Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-cf9d5c678-mpvvr Total loading time: 0.168 Render date: 2021-07-27T00:22:37.080Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

In Defence of R. H. Lightfoot

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2021

Christopher M. Tuckett
1 Wallingford Road, Cholsey, Wallingford OX10 9LQ, UK. Email:


A recent NTS article by B. Massey gives a highly critical appraisal of the work of R. H. Lightfoot, questioning Lightfoot's academic integrity and claiming that he borrowed much of his work from others without proper attribution. A study of Lightfoot's writings suggests however that Lightfoot did clearly acknowledge his debt to others and that he did not try to claim the ideas of others as his own. Further, his standing within English-speaking scholarship, as one who publicised the work of German form critics and who anticipated in a significant way the work of later redaction criticism, can remain intact and his work is still valuable today.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Massey, B., ‘Translating, Summarising and Hidden Attribution: R. H. Lightfoot's Problematic Use of German Scholarship’, NTS 66 (2020) 601–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See variously Robinson, J. M., The Problem of History in Mark (London: SCM, 1957) 11Google Scholar; Perrin, N., What Is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) 21–4Google Scholar; Powley, B. G., ‘The Place of R. H. Lightfoot in British New Testament Scholarship’, ExpT 93 (1981) 72–5Google Scholar; Nineham, D. E., ‘R. H. Lightfoot and the Significance of Biblical Criticism’, Theology 88 (1985) 97105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Court, J. M., ‘Robert Henry Lightfoot’, ExpT 118 (2007) 488–92Google Scholar. The esteem in which Lightfoot was held at the end of his life is shown too by the existence of the Festschrift written for him (but only completed after he had died and hence published in his ‘memory’ rather than his ‘honour’): D. E. Nineham, ed., Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1957). According to the Preface, the volume was originally planned as a collection of essays by his former students; but his esteem was such that others wished to contribute and hence the scope was enlarged.

3 The warm friendships are reflected in a number of letters from Germans to Lightfoot which Massey publishes in his article as an appendix.

4 Lightfoot, R. H., History and Interpretation in the Gospels (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935)Google Scholar.

5 Lightfoot, R. H., Locality and Doctrine in the Gospels (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938)Google Scholar; idem, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950). Lightfoot subsequently published a substantial commentary on John, but this is outside the purview of Massey's article and will also not be considered here.

6 Page numbers in the body of the text here refer to the pages of Massey's article.

7 Taylor, V., The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1933)Google Scholar.

8 Lohmeyer, E., Das Evangelium des Markus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1937)Google Scholar; idem, ‘Die Reinigung des Tempels’, ThBl 20 (1941) 257–64.

9 The last phrase is my own, though I do not believe it is entirely unjustified as a summary of the impression of Lightfoot given by Massey's description.

10 See Nineham, ‘Lightfoot’; also his ‘Robert Henry Lightfoot 1883–1953’, Studies in the Gospels, vii–xvi.

11 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xvi.

12 Nineham, ‘Lightfoot’, 101. Cf. too his earlier comment (on p. 100): Lightfoot in his Bampton lectures was ‘unwilling as ever to lay any claim to originality’.

13 Cf. Taylor, Formation, vi: ‘If in the hands of Professor Bultmann Form-Criticism has taken a sceptical direction, this is not the necessary trend of the method; on the contrary, when its limitations are recognised, Form-Criticism seems to me to furnish constructive suggestions which in many ways confirm the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel tradition’ (emphasis added; also cited by Massey, ‘Lightfoot's Problematic Use’, 604).

14 Cf. Nineham, ‘Lightfoot’, 99 on Lightfoot's aim on his return from Germany to try to make available the work of German form critics in a positive way: ‘that was certainly something that needed doing’ (and Nineham explicitly notes here the slightly earlier work of Taylor with its very different overall approach).

15 To give just a few random examples from Lightfoot's History and Interpretation: p. 12 (an explicit quotation of Ranke with no detailed reference), p. 19 (a quotation of Wrede with no reference), p. 22 (a title (of Sanday) but no place or date), p. 35 (an article of Turner without the title of the article), p. 46 (a reference to Wellhausen's ‘commentary on St. Mark’, without any exact details).

16 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xvii. By ‘student’ Lightfoot means a person who is studying (probably in a university or college setting). The reference to the ‘general reader’ may indicate that Lightfoot thought that he was writing as much (if not more) for the ‘interested outsider’ and general public as for a specialised academic readership. And for the latter, detailed references to other secondary literature would have been largely otiose. It is though noteworthy that Lightfoot himself thought that there were too many footnotes in his book, not too few! (E.g. the chapter on ‘Formgeschichte’, occupying thirty pages, has thirty-six footnotes, only fourteen of which refer to other secondary literature: the rest give cross-references to biblical or other ancient literature.)

