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 The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary contains previously unpublished writings by Lightfoot about the Gospel of John.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
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
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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