He was born in Liverpool, where his father was an accountant. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, under James Prince Lee, afterwards Bishop of Manchester. His contemporaries included Brooke Foss Westcott and Edward White Benson. In 1847 Lightfoot went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and read for his degree along with Westcott. He graduated senior classic and 30th wrangler, and was elected a fellow of his college. From 1854 to 1859 he edited the Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology. In 1857 he became tutor and his fame as a scholar grew. He was made Hulsean professor in 1861, and shortly afterwards chaplain to the Prince Consort and honorary chaplain in ordinary to Queen Victoria.
In 1866 he was Whitehall preacher, and in 1871 he became canon of St Paul's Cathedral. His sermons were not remarkable for eloquence, but a certain solidity and balance of judgment, an absence of partisanship, a sobriety of expression combined with clearness and force of diction, attracted hearers and inspired them with confidence. As was written of him in The Times after his death,
"his personal character carried immense weight, but his great position depended still more on the universally recognized fact that his belief in Christian truth and his defense of it were supported by learning as solid and comprehensive as could be found anywhere in Europe, and by a temper not only of the utmost candor but of the highest scientific capacity. The days in which his university influence was asserted were a time of much shaking of old beliefs. The disintegrating speculations of an influential school of criticism in Germany were making their way among English men of culture just about the time, as is usually the case, when the tide was turning against them in their own country. The peculiar service which was rendered at this juncture by the 'Cambridge School' was that, instead of opposing a mere dogmatic opposition to the Tübingen critics, they met them frankly on their own ground; and instead of arguing that their conclusions ought not to be and could not be true, they simply proved that their facts and their premises were wrong. It was a characteristic of equal importance that Dr Lightfoot, like Dr Westcott, never discussed these subjects in the mere spirit of controversy. It was always patent that what he was chiefly concerned with was the substance and the life of Christian truth, and that his whole energies were employed in this inquiry because his whole heart was engaged in the truths and facts which were at stake. He was not diverted by controversy to side-issues; and his labor was devoted to the positive elucidation of the sacred documents in which the Christian truth is enshrined."
In 1874, the anonymous publication of Supernatural Religion, a work speculated by some to be authored by Walter Richard Cassels, created considerable sensation. In a series of papers in the Contemporary Review, between December 1874 and May 1877, Lightfoot undertook the defense of the New Testament canon. The articles were published in collected form in 1889. About the same time he was engaged in contributions to W Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography and Dictionary of the Bible, and he also joined the committee for revising the translation of the New Testament. In 1875 he became Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity in succession to William Selwyn.
He had previously written his commentaries on the Epistle to Galatians (1865), Epistle to Philippians (1868) and Epistle to the Colossians (1875), the notes to which were distinguished by sound judgment and enriched from his large store of patristic and classical learning. These commentaries may be described as to a certain extent a new departure in New Testament exegesis. Before Lightfoot's time, commentaries had frequently consisted either of short homilies on particular portions of the text, or of endeavors to enforce foregone conclusions, or of attempts to decide with infinite industry and ingenuity between the interpretations of former commentators. Lightfoot endeavored to make his author interpret himself, and by considering the general drift of his argument to discover his meaning where it appeared doubtful. Thus he was able often to recover the meaning of a passage which had long been buried under a heap of contradictory glosses, and he founded a school in which sobriety and common sense were added to the industry and ingenuity of former commentators.
In 1879 Lightfoot was consecrated bishop of Durham in succession to Charles Baring. He was as successful in this position as he had been when professor of theology, and he soon surrounded himself with a band of scholarly young men. He endeavored to combine his habits of theological study with the practical work of administration. He exercised a large liberality and did much to further the work of temperance and purity organizations. He continued to work at his editions of the Apostolic Fathers, and in 1885 published an edition of the Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, collecting also a large store of valuable materials for a second edition of Clement of Rome, which was published after his death (1st ed., 1869). His defense of the authenticity of the Epistles of Ignatius is one of the most important contributions to that very difficult controversy. His unremitting labors impaired his health and shortened his splendid career at Durham. He was never married. He died at Bournemouth and was succeeded in the episcopate by Westcott, his schoolfellow and lifelong friend.
In 2014, it was announced that InterVarsity Press had agreed to publish ca. 1500 pages of previously unpublished Biblical commentaries and essays by Lightfoot found in Durham Cathedral.
The corpus of Lightfoot's writings include essays on biblical and historical subject matter, commentaries on Pauline epistles, and studies on the Apostolic Fathers. His sermons were posthumously published in four official volumes, and additionally in the Contemporary Pulpit Library series.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1890). Apostolic Fathers. Part I. (two vols). London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1885-89). Apostolic Fathers. Part II. (three vols). London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1891). Apostolic Fathers Abridged. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1893). Biblical Essays. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1892). Dissertations on the Apostolic Age. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1889). Essays on Supernatural Religion. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1871). Fresh Revision of the English New Testament. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1895). Historical Essays. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1890). Leaders in the Northern Church. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1895). Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul from Unpublished Commentaries. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1890). Ordination Addresses. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1882). Primary Charge. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1869). St. Clement of Rome. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1865). Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1875). Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1868). Saint Paul's Epistle to the Philippians. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1868). The Christian Ministry.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1891). Sermons preached in St. Paul's. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1891). Special Sermons. London: MacMillan and Co.
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1892). The Contemporary Pulpit Library: Sermons by Bishop Lightfoot. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
- "Lightfoot, Joseph Barber (LTFT847JB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- "Congress Presidents 1869-2002". February 2002. Retrieved 2008-05-10
- Ben Witherington III, "Text Archaeology: The Finding of Lightfoot's Lost Manuscripts," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 40, No. 2 (March/April 2014), pp. 28, 71.
- Treloar, Geoffrey R. 'Lightfoot the historian: the nature and role of history in the life and thought of J.B. Lightfoot (1828–1889) as churchman and scholar' Unpublished PhD Thesis (Tübingen, 1998)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Works written by or about Joseph Lightfoot at Wikisource
- Works by Joseph Barber Lightfoot at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Joseph Barber Lightfoot at the Internet Archive
- Bibliographic page on Lightfoot, Project Canterbury
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