17 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xv–xvi.

18 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, 43–4. Massey does say in passing (606), ‘In fairness to Lightfoot, he did acknowledge that he was summarising the work of Dibelius in a footnote’ (with reference to this footnote), but then seems to ignore this elsewhere in the article.

19 His brief asides in footnotes, mentioned above, indicate that Lightfoot did not agree in all details with Dibelius: he was thus a critical reader and exponent of Dibelius. However, it was perhaps his excessive modesty that led to him not pushing his own views to the fore.

20 Massey (606) refers to Powley, ‘Place of Lightfoot’, 72 for the possibility that Lightfoot was ‘embarrassed’ by the appearance of the English translation of Dibelius. Powley is referring to Lightfoot's explanation of the secrecy theme (the ‘messianic secret’) in Mark, not to his discussion of form-critical units of the tradition. Lightfoot did indeed follow Dibelius in arguing for an ‘apologetic’ explanation of the secret. But such an explanation was held by a number of people in Lightfoot's day (and earlier): see C. M. Tuckett, ed., The Messianic Secret (London: SPCK, 1983) 13 (with reference to J. Weiss, P. Wernle, W. Bousset and others). Lightfoot, no less than Dibelius, was aligning himself with a broader body of opinion on the theme.

21 It is not clear why the English translation of Dibelius is relevant: it is not suggested that Lightfoot copied the English translation itself (which must have appeared in print about the time Lightfoot's book was going to press).

22 M. Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1933) 46 = M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1934) 48; Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, 46.

23 One may compare and contrast the ways in which the theories of William Wrede on the messianic secret in Mark were mangled and never fairly represented to those who did not read German by people such as Sanday and Manson to see the value of Lightfoot's more careful and accurate approach.

24 See Lightfoot, Locality and Doctrine, 45–8, with a translation from Lohmeyer, Markus, 359–60. Massey is also somewhat negative about the content of these chapters, saying that ‘the first is simply a summary since Westcott and Hort on whether Mark could have ended with the phrase ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ … the second is [just?] a summary of Lohmeyer's comments on why Mark 16.8 was the original ending of Mark’ (611). The negative tone may be unfair as there is a great deal more in Lightfoot's second chapter than there is in Lohmeyer's comment; and his first chapter contains an extremely full catalogue of texts from classical literature and papyri with clauses, sentences or sections ending with γάρ. (Much of the material is, self-confessedly, drawn from the work of others; but it is clear, comprehensive and focused: as such it is still a valuable resource for anyone dealing with this issue today.)

25 Lohmeyer, ‘Reinigung’.

26 See Lightfoot, Gospel Message, Preface.

27 Lightfoot, Gospel Message, Preface. At the time Lightfoot wrote this (‘December 1949’), Lohmeyer's whereabouts were unknown, though he was believed to be a prisoner somewhere in the East. In fact Lohmeyer had been shot by the Soviet authorities in 1946, a fact which did not emerge until some 10 years later, and so after the publication of Lightfoot's book and indeed after Lightfoot's own death. Lightfoot himself was thus never in a position to correct what was said here.

28 Lightfoot, Gospel Message, 15.

29 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, 13.

30 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, 225.

31 Lightfoot, Gospel Message, 103. On this, see too Nineham, ‘Lightfoot’, 102.

32 As far as I have been able to discover, the journal is held at present by only three libraries in the UK: the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Leeds University Library and the Library of the Warburg Institute, London. The holdings in the latter two stop before vol. 20 of the journal (which contains Lohmeyer's article). It seems inherently unlikely (certainly not easy to establish) that other libraries at the time were still subscribing to the journal but subsequently got rid of their holdings. It would thus appear that in 1949 Oxford was the only place in the UK where the article would have been accessible. Since 1949 also predated the era of the photocopier, it would have been impossible for anyone to access the article without travelling to Oxford itself.

33 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xvi. Again this would mesh well with the fact that Lightfoot saw his book(s) as being read by the ‘general reader’ quite as much as by the ‘student’ (in a university with relatively easy access to university library holdings)

34 Massey never discusses the concrete mechanics of how he thinks Lightfoot's agreements with Lohmeyer are to be explained. Lightfoot was working in 1949, before the days of photocopying machines, so it is unlikely that he had a copy of Lohmeyer's article to hand. This would appear also to be indicated by the fact that Lightfoot apparently thought that Jeremias might be the author of the article and so wrote initially to Jeremias to ask for his permission to use it (see Massey, 612). But Lohmeyer's name as author is quite clear at the end of the printed article. If Lightfoot had had a copy of the article, his letter to Jeremias would be inexplicable. It seems inherently unlikely that Lightfoot solemnly sat in the Bodleian library with Lohmeyer's text in front of him, translating the text word by word or sentence by sentence on the spot, only then to take it away and retype it for the text of his book. (As a non-borrowing library, the Bodleian would almost certainly not have allowed Lightfoot to take the article home.)

