James Barr: 1924-2006

Jim West shares with us the news of the passing of a great scholar and gentleman. “Well done, good and faithful servant” is the phrase that comes to mind. May light perpetual shine upon him.
The Sad News Of James Barr’s Death

No one even remotely familiar with Biblical Studies will be unfamiliar with the name of James Barr.  Today Jack Sasson passes along word of his death:

barr.jpgJames Barr, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University from 1989 until his retirement in 1998, died on 14 October 2006 in Claremont, California. Prior to his tenure at Vanderbilt he was on the faculty of Oxford University from 1976 to 1989, first as the Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture and later as the Regius Professor of Hebrew.

He is survived by his wife Jane Barr and children Catherine, Allan, and Stephen. A memorial service will be held in the chapel of Claremont School of Theology, 1325 N. College Avenue, Claremont, California, on Wednesday, 18 October 2006, at 3:00 p.m.

When Professor Barr delivered the Gifford Lectures, this is the biographical blurb shared with attendees:

James Barr was born in 1924 in Glasgow, Scotland, and received his schooling in Edinburgh. In 1941 he entered the University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate to study classics, but left after one year for wartime service. He resumed his studies in 1945, at which time he met a fellow student of classics, whom he later married. Barr went on to obtain a doctorate from the University of Oxford, and from 1955 to 1961 he served as a professor of Old Testament at Edinburgh. In the course of his career, he also held professorships at Princeton, Manchester, Oxford and Vanderbilt. He is widely acknowledged as one of the leading biblical scholars of the twentieth century.

Barr first made his name in the arena of biblical scholarship with the publication of The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), a devastating critique of certain questionable linguistic theories associated with the ‘biblical theology’ movement, such as the then-popular notion that vocabulary and structure of the Hebrew language reflect an underlying theological mindset distinct from, and at odds with, that indicated by the Greek language.

In the years following, Barr developed further his critique of prominent themes in the biblical theology movement, before turning his critical eye in the 1970s and 1980s toward the scholarship of Christian ‘fundamentalism’ and its approach to biblical interpretation. In a series of hard-hitting publications, Barr sought to expose what he took to be naïve and irresponsible handling of the Bible within such circles; even so, his assault was raised from a standpoint sympathetic to traditional Christian convictions about the authority of the biblical canon.

In February 1982 Barr delivered the Sprunt Lectures at Union Theological Seminary under the title ‘Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism’, in which he presented a critique of the notion of ‘canonical criticism’ in opposition to the view propounded in Brevard Childs’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979).

He subsequently turned his attention to the question of natural theology, a topic first addressed in his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1991. Striking a blow at the foundations of the view that Christian theology must have nothing to do with natural theology (a stance propounded most famously by Karl Barth), Barr sought to construct a case for natural theology on the basis of Scripture and biblical scholarship.

Now retired from academic duties, Barr resides with his wife in Claremont, California.

Selected bibliography: The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961); Old and New in Interpretation: A Study of the Two Testaments (1966); Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968); Fundamentalism (1977); Escaping from Fundamentalism (1984); Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (1993); The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (1999). See also Samuel E. Balentine and John Barton, eds., Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (1994).

James Anderson
University of Edinburgh

Rest in peace, good sir.

[n.b.- the photo above is from the inner flap of the cover of Barr’s “Biblical Theology”.  I was completely unable to find a picture of Professor Barr anywhere online- so I took a picture of the book flap and uploaded it here.  Click on it to see it enlarged].

(Via Dr Jim West.)

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