Larry Hurtado discusses the importance of Barr's "Semantics of Biblical Language" and along the way gives great advice to anyone studying scripts from another culture.
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.
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”!).
By the way, you can add "pastors" and "theologians" next to "scholars in this article, as they are among the worst offenders.1
50th Anniversary: Barr’s “Semantics of Biblical Language”
A bit late in the year, I've noted that this is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a truly landmark book by a former member of academic staff in New College, Edinburgh: James Barr, The Se…
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