Back in 2006, frequent commenter Paul sent me an obit for biblical scholar James Barr which made him sound quite interesting; I meant to follow up but never did, and now Henry Wansbrough’s TLS review of Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, Volumes I-III has the same effect. His first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), apparently revolutionized the field; this appreciation by Larry Hurtado says:
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. […]
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”!).
I thought I’d reproduce here a short excerpt from Wansbrough’s review that gives an idea of the kind of thing Barr did:
Two examples may introduce Barr’s careful work and method. Every Christian in the pew knows that Jesus addressed God with affectionate intimacy, but important precision is given by the essay “Abba is not ‘Daddy'” (Volume Two). The highly respected and influential German scholar Joachim Jeremias had argued that Jesus’s Aramaic address to God — Abba — was the equivalent to “Daddy”. By detailed philological work Barr shows that Jesus’s address to his Father expresses a mature relationship of adult, rather than childish, affection. Secondly, literate Christians are normally told that a fresh Greek word, agape, had to be coined to express the novel Christian concept of self-giving love; it derives from the precious expression of unbreakable family love, a specifically Hebrew concept. In fact Barr shows that each element in this claim requires adjustment. The Greek word agape occurs overwhelmingly only in one book of the New Testament — the First Letter of John — and there is nothing especially biblical or Hebrew about it. In the comparatively frequent Old Testament usage, the word does not necessarily designate self-giving love, but is frequently used, alongside other words, for erotic and even illicit love.
God bless careful philologists! Too bad the book costs hundreds of pounds/dollars, but such is the world we live in.