Book Review: J. B. Lightfoot, The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary

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.

Lightfoot JohnWhen 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.

Jesus’ Humility at the Last Supper

When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is preforming a parabolic act. As with parables, we need to understand the context in order to understand what Jesus was trying to teach through the washing of his disciples’ feet.

It is well-known that hospitality in the ancient world included foot-washing. Since virtually all travel was by foot, a visitor should be allowed to “refresh themselves” when they arrive by washing their feet. If the host had servants, the task of washing the guest’s feet fell to the lowliest servant. For a Jewish family, the task would be assigned to a Gentile slave (Köstenberger, John, 405). In this case, Jesus takes off his outer clothes and wraps himself in a long towel and does the job of the lowliest slave.

Since this is a Passover meal, it is likely that each of the disciples have washed their hands ceremonially before touching the food of the meal. My guess is that the feet would need to be washed since the are most likely to have come into contact with uncleanliness, the slave who washed the feet would therefore himself be unclean.

This is therefore a shocking act by a Jewish teacher prior to the Passover meal. Jesus’ humble service of his disciples is an illustration of how the disciples are to continue his work after the resurrection.

Said R. Joshua b. Levi, “All acts of labor that a slave performs for his master, a disciple of a sage performs for his master, except for removing his shoe.” b. Ketub. 96a (Neusner, b. Ketub. 11:1, I.2.A; 9:440)

Jesus is due the titles Teacher (Rabbi) and Lord. Even if we take the title Lord as equivalent to sir, both titles put Jesus well above the disciples socially. In a teacher-student relationship of the Second Temple Period, there was little a teacher could not ask his disciple to do for him. Yet Jesus reverses cultural expectations by doing an extremely humbling service for his disciples.

This is a pattern for the disciples to follow (v.15). The noun used here (ὑπόδειγμα) has the sense of a pattern, or model used for moral instruction. Jesus is saying this is an illustration of how you are to serve one another. This is not a pattern to be followed for worship, for example. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with practicing foot-washing in some Christian denominations, it is not an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper. To me this is analogous to saying the Lord’s Prayer. It is not particularly wrong, but misses Jesus point when he gave the prayer of an illustration of how to pray!

How do we serve as Jesus did? First, Jesus did not insist on his titles and honors. Ideally, Peter ought to have served Jesus, but Jesus radically reverses expectations and serves those who are socially lower than himself. If the Lord (and God) of the universe can get down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of those who owe him honor and loyalty, how ought we to serve?

Second, notice that he washes all the disciples’ feet, including Judas. He knew that Judas was the betrayer, yet he extended to him the same humble service that he gave the other “loyal” disciples. Jesus knew that Satan was about to enter Judas and he knew exactly what Judas was about to do, but he treated him in exactly the same way he did Peter or John.

That is remarkable to me. I have no problem humbly serving my family or my church family. But what about those who are outside the church? There are people who are outside of my normal circle who I do not serve, in fact, I sometimes treat them with contempt.

Jesus did not, he died for them as well.

Faithful Thomas

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.

On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.

Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.

On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

Third John and Hospitality

Third John is a letter thanking Gaius for his hospitality in accepting several traveling teachers sent by John to Gaius’ church. 3 John calls these itinerant teachers “strangers” who ought to be given hospitality in “a manner worthy of God.” Like 2 John, this is more of a “note” than a letter, likely filling a single small sheet of papyri (v. 13). It is possible that this letter was delivered by Demetrius as a kind of “letter of introduction” indicating that he in fact has the blessing of John the Elder.

Pompeii_family_feast_painting_NaplesDidache 12 gives instructions on how a church ought to handle a traveling teacher. If a person visits the church and “comes in the name of the Lord,” he is to be welcomes. But, the writer warns, he ought to be examined to find out if he has true insight. If he “merely passing through,” the church ought to assist the teacher, but only if he stays no more than a day or two. If he is a genuine prophet, he is “worthy of his food,” the church ought to share with him and help him with his ministry (13:1-3)

One of these teachers was apparently refused by Diotrephes, another believer in the church. Diotrephes’ behavior is condemned by John as being “un-brotherly.” Gaius is praised for his kind treatment of another teacher, Demetrius, who probably was the deliverer of this letter. We have no idea why Diotrephes refused a teacher. Perhaps he examined him and judged him unworthy to teach. It is also possible that shabby treatment of Demetrius is a reflection on John’s authority – Diotrephes disrespects John as the elder / bishop and therefore refused to give hospitality to his representative. Jobes suggests that Diotrephes is “on the side of the antichrists,” although this cannot be proven conclusively (Letters to the Church, 445).

This letter gives us an insight into how the small house churches of the first century functioned, and to some extent the problems with a house church. An individual could see the church as very much their own and “run things” far too autocratically. Diotrephes is free to make decisions about who may speak to his congregation, trumping John’s authority in this case. There is no “committee of elders” in the church to discuss and decide the matter. The idea of a “church board” is very much a modern congregational church invention.

John the Elder clearly believes has authority over this church and authorized teachers to visit the churches from time to time. He expects his elders to accept the teachers and give them proper hospitality when they visit. Perhaps we can describe him as a “bishop,” but if the tradition of equating John the Disciple / Apostle with John the Elder is correct, this might be an example of apostolic authority.

This teaching on hospitality in Third John also is difficult to apply in a modern context.  I suppose it might be “applied” by being kind to traveling missionaries when they visit your church, but I think that is a rather limited application.  There is a rigorous “testing” of the visiting teacher implied by this letter – how does that work in a modern context?

Second John – Developing Doctrine and Practice

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught. These people were not heretics in the traditional sense, but Christians who were seeking to understand what Jesus claimed about himself. While John calls them deceivers, their deception might have been an on honest attempt to develop theology even if it went a different direction that what John himself was teaching.

Journal

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

I think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.

Does a little letter like 2 John provide a model for developing doctrine? Or should we read it as a sober warning about going too far?