James Barr (biblical scholar)
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Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Barr was ordained to the ministry of the Church of Scotland in 1951. He held professorships in New College, Edinburgh in the University of Edinburgh, University of Manchester, and at Vanderbilt University in the United States of America. He was Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford from 1976 to 1978 and Regius Professor of Hebrew from 1978 to 1989.
Following service as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in WWII, he studied in Edinburgh University, obtaining a first-class Honours degree (Scottish MA) in Classics (1948) and the BD with Distinction in Old Testament (1951). After ordination (1951) and service as minister in the Church of Scotland in Tiberias, Israel (1951–53), during which time he acquired fluency in modern Hebrew and Arabic, he was appointed Professor of New Testament in the Presbyterian College, Montreal (1953–55). Then he was appointed Professor of Old Testament Language, Literature & Theology in Edinburgh University (New College, 1955–61). He then moved to the USA as Professor of Old Testament in Princeton Theological Seminary (1961–65), followed by appointments in the University of Manchester (1965–76) as Professor Semitic Languages and Liteatures, and in Oxford University, initially as Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture (1976–78) and then as Regius Professor of Hebrew (1978–89). After his retirement from Oxford, he was appointed Professor of Hebrew Bible in Vanderbilt University (1989–98).
His The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), in which he criticized the tendency of many scholars to rely on linguistically flawed arguments, such as arguments from etymology or based upon misconceptions about the relation between Hebrew thought and language was very influential. Much of the critique was built upon the work of French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In turn, Barr's student Moisés Silva built on Barr's work in Biblical Words and Their Meaning (1983). In another important study, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968), he criticized the tendency to ascribe meanings to difficult Hebrew words based on words in other Semitic languages (e.g., Ugaritic). This study has been described as having "put comparative Semitic philology on a new and firmer footing." He edited Journal of Semitic Studies 1965–76, and served as editor of the Oxford Hebrew Dictionary project.
He was also an outspoken critic of conservative evangelicalism, which he attacked in his 1977 book Fundamentalism. In particular he criticized evangelical scholars such as J. I. Packer affirming the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error. However, he also had high praise for evangelicals thought by him to deserve to be treated as serious scholars, such as F. F. Bruce and Donald Guthrie. Barr's other works about fundamentalism include The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980) and Escaping Fundamentalism (1984).
Barr served as President of the Society for Old Testament Study (1973) and of the British Association for Jewish Studies (1978), and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. He died in Claremont, California aged 82.
Barr was the grandson of the politician James Barr.
- 1961: The Semantics of Biblical Language
- 1968: Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament
- 1973: The Bible in the Modern World
- 1977: Fundamentalism
- 1980: The Scope and Authority of the Bible
- 1984: Escaping From Fundamentalism (titled Beyond Fundamentalism in the United States)
- 1989: The Variable Spellings of the Hebrew Bible (Schweich Lectures for 1986) Oxford: for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-726068-3
- 1992: Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Gifford Lectures for 1990–91) Oxford: Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-826205-1; online
- 1999: The Concept of Biblical Theology: an Old Testament perspective
- 2004: he contributed the article “Of Metaphysics and Polynesian Navigation” to the anthology Seeing God Everywhere (World Wisdom)
- 2005: History and Ideology in the Old Testament: biblical studies at the end of a millennium
- 2013: Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, Volumes I-III. Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198261926
- Penchansky, David (2007). "Barr, James". In McKim, Donald K. Dictionary of major biblical interpreters (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8308-2927-9.
- "Barr, James," Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. J. H. Hayes (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 1:98–99.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
- Statement from Vanderbilt University on Barr's death
- Times obituary
- Independent obituary
- Beyond Fundamentalism review by William J Abraham