The Acts of the Apostles: A Newly Discovered Commentary

Written by J. B. Lightfoot Reviewed By Alan J. Thompson

Who doesn’t enjoy a great account of the discovery of long–lost–treasure? Well, this newly discovered (incomplete) commentary on Acts by J. B Lightfoot (1828–89) is one that will be treasured by many. Lightfoot was Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (one of the famous Cambridge Triumvirate along with F. J. A. Hort and B. F. Westcott) and, from 1879 until his death in 1889, Bishop of Durham. Although he was a prolific writer, it was his commentaries on the Pauline letters of Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, as well as his five–volume study of the Apostolic Fathers, that made the most lasting contribution to Lightfoot’s reputation as one of the greatest scholars of the New Testament and early church history. His detailed historical and grammatical exegetical works carefully explain the meaning of the text, defend the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament, and model how to respond to grandiose reconstructions of early Christian history (e.g., his refutation of F. C. Baur and the “Tübingen school”). So, it is a delight to hear that we will be treated to three volumes of previously unpublished notes of Lightfoot’s on Acts (volume one), John’s Gospel (volume two, to be released in December 2015), and 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter (volume three, scheduled for release in 2016).

In this volume Ben Witherington and Todd Still have deciphered and combined two sets of Lightfoot’s handwritten lecture notes on Acts 1–21 into one readable commentary. As valuable as this is, the volume includes much more. In addition to Witherington’s introductory account of his exciting discovery of these manuscripts in the Durham Cathedral Library (complete with some photographs of the cupboards and Lightfoot’s notes) and his orientation to Lightfoot as a biblical commentator, the volume includes the following by Lightfoot:

  1. a general introduction to interpreting the New Testament (where he argues that the divine inspiration of Scripture does not override the particular characteristics of the human authors, as seen, for instance, in James’s and Paul’s complementary rather than contradictory view of the law, pp. 43–44);
  2. an introduction to Acts (where he analyzes the manuscripts and lectionaries and explains the rules of textual criticism, showing respect for J. A. Bengel [it is worth remembering here that Lightfoot was one of those involved in the first revision of the KJV], defends the authenticity and reliability of the narrative of Acts, and argues for the Lukan authorship of Acts);
  3. then, after the commentary, a 46-page article on Acts from the second British edition of Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible that was omitted in subsequent editions and thus has been long out of print (the article argues more extensively than his commentary from internal and external evidence for the reliability and Lukan authorship of Acts);
  4. a 10-page article on how “recent discoveries” (i.e., inscriptions) confirm the historical accuracy of Acts (e.g., for the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, as the governor of Cyprus);
  5. a previously published lecture on Paul’s travels after Acts (where he combines early external tradition with evidence from the Pastoral Epistles into a very readable account of Paul’s movements between his release from prison at the end of Acts and his later imprisonment, and death, in Rome after writing 2 Timothy);
  6. finally, an anonymous obituary that summarizes Lightfoot’s life and work.

    The commentary itself is a combination of brief explanatory comments on words and phrases of the Greek text (including brief comments on various manuscript readings), cross references to other New Testament writers as well as to the Old Testament, illustrative references to ancient writers, and brief interaction with other commentators (e.g., Baumgarten, Bengel, Meyer) and grammarians (Winer). In addition, throughout the commentary there are at least 12 excurses on topics as diverse as: a reconciliation of the apparently differing accounts of Judas’s demise; a discussion of the tongues of Acts as the same as the tongues of 1 Corinthians (a temporary gift of speaking in human foreign languages); an analysis of the promises to Peter as contradicting the claims of the Roman Catholic church; an unlikely argument that Simon Magus (of Acts 8) became the father of Gnosticism; and a defense of the Pauline character of the speech at Miletus. I especially enjoyed his argument that Acts is meant to be read as a continuation of Luke’s Gospel as “the narrative of the working of Jesus in the church” and that in Acts “our Lord himself is represented as the chief agent” (p. 71)!

    Readers should be aware, however, that in addition to untranslated Greek words at the beginning of each comment on a verse-by-verse basis, there are also occasional German and Latin quotes that are also left untranslated (occasionally all that is provided is a Greek phrase followed by a German or Latin quotation from a commentator such as Meyer or Bengel; cf. pp. 96–98). Furthermore, sometimes the explanatory comments are just too brief to be helpful (e.g., at 1:4 we have the following: “συναλιζόμενος. An interesting word.”). These very brief explanatory comments, however, do not detract from the overall value of this volume. At this point it also needs to be remembered that these were originally his own handwritten notes for his classroom material. Overall, Lightfoot’s notes are succinct, but clear.

    This volume of Lightfoot’s notes will guide you patiently and reverently through much of the text of Acts. You will be encouraged to pause to notice the details of the text and occasionally look over the broad landscape to see how the details of the text relate to the broader picture of the New Testament account of the work of the Lord Jesus in building his church.

    Alan J. Thompson

    Alan J. Thompson
    Sydney Missionary and Bible College
    Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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