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An Interview with John Barton

John Barton is the Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oxford University, and is the author of some of the most respected and authoritative works on the Bible, including most recently The Bible: The Basics (Routledge 2010) and The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster John Knox 2007). In this interview with Marc Brettler (Brandeis University), Professor Barton discusses the evolution of both his own scholarly interests and the field of Biblical Studies as a whole, along with some of his major influences and a forthcoming project.

Marc Brettler: How did you become interested in biblical studies?

John Barton: I studied Theology at Oxford because I wanted to be ordained in the Church of England, with no thought of an academic career. As I studied, it became clear to me that I wanted to stay in the academic world (though I am ordained too). The question then was which branch of Theology to pursue for a doctorate, and I wavered between biblical studies and patristics (which I’m still interested in); it was clear that it would be something involving texts - my high school background was mostly in languages. For some reason, which I can’t pinpoint, I veered towards the Bible, and to OT rather than NT: I found study of the Bible engrossing in a way no other branch of Theology seemed to be. (When I began Theology as an undergraduate I had expected that it would be philosophy of religion that would attract me most!)

Brettler: Who were your main teachers?

JB: In OT, I was taught by E. W. Heaton and John Austin Baker, neither exactly famous in OT circles; Baker became my doctoral supervisor, though he’s better known as a systematic theologian and ecclesiastic (he became bishop of Salisbury). Baker died just a few months ago. In NT I had G. B. Caird, and Austin Farrer, who was a great influence on my thinking through his emphasis on literary aspects of the text.

Brettler: Could you please share one or two anecdotes about your teachers?

JB: I’m not sure I can: all taught straightforwardly and well. Austin Farrer was my favourite teacher: he always seemed to be thinking out his lectures as he went along, but because he had such an amazing mind they came out perfectly coherent.

Brettler: How have your interests changed over your career?

JB: I got more interested in theoretical issues as time went on, and also developed an interest in the canon; initially I had worked on the prophets. An interest that hasn’t changed is in biblical ethics, on which I have a book (Ethics in Ancient Israel) coming out next month with Oxford University Press. The relation of biblical studies to theology generally fascinates me.

Brettler: You have written much about the canon, and about biblical ethics. Are these areas of research in any way connected? What has brought you to focus on these two areas?

JB: No, they’re not connected. I came to the canon via an interest in the prophets, as I explain in Oracles of God. I decided to study the prophets by beginning with their reception in later Judaism and Christianity, and found that that entailed working out what was meant by ‘the prophets’, and that soon led me to the question of ‘The Prophets’ as a canonical division, and that in turn into the issue of the canon. The ethics interest preceded this, as I wrote my doctoral dissertation on ‘the relation of God to ethics in the eighth-century prophets’. I suppose one could say that the prophets are the connecting thread, but only very vaguely. On the whole these are basically two interests which I’ve devoted roughly equal attention to. A third is hermeneutical questions: I got deeply engaged in the question of the ‘canonical approach’ of Brevard Childs, and that too led towards the historical issue of the canon. On this and many other matters a big influence was of course James Barr. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I was never taught by him, but met him first when I was already in a tenured post at Oxford and he arrived to be the professor of OT. But his writings had already had a major impact on me when I was a student, and continued to do so, and he too of course was massively involved in the hermeneutical issue of the canon.

Brettler: How do you think biblical studies as a discipline has changed during your career?

JB: The big thing has been the move away from historical criticism, which was taken for granted when I started and now is regarded by some as marginal; also, linked with this, the loss of a common, agreed agenda for biblical studies and its tendency to break up into subdisciplines that don’t communicate well with each other. Reception history has been a big story in recent years, really realigning the discipline.

Brettler: Do you see this new interest in reception history as a positive development?

JB: On the whole I do, and as mentioned above my Oracles of God is in a sense an early study in reception. I am not so keen when it becomes a way of ditching traditional historical criticism and takes a highly theoretical turn, or arguing that the meaning of a text is just whatever it has been taken to mean. But there are many important insights in reception history, and I admire the enormous breadth of knowledge of people who do it well.

Brettler: What are you hoping to do in your retirement?

JB: I’m working on a big book for Penguin/Viking called A History of the Bible, a trade book for the general reader of about 500 pages on the origins, canonization, dissemination, interpretation, and reception of the Bible (OT and NT). It’s obviously a crazy project in terms of scale, but I think there is room for a book that tries to tell an intelligent non-specialist what is known about the Bible. That should keep me busy for the next few years. I also want to do more work on hermeneutical issues and on the canon.

Oxford University Press

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