J.B. Lightfoot on the Style of John’s Gospel

by Michael D. Marlowe

In an 1863 essay the conservative scholar Joseph B. Lightfoot remarked, “if we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the New Testament generally.” (as quoted in the Prolegomena of Moulton’s Grammar of New Testament Greek, 1906). This statement is said to have been prophetic, because shortly after it was made a number of “letters that ordinary people wrote” were discovered in ancient Egyptian rubbish-heaps, and these have indeed been a help for the understanding of the language of the New Testament. Yet it may be wondered how far Bishop Lightfoot would agree with the views of scholars who have quoted his “prophetic” words on this subject. The tendency to overemphasize the “popular” character of New Testament Greek to the point where its Semitic features are virtually denied would not sit well with the author of “Internal Evidence for the Authenticity and Genuineness of Saint John’s Gospel,” quoted at length below. Lightfoot’s concern in this essay was to demonstrate that the fourth Gospel was indeed written by the apostle John, a Jew of the first century, and not by a Gentile of the second century, as many radical critics and skeptics of the late nineteenth century had theorized. (1) One of the internal evidences of the authenticity of the Gospel is the Semitic style of the Greek. This was no new insight on Lightfoot’s part; it was a commonplace of apologetic literature in his day that the Semitic character of New Testament Greek was an important indication that it was written before the Church had become entirely “Gentile” in character or “Greek” in outlook. The critics who maintained that John’s Gospel represented a Hellenizing tendency of the second century, in opposition to the primitive Jewish outlook of the earliest sources in the Synoptic Gospels, must therefore have arguments to explain away the Semitic style of the Gospel.

Below is Lightfoot’s discussion of the matter, from the essay “Internal Evidence for the Authenticity and Genuineness of Saint John’s Gospel,” published in his Biblical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1893), pp. 144-46. (2)

First of all, then, the writer was a Jew. This might be inferred from a very high degree of probability from his Greek style alone. It is not ungrammatical Greek, but it is distinctly Greek of one long accustomed to think and speak through the medium of another language. The Greek language is singularly high in its capabilities of syntactic construction, and it is also well furnished with various connecting particles. The two languages with which a Jew of Palestine would be most familiar -- the Hebrew, which was the language of the sacred Scriptures, and the Aramaic, which was the medium of communication in daily life -- being closely allied to each other, stand in direct contrast to the Greek in this respect. There is comparative poverty of inflections, and there is an extreme paucity of connecting and relative particles. Hence in Hebrew and Aramaic there is little or no syntax, properly so called.

Tested by his style, then, the writer was a Jew. Of all the New Testament writings the Fourth Gospel is the most distinctly Hebraic in this respect. The Hebrew simplicity of diction will at once strike the reader. There is an entire absence of periods, for which the Greek language affords such facility. The sentences are coordinated, not subordinated. The classes are strung together, like beads on a string. The very monotony of the arrangement, though singularly impressive, is wholly unlike the Greek style of the age.

More especially does the influence of the Hebrew appear in the connecting particles. In this language the single connecting particle waw is used equally, whether co-ordination or opposition is implied; in other words, it represents “but” as well as “and.” The Authorized Version does not adequately represent this fact, for our translators have exercised considerable license in varying the renderings: “then,” “moreover,” “and,” “but,” etc. Now it is a noticeable fact that in Saint John’s Gospel the capabilities of the Greek language in this respect are most commonly neglected; the writers falls back on the simple “and” of Hebrew diction, using it even where we should expect to find an adversative particle. Thus v. 39, 40, “Ye search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life : and they are they which testify of Me: and ye will not come to me”; vii. 19, “Did not Moses give give you the law, and none of you keepeth the law?” where our English version has instead an adversative particle to assist the sense, “and yet”; vii. 30, “Then they sought to take Him: and no man laid hands on Him,” where the English version substitutes “but no man”; vii. 33, “Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you, and I go to Him that sent Me,” where again our translator attempts to improve the sense by reading “and then.” And instances might be multiplied.

