tradition, and interpretation in comparable ways for both the biblical and the modern periods. In other studies he focused on the problem of the authority of Scripture and especially the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which he described not simply as a stance toward the Bible but as a particular type of religion and ideology with its own historical roots, its basic principles, and its reasons for such beliefs as biblical inerrancy and literalism. Recognizing that fundamentalism poses serious ecumenical problems among believers, he aimed to develop a perspective on the Bible that is hostile to neither Christian diversity nor critical biblical scholarship.

Several of his works dealt directly with theological issues connected to the Hebrew Bible. He was intensely critical of the "Biblical Theology Movement" on both linguistic and theological grounds and helped in the 1960s to bring about its demise. In The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (1992) Barr addressed questions of life, death, the soul, and the underworld, emphasizing that parts of the Hebrew Bible imply the naturalness of death and that the ideas of resurrection and immortality are complementary, not in conflict. Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (1993), based on the 1991 Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, examined the complex problem of natural theology. He found that the Bible, at least in certain of its texts and assumptions, supports the notion that God is knowable to humans through their humanity in a created world. In spite of his criticisms of biblical theology earlier in his career, Barr has thus continued to be involved in the development of biblical theology until his death on 14 October 2006.

Works. The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961); Biblical Words for Time (1962; rev. 1969); Old and New in Interpretation (1966); Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968; expanded ed. 1987); The Bible in the Modern World (1973); Fundamentalism (1977); The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations (1979); The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980); Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (1983); Beyond Fundamentalism (1984); The Variable Spellings of the Hebrew Bible (1989); The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (1992); Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (1993).

Bibliography. Festschrift: Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (ed. S. E. Balentine and J. Barton, 1994); S. E. Balentine and J. Barton, "The Reverend Professor James Barr, MA, BD, DD, D.Theol., FBA," ibid., 1-4; S. E. Balentine, "James Barr's Quest for Sound and Adequate Biblical Interpretation," ibid., 5-15; J. Barton, "James Barr as Critic and Theologian, ibid., 16-26; P. R. Wells, James Barr and the Bible (1980).

Douglas A. Knight,Professor of Hebrew Bible

Based on Knight's article published in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. John H. Hayes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999) 1:98-99 and does not cover Barr's work after 1998.

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.

Citation: Douglas A. Knight, " James Barr (1924-2006)," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=597

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER

© 2018, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.