Station Five: Wilkins Donations (Politics and Religion)

John Lightfoot

The harmony of the Four Evangelists (1644)


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This book exemplifies a more irenic use of theological scholarship, and as Wilkins gave at least four texts of a similar type by this author, we may place some emphasis on this portion of Wilkins's donation. John Lightfoot (1602-1675) was a Cambridge-educated Hebraist and biblical scholar of considerable reputation. In the 1640s he was living in London, where he preached before the Commons and was active on the Westminster Assembly of Divines; but he returned to Cambridge in 1650 after being appointed Master of St Catharine's College by the Parliamentary Visitors. He published his four-part Harmony of the Four Evangelists between 1644 and 1658, with a companion work on Acts in 1645, and also portions on Old Testament books and a general chronology of the Old Testament. In the 1650s Lightfoot assisted with Brian Walton's Polyglot Bible, including proof-correction, as did Alexander Huish of Wadham. Lightfoot's Harmony, which unlike most of his other scholarly works was in English, proceeded chronologically by setting out a brief chronology of the Old Testament, and then proceeding through Christ's life in stages, harmonizing the different gospel narratives into conformity, and showing how the Old and New Testaments corresponded. Lightfoot also explained many technical matters, such as the cycle of the Jewish lessons and readings of the Law. He dedicated this first volume to the Earl of Essex, military commander of the Parliamentary armies, 'for the defence of Laws, Liberties, and Religion'. Two biographies of Lightfoot appeared before his collected works in 1684, where it is claimed that Lightfoot composed his scholarly gospel harmony by shutting himself up in a study built for the purpose 'in the midst of a Garden'. In the next century Edward Gibbon called him 'the Christian Rabbi'; and Lightfoot's works were reprinted right into the nineteenth century. It is fitting that Wilkins chose to present a number of Lightfoot's harmonies and chronologies to his college: this was state-of-the-art technical exegesis, and could be appreciated across the spectrum of religious persuasion.