Semantics of Biblical Language (Barr)

Docetism is a perennial heresy, and even those who would agree with Barr’s (correct) conclusions, and perhaps even dislike the discipline of biblical theology, would probably find that they, too, practice a form of Docetism.  I’ll put my cards on the table and begin with the conclusion. Barr notes, “Thus the isolation of Hebrew from general linguistics tends to heighten the impression of Hebrew….being quite extraordinarily unique in its structure” (Barr 291).  Barr’s opponents did theology by word-studies based on the assumption that Hebrew was special. I think the danger today, as noted in the quote above, is that we isolate Hebrew from its Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Semantics: study of signification in language (Barr 1).

The problem with the Greek-Hebrew contrast:  there is posited a contrast between “Greek” and “Hebrew” thinking, yet the Biblical Theology guys rightly affirm a unity in the Bible.  So how to get around this?

Nonetheless, Barr isn’t criticising Biblical Theology per se, but only faulty methodologies (6).

Contrast of Greek and Hebrew Thought

Barr’s problem is not with “Hebrew vs Greek thought” per se.  Rather, he is saying you can’t trace the contrast to the languages.

I admit that it is dangerous to speak of a “Greek worldview,” but if we take the leading Greek thinkers (Plotinus, Plato) we will see that they are antithetical to the biblical model.  We have to be careful in not placing the antithesis at the level of word-studies.  You can find anti-biblical, anti-creational elements all over Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.  Explode those.  

Granted, claims about “the Hebrew psychology” are silly, but we don’t need to go there.

Barr’s challenge: are there linguistic phenomena that can be tested to such claims (23)?  Remember, Barr isn’t saying there is no biblical mindset, pace some of his defenders; rather, he is saying you can’t trace that to the magical verbal roots or something.

Dangers in Interpretation

Root word fallacy (101ff): Hebrew words often have three root consonants.  Therefore, the meaning of the word is by finding its root. Barr counters by noting that bread (lhm) and war (mlhama) have the same root.  Therefore, bread and war have the same semantic domain! Indeed, many scholars think etymology is worthless. Do you need a quick refutation of Heidegger? Heidegger says truth (alethia) means unconcealment, since lethos means forgetfulness and the alpha-privative negates that.  It’s the same fallacy.

Illegitimate totality transfer: we all know that a word can have multiple shades of meaning.  Therefore, per this fallacy, any time a word is used, all of the nuances are overloaded into that meaning!

Illegitimate identity transfer: similar to above.  When we read a word’s other meaning into this usage. The Hebrew dabar can mean both word and thing.  And since an event is a thing, every time we read of dabar Yahweh, we can read of the revelation event of Yahweh!

The book has a long chapter on the fallacies in Kittel’s theological dictionary.  I won’t spend time on it simply because no one uses Kittel anymore.

3 thoughts on “Semantics of Biblical Language (Barr)

  1. It’s for the above that I really appreciate Bauckham’s scholarship. He avoids Harnack’s naive and childish dichotomy, but does discover a real distinction that avoids uncritical acceptance of all things Greek. I wish he would move his work out of the NT field into the ante-Nicene patristics, and help to fill in gaps beyond Papias.


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