Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Gospel of St. John, by J.B. Lightfoot

J.B. Lightfoot.  The Gospel of St. John: A Newly Discovered Commentary.  The Lightfoot Legacy Set, Volume 2.  Ed., Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still.  Assisted by Jeanette M. Hagen.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

J.B. Lightfoot was an English preacher and a New Testament scholar in the nineteenth century.  The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary contains previously unpublished writings by Lightfoot about the Gospel of John.

The book offers background information about who Lightfoot was.  Lightfoot had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient sources and a firm grasp of various languages.  He remarked to a friend that he sometimes forgets what language he is reading when he is absorbed in a text.  This prompts the editors to comment that “There have been precious few biblical scholars over time that could have candidly made such a remark about so many different languages” (page 26).  The introduction also discusses why Lightfoot did not submit his comments on the Gospel of John for publication.  Furthermore, it notes that Lightfoot was unmarried, which allowed him to devote more time to his scholarship.

The book then shares Lightfoot’s writings on the Gospel of John.  These include an introductory piece about the external and internal evidence for the Gospel of John’s authenticity (i.e., its first century date and the apostle John being its author); Lightfoot’s comments on John 1-12; an appendix on the external evidence for the Gospel of John’s authenticity; and an appendix on the internal evidence for its authenticity.  The appendices offer more detail than the introductory piece.

To define terms, “external evidence” refers to voices outside of the Gospel of John that attest to its authenticity.  This includes second century patristic sources and Gnostic voices that acknowledge the apostle John to be its author.  It also includes historical indications that the Gospel of John was known, honored, and used throughout the second century C.E., indicating that it was not written in the late second century.  “Internal evidence” is evidence from the Gospel of John itself.  It includes the issues that the Gospel of John addresses and does not address (i.e., it does not clearly address late second century issues); indications that the Gospel of John was written by a first century Palestinian Jew who was familiar with the language, history, and sites of first century Palestine; and indications that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness to Jesus rather than a late forger.

The book concludes with an essay by Martin Hengel (1926-2009) about Lightfoot’s interaction with German scholarship.  Lightfoot was critical of the voices from Tubingen who claimed that the Gospel of John was written in the mid-to-late second century and was not really from the apostle John.  Hengel, who himself taught at Tubingen, provides background about this controversy and offers insights about which direction modern scholarship has followed.  According to Hengel, it has followed Lightfoot in some areas, and Tubingen in others.  Hengel also notes that, while Lightfoot was more conservative than many in the Tubingen school, he was more progressive than Christians who rejected the historical critical method of interpreting the Bible.

Lightfoot wrote in the nineteenth century, which was prior to many notable discoveries, such as the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts.  Still, Lightfoot did well with what he had (i.e., Josephus, Philo, the Targumim, the church fathers, rabbinic literature, Greco-Roman sources, etc.).  Of particular interest to me were the ways that Lightfoot utilized Josephus to illuminate passages in the Gospel of John and to defend its authenticity.  Lightfoot cites passages in Josephus that may explain the priest Caiaphas’ rude remark in John 11:49 and the Jews’ strange statement in John 8:33 that they were never in bondage to any man.  Lightfoot also refers to a passage in Josephus that sheds light on Samaritan eschatology, and Lightfoot argues that John 4 shows knowledge of first century Samaritan eschatology.  Also of interest to me was Lightfoot’s discussion of what rabbinic literature has to say about differences in dialect between Galilee and Judah.  This issue occurs in the Gospel of John.

In terms of critiques of Lightfoot, there were times I wished that Lightfoot provided references to primary sources.  I think specifically of his comments about the disciples’ question about the blind man in John 9:2: whose sin caused this man to be born blind—-the sin of the blind man’s parents, or of the blind man himself?  Were the disciples implying that the blind man could have sinned prior to his birth?  Lightfoot speculates that they may have believed that God foresaw the blind man’s sins, but Lightfoot also refers to a Jewish view that one could sin in the womb.  Unfortunately, he did not refer to a specific primary source for that.  In my opinion, he should have cited at least one.  He did refer to a secondary source that he wrote, however.  Lightfoot was overall very specific in citing primary sources, but not in every case.

Lightfoot, or at least the editors of this book, also should have compared the Gospel of John with other ancient sources, particularly sources that many scholars believe are pseudepigraphic or historically inaccurate.  Lightfoot argues that there are internal indications that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness to Jesus.  The Gospel of John shows knowledge of a first century Palestinian context.  Its depiction of its characters is realistic.  It is vivid and detailed in areas, yet it is elliptical about certain topics, showing (for Lightfoot) that its author was not consciously creating a forged document.  It does not seem to create events from imagination but rather to comment on the significance of events that happened.  Can one find similar features, however, in ancient sources that many scholars would agree are pseudepigraphic and historically inaccurate?

Lightfoot, in his comments on verses, usually quotes parts of the verse in Greek, without providing an English translation.  This will not be a problem for scholars who know New Testament Greek really well.  Readers without that level of familiarity may want to have an English (or whatever language one speaks) translation of the New Testament in front of them when reading Lightfoot’s comments, otherwise they may get lost.

I should also note something else.  If you read Matthew Henry and John Gill, you may notice that they often refer to a “Dr. Lightfoot.”  That is not J.B. Lightfoot, since J.B. Lightfoot lived a century later than them.  Rather, they are referring to John Lightfoot, a seventeenth century English clergyman and author.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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