The Hebrew character of the diction, moreover, shows itself in other ways,-- by the parallelism of the sentences, by the repetition of the same words in different clauses, by the order of the words, by the syntactical constructions, and by individual expressions. Indeed, so completely is this character maintained throughout that there is hardly a sentence which might not be translated literally into Hebrew or Aramaic without any violence to the language or to the sense.

I might point also to the interpretations of the Aramaic words, as Cephas, Gabatha, Golgotha, Messias, Rabboni, Siloam, Thomas, as indicating knowledge of the language. On such isolated phenomena, however, no great stress can fairly be laid, because such interpretations do not necessarily require an extensive acquaintance with the language; and, when the whole cast and coloring of the diction can be put in evidence, an individual word here and there is valueless in comparison.

... If, therefore, we had no other evidence that the language, we might with confidence affirm that this Gospel was not written either by a Gentile or by a Hellenistic Christian, but by a Hebrew accustomed to speak the language of his fathers. This fact alone negates more than one hypothesis which has been broached of late years respecting its authorship; for it is wholly inconsistent with the strictly Gentile origin which most recent theories assign to it.

We now turn to Adolf Deissmann’s treatment of the Johannine style, as found in his influential book, Licht vom Osten (1908). After noting that “It has become an inviolable tradition with commentators to represent the Johannine style as particularly Semitic, chiefly on account of its preference for paratactic constructions, especially ‘and ... and,’ which occurs so frequently,” Deissmann expresses surprise that “so recent a writer as E. von Dobschütz” makes use of this idea in a work published in 1907. And he observes with undisguised scorn that in the same year another unenlightened commentator ventured the opinion that this stylistic feature indicates that the author was a Jew:

Wilhelm Heitmüller in the Gegenwartsbible ... pronounced a similar judgment, and even ventured to from the structure of the sentences and their connexion to draw conclusions as to the birth-certificate of the writer: “They betray beyond doubt the Jewish origin of the evangelist.” (3)

One gets the impression that Deissmann finds this sort of thing insufferably naive. He is amused that a German scholar would be interested in maintaining that the fourth Gospel was written by a Jew, let alone the apostle John. In the following pages he presents an argument designed to show that “parataxis is the original form of every primitive speech, including the Greek; it survived continuously in the language of the people, and even found its way into literature when the ordinary conversation of the people was imitated.” (4) To this end he quotes from various non-literary papyri and inscriptions, dwelling especially on an inscription from the temple of Asclepius in Rome, in which a blinded soldier thanks the idol for revealing to him the medicinal cure for his blindness. This inscription Deissmann compares to the text of John 9:7, 11, in which Christ heals a blind man. We take it that more than paratactic styles are being compared here. After this Deissmann goes on to discuss other features of the Johannine style, such as “the similarity between the utterances of the Johannine Christ in the first person, spoken with the solemnity proper to a cult, and certain ancient examples of the same style as we find it in widespread use for the purposes of non-Christian and pre-Christian religion,” which he illustrates with inscriptions in honor of the goddess Isis. He also compares these to the language of the Septuagint because, he explains, he is “anxious to show how close the resemblance can be between the Hellenised Old Testament and Hellenised Egyptian religion.” (5) Here Deissmann is going comfortably down the apostate streams of late nineteenth-century German scholarship, which saw in the Gospel of John more parallels to monuments of gross paganism than to Judaism and its Hebrew Old Testament. Even in the style of the Septuagint he would rather notice parallels with pagan inscriptions than to acknowledge its relationship to the Hebrew vorlage.