35 Noted too by Massey, 615. Whether this is meant to be a connection with the pre-Markan passion narrative, or whether it is due to Mark's own ideas, is not quite so clear. Massey claims that it is all about a link in the pre-Markan tradition and so Lightfoot is a forerunner of the theories of R. Pesch. In fact Lightfoot does pose his initial suggestion about such a connection as being at a pre-Markan stage (p. 61), but thereafter talks throughout about ‘Mark’ and what ‘Mark’ has done. It seems that, for Lightfoot, the emphasis is far more on what such a connection might show us about Mark the evangelist and his finished work than on any earlier stage in the tradition. See too below on Lightfoot as, in a real sense, a ‘proto redaction critic’.

36 C. A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001) mentions both Lightfoot and Lohmeyer in his bibliography on the cleansing story (p. 162), and discusses Lohmeyer (critically: pp. 164, 166), but does not mention Lightfoot in his discussion at all.

37 See n. 32 above for the rarity of Theologische Blätter in UK libraries. I have not undertaken a complete search, but it would appear that the journal is not taken by many libraries in North America either. The essay was never, as far as I have been able to discover, reprinted in any collection of essays (either on Mark, or by Lohmeyer).

38 See respectively Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism?, 22; Robinson, Problem of History in Mark, 11; Powley, ‘Place of Lightfoot’, 73.

39 Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 59, = Dibelius, Formgeschichte, 57: ‘Die Verfasser der Evangelien, mindestens der synoptischen, sind ja nicht “Autoren” im literarischen Sinn, sondern Sammler’; also p. 2: ‘Die Verfasser sind nur zum geringsten Teil Schriftsteller, in der Hauptsache Sammler, Tradenten, Redaktoren.’ Cf. too his chapter 8, discussing Mark's Gospel, which is headed ‘Sammlung’ (the English translation has ‘Synthesis’, which is perhaps less satisfactory as a translation: see Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism?, 19).

40 R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968) 350.

41 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xii.

42 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, xiii.

43 This is recognised by a number of scholars. See e.g. Smalley, S. S., ‘Redaction Criticism’, New Testament Interpretation (ed. Marshall, I. H.; Exeter: Paternoster, 1977) 181–95Google Scholar, at 192; R. H. Stein, ‘Redaction Criticism (NT)’, Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. v (ed. D. N. Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 647–50, at 648; R. Morgan, ‘New Testament’, The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (ed. J. W. Rogerson and J. M. Lieu; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 27–49, at 29.

44 In fact of course some kind of ‘redaction criticism’, focusing on the characteristics, or ‘theologies’, of the individual evangelists goes back at least as far as the Tendenzkritik of F. C. Baur and other members of the ‘Tübingen school’.

45 In this respect, Austin Farrer explicitly acknowledges his debt to Lightfoot in focusing on the complete text to discover the evangelist's concerns: see A. Farrer, A Study of St. Mark (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1951) 7–8. Similarly Lightfoot's work in relation to geographical settings is noted appreciatively by H. Conzelmann, The Theology of Saint Luke (London: Faber & Faber, 1961) 10, as anticipating Conzelmann's own study of Luke in terms of its overall approach to interpreting a gospel text.

46 C. M. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1983) 120–3.

47 Lightfoot, History and Interpretation, 160–4. G. Barth's redaction-critical analysis of the Matthean passion narrative (in G. Bornkann, G. Barth and H. J. Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (London: SCM, 1963) 143–7) was for many years widely regarded in English-speaking scholarship as a standard work. Lightfoot anticipates many of the points which Barth highlights.

48 Cf. his arguments about the way Mark situates the story of the cleansing of the temple within his overall narrative: see above.

49 Nineham, ‘Lightfoot’, 101. Cf. too Morgan, ‘New Testament’, 29: Lightfoot was ‘innovative in developing composition criticism and (like Wrede) anticipating redaction criticism’. From a perspective thrity-five years after Nineham wrote, one might be tempted to extend his period of ‘half a century’ a little further.

50 Talking about ‘the Lord’, and consistently using the capitalised He/Him to refer to Jesus, look strange to the modern reader today. He clearly seeks to address Christian believers (almost exclusively): indeed Morgan, ‘New Testament’, 30 refers to History and Interpretation as ‘Lightfoot's lecture-sermons’. (To be fair, the Bampton lectures in Oxford are given as sermons in the course of a Christian church service; but even so, much of Lightfoot's other writings comes across as somewhat ‘sermonic’!)

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

In Defence of R. H. Lightfoot
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

In Defence of R. H. Lightfoot
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

In Defence of R. H. Lightfoot
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *