Lightfoot, J. B. The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary. Edited by Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still. The Lightfoot Legacy Set 2; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 317 pp Hb; $40.00. Link to IVP
Last year IVP released the first of three newly discovered commentaries by the late nineteenth century scholar J. B. Lightfoot. In the forward to that volume Ben Witherington recounted how he discovered hand-written manuscripts several long-forgotten commentaries J. B. Lightfoot in the spring of 2013. IVP plans one more volume collecting Lightfoot’s notes on 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter.
When I reviewed Lightfoot’s Acts commentary, I asked why would anyone care to read a lost commentary written by a scholar who died in 1889? For some modern readers, Lightfoot’s legacy has been forgotten. But the mid-nineteen century, Lightfoot was considered one of the foremost scholars of his day. The editors of this book begin their introduction with the words of William Sanday: “No one could match Lightfoot for ‘exactness of scholarship, with the air addition, scientific method, sobriety of judgment and lucidity of style.’” His commentaries on the Galatians (1865), Philippians (1868) and Colossians (1875) are often reprinted and his work on the Apostolic Fathers was the standard until the Loeb edition by Krisopp Lake.
The forward to Lightfoot’s John commentary is nearly identical to the Acts forward and the Editor’s Introduction only adds three pages specific to Lightfoot on the Gospel of John. Witherington points out that Lightfoot had often lectured on John at Cambridge and was deeply concerned at the negative impact the higher criticism of F. C. Baur had on the study of John’s Gospel. Although it was unusual for a British scholar to be too concerned with German scholarship, Lightfoot read Baur and others seriously and sought to defend the authenticity of John’s Gospel against the protestant liberalism of his day.
For this reason the commentary includes a lengthy discussion of the external and internal evidences for the authenticity of John (pages 41-78) as well as two appendices reprinting articles published posthumously in Bible Essays (pages 205-66, external evidences, pages 267-325, internal evidences; Macmillan, 1904, reprinted by Baker, 1979). More than a third of this commentary is devoted to answering challenges to John’s authenticity by the Tübingen school popular in the late nineteenth century.
Unfortunately the body of the commentary only covers the first twelve chapters of John. After a short note on the meaning of Logos (pages 80-86), the commentary proceeds as does Lightfoot’s other published commentaries. He begins with a brief summary of the pericope followed by short notes on Greek words and phrases of interest. After this commentary, there are a few pages of notes on the Greek text itself, commenting on textual variants and suggesting solutions. As Hengel comments in his appendix to this book, Lightfoot’s academic method was based on the recovery of the text of early Christian writing (p. 333). Compared to modern commentaries (Keener on John, for example), the comments are indeed sparse.
There are at least two reasons for this. First, this is an unpublished set of notes, not a full commentary. If Lightfoot had intended to finish this commentary, the notes would have been expanded, although not as much as demanded by modern commentary buyers. Second, commentaries produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century focused on helping a scholar to read the Greek text of the Bible. Notes on textual variations and translation issues were the stuff of commentaries, with little or no interest in historical background or theology. Lightfoot was not uninterested in those issues, but the commentary was not the place to deal with background or theological issues.
Perhaps the most interesting section of this commentary is a reprinted article by Martin Hengel on Lightfoot and German scholarship on John’s Gospel” (p. 326-58). Originally printed in the Durham University Journal (1989) on the occasion of the centenary of Lightfoot’s death. As Witherington points out, Hengel himself was a historian and linguist at Tübingen, although he was far more sympathetic to Lightfoot’s views than F. C. Baur. Hengel offers a brief history of David Strauss and F. C. Baur and their approach to the Gospels, especially John. Baur famously dated the book to about A.D. 170. For Baur, Valentianian, Montanism and Gnosticism were “historical background” to the Gospel of John (p. 329).
By the time Lightfoot entered Oxford’s Trinity College in 1847, the influence of the Tübingen School was at its height. Baur would outlive Lightfoot by 8 years. Lightfoot’s work on the Apostolic Fathers was considered a “nail in the coffin” of Tübingen (p. 336) and his excursus on Paul and James in his Galatians commentary “the most important contribution to the Tübingen controversy” (337). Lightfoot did not engage in polemics, but built a positive argument for the authenticity of John, as is evidenced by the detailed material in this commentary.
Hengel’s essay also includes an assessment of Lightfoot’s influence on scholarship in England. Some considered him a representative of unbelief on par with Voltaire and some compared him to the antichrist (p. 352)! Ironically his commentary on John is now published by an evangelical publisher and Lightfoot is presented as a premier biblical scholar who stood against the inroads of protestant liberalism of his day. Hengel points out that Lightfoot not only remained a faithful member of the Church and “wore himself out” serving as both bishop and scholar (p. 342). It is a sad commentary on attacks on real scholarship done within the church by conservative Christianity in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Perhaps this is the best reason to read Lightfoot’s commentaries today.
Conclusion. Like Lightfoot’s newly discovered commentary on Acts, this commentary is a valuable contribution to the history of scholarship on the Book of John. In some ways it is dated since few scholars would argue along with Baur today that John is the product of the late second century. Yet Lightfoot’s model of Christian scholarship is important for a new generation of students of the Bible.
NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: J. B. Lightfoot, The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary”
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