Just because you are an Old Testament scholar, that does not make you Moses!

Academia is a cruel trade.  It means a life of loneliness in libraries, mostly reading rubbish articles purely to make sure that you need not pay any attention to them.  Every career ends in oblivion, however many professorships you obtain, however lauded you may be.  A day after you die, some whipper-snapper will publish an article which renders your life’s work obsolete; and you will not be there to reply.

In return many academics develop an arrogance, arising from their alternative role as teachers.  Being surrounded by those who are your intellectual inferiors, if only by virtue of lack of training, cannot be good for a man tempted to believe himself really rather clever.

Sometimes this produces pride, and then hubris, and then, sometimes, hilarious misjudgements.

The classic example is one I witnessed myself.  In the early 1980’s, a group of the most eminent economists of the times, mostly socialists, were foolish enough to write a solemn letter to the Times predicting economic disaster in the name of the “science” of economics.  Unfortunately the 80’s economic boom was less than a year away.  They were never forgiven.

The humanities are far from exempt from similar examples, and I came across one at the weekend.   I was curious to know whether the New English Bible translation was now dead and buried – it is – and in the process came across a paper online, which amused me somewhat, not for its interesting statements about the NEB, but for a couple of predictions about the future of bible translation.[1]  The article was by a certain James Barr, an Old Testament scholar of whom few outside that discipline will now have heard, but whose name was familiar to me from my Oxford days.

The essay was originally delivered as an address in 1987.  In it, he informed his audience:

…there is really no hope, now, that we will have a Standard and agreed- upon English Bible text within the next century, or indeed ever.

Some of the audience must have looked at each other and shaken their heads.  For, at the time that he spoke these words, the NIV was conquering all other versions.  Indeed he knew this, for he felt the need to use some pages of the article attacking it.

Nor was this all.  He felt – rightly – that a standard version was needed.  So how might this best be done?

The only way would be if we worked towards an ecumenical Bible with strong scholarship behind it, and it turned out to be so very good that everyone, just everyone, liked it. But so far we haven’t discovered that vein of gold; it’s behind us, in the King James, but we don’t seem able to find it again.

Again his audience, if they had any sense, must have winced.  We all know what an “ecumenical bible” would be: a bible produced by a committee of people who don’t read or believe in the bible: a chimeraea if ever there was one.  Indeed the article goes on to say that the best translations were always the work of one man.

But he explains:

You will notice that I have at no time tried to tell you what is the best English Bible version;and that is deliberate, partly because I don’t know. I don’t read the English Bible much. I almost always work from the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and I’m not in a position to tell you that this one or that one is the best.

Sadly it is altogether too easy to believe that the author never did read the English bible that much.  Indeed it is rather easy to believe that liberal bible scholars don’t read the bible much.  Why should they?  It can’t be comfortable reading, if you actually read it, rather than dissect it.  It is much easier to ignore the sense of a work, if we make sure that we don’t read it in the language in which we think and live.

It is terribly easy for any of us to disappear up our own backsides, and to lose contact with reality.  In the sciences, the need for reproducability tends to prevent this.  But in the humanities there is nothing to stop a man following a will-o-the-wisp all his life, and it has often happened.  It is not enough to be a scholar of some small part of antiquity; you must connect with reality.  It is not enough to be an Old Testament scholar, fluent in Hebrew and whatever else; it does not make you Moses, and your  religious and political opinions remain those of a man with no better opportunity to test your theories than anybody else.  The false claim to authority will always look foolish as time passes.

In this light, we may pity the author of our article.  Had he read the bible more, and written about it less, he might have avoided the damnation which seems likely to be his.  For the bible is not merely a matter of scholarship, and eternal issues are involved in our study of it.

We are told in the New Testament that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unforgiveable sin.  And it means, plainly enough, seeing God at work in this world, and calling it evil.  This Barr did, on an industrial scale during the 70’s and 80’s, as I well remember.  He lived at Oxford, where Christians were very numerous, very educated, often scientists, making converts and building the future.  The work of God there was palpable.  The churches were filling.  Men and women, however politely, were spending time in prayer and evangelism.  Nobody, however stupid, can fail to recognise that this is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work.

But to him all this was poison.  His hate for the Christians around him was so intense that in 1977 he issued a book attacking us under the curious title of Fundamentalism.  But there are no fundamentalists at Oxford, and never were.  I myself arrived in Oxford in that period.  He meant me, and those like me, who believe in the bible in the same way that every Christian has ever done.  And he hated us precisely because we were very educated and unimpressed by his liberal opinions and contempt for Christian teaching.

His book was effectively rebutted by J. I. Packer in ‘Fundamentalism’ and the word of God, after which his comments didn’t matter.  But he kept up the invective, although nobody was listening after that.  Indeed the article we were looking at, for all its talk about “ecumenism”, contains a vicious attack on the NIV and its editors, and upon Christians in general.

You can’t do that kind of thing, and avoid consequences.  Our Lord makes that plain enough; and Christians, in consequence, are fearful of committing that sin.

Poor soul.  I remember seeing his face, apparently raddled with drink – let us hope that it was just bad makeup – on a TV programme once.  He was there to abuse believers, of course.  It is telling that the obituary in the Independent plays down this aspect of his life as discreditable to his reputation, and so it was.

What can we say of him? He did, I believe, some useful work on the theory of translation; he enjoyed a great range of the most lucrative and most prestigious posts that his career had to offer; he was flattered by his peers, and by the state; he was a heretic and an enemy of the church; and then he died and was forgotten save by specialists.

It’s not much of a life, is it?

We must all make sure that under no circumstances do we blind ourselves to facts out of dogma – especially if we flatter ourselves on our open-mindedness – and never, ever, to set our faces against what God is doing, merely because we think it might be mistaken in some way.  Never play with hate.

Let me end with a quotation from C.S.Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, where the fate of the anti-Christian academic Dr Frost is described:

Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul–nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him.

He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed.

He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was hardly fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him.

“He half saw: he wholly hated..”.  Isn’t that what we see in the essay? Let us hope that Barr managed to escape the same as Frost.   And … let us beware lest we somehow share it.  Hubris can affect others than liberal clergymen.

  1. [1]James Barr, “Modern English Bible Versions as a Problem for the Church”, In: Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, vol. 3, Oxford, 2014, 253-268. Online here.

4 thoughts on “Just because you are an Old Testament scholar, that does not make you Moses!

  1. I have to admit that I enjoyed Barr’s article. The criticisms of the NIV strike a chord with me, and I would love to hear what he thought of the 2011 update. He is spot on about committee translations versus translations by individuals. Read the (mostly unread as it’s not online except as a scan) wonderful introduction to the 1611 KJV. We aren’t here to make a new translation, say the translators, but to make existing translations better.

    “and never, ever, to set our faces against what God is doing, merely because we think it might be mistaken in some way.”

    Be careful or you’ll tempt me into asking you for your opinion on Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  2. Following up the reference to Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, I ran across Paul Helm’s reflections in celebration of its 50th anniversary. His article makes a nice conversation partner (I think!) with this one, and so note it here — FWIW.

Leave a Reply