The Rev Professor James Barr

Semitist whose technical approach to the Hebrew Bible changed the methods of biblical exegesis

Saturday 11 November 2006 01:00

James Barr, Semitist, biblical scholar, theologian and minister of the church: born Edinburgh 20 March 1924; ordained 1951 minister of the Church of Scotland; Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis, Presbyterian College, Montreal 1953-55; Professor of Old Testament Language, Literature and Theology, Edinburgh University 1956-61; Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary 1961-65; Professor of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Manchester University 1965-76; Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, Oxford University 1976-78, Regius Professor of Hebrew 1978-89 (Emeritus); Fellow, Oriel College, Oxford 1976-78, Honorary Fellow 1980-2006; Student of Christ Church, Oxford 1978-89; Professor of Hebrew Bible, Vanderbilt University 1989-98, Distinguished Professor 1994-98 (Emeritus); married 1950 Jane Hepburn (two sons, one daughter); died Claremont, California 14 October 2006.

When James Barr's The Semantics of Biblical Language was published in 1961, a new epoch began for all those who wished to study the languages of the Bible. That book came to be regarded as one of the leading publications in the field of biblical scholarship for the rest of the 20th century. It was often translated, but not only into Western languages - visitors to Barr's home would sometimes be shown copies rendered into Indonesian or another exotic tongue.

The Semantics of Biblical Language appeared just as Barr was moving on from the Chair of Old Testament, Language and Theology at his Alma Mater, Edinburgh. He went on to become Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University and ended his career as Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

He traced the relevance of his arguments for theology in his semi-popular Biblical Words for Time (1962). He then took some of his insights significantly further in 1968 with Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament, in which he demonstrated an impressive competence in all the languages of the Semitic family, as well as expertise in correcting false procedures in linguistic argument. From that time onwards, a sounder methodological approach to biblical comparative lexicography and semantics had been established.

The breadth of Barr's scholarship was remarkable, but he distinguished himself also with meticulous observations about the textual tradition of the Bible itself, in works like The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Translations (1979) and The Variable Spellings of the Hebrew Bible (1986). He was ranked among the foremost of Septuagint and Masoretic scholars.

Barr's brilliance in Semitic linguistics and his technical approach to the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint led to his penetrating critique of so-called canonical criticism, as for example in his Holy Scripture: canon, authority, criticism (1983). But this expertise advanced side by side with a series of books concerned with the wider world of theology. It is hard to think of any other scholar in this field who could combine vast erudition with profound insight and an exemplary and lucid style of English. Barr was deeply concerned with the role of the Bible in modern society, and he had the rare privilege of seeing several of his books become bestsellers.

After returning from one of his many research visits to North America, Barr felt constrained to launch into an intellectual debate with some of the standard arguments formulated by writers whom the British public labelled "conservative evangelical". The appearance of Fundamentalism (1977), which was later to be followed by Escaping from Fundamentalism (1984), was misunderstood by some as a dispassionate attack against the grounds of their faith.

In fact, those who knew Barr (such as F.F. Bruce, a friend and colleague in Barr's years as Professor of Semitic Languages and Literatures at Manchester University, 1965-76) knew that the impetus for the book was to set a conservative faith in an acceptable context for an intellectual enquirer. He had felt persuaded in this aim by some of his conversations with many younger biblical scholars who had found serious difficulties in this regard. When Barr debated the matter openly with his opponents one evening in Oxford at All Saints' Church, not surprisingly the meeting was well attended.

At Oxford University, Barr was first appointed in 1976 to the Oriel Professorship but a little while later, in 1978, was invited to move to the Regius Chair of Hebrew. During those years he spent much time with a team of other scholars on preparing material for a new dictionary of the Hebrew Bible. He had inherited this task from some of his predecessors and progress had been unacceptably slow. Although the project after prolonged discussion was aborted by Oxford University Press, the files were handed over to the team in charge of the Revised English Bible, and so some of his work will have been embodied there.

Barr was born in Edinburgh in 1924, the son of the Rev Professor Allan Barr, Professor of New Testament at the Joint Congregational and United Free Church College in Edinburgh. Following studies in Classics and Theology, interrupted by Second World War service when he piloted torpedo bombers in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, James Barr graduated from Edinburgh University in 1951. Ordained by the Presbytery of Dunfermline and Kinross in 1951, he served as Church of Scotland minister in Tiberias, Israel, for almost three years; then, after two years at Presbyterian College in Montreal, he was appointed in 1955 as Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology at Edinburgh University.

There were those who regarded Barr as aloof, but in fact this was simply a natural Scottish reserve. He was a warm friend and a good colleague. Those who took time to get to know him well realised that what meant more to him than all his academic honours was his family. He held numerous honorary degrees and visiting professorships, and was elected to fellowship of the British Academy (1969), the Göttingen Academy of Science (1976), the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (1977), the Royal Society of Sciences, Uppsala (1991), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1993) and the American Philosophical Society (1993). But, as his elder son, Allan, said at his memorial service held in Claremont, California,

Probably none of his honorary degrees gave him as much happiness as his drives up the Delaware River valley to visit his daughter, his strolls through the streets of Claremont with his first grandchild, or his journeys to London to check on his seemingly endless proliferation of grandsons.

Even so, Barr showed himself devoted to scholarship in the last years of his life. As he approached the "three score and ten" time-line he published Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (1993), an important work that supports the idea of "natural theology" and argues that the concept is found in the Bible itself. This was followed by The Concept of Biblical Theology (1999), a massive overview of the progress of the important and ongoing debate about "Biblical Theology" in the 20th century. As if that were not enough, one year later we could read History and Ideology in the Old Testament (2000). Here, Barr demonstrates that he is well-read in the recent history debate, and he points to some of the weaknesses of the arguments used in the discussions.

During the last difficult months of his life Barr had to cope with the after-effects of a very serious fall suffered while attending a conference in Philadelphia. But it is typical of him that to the very end he was looking for new projects. Left on his desk was the beginning of a major work about prophecy.

Hans M. Barstad

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