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?

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  • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • Stephen Hague

        That common suggestion about a “hammered dome,” found repeatedly in various tomes on Genesis 1 and the Hebrew (raqia), has itself been repeatedly shown as an unwarranted limiting of the semantic domain in rendering the word. Yet, it seems that fact has not trickled down very often, or very far, into the lower realms of the layman’s watery imagination. Indeed, the irony is that the “hammered dome” rendering is more “literal” than the fundamentalist understanding, especially since it is so often presented with hopes to prove the literal understanding of the days of creation of Gen1 false (or at least as a unbelievable account because it is literal). In the least, it is a puzzling rationale to claim something as literal, that is not literal, to try and prove that a literal
        reading is not correct.

        To follow with the sarcasm, one can’t help but suspect a smoke-screen. And I, on the other hand, am impatient with such poor reasoning.

        • If the point is that the etymology is not always determinative of meaning, then that is certainly true, and so well-known as to scarcely be worth mentioning. But neither is etymology always at odds with meaning. Fortunately in this case we have a great many texts which interpret Genesis and which show that the solidity of the dome, and eventually (when the cosmology shifts) of multiple spheres around the Earth, is taken for granted. And so the issue of Genesis’ pre-scientific cosmology is not limited to this question of the etymology.

  • 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.

    • As noted by others, Barr simply stated that the biblical text itself can not be doubted in regards to what it says about creation and the flood, as well as the length of the ages of human existence on the earth. Barr says that the Scripture is clear on these vital points (indeed, the foundations of biblical theology and history), but, in the context of the whole letter, that he does not believe them, and that many other scholars do not believe them. Though he may not have meant it in these terms, I would entirely agree with him that the problem is not with the lack of perspicuity in the text. But, I would add, that the problem is the lack of belief and faith in God and trust in the Scripture as God-given.

      • But there are scholars who doubt what Barr considered undoubtable. And unless one is persuaded that Barr is consistently right in his judgments, then quoting him doesn’t prove anything. And so this is just like the case of young-earth creationists who quote selectively from scientists who they think are completely wrong in most of their judgments, and think that quoting them somehow adds authority to their claims.

        • Yes, quite right. Just quoting others only when they agree with us does not really prove anything. It is correct to note that what Barr allegedly wrote (about him not knowing any professors who would deny the Genesis author’s assumption of historicity of the Genesis accounts of creation and the Flood) is not tantamount to proving the point that the author of Genesis assumed authentic, reliable historicity in what he wrote. Saying this, does not nevertheless negate Barr’s interesting claim that he did not know any such professors who would deny this aspect of the Genesis accounts. Whether one would agree with him or not (or that there are scholars who would disagree with him here on his historical claim about this perceived scholarly consensus), it is irrelevant to the historical questions of Genesis itself, since he was speaking primarily of his acquaintances’ perspectives at the time.
          Further, pointing out that creationists may quote Barr on this positively does not repudiate the view that the Genesis accounts do assume historical veracity and chronological consistency, as Barr allegedly noted. Nor does the acknowledgment that creationists may selectively quote (though in this case it is not at all surprising) from such scholars offer any real evidence against the claim that favors the factual historicity of the biblical account of Genesis.

          I have not personally seen any creationists claim that Barr’s statement adds authority to their views on Genesis, but I would be curious to see any you might have. Of course, thinking that they think it adds authority may be harder to prove. So, please bear with me, thinking they think this may not prove anything, either.

      • arcseconds

        Did you intend to reply to my post? Because I’m afraid I can’t see the connection between what you wrote and what I wrote.

        I think it’s fairly clear even from this quote that Barr takes Genesis to have human authors, as do the vast majority (if not indeed all) serious scholars with relevant expertise. I’m presuming that he also believes in broad terms in the usual picture as to how the book of Genesis we know today took shape: a redaction from several sources, traces of which can still be reasonably clearly seen, possibly during the Babylonian exile, the sources used in the redaction being based on even earlier material, possibly originally oral mythology, which at one point was almost certainly polytheistic.

        What I am saying is that given this history, it is rather problematic to talk about the intentions of the original authors, as it doesn’t have authors in anything like the same way that, say, A Brief History of Time has an author, and the intentions of the people involved in the processes that yielded Genesis were also quite different from what we expect of authors today.

        And of course it ends up being pretty speculative trying to work out what the intentions were of people living in different cultural contexts from us and from each other, in the distant past, and only known from their traces in a single text.

        For example, did the writers of Genesis intend a justification or etiology of the Sabbath? Well, someone with an authorial-like relationship with the material giving rise to Genesis 1 probably did have some kind of intention like that. But we’ve no reason to think the people involved in Genesis 2 did, and whether or not the redactor of these two different stories into one work did or not is very difficult to say.

        Basically, I think Barr is being overly simplistic when he writes of the intentions of the writers of Genesis.

        Belief and faith in God and trust in the Scripture as God-given only complicates matters still further, as far as I can see. We not only have to wonder about the intentions of the originators and transmitters of Genesis 1, those involved in Genesis 2, and the redactor of Genesis, we now have to wonder about the intentions of an inscrutable divine being who is employing all those various intentions (and errors) to produce the text of Genesis as well!

        • No, my “intention” was to reply to James McGrath. So, no surprise that you see no clear connection.

          Though I would say that your statement “Firstly, Genesis doesn’t have ‘original authors’ in any kind of straightforward sense” is a philosophical starting point (presupposition) that needs more warrant, backing, and evidence that is presently lacking I believe, textually speaking.

          Also, it does not appear in the Barr quote that he “intended” in any way to enter the discussion about redaction history that scholars presuppose (without any MSS record of evidence), whether he believes as you say he does about some imagined “processes” of redaction, or not (I suspect he does from other things he has written). I understood his alleged quote simply to state that the text of Genesis (as we have it in our canon) presents a historical, chronological perspective with
          regard to creation, chronology, and the Flood.

          Also, I think that the burden of proof is on the reader who wants to recreate an ancient scenario in which the
          intentions of the author(s) is to present – as true and reliable history – some recreated texts out of what was oral, mythological, polytheistic texts, and working with totally different historical intentions than modern historians. To assert such is to assume intentions, though you seem to deny all possibility of knowing what the intentions may have been, particularly in the example of Gen 1 and 2 mentioned.

          Further, and difficult to fully understand, is the statement that “. . . we now have to wonder about the intentions of an inscrutable divine being who is employing all those various intentions (and errors) . . .” Perhaps I am misinterpreting that statement and the author’s intentions, but it does seem logically to follow the positing of hypothetical scenarios of competing and contradictory ideas presented through reconstructed redactions of ancient pagan texts. And then, based on modern presuppositions about ancient “history”-writing as mostly unhistorical (or ahistorical), and reading the Genesis text through the grid of modern, naturalistic philosophical assumptions, and then concluding that we cannot intend to come to understand the intentions of authors we know intended things we can only understand if we interpret them through our modern presuppositions. This circularity would naturally lead one to the deduction that God is thus “inscrutable” and errant. Logical, but erroneous, since the premises are unfounded. And, I suggest, perhaps untrue, and thus leading to incorrect deductions about both the biblical text and God himself.

          • arcseconds

            No, it’s not a presupposition at all, it’s the result of centuries of study on the text.

            What is your view on the authorship of Genesis, seeing as you apparently reject the scholarly consensus? I note that Genesis (nor the Bible more generally) actually records anything about who wrote Genesis, so any view on who wrote it must necessarily be something derived from outside the Bible.

