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Home / News / Columns / Today in Christian history: John Lightfoot was born
John Lightfoot

Today in Christian history: John Lightfoot was born

Imagine becoming the best Hebrew scholar in your nation without once speaking to a Jewish person. That is what John Lightfoot did. He may never even have seen a Jew, for all Jews were barred from England until  very late in his life.

Lightfoot was born on this day, March 29, 1602 in an England which was only just regaining the knowledge of Hebrew. Four hundred years before, King Edward I had kicked the Jews out of his nation.

Many left manuscripts behind, which allowed scholars such as Roger Bacon to understand the ancient tongue. However, Hebrew studies were frowned upon by the church. Bacon himself was accused of using Hebrew to communicate with the devil.

Even as a youngster, Lightfoot proved to be a natural-born scholar, especially good with Greek and Latin. However, he had only the minimum acquaintance with Hebrew. That changed after the twenty-year-old became a Church of England curate (a minister in charge of a parish) in Shropshire, England.

One man who came every week to hear him preach was Sir Rowland Cotton. It happened that Sir Rowland had a good knowledge of Hebrew. He challenged Lightfoot to learn it, saying that he could not really understand the Old Testament without understanding the language that it was written in. Lightfoot felt embarrassed that a layman had more Bible knowledge than himself, a minister.

Helped by Rowland, he quickly mastered the basics of Hebrew. Through incessant, diligent study, he surpassed his teacher and eventually became the greatest Hebrew scholar in all of England.

“Even the Lord’s prayer is derived from expressions that had long been familiar in the schools and synagogues of Judea,” he wrote. His book Horae Hebraicae explained the New testament in light of knowledge he had gleaned from the writings of rabbis. Many later commentators consulted it.

Lightfoot was also prominent in the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
He never forgot the debt he owed Sir Rowland. “He laid such doubled and redoubled obligations upon me by the tender affection, respect and favor, that he showed towards me, as have left so indelible an impression on my heart, of honor to his name and observance to his house of Bellaport, that length of time may not wear it out nor distance of place ever cause me to forget it.”

–Chris Kleyn

{Editor’s Note: There’s a dark side to Lightfoot’s writings which were filled with anti-Semitic imagery common at the time. It is true that Lightfoot was a great scholar but he was also a product of his era. It would not be until the end of his life that some Jews would be allowed back into England. Perhaps if the Jewish community had not been forced to leave the country they called home for many centuries, Lightfoot may have had an opportunity to know them, and thus changed his views on Jews.

He died in 1675 after coming down with a severe cold. He left behind a body of work which filled nineteen volumes. –Dwight Widaman]

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