J. B. Lightfoot was perhaps the greatest Anglican clergyman and scholar of the second half of the 19th century. He was ordained deacon in 1854, priest in 1858 and consecrated Bishop of Durham in 1879. He is best remembered, though, as a New Testament scholar and an expert in early Christian history.
Lightfoot was a compelling teacher. At the young age of thirty-three, he became a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. Discussing his lectures, a colleague wrote: “They consisted chiefly, if not wholly, of expositions of parts of books of the New Testament, and especially of St. Paul’s Epistles. Their value and interest were soon widely recognized in the university, and before long no lecture room then available sufficed to contain the hearers, so leave had to be obtained for the use of the hall of Trinity.” The challenge of finding enough room for everyone who wants to hear lectures on the apostle Paul is a problem I wish we had today! Naturally, his commentaries on Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon have long been considered classics.
More than a century after his death, one would think that Lightfoot’s collected works – numerous as they are – would be all we would ever have from this great Christian, but here’s where things get exciting. Three years ago Ben Witherington III, an American scholar, wondered if there might be any unpublished works gathering dust among Lightfoot’s papers in Durham, England. He writes: “I must confess, I was not prepared for what I found.” Among many other things, he discovered three brown notebooks of detailed lectures on the book of Acts, hundreds of pages on the Gospel of John, lectures on 2 Corinthians and two notebooks on 1 Peter – none of which had ever been published. Perhaps the last time these words were heard was when they were spoken by Lightfoot himself as he instructed young students at Cambridge. These hand-written notes have now been carefully transcribed and published so Christians in the 21st century can have what people in the 20th century were denied! It also makes me wonder: what if the work of a great scholar from the late 20th century is discovered at the beginning of the 22nd – but these crucial words are recorded on 5¼-inch floppy disks? Pen and paper is a more durable technology!
Reading about a godly man like J. B. Lightfoot – and reading his words – makes me proud to be an Anglican. What a heritage we have! One of his students wrote: “I remember well how much the class was impressed when, after giving us the usual introductory matter, Lightfoot closed the book and said, ‘After all is said and done, the only way to know the New Testament properly is by prayer’ and dwelt further on this thought.”
When Lightfoot died, The Times of London wrote: “What he was chiefly concerned with was the substance and the life of Christian truth, and his whole energies were employed in this inquiry because his whole heart was engaged in the truths and facts which were at stake.”
How wonderful that we now have yet more wisdom from the pen of this man.