Reviews of

Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr. Volume II: Biblical Studies.

In Biblical Criticism, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, James BARR, John BARTON, Kurtis Peters, Oxford University Press, Scripture on January 29, 2014 at 12:00 am


2014.1.2 | Barton, John, ed. Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr. Volume II: Biblical Studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. i-xii + 619. ISBN: 978-0-19-969289-7).

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy.

It is no mere flattery to say that this second instalment in Barton’s collection of essays by James Barr is an invaluable addition to any biblical scholar’s library, particularly those in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. James Barr, the prolific writer and frequent formidable adversary, deserved for his writing to be made readily available to as wide an audience as possible. This is what Barton has achieved.

From short notes to substantial articles, from psychology dictionaries to mainstream biblical studies publications, Barr’s wide-ranging publications on biblical studies can be found in the second volume of this trilogy edited by Barton.

The opening section, and understandably by far the largest, is “Old Testament”. Here Barr engages linguistics, historical criticism, textual exegesis and the like. He was known as a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar, and left a clear mark on the discipline. But he also, for a time, held a New Testament post in Montreal and, as Barton mentions in the introduction, “he never lost his interest in the New Testament” (p.1). Therefore, it is no surprise to find a short section on his New Testament contributions, particularly those that are based on his linguistic observations. The third part of the volume is taken up with methods and implications, where Barr wrestles with allegory, with canonical criticism, with structuralism, and with the claim that the bible is to blame for environmental destruction in our world. The fourth section, “Biblical Chronology”, was Barr’s hobby, according to Barton, and here one finds Barr’s contributions to this small, albeit interesting, discipline. The fifth section, “Fundamentalism”, sits the lightest in this volume. It is not strictly biblical studies, per se, though Barr’s articles here do frequently return the discussion to how the bible is used in general biblical scholarship, including among fundamentalist groups and conservative evangelicals (though he is careful to distinguish the two groups – p.496). The final section, “History of Scholarship”, is Barr’s ode to those who had gone before, and is where the reader will find both biographies of biblical studies giants as well as critiques of their work and legacy.

In keeping with the other two volumes in Barton’s trilogy, this volume demonstrates the enduring quality of Barr’s work. These articles and essays are as valuable now as when he penned them. His older material, even short pieces like “Did Isaiah Know about Hebrew ‘Root Meanings’?” (p.218-219), from the early sixties, provides a foundational framework for how we talk about texts, language, and the world behind them. What are our readerly presuppositions as we approach a text? He explored this well with his Manchester-based “The Book of Job and its Modern Interpreters” (p.93-106) in the early seventies. Also memorable were his New Testament insights from a Semitist, such as “’Abbā Isn’t ‘Daddy’” (p.262-280) from the late eighties, where he dismantles populist notions about the familiarity with which Jesus addressed the Father. A piece which might otherwise have gone unnoticed was Barr’s entry “Hebraic Psychology” in The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology (p.144-147). Here he succinctly summarizes how theologians and other scholars had previously made much of the distinction between Hebrew thought and Greek thought, but how with his own The Semantics of Biblical Language, published in 1961, he dismantled the poorly laid linguistic foundations upon which these arguments were built.

These pieces are not valuable only, however, for their place within the history of scholarship, but Barr’s publications include, also, important summaries of the history of scholarship itself.  In addition to the final section of the book, “History of Scholarship”, the volume opens with an exceedingly clear and enjoyable summary of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible itself and the various approaches and studies of it (p.7-25). The book’s penultimate section, “Fundamentalism”, likewise contains cogent introductions to the subject and debate surrounding the identification of fundamentalism and its effect on biblical scholarship. For those new to the discussion, Barr’s entry “Fundamentalism” in the Evangelisches Kirchenlexicon (p.453-455) should suffice to identify it, and his “‘Fundamentalism’ and Evangelical Scholarship” (p.495-506) should provide an adequate account of the heated debate between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist scholarship.

In sum, as one would expect, the works of James Barr are essential for any serious biblical scholar, and thus Barton has done us all a great service in collecting the disparate publications into one accessible place. The layout is clear, the index useful, and the writing masterful.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh
kurtis_peters [ at ]

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