Lightfoot on the Problem Tongues of Corinth

John Lightfoot

A digitalization and short analysis of John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the tongues of Corinth.

John Lightfoot was a seventeenth century English Churchman and rabbinic scholar whose exegetical system was significantly advanced for that time period.

A small but brief window had opened in England during the Reformation for Hebrew studies, but the roadblocks to full public acceptance was great. England had long banished Jews from living in England(1)See John Lightfoot: the English Hebraist for more information during Lightfoot’s era, and if later novels like Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens indicate, negative English perceptions concerning the Jews was strong. Lightfoot was a time anomaly. He shouldn’t have succeeded in this field of studies, but he did, and his work, though with some defects, has withstood the test of time.

Unfortunately after the death of Cromwell in 1658 and a number of Governmental interdicts within the Church realm, Hebrew studies once again lost its footprint in the English speaking world. This prevented Lightfoot’s works from gaining ubiquitous traction. Lightfoot’s focus on a complex multilingual comparative narrative rather than a theological emphasis, along with his lack or just average use of critical analysis, may also have contributed to a limited audience.

Lightfoot’s major critical omission is that of dating. The Jewish sources he cited are approximately 400 or more years later than the Corinthian saga. The Jewish sources on the subject may have been more fluid during the first century AD. The initial arguments that spawned the later Rabbinic opinion may have been different. Lightfoot never looked into this. Neither does Lightfoot seriously delve into ecclesiastical literature using his comparative method. This too weakens his position.

Even with these weaknesses, the comparative work itself between Judaism and the problem tongues of Corinth is outstanding, and must be considered in developing a historical context for understanding this Pauline text.

You can decide if this is an accurate statement. Below is Lightfoot’s coverage of I Corinthian’s 14. The work was originally written in Latin, but has been translated into English. The translation provided here is from Horæ Hebraicæ et Talmudicæ(2)See Horæ et Talmudicæ: Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations Upon the Gospels, the Acts, Some Chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Edition by Robert Gandell. Volume IV. Oxford: At the University Press. 1859. Pg. 257ff by Robert Gandell. The footnotes do not always follow his copy. They include some additional thoughts and background by me on the text.

On problem points the English was compared against the original Latin version, Joannis Lightfoot: Opera Omnia. Tomus. II.(3)See Joannis Lightfoot: Opera Omnia. Tomus. II. Rotterdami. Regneri Leers. 1686. Pg. 917ff . These are noted in the footnotes.

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CHAP. XIV

[Pg. 257] VER. 2: Ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ· He that speaketh in a tongue. Speaking in a tongue ? In what tongue ? You will find this to be no idle question when you have well weighed these things :

  • I. There is none with reason will deny that this whole church of Corinth understood one and the same Corinthian or Greek language : as also, that the apostle here speaks of the ministers of the church, and not of strangers. But now it seems a thing not to be believed, that any minister of that church would Arabic, Egyptian, Armenian, or any other unknown language publicly in the church ; from whence not the least benefit could accrue to the church, or to the minister himself. For although these ministers had their faults, and those no light ones neither, yet we would not willingly accuse them of mere foolishness as speaking in an unknown language for no reason ; nor of ostentation as speaking only for vainglory. And although we deny not that it was necessary that those wonderful gifts of the Holy Ghost should be manifested before all the people, for the honour of him that gave them ; yet we hardly believe that they were to be shown vainly and for no benefit.

  • II. The apostle saith, ver. 4, ὁ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ, ἐαυτὸν οίκοδομεῖ, he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself : which how [pg. 258] could he do from those tongues, when he could have uttered those very things in his mother-tongue, and have reaped the same fruit of edification?

  • III. The apostle tolerates an unknown tongue if an interpreter were present. But I scarce believe he would tolerate that one should prate in Scythian, Parthian, or Arabic, &c., when he could utter the same things in the Corinthian language, and without the trouble of the church and an interpreter.

We are of opinion, therefore, nor without reason that unknown language which they used, or abused rather, in the church, was the Hebrew ; which now of a long time past was not the common and mother tongue, but was gone into disuse ; but now by the gift of the Holy Ghost it was restored to the ministers of the church,(4)”at jam donante Spiritu Sancto reddita est Ministris Ecclesiæ” — but now by the Holy Spirit equipping, it [Hebrew} has been restored to the Ministers of the Church and that necessarily and for the profit of the church. We inquire not in how many unknown languages they could speak, but how many they spake in the church and we believe that they spake Hebrew only.

