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Bible scholar James Barr dead at 82, Taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1989 to 1998

Oct. 17, 2006, 5:59 PM

(Editors: A high resolution photo of James Barr may be downloaded from VUCast, the website of Vanderbilt University, Click here to download)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – James Barr, an influential Bible scholar and linguist who challenged the latitude taken by many translators of Scripture, died Oct. 14 in Claremont, Calif. He was 82.

Barr, a native of Scotland, taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1989 until his retirement in 1998 from his post as Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible. Upon his retirement, he was awarded the status of professor emeritus.

“Professor James Barr ranks as one of the most influential biblical scholars and Semitists of the second half of the 20th century,” said Doug Knight, professor of Hebrew Bible and director of Vanderbilt‘s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture.

“Vanderbilt was extraordinarily fortunate in having him on the faculty for the last decade of his teaching career, and many divinity and graduate students will attest to their rich experience of studying with this erudite, widely respected and congenial Scottish gentleman. He was a scholar to admire and emulate.”

Barr, born in Glasgow, served as a pilot in the British Royal Navy during World War II.

Fluent in Modern Hebrew and Arabic, Barr addressed in his first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language, the linguistic and theological problems associated with transferring a religious tradition from one language into another. In other books, he criticized the practice of attributing new meanings to Hebrew words by comparing them to words in other Semitic languages, analyzed cultural relativism and fundamentalism, and in Biblical Faith and Natural Theology concluded that the Bible supports the notion that God is knowable to humans through their humanity in a created world.

“James Barr will be remembered as a gracious colleague and as a scholar and teacher who had at his instant command countless biblical texts and other resources to answer questions,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History. “He was a scholar of the age before the computer whose mind and memory were equal to any challenge of recall or analysis. We extend our condolences to his wife, Jane, and to their family in this loss of this brilliant and dear man.”

Barr also taught at Presbyterian College in Montreal, Edinburgh University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Manchester University and Oxford University. He moved to Claremont, Calif., after his retirement from Vanderbilt.

Services were set for Oct. 18 in the chapel of Claremont School of Theology.

Survivors include wife Jane Hepburn Barr and three children.

Media contact: Jim Patterson, 615-322-NEWS