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). This book was a devastating critique of certain 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 further developed 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.
James Barr died 14 October, 2006.
His works include: 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).