            Barr (assuming the quote to be his) does appear to be arguing that Genesis presents what you say it presents, but he couches this in terms of the authors’ (or author’s) intentions. I don’t really know anything much about Barr, but he was a biblical scholar (as well as a theologian) and held a chair at Oxford, and does not seem to be unusually traditional for someone with that profession and position (in fact he’s described as ‘radical’ and as having ‘unconventional views’ in some places). So I think it’s extremely likely he broadly shares the view of a process of earlier material being redacted at some point to form Genesis that I alluded to. Under such a view, one cannot talk of authors and intentions in anything like the same way as one can talk of Stephen Hawking having intentions for what A Brief History of Time is supposed to convey.

            You seem to be suggesting that we can simply drop the authors and intentions altogether from Barr’s account (and therefore sidestep the problems I’ve indicated), and just say he’s asserting that Genesis presents a history in roughly the same sense as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire presents a history. But if we drop the authors and the intentions, then what justifies the view that it presents a history?

            The intentions of the people that contributed to Genesis are indeed impossible to know with any certainty, as they left no record of their intentions or even their identities. But just because we can’t know them for sure doesn’t mean that we’re totally at a loss about them: some things are more plausible than others. We can be pretty certain it wasn’t intended as a script for a summer blockbuster, for example, as motion pictures date from the late 19th century, and Genesis is considerably older than that. For similar reasons we can be pretty certain it wasn’t intended as a modern history book, because modern history books didn’t exist until about three centuries ago. Plus, of course, it shows no sign of being a modern history book: it doesn’t list its sources, nor does it mention and address similar works on the topic, etc.

            Of course the burden of proof of any view on the origins of Genesis lies with the people that propound that view. You say this as though it’s a new thought, but that’s exactly what biblical scholars have been doing for at least the last three centuries: defending their views on the origins of biblical texts on the basis of evidence and reason. The result has been nigh-consensus that there are multiple sources redacted to form Genesis. It sounds like you’re not just unfamiliar with the argument here, but are unfamiliar with the fact that biblical scholars give arguments: I can only encourage you to inform yourself of a view before criticising it.

            I do not understand your last paragraph. Could you try to explain more clearly what you mean? In particular this sentence doesn’t seem very coherent to me:

            “And then, based on modern presuppositions about ancient “history”-writing as mostly unhistorical (or ahistorical), and reading the Genesis text through the grid of modern, naturalistic philosophical assumptions, and then concluding that we cannot intend to come to understand the intentions of authors we know intended things we can only understand if we interpret them through our modern presuppositions”

            You can intend to come to understand the intentions of authors, sure, but intending on something is no guarantee that you’ll succeed. I don’t think ancient authors intended things that can only be understood through modern presuppositions, that sounds both anachronistic and nonsensical to me. But I’m pretty sure I’m not grasping your meaning here.

          • arcseconds

            One more thing: you mention ‘naturalistic assumptions’ here a lot. But all I am talking about is mainstream biblical scholarship, and I can’t see how that rests on naturalistic assumptions. Historically the vast majority of biblical scholars have been Christians, with Jews accounting for most of whom remain, and much of the picture was already in place before the modern scientific worldview really took over.

            The ‘presupposition’ here is merely that the the Bible is a text, and therefore the same questions can be asked and and the same methodologies can be used as with any other text.

            One early proponent of this approach, who had an early version of the multiple source hypothesis was Richard Simon, who was a priest in the late 1600s. It’s pretty unlikely given his profession and the time in which he lived that he should be a materialist or overly influenced by materialism, and indeed he seems to have believed that the Holy Spirit worked through the historical process to yield the Bible.

  • This page–http://members.iinet.net.au/~sejones/barrlett.html–claims to have the entire letter from Barr to Watson. The page says that AiG sent him the entire letter. The letter says that Barr will soon be producing a book, which is indeed available, called Escaping Fundamentalism. I suppose the title of the book tells you how he really feels about young-earth creationism.

  • Mitchell Powell

    I’m definitely not a Bible prof, or close to one. But I have read a good bit of Barr, and that sounds like him. If it’s not something Barr said, it’s something he would have said. Of course, none of this means that Barr was a creationist or anything like that. He clearly wasn’t. As far as I can tell, you’ve interpreted the quote in the spirit intended.