Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words

In: Biblical Interpretation
David Arthur Lambert The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

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This article considers the legacy of James Barr’s The Semantics of Biblical Language. Ideally, his criticisms of theology’s use of philology would have been assimilated already into the field. But the kinds of abuses that Barr so clearly identified and critiqued are still commonly found. As a way of exploring this state of affairs, the case of μετάνοια (“repentance”) in New Testament studies is taken up in the first part of this article.

The second part of the article considers the ways in which Barr’s thoroughgoing critique of its specious appropriation for theology has left many justifiably skittish about employing it to any significant effect and has contributed, perhaps, to a sense that ongoing engagement with the original languages of biblical literature is not a necessity and, certainly, not an avenue to creative scholarship. Examples will be adduced from biblical Hebrew ידע (“know”), לב (“heart”), and אהב (“love”) for how we might approach language and its deployment as a way of engaging difference, in this case, in and through ancient Israelite thinking about “mind” and “emotions.”

The article concludes with the suggestion that we might move the practice of philology forward in biblical studies by attending more fully to the positionality of its practitioners. In particular, what emerges throughout the study is the dominance of a certain interiorizing language of the self, whereby biblical Hebrew terms are made to conform to a modern dichotomy of mind and body.

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