Reviews of

Bible and Interpretation: the Collected Essays of James Barr. Volume III: Linguistics and Translation.

In HB/OT, James BARR, John BARTON, Kurtis Peters, Oxford University Press on November 21, 2014 at 12:00 am

2014.11.20 | Barton, John, ed. Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr. Volume III: Linguistics and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. £120. pp. 816. ISBN: 978-0-19-969290-3.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters,
University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

James Barr’s contributions to scholarship are many and varied, as already witnessed by volumes I and II of his essays collected by John Barton, but his contributions to the study of biblical languages are perhaps his greatest. This volume alone is one third larger than each of the previous two volumes and speaks to the amount of time and effort he spent working to hone the field and sharpen its level of analysis. One need only think of some of his famous monographs The Semantics of Biblical Language, or Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament in order to observe the impact he has made on Biblical Studies. The present volume, however, consists of his smaller contributions – smaller, that is, in terms of printed size, not in terms of significance.

John Barton opens this volume, as with the others, with a brief table of contents followed by a detailed one, providing the publication data of each of the essays. He then goes on to offer a short introduction to the volume, a mere two pages. Barton is right to keep this short as he does not appear to want to meddle overmuch with the work of a scholar who wrote so lucidly and clearly that it hardly needs any introducing at all. What we can thank Barton for, no doubt, is the extensive work of collecting and arranging the material in such a straightforward manner

Part I contains Barr’s fourteen contributions to the ancient translations. Of course this involves primarily the Septuagint as well as other witnesses to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, but this is not all that Barr sees worthy of comment. He also engages with the book of Enoch in Aramaic and Greek and even goes so far as to engage Metzger’s New Testament version analysis. Part II is the shortest of the book’s three parts and consists of three articles on the subject of modern translations. The third, final, and by far the largest part is titled ‘Hebrew and Semitic Linguistics’. Here one finds 29 separate articles concerning philology, Kethibh-Qere variants, Masoretic pointing, etymology, phonology, metaphor, and many other subjects besides.

It goes without saying that Barr’s writings have been influential, perhaps even foundational, for biblical scholarship of the past several decades. It is for this reason that the essays in this volume remain important, both for the history of research, but also for their lasting impact. Not only is this a tribute to a great scholar, but also a reprinting of material that a new generation of scholars must take into account. Barr’s attention to etymology, for example, ranks high on the list of his subjects that continue to have enduring significance today. This attention brought him to write about the relationship of roots and lexemes and how lexical works arrange them (chapter 1), what the different kinds of etymology are (chapter 25), and the limitations of its use for lexicography (chapter 26). These go hand-in-hand with his monographs mentioned above, and provide useful reasoning as to how one ought to use etymology appropriately in biblical study. Indeed, scholars have abused and overused etymology to make inappropriately founded conclusions concerning the meanings of words or phrases. Of course, etymology is, and will continue to be, important too, but the method must be sound, argues Barr.

Barr’s gaze also fell on the issue of Hebrew pronunciation. In a chapter concerning philology and linguistics (where he mourns the stance of suspicion held by biblical philologists toward the field of modern linguistics) he addresses the problem of Hebrew pronunciation in the modern classroom. He wonders why Hebrew, being not an extremely difficult language, should elicit such “cries of pain” from students attempting to learn its pronunciation. Barr argues that the pronunciation system used is certainly not BH (Biblical Hebrew), nor even SIH (Spoken Israeli Hebrew), but rather BUH (British University Hebrew), which does justice neither to the Hebrew language nor to the students learning it (p.388). Barr was not, however, chiefly concerned with modern pronunciation of Hebrew, but more so with ancient pronunciation, such as that of Jerome and other early translators of the Hebrew Bible. It is his essay on Jerome (chapter 30) that provides the greatest detail on ancient Hebrew pronunciation. He comments on the history of bgdkpt pronunciation, the difference between sin and shin, the role of the gutturals, as well as vowels and consonant length.

Lexical semantics, as well, took up much of Barr’s time. Several essays concern the meanings of individual Hebrew words, but he also spends time discussing semantic theory in Hebrew itself, concerning metaphor, hapax legomena, parallelism, etymology once again, and semantic fields. This last is perhaps most famously represented in Barr’s diagram of holiness and cleanness, pairing off qadoš and ḥol, ṭahor and ṭame’ (p.708). And one could not neglect to mention Barr’s suggestions for the writers of lexical works in his essay “Hebrew Lexicography: Informal Thoughts” (chapter 41).

As with the other two volumes in this collection, Barton has done a superb job in organizing material that continues to shape scholarship today. No one can (rightly) perform a lexical study without paying homage to Barr, and no one can credibly consider the prehistory of a Hebrew word to be determinative for its meaning in a particular text without extensive engagement with Barr’s arguments. Not only in theology and general biblical studies (the subjects of volumes I and II of this collection), but also, and perhaps mostly, in linguistics and translation, Barr represents a milestone and a marker by which good scholarship is measured. It is a boon to the academy to have his essays reprinted and bound together in one place for the benefit of future research.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh


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