Mined Quote from James Barr

There’s a quote, attributed to James Barr, which is popular among young-earth creationists. Here is the quote:

Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience. (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.

The source (when one is given) is “Letter from Professor James Barr to David C.C. Watson of the UK, dated 23 April 1984.” That makes it rather hard to track down. Stephen E. Jones has online what he says is a transcription of a copy of the letter that was sent to him by Answers in Genesis.

I presume that what Barr was saying, if this quote is authentic, is that introducing long epochs into the days of creation in Genesis 1, or making the flood a local occurrence, is to introduce things into the text that were not what the author(s) of Genesis would have assumed to be the case. And if that is the meaning, I think that the quote from Barr is correct and would be correct today.

But do note what that does not mean. It does not mean that the timing or extent of the flood was necessarily the point of those stories. The firmament, the flood, and much else that is found in Genesis and does not match up with the natural or historical world as we now know them, were part of the author’s assumptions, and only become something to be emphasized, and assented to on faith in spite of evidence to the contrary, relatively recently. To try to read accurate science or history back into the text is to distort the text.

And the point is definitely not that the creation and flood accounts in Genesis can or should be accepted as factual. The firmament and the global flood, however much they may have been assumed to exist or have occurred by the author of Genesis, did not happen and did not exist in the manner described. One can treat Genesis as making other points, or simply set it aside. But the young-earth creationist approach simply isn’t an option, since it involves too much lying, ignoring not only a flood (hee hee) of scientific data but also inconvenient Biblical evidence as well.

I would particularly like to hear from Hebrew Bible professors about what Barr is quoted as having said. Does this quote sound like it is correct? And can anyone trace it to a verifiable source?

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • robert r. cargill

    I’d also like to point out that Dr. Barr appears to be stating what scholars say about the author(s) of Gen 1-11, and not what they (or for that matter, what Dr. Barr) personally believe about Gen 1-11. Note carefully that Dr. Barr states:

    “…there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class
    university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11
    intended to convey to their readers the ideas that…”

    He is NOT saying that HE believes this, nor that OTHER SCHOLARS accept this interpretation, rather only that he (speaking on behalf of other scholars) concludes that the author(s) of Gen 1-11 meant quite explicitly that the earth was created in 6 days, that humans arose from a single human progenitor, and that there was a worldwide flood. All three claims, of course, have been roundly disproved by multiple scientific disciplines, as well as by critical biblical scholarship, but the purpose of the comment appears to maintain that any attempt to argue that a non-literal, ‘day’ could be ‘a thousand years’ (a long epoch), or that a ‘worldwide flood’ actually meant a ‘regional’ flood is the product of modern scholars attempting to salvage apologetically the creation and flood narratives, and NOT the original intent of the authors.

    Simply put, the authors MEANT and BELIEVED what they were writing. However, this does not stop fundy Creationist organizations from attempting to manipulate Dr. Barr’s words into a personal confession of belief in 6-day creation, the flood, etc.

    Having only met him once, I have no idea if Dr. Barr was himself a Creationist. But he is certainly not claiming to be one in the above quote.


  • http://meafar.blogspot.com/ Bob MacDonald

    I think students should look elsewhere for creation – say Job 3 and 41 and the Psalms. Long epochs are irrelevant. Creation is an ongoing wrestling match between God and the Leviathans of the age, be these you, me, Putin or Pussy Riot, or the tobacco chieftain of the Russian Orthodox Church. The day of creation and redemption is today – not some long time ago. Psalm 90 applies – turn around and stop arguing about useless and distant things. Pay attention instead to the creative act of loving your neighbor – and shameless plug – sign amnesty international’s Free Pussy Riot petition.

  • http://meafar.blogspot.com/ Bob MacDonald

    And I should add – if all these books of the Bible actually get read, and one figures they were redacted c 500 BC from traditions after the restoration, there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that the writers were stupid and primitive and had never thought about how long things have been around. Psalm 96.10 is an adequate mention.

  • Dr. David Tee

    What is funny is that opponents to the creation account continue to think that the Perfect God made mistakes and lied while an imperfect group of scientists never lied or erred.

    • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/100000619020207/ David Evans

      No-one thinks that scientists never lie or err. But their lies and errors are inevitably discovered and corrected, because (if for no nobler reason) the quick way to scientific fame is to prove the consensus wrong.

      Unfortunately the Perfect God (if such a being exists) is dependent on a long line of translators and copyists, who do not have the error-correcting mechanisms available to scientists.

    • Ken Gilmore

      The Perfect God inspired the writer of Genesis 1 to say that God created the world with a solid firmament overhead. Are you ever going to tell us whether you accept the literal word of Gen 1:6-8 that the sky is a solid dome separating waters above from waters below? One can’t help but suspect you’re stalling. I’m patient.

  • arcseconds

    This came up in a recent thread on Slactivist, so I’m going to repeat what I said there. Hopefully more clearly and concisely, though…

    I’m no expert, and this is just armchair reasoning really, so do correct me if I go off the rails and start talking crazy.

    Firstly, Genesis doesn’t have ‘original authors’ in any kind of straightforward sense. At some point it was redacted into the text we have now,
    but the final redaction was performed a long time after any ‘authorship’ events.

    At some point it appears that it was redacted from two distinct sources, which often contained pretty much the same story, expressed slightly differently. These themselves had probably been around for a long time as either written or oral texts, and at some point it looks like you get back to an early Ancient Near East creation story for the initial part of Genesis.

    There are even signs that at some point Genesis’s predecessors were polytheistic.

    Eventually, if you could know such things you might come back to transmission errors (which don’t have any intention, they just happen), deliberate changes to the transmission for one reason or another, and finally maybe some original material created by long-forgotten story-tellers around the proverbial campfire.

    So there’s a long history there, largely inaccessible to us, of stories and elements of stories being combined and recombined, of transmission errors and redaction and re-editing.

    Whose intentions do we think are important here? The redactors of something close to our version of Genesis? They may have assumed the story was substantially true and they were just cleaning it up a bit, but it seems a bit odd appealing to their intentions for any insight into what the work is about. They can’t have been intending anything about the story authorially, as they weren’t the authors. In some ways, they’re more like copyists than authors, and we don’t ask about a copyist’s intentions when enquiring into the meaning of a work. (We don’t usually ask too many questions about editors, either).

    The original story-tellers? Well, whatever they thought they were doing, they weren’t intending our Genesis text as literal truth.

    Also, whoever made major changes to the text, like combining two sources into one or eliminating polytheism, either didn’t think the text was literal, accurate truth in anything like how we would think of it, or didn’t think literal truth was worth preserving.

    Think about excising polytheism. Two mindsets spring to mind, one is that you know there is really only one God, so you go “well, this can’t be right — there, fixed it for you”, in which case you don’t think the text in front of you is the truth. Or, you may think or suspect it’s true or at least, accurately represents what the original author thought, but there’s no way it can be permitted to keep saying that.

    Actually, I think that it’s more likely that their attitudes to these texts is so completely different from our attitudes to things that we take to be literally true that it’s completely misleading to the point of senselessness to say “they thought the stories were literally true”.

    And that, I also believe, would hold true of any original myth-maker. Someone telling a story for the first time around a camp-fire just can’t have the same attitude towards the story to someone who later takes it as literal history. And I don’t think oral cultures really treat their creation stories as anything like we treat literal history even today.