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

in Biblical Interpretation
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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.

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

in Biblical Interpretation




 James BarrThe Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press1961). Overviews of Barr’s work can be found in Samuel E. Balentine “James Barr’s Quest for Sound and Adequate Biblical Interpretation” in S.E. Balentine and J. Barton (eds.) Language Theology and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1994) pp. 5–15 and John Barton “James Barr as Critic and Theologian” in ibid. pp. 16–26. For Barr’s collected essays see John Barton (ed.) Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr (3 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013–2014). References to his articles below will be to the original publications.


 E.P. SandersJesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress1985)pp. 106–113.


 J. Lunde“Repentance,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: Intervarsity 1992) p. 669. See also Dale C. Allison Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress 1998) p. 104.


 See further David A. LambertHow Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism Christianity and the Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press2016) pp. 181–83.


 Ceslas Spicq“μετανοέω, μετάνοια,” Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (ed. and trans. James D. Ernest; Peabody: Hendrickson 1994)vol. 2 p. 475.


 Reimarus Fragments (ed. C.H. Talbert; trans. R.S. Fraser; Philadelphia: Fortress1970) pp. 65–71.


 N.T. WrightJesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress1996) pp. 246–58.


 See now Dru JohnsonBiblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene: Cascade2013) which in many respects represents an advance. See also Meir Malul Knowledge Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought Culture and Worldview (Jerusalem: Graphit 2002).


 T. Collins“The Physiology of Tears in the Old Testament: Part I,” CBQ 33 (1971) pp. 18–38. See further for a summary of her similar approach to Greek literature Ruth Padel In and Out of Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992) pp. 39–40.


 See further Carasik“The Limits of Omniscience” pp. 221–28. Here Carasik questions the mode of knowing reconfiguring it as “testing” but not the object of knowledge (i.e. the human mind). The point is still to discern through “external actions” what is “‘in’ the Israelites’ hearts” (p. 224).


 TigayDeuteronomy p. 77. See also Stephen A. Geller “The God of the Covenant” in B.N. Porter (ed.) One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World (Chebeague: Casco Bay Assyriological Institute 2000) p. 294. Indeed לב is frequently used as a way of grounding “sincerity” in the biblical text. See Michael L. Barré “Hearts Beds and Repentance in Psalm 45 and Hosea 714” Biblica 76 (1995) pp. 53–62; and Moshe Greenberg Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press 1983) pp. 48–51.


 See James BarrThe Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (Minneapolis: Fortress1992) pp. 36–47; David J.A. Clines “The Disjoined Body: The Body and Self in Hebrew Rhetoric” in G.A. van der Heever and S.W. van Heerden (eds.) Biblical Interpretation (Pretoria: University of South Africa 2001) pp. 48–57; and Robert A. Di Vito “Old Testament Anthropology and the Construction of Personal Identity” CBQ 61 (1999) pp. 217–38.


 H.L. Ginsberg“Heart,” Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter 1972) vol. 8 pp. 7–8.


 Smith“Heart and Innards” p. 431. See also the attempt to find a physiological basis for לב in Hans Walter Wolff Anthropology of the Old Testament (trans. Margaret Kohl; Philadelphia: Fortress 1974) pp. 40–58.


 Di Vito“Old Testament Anthropology” p. 233.


 Francis BrownA Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press1951) p. 523.


 Vološinov Marxism and the Philosophy of Language p. 23.


 Gary A. AndersonA Time to Mourn A Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in Israelite Religion (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press1991).


 Quoted from James I. PorterNietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Stanford: Stanford University Press2000) p. 14 and see pp. 1–31 for his general discussion of the place of philology for Nietzsche.


 Quoted from PorterNietzsche p. 15.

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