“The Semantics of Biblical Language” by James Barr – A Book Review

James Barr. The Semantics of Biblical Language. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1961. iv + 313 pp.

James Barr, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, taught at Edinburgh (his alma mater), Manchester, Oxford, Princeton, and at Vanderbilt. Some of his mentors include F.F. Bruce and Donald Guthrie. His most well-known student who continued his work is Moises Silva, who wrote Biblical Words and Their Meaning (1983). His other works include The Bible in the Modern World (1973), Fundamentalism (1977), and The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (1999).

In The Semantics of Biblical Language, Barr argues against the notion that religious thought or theological concepts can be derived based purely on morphological and syntactical mechanism of a given language (i.e. Hebrew). Barr sets out to critique the methodology of how “modern theological thinking” use (or misuse) linguistic evidence to form a theological interpretation. He describes his task this way:

to survey and to criticize certain lines on which modern theological thinking has been assessing and using the linguistic material of the Bible (p. 4).

The Semantics of Biblical Language, p. 4


After introducing the problem and his task in chapter 1, Barr describes in chapter 2 the issue in the misuse of linguistics for theological conclusions based on Greek and Hebrew thought. The common thinking is that Greek thought is static and abstract, while Hebrew thinking is dynamic and concrete. Barr’s purpose is not to determine the validity of that theory; rather, his focus is on analyzing the method used by this theory, particularly in its use of linguistic evidence.

In chapter 3-5, Barr discusses the problem of methodology. In chapter 3, he introduces the problem, namely, its lack of (consistent) methodology. Then he provides specific linguistic examples in chapter 4 and 5. In chapter 3, Barr argues that the theological conclusions that were merely based on Greek and Hebrew thought were arbitrary, theoretical, and unrelated to the general semantic method of linguistics. It is often argued that when a language lacks a word for a certain concept, it means that the culture that uses that language has limited thoughts about that concept. Barr, however, argues that morphological or grammatical phenomena in a language does not necessarily indicate the culture’s thought. For example, grammatical gender, certainly has nothing to do with a culture’s view of men, women, and inanimate objects. Chapter 4 analyzes the validity of the claim that the ‘tense’ system of the Hebrew verb reveals the Hebrew’s thinking about time, a ‘dynamic’ conception of events. The focus of chapter 5 is on three main morphological and syntactical arguments: the construct state, the numerals, and the root meaning of words, which Barr calls a “root fallacy.” Barr points out that the word for “worship” and for “slave,” though from the same root, has no semantic relationship based on an evidence from usage in a passage.

Chapter 6 expands on the discussion of etymologies. While not denying the value of etymology, Barr maintains that etymology itself, the study of the history of a word, does not guide nor determine the meaning of a word in modern usage. Chapter 7 primarily focuses on one specific example on linguistic argument – does the meaning of “faith” in Paul derive its meaning from Hebrew thought? A.G. Herbert argues that the “faith” according to the Hebrew mind is “faithfulness,” while “trust/believe” is what is meant by the Greeks.

Chapter 8 analyzes Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). The primary difficulty in Kittel’s work is the relationship between word and concept. Barr argues that if the aim of Kittel’s dictionary, according to its preface, was to present a “concept history” (inner lexicography), then why is it arranged according to words? Barr points out that equating words with concepts is Kittel’s primary flaw.

Chapter 9 discusses the role of language in the discipline of “biblical theology.” Barr argues that the better way to approach biblical language in the study of theology is made firstly at the level of the sentence and not the word since the combination of words in a sentence determine the meaning of each word used. Another relevant issue is that if theological understanding is dependent on the syntactical mechanism of Hebrew (or Greek), then this would create problems for Bible translations. Chapter 10 concludes the book with Barr’s final thoughts on the function of languages in the study of theology.


Despite than the often long and convoluted sentences, Barr’s work provides valuable insight and warning on the use (or misuse) of language, especially in Bible study. I appreciate Barr’s candor in pointing out the common errors in word studies. His criticism of Kittel’s TDNT was fair since he did not deny that the work has value (p. 261), and that he also pointed out weaknesses in Bauer’s lexicon.

The following are helpful principles from Barr against the misuse of linguistics in theology. First, any conclusion about the distinctive feature of a language must first be compared with other languages. Regarding the view that few abstract nouns are found in the Hebrew language and the adjective is still at its rudimentary stage of development, Barr raised some key questions. Has the characteristics of ‘abstract/concrete’ or ‘static/dynamic’ that were applied to classical Greek and classical Hebrew been compared to other languages? Has anyone counted the actual number of abstract nouns? Is there evidence of the adjective’s rudimentary stage, and what does it contribute to the argument?

Second, for a culture’s language to have only one word for a certain concept does not necessarily mean that the understanding of that concept is totally non-existent in that culture. Another similar misconception is that if a culture learns a new concept and need a new term for it, the production of that word does not always necessarily happen. Often, a similar or related word or a long phrase would be used to express that concept, and a creation of a new word would not take place.

Third, when seeking after evidence, one must not be selective (choosing only what agrees with his theory) and also neglect the most important kind of evidence. Barr points out that when Boman argues for the concept of totalities that were supposed to be in the Hebrew thought, he selects words which had the idea of totalities like rekeb (chariot, chariotry) or adam (man, mankind); but similar phenomena exists in other languages too since that is inherent to the word itself. Not only is Boman selective in his evidence, but he also neglects the most important source of evidence: usage in actual passages.

Fourth, Barr’s most relevant contribution for contemporary readers is his discussion on etymology. Preachers—faithful preachers—still fall to the trap of etymologizing word meanings. Barr was on point when he observes that

the damaging thing about such pieces of etymologizing is not that they attempt to make historical statements about the words but that they are worked into arguments in which something seems to depend on these words, and commonly give a spurious twist to the meaning of a word at some crucial point in an argument.”

The Semantics of Biblical Language, p. 108

Barr illustrates his point with the usage of common biblical words in chapter 6 (holy, qahal-ekklesia, dabar, baptism, man, etc.).

Fifth, one must not ascribe philosophical-theological meaning to a word every time it is used without any consideration to its context. In doing so, the determination of meaning becomes based on a theological-philosophical theory instead of linguistics.

Lastly, one must distinguish between “concept” and “meaning” or “significance” and “meaning.” For example, the entry on the word hamartano in TDNT becomes an essay on the doctrine of sin instead of a guide to the usage of the word towards understanding its meaning (p. 229). This method reminds me of sermons that uses a text as a spring board to talk about other semi-related discussion but never talked about the passage itself.


It seems that the Barr’s overall point is this: language is the means to convey an idea; but it is not the idea itself. Barr’s work is not in need of improvement, but if one offers a suggestion it would be this: add a chapter on how to do proper lexicography that deals with linguistics and is sensitive to the context of actual usage of the words in a passage. Including a chapter on that would add even more value to Barr’s work.

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