How necessary that language was to ministers there is none that doubts. And hence it is that the apostle permits to speak in this (as we suppose) unknown language, if an interpreter were present, because it wanted not its usefulness. The usefulness appeared thence as well to the speaker, while he now skilled [calluit] and more deeply understood the original language ;(5)”Utilitas inde emersit tum loquenti, dum linguam jam calleret, & profundiùs intelligeret originalem ;” The usefulness emerged from that moment for the person who speaks, and during that time he developed practical knowledge and profoundly understood the original language. as also to the hearers while those things were rendered truly, which that mystical and sacred language contained in it.

The foundations of churches were now laying, and the foundations of religion in those churches and it was not the least part of the ministerial task at that time, to prove the doctrine of the gospel, and the person, and the actions, and the sufferings of Christ out of the Old Testament. Now the original text was unknown to the common people ; the version of the Seventy interpreters(6) The Greek Septuagint was faulty in infinite places ; the Targum(7)The Aramaic translations of the Bible upon the prophets was inconstant and Judaized ; the Targum upon the law was as yet none at all : so that it was impossible to discover the mind of God in the holy text without the immediate gift of the Spirit imparting perfect and [pg. 259] full skill both of the language and of the sense ‘ that so the foundations of faith might be laid from the Scriptures, and the true sense of the Scriptures might be propagated without either error or the comments of men.

The apostle saith, “Let him pray that he may interpret,” ver. 13. And ‘interpretation’ is numbered among the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. Now let it be supposed that he spake Latin, Arabic, Persian : either he understood what he spake, or he did not ; if he did not, then how far was he from edifying himself! And yet the apostle saith, he that speak in a tongue edifies himself. If he understood what he spake, how easy was it for him to render it in the Corinthian language ! There are many now learned by the study who are able to translate those tongues into the Corinthian or the Greek, without that extraordinary gift of interpretation immediately poured out by the Holy Ghost. But let it be supposed, which we do suppose, that he spake in the Hebrew tongue, that he either read or quoted the holy text in the original language ; and that he either preached or prayed in the phrases of the prophets ; it sufficed not to the interpretation to render the bare words into bare words, but to understand the sense and marrow of the prophet’s language, and plainly and fully to unfold their mysteries in apt and lively and choice words, according to the mind of God : which the evangelists and apostles by a divine skill do in their writings.

Hear the judgment of the Jews concerning a just interpretation of the holy text. They are treating of the manner of espousing a woman. Among other things these passages occur ; תר” על מנת שאני קריינא “The Rabbins deliver. If he saith, ‘Be thou my espouser if I read : if he read three verses in the synagogue, behold she is espoused. R. Judah saith, ‘Not until he read and interpret.’ יתרגם מדעתיה May he interpret according to his own sense? But the tradition is this : R. Judah saith, המתרגם פסוק כצורתי He that interprets according to his own form behold he is a liar. If he add any thing to it, behold he is a reproacher and blasphemer. What therefore is the Targum ? [Or what intepretation is to be used ?] Our Targum.”(8) Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 49a קידושין מטא

The Gloss there writes thus : “He that interprets a verse [pg. 260] according to his own form, that is, according to the literal sound : for example, לֹא-תַעֲנֶה עַל רִיב Exod. xxiii. 2 ; he that interprets that thus, לא תסהיד על דינה Thou shalt not testify against a judgement, is a liar : for he commands that judgement be brought forth into light. But let him so interpret it, Thou shalt not restrain thyself from teaching any that inquire of thee in judgement. So Onkelos renders it.”

If he add any thing to it : — If he say, ‘Because liberty is given to add somewhat, I will add wheresoever it lists me; he sets God at nought and changeth his words. For wheresoever Onkelos added, he added not of his own sense. For the Targum was given in mount Sinai, and when they forgot it, he came and restored it. And Rab. Chananeel explains these words, ‘He that interprets a verse according to his own form,’ by this example וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל Exod. xxiv. 10. He that shall render it thus, וחזר ית אלהא דישראל and they saw the God of Israel, is a liar ; for no man hath seen God and shall live: and he will add to it who should render it, וחזר ית מלאכא דאלהא and they saw the angle of God. For he attributes the glory of God to an angel. But let him interpret it thus, וחזר ית יקרא דאלהא and they saw the glory of God of Israel. So Onkelos again.”

So great a work do they reckon it to interpret the sacred text. And these things which have bee said perhaps will afford some light about the gift of interpretation.

But although the use of the Hebrew tongue among these ministers was so profitable and necessary, yet there was some abuse with the apostle chastiseth ; namely, that they used it not to edification and without an interpreter. And further, while I behold the thing more closely, I suspect them to Judaize in this matter, which we have before observed them to have done in other things ; and that they retained the use of the Hebrew language in the church, although unknown to the common people, and followed the custom of the synagogue. Where,

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