Deissman’s explanation for the paratactic style in the New Testament has not convinced many scholars. Although in 1909 James H. Moulton wrote, “Those who would still find Semitism in these plain coordinated sentences, with their large use of kai, may be recommended to study the most instructive parallels which Deissmann has set out in his new Licht vom Osten,” (6) in a recent article on Semitisms in the New Testament, under the heading of the most common Semitisms David Alan Black still mentions parataxis as a Semitic feature of the language: “In koine Greek the construction is not uncommon, and this alone has been though to explain its frequency in the New Testament. But the constantly recurring ‘and’ (Greek kai) of the Gospels is certainly an overstraining of Greek literary usage.” (7) Likewise, Jan de Waard and Eugene Nida attribute this feature of New Testament Greek to Semitic influence. Regarding the use of kai in Mark’s Gospel, they write, “Though it is true that in the works of some of the best Greek writers almost all sentences begin with some kind of conjunction (whether initial or postpositional), this excessive use of kai, almost to the exclusion of such typical Greek conjunctions as de ‘and, but,’ gar ‘for,’ and oun ‘therefore,’ suggests a kind of semiticized Greek under the influence of Hebrew vav.” (8) As in the case of some other Semitic features which are not ungrammatical in Greek, our judgment on the matter must take into account the literary context.

My main interest in this little article has been to show what critical tendencies have been associated with arguments for and against the view that in the Gospel of John we have an example of the Semitic style. Between Lightfoot and Deissmann there is a wide gulf, not only with respect to their philology but also in their whole approach to the sacred text. Lightfoot is alert to Semitisms and other linguistic parallels with the Old Testament, while Deissmann magnifies Graeco-Roman parallels, noticing similarities (both linguistic and cultic) in the pagan world. I do not want to suggest that the linguistic question can or should be decided according to any apologetic expediency. However, conservative scholars will do well to consider this matter with eyes open. Deissmann and some others who have tried to minimize the Hebraisms of the New Testament are interested in much more than linguistics, and to a certain extent their linguistic arguments are intertwined with other aspects of a general “Graeco-Roman” approach to the interpretation of the New Testament, in opposition to a canonical approach which emphasizes its Judaic background.

Michael Marlowe
March, 2004


1. According to the theory of Christian origins which was in vogue in Germany in the late nineteenth century (often referred to as the Tübingen school of New Testament criticism), The New Testament documents indicate the existence of antithetical tendencies: the “Petrine” or Judaistic Christianity, and the “Pauline” or Gentile Christianity. The “Pauline” movement, according to this theory, had more in common with Greek philosophy and Greek mystery religions than it did with the Judaism of the “Petrine” faction. These two conflicting movements within the Church were eventually brought into a synthesis or compromise. Different parts of the New Testament were assigned to the Petrine element, the Pauline element, and the later synthesis. It was in the interests of this general theory of the New Testament for scholars to magnify the Gentile character of the “Pauline” portions especially, and John’s Gospel was assigned to the later synthesis.

2.It should be noted that Lightfoot says his remarks here are from a previously unpublished lecture which “originally formed one of a series connected with Christian evidences, and delivered in St. George’s Hall in 1871.” Because the lecture was not published at that time, he notes, “a rumor got abroad ... that I did not allow the lecture to be published because I was dissatisfied with it,” but he informs the reader that “The present publication of the lecture is my answer to this rumor. I give it after eighteen years exactly in the same form in which it was originally written, with the exception of a few verbal alterations. Looking over it again after this long lapse of time, I have nothing to withdraw.” Sadly, the pressure upon scholars everywhere to conform their views to the latest opinions and theories held by higher critics in Germany was such that it was necessary for Lightfoot to make such a statement.

3.Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, by Adolf Deissmann. Translated by Lionel R.M. Strachan. 2nd edition, translated from the fourth German edition of 1922. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927), p. 131.

4.ibid, p. 132.

5.ibid, p. 141.

6.James Hope Moulton, “New Testament Greek in the Light of Modern Discovery,” in Essays on Some Biblical Questions of the Day by Members of the University of Cambridge edited by H.B. Sweete (London: Macmillan, 1909), reprinted in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays edited by Stanley E. Porter (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), p. 81.

7. “New Testament Semitisms,” The Bible Translator 39/2 (April 1988), pp. 215-223.

8. Jan de Waard and Eugene Nida, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 92.