In: James Barr Assessed
  • 1 McMaster Divinity College
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James Barr is a widely recognized name in biblical studies, especially in the area of Old Testament studies. Although he wrote a number of different books that covered a surprisingly wide range of topics in biblical and related studies, he is still best known—and sometimes perhaps only known—for his The Semantics of Biblical Language, which was published in 1961. In this book, Barr brought the findings of structural linguistics, a relatively new field for biblical studies, to bear on how the Greek and Hebrew languages are described and how the results of such descriptions are used within the wider field of biblical studies. This book made a loud noise in biblical studies at the time, as it was seen as directly attacking an entire movement within biblical studies, the Biblical Theology movement. This was not just any movement, but a movement that had had significant impact upon the field of biblical studies for nearly half a century. And indeed it did attack such a movement, arguably fatally wounding it. Nevertheless, the responses to Barr’s critique of this movement, especially as it was seen in a number of select works, such as Kittel’s TDNT, were almost as vociferous as had been Barr’s initial statement. As the dust settled, there was a general acknowledgment that Barr had put his finger on something that was wrong with the way that biblical theology, at least as seen within this movement, was being done. However, recognizing that there were deficiencies was not the same as remedying them. There were some who were duly chastened and undertook to ground their biblical theological ideas in more substantial linguistic arguments. There were others, however, who, even if they recognized the criticisms of Barr, were determined to assert or re-assert the same theological conclusions, even if they did not have the same linguistic foundation upon which to ground such conclusions. To this day, there are those who recognize the importance of Barr’s critique, but there are also those who continue to do their biblical theology as they often have, even at the expense of committing what are often called Barrian fallacies.

James Barr died in 2006. He has been honored in several ways both during his career and after his death. He was honored in 1994 with a Festschrift to commemorate his seventieth birthday, in which both colleagues and former students honored him with essays that reflected many of his various research interests, including textual criticism, linguistics, Bible translation, the history of interpretation, and other theological topics. This was a volume, however, that concentrated more heavily on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible topics, including a number of focused studies of individual biblical passages. This Festschrift is a fitting tribute to Barr and his work, but he lived a further dozen years, in which he also published some important work, including constructive work in biblical theology that laid out his historically based view of the discipline. There have also been individual articles and even a volume that addresses various dimensions of Barr’s thought, including one that assesses Barr’s hermeneutical framework published in 2007. This is a very focused and specialized study of Barr’s hermeneutics and the implications for a doctrine of revelation. In 2013, a collection of Barr’s most important publications, apart from his books, was published, in which Barr’s corpus of works was reprinted for a wider audience. These essays are organized in three volumes, according to five major topics: interpretation and theology, biblical studies, and linguistics and translation. However, these reprinted essays, even though they are introduced by the editor, do not provide a critical response.

I have to confess that, when the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Barr’s Semantics came and went in 2011, I was surprised that there had not been any major efforts, at least to my knowledge, to recognize the significance of this work and to open up the question of the legacy of Barr’s contribution to biblical studies. The tenth anniversary of his death also passed without recognition of his work and contribution. One might legitimately wonder why this is. This is the case in light of the fact that numerous Barrian fallacies continue to be committed right and left by writers of all types within biblical studies, some even acknowledging Barr’s work while they engage in such practices. Others apparently commit such errors without apparent knowledge of such. However, this is only one area of Barr’s interests. Barr’s work in biblical theology, comparative philology, historical criticism, and even Septuagint studies, continues to be mentioned in some arenas, but without the kind of response that one might imagine for a scholar as significant in his day as he was. There are even some revisionist scholars calling for reassessment of Barr’s work in light of their own theological interests.

Without presuming to forecast the result of such an assessment, it seemed to me that the time was ripe for an assessment of Barr’s legacy in light of his own work and research that has been published since he wrote his major works and then has died. This volume is one such effort. This volume presents a collection of essays by a range of scholars, both senior and junior, who are assessing Barr’s legacy. They come from different perspectives and varying areas of expertise and interest. However, they all have in common that they are responding to issues raised by Barr and using these focal points to evaluate individual topics in light of subsequent research. Semantics was Barr’s first book but not the only one that challenged the reigning or enduring traditions within the field of biblical studies. The major works within Barr’s corpus of writings are treated in more detail within the introduction to this work. Barr’s writings may be categorized in a number of different ways, but this volume has chosen five major categories for discussion. These include: Hebrew language and the Old Testament, lexical semantics, lexicography, Septuagint, and Biblical theology. There are other topics as well that merit attention, but these are the ones that are featured in this volume. All of these are significant, however, because the topics and how Barr addressed them continue to be important and relevant and discussed within the field of biblical studies, even if not with the same rigor as were some of his books when they first appeared. The essays in this volume do not hesitate to evaluate Barr’s work, but also to go beyond it and suggest new and different ways in which his work has or could have fostered further discussion.

In some ways, this book is a tribute to Barr for the significance of his work in a wide range of areas within biblical studies. However, it is meant to be more than that. It is meant as a critical assessment of his legacy, to evaluate the importance and impact and enduring qualities of that work. I appreciate the willingness of all of the contributors to entrust their essays to this volume. They have been excellent companions in the process of creating this volume that examines the scholarly findings of a scholar whose legacy endures, even if it appears to have faded, with the goal of finding a suitable place for him within the history of scholarship and within contemporary scholarly debate.

I also wish to thank my graduate assistant, Hal Willis, for all of his excellent help in making this volume possible.

Stanley E. Porter

McMaster Divinity College

James Barr Assessed

Evaluating His Legacy over the Last Sixty Years