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50th Anniversary: Barr’s “Semantics of Biblical Language”

October 18, 2011

A bit late in the year, I’ve noted that this is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a truly landmark book by a former member of academic staff in New College, Edinburgh:  James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1961).

Barr served as Professor of Old Testament Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh 1955-61, followed by appointments in the University of Manchester, Oxford University, and Vanderbilt University.  He was a Fellow of the British Academy, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the American Philosophical Society.  Born in 1924, he died in 2006.

The Semantics of Biblical Language was Barr’s first major publication, and it has been judged to have initiated “a reconstruction of descriptive biblical linguistics” (Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic, 2nd ed., Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, p. 3).  Beginning with a criticism of then-current superficial contrasts between “Hebrew thought” and “Greek thought”, Barr then introduced some key principles of modern linguistics.  The broad thrust was to challenge traditional etymology-based studies of words and the free use of alleged word-equivalents in other Semitic languages (e.g., Ugaritic) to supply meanings to unusual Hebrew words in the OT. 

In the process, Barr laid out numerous examples of the bad methods he wished to correct.  For example, he devoted a whole chapter to a critique of lexical approach taken in the Kittel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

The basic points that Barr sought to make were, at the time of his book’s appearance, not well understood among biblical scholars.  Sadly, I fear that this remains the case.  Too many scholars (and so their students) still take an approach in which Hebrew or Greek words are treated as having fixed meanings, and so understanding texts is essentially a process of totting up a suitable dictionary meaning of all the words of their sentences.  It is still news to many that the fundamental semantic unit is not the “word” but the sentence, and that “words” (lexical entries) acquire a specific meaning when deployed in sentences.  Likewise, scholars often still don’t understand that word-constructions often take on their own meaning that is not the sum of the parts (e.g., “hot dog” isn’t the sum of the meanings of “hot” and “dog”!). 

This is so in spite of the efforts of scholars influenced by Barr’s work, such as Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983); Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation(Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989); Stanley E. Porter, “Linguistic Issues in New Testament Lexicography,” in Studies in the Greek New Testament: Theory and Practice (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 49-74.

Today’s PhD students in OT and NT, however, really should acquaint themselves with at least the basics of semantics.  Many years ago, I benefitted from reading a classic introduction:   John Lyons, Language and Liguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).  Even taking on board a few basics can make a big difference in the work of understanding texts, especially those separated from us in language, time and culture.

So, a toast to Jimmy Barr and his celebrated study in this 50th year of its publication, especially by those of us here in his old digs in New College (where it all began).

(For fuller information on Barr, see D. A. Knight, “Barr, James,” Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. J. H. Hayes 1:98-99.  There is also a very brief Wikipedia entry on Barr.)

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  1. Dan Reid permalink

    Nathan’s point is fascinating. I’ve come across indications of the tension between Barr and Torrance over the years. One of them, I think, is a footnote in Torrance’s Reality and Evangelical Theology (I’m away from my library at the moment or I’d resurrect it), and I recall that it puzzled me when I first read it. Torrance seemed to be kicking against good linguistic principles and I couldn’t imagine why. As an editor I frequently get the impression that Barr’s lessons have not been learned or heeded by many who are writing in biblical studies today.

    • From those who were students here in New College during the time when Barr and Torrance were both here on staff, there are numerous stories of their conflict. Indeed, I’ve heard that students taking courses simultaneously from Barr and Torrance would sometimes encourage them to lecture in response to each other! Nothing that exciting here now!

  2. Nathan MacDonald permalink


    You omit to note that Scotland and Edinburgh’s contribution to Semantics was rather more involved, and not altogether positive. When you dig into the footnotes it is clear that Barr was much exercised by the Church of Scotland’s report on baptism that appeared in the 1950s. Barr himself was involved in its production as a relatively young scholar, but felt increasingly uncomfortable with the approach to biblical theology and interpretation being taken. It was not so much the direct influence of Kittel that spured Barr on, but its reception through the neo-orthodox theologians of Edinburgh like T.F. Torrance.

    • Thanks for this filling in of historical background. Pretty much every significant book has a “setting in life”!

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