James Barr (biblical scholar)

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James Barr

Born(1924-03-20)20 March 1924
Glasgow, Scotland
Died14 October 2006(2006-10-14) (aged 82)
Jane Hepburn Barr
(m. 1950)
Ecclesiastical career
ReligionChristianity (Presbyterian)
ChurchChurch of Scotland
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
InfluencesFerdinand de Saussure
Academic work
DisciplineBiblical studies
Sub-disciplineOld Testament studies
Doctoral studentsAthalya Brenner
Notable worksThe Semantics of Biblical Language (1961)
InfluencedMoisés Silva

James Barr FBA (1924–2006) was a liberal Scottish Old Testament scholar, known for his contribution on how vocabulary and structure of the Hebrew language may reflect a particular theological mindset.[1] At the University of Oxford, he was the Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture from 1976 to 1978, and the Regius Professor of Hebrew from 1978 to 1989.


Born in Glasgow, Scotland (although one reference claims he was born in Edinburgh),[2] on 20 March 1924,[citation needed] educated at Daniel Stewart's college in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, Barr was ordained to the ministry of the Church of Scotland in 1951.[3] He held professorships in New College in the University of Edinburgh, University of Manchester, in Princeton Theological Seminary and at Vanderbilt University in the United States. 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 in World War II in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy where he was a pilot of torpedo bombers and took part in air-sea rescue missions,[3] he studied at 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 US as Professor of Old Testament in Princeton Theological Seminary (1961–65),[4] followed by appointments in the University of Manchester (1965–76) as Professor Semitic Languages and Literatures, 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).[3]

Barr received many honours. He 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.[5]

Biblical scholarship and theology[edit]

His The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), in which he criticised 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 criticised 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."[6] 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 criticised evangelical scholars such as J. I. Packer for affirming the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error. Barr's other works about fundamentalism include The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980) and Escaping Fundamentalism (1984). He was often invited to appear in BBC religious programming.

Personal life[edit]

Barr married Jane Hepburn in 1950 and had two sons and a daughter.[2] He was the grandson of the minister and politician James Barr. He died in Claremont, California, on 14 October 2006, aged 82.

Selected works[edit]

  • 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


  1. ^ "James Barr". The Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  2. ^ a b Bartsad, Hans (11 November 2006) The Rev Professor James Barr, Semitist whose technical approach to the Hebrew Bible changed the methods of biblical exegesis The Independent. Retrieved 23 September 2014
  3. ^ a b c Williamson, HGM (8 November 2006) James Barr, Radical academic whose incisive critiques challenged the orthodoxies of biblical theology The Guardian. Retrieved 23 September 2014
  4. ^ Penchansky, David (2007). "Barr, James". In McKim, Donald K. (ed.). Dictionary of major biblical interpreters (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8308-2927-9.
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 17 May 2011.
  6. ^ "Barr, James," Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. J. H. Hayes (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 1:98–99.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Hedley Sparks
Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture
Succeeded by
Ernest Nicholson
Preceded by
William McHardy
Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford
Succeeded by
Hugh G. M. Williamson
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Peter Ackroyd
President of the Society for Old Testament Study
Succeeded by
D. R. Ap-Thomas