Reviews of

Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr. Volumes I and III

In Biblical Criticism, Garrick V. Allen, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, John BARTON on August 27, 2014 at 2:04 pm


2014.6.14 | James Barr. Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr. 3 volumes. Edited by John Barton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013-2014. 1985 pages (HB). ISBN 9780198261926.

Reviewed by Garrick V. Allen, University of St Andrews.

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

“It is fair to say that very few scholars who can write convincingly on wide questions of biblical interpretation and hermeneutic, as well as on general theology, also have the expertise to operate at this [linguistic] microscopic level, and to do so in a way that can command the interest of readers not themselves learned in this area” (vol. 3: p. 2)

This now complete set of Professor Barr’s essays is a formidable addition to any scholar’s library.The nearly 2000 pages of this collection speak to Barr’s prolific career of exploring the concentric concerns of Bible, theology, linguistics, exegesis, philology, Semitics, and other areas. As volume 2 of this set has previously been reviewed for this publication, I will focus my attention on volumes 1 and 3 at this time. The content of Barr’s articles are not in need of critical re-evaluation. None of the essays, as far as I can tell, are previously unpublished (Barton has translated a few into English for the first time [vol. 1: pp. 156-168; 411-423]) and, as always, his article contain incisive prose, perceptive critiques, and an unequalled methodological discernment. He renders the most technical of topics accessible, and his breadth of learning inspires an appreciation that grows with every article. Barton allows Barr to be Barr. I aim to comment primarily upon the shape and organisation of the present volumes.

The first volume of this collection, subtitled Interpretation and Theology, contains 37 articles along with a lengthy obituary by Ernest Nicholson and John Barton (pp. xiii-xxxiv) and a brief introduction to the volume (pp. 1-4). Part I (“Biblical Interpretation and Theology”) contains 22 thematically organised articles. The first four articles (pp. 7-64) deal explicitly with issues pertaining to the relationship of the Bible to believing communities and academic theology. Barr wrestles with many important issues here, but the primary question underlying this section is “what is the Bible” (see esp. pp. 46-64). A large portion of this part of the volume is also devoted to issues related to reading the bible: myth, the bible as literature, literality, exegesis, and the like (pp. 65-197). The final throng of essays in Part I addresses broader theological issues related to the bible with an emphasis on (the problem of) biblical theology (pp. 215-343). The organisation of this pool of articles is characteristic of all three volumes. Barton leads the reader through the natural progression of Barr’s thought in way that leads easily from “what is the relationship between Bible and theology” to “what is one to make of biblical theology.”

Part II (“Authority of Scripture”) contains six articles, including one of the many of Barr’s famous reviews (pp.347-394). Again, Barton takes the reader from general to specific. This Part commences with general discussions of biblical authority (pp. 347-370) and closes with a specific discussion of the application of this question to Genesis 3 (pp. 376-389).

Part III (“Judaism”) contains a single article (pp. 397-408) that examines the continuity of religious traditions preserved in the Hebrew Bible with the religion that has come to be known as Judaism. Part IV (“Natural Theology”) contains five articles examining the viability of a natural theology from a number of perspectives. Part V (“Environing Religions”) closes volume 1 with three articles discussing the broad religious context of the ancient world in which ancient Israel was situated.

Generally, this volume retains a coherent flow of thought even though the concerns of the essays themselves are somewhat heterogeneous. This is not simply a compendium of random articles, but a coherent volume.

Volume 3 (Linguistics and Translation) contains 46 articles and reviews in addition to a short introduction (pp. 1-2). The diversity of linguistic concerns and languages that Barr interacts with in this volume is impressive. Reflecting on the imposing scope of Barr’s learning, Barton notes: “No doubt a great deal of hard work in face went into Barr’s knowledge of so many languages, but his natural aptitude is obvious” (p. 1). Part I (“Ancient Translations”) contains 14 articles that examine various facets of ancient translation, particularly from Hebrew to Greek. The articles gathered here explore graphic, phonological, and grammatical dimensions of ancient translation. A particularly entertaining entry in this Part is Barr’s 1967 review of J. Reider’s An Index to Aquila (pp. 159-168) which commences with the most direct opening sentence of any review with which I am familiar: “Disfigured by numerous gross misprints and errors, which must be a cause of severe mortification to the reviser, to the distinguished editorial board of Vetus Testamentum, and to the publishers…the new Aquila index must be received by the scholarly public as a very mixed blessing; some might go so far as to call it a complete disaster, at least until the obvious errors are remedied” (p. 159).

Part II (“Modern Translation”) is a compelling grouping of three articles that are surprisingly polemical. Barr muses on the proper English translation of Hebrew verbs pertaining to intercourse and sexuality (pp. 226, 229) and critiques the underlying principles of two major recent translations. On the New English Bible: the practice of comparative Semitic philology has “been allowed to act as the vehicle for all sorts of hunches and private or capricious opinion which could never have been sustained on the level of world scholarship” (p. 250). And on the New International Version: “The name International, as is well known to anyone experienced in the literature, is a code word meaning ‘acceptable for conservatives and fundamentalists’” (p. 259).

Part III (“Hebrew and Semitic Languages”) contains 29 articles related to the subject. The areas of interest include historical analyses of the geographic dispersion of languages (pp. 269-300), modern Hebrew literature (pp. 301-312), philology and semantics (pp. 377-444), Jerome and Hebrew (pp. 461-529), and lexicographical issues (pp. 578-744). Among these articles, Barr’s famous linguistic ability is on display as he often appeals to numerous cognate languages, particularly in his lengthy lexicographical studies. Again, like volume 1, Barton has constructed this volume in such a way as to guide the reader from general linguistic concerns toward the more technical aspects of Barr’s work.

Overall, this three-volume set is an important collection. First, it is a window into the life and thought of one of the most important biblical critics and theologians of the second half of the 20th century. The collection covers over forty years of research (1963-2005) and makes accessible articles from diverse and obscured publications. Moreover, Barton has arranged the articles in manner that gives the volumes a thematic unity and creates a sense that each volume can be read front to back. For interested non-specialist, the more accessible articles have been frontloaded in each volume and in each Part.

The weaknesses of the set are minor. First, the diversity of publications from which these articles have been drawn means that the formatting and stylistic conventions of articles often differ. Also, occasionally, the internally referencing footnotes refer to the page number of the original article, not the article as it is now paginated. This does not detract from the content. Second, the cost of the set may be prohibitive.

I strongly recommend this collection of essays as a reference tool for specialists and interested non-specialists alike, particularly if one’s research interests overlap significantly with Barr’s.

Garrick V. Allen
University of St Andrews
ga22 [ at ]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: