Work Rate, Write Right

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about and by two famous Durhamites— C.K. Barrett, and his predecessor, and in some respects, role model. J.B. Lightfoot. One of the interesting connections is their work rate. They were not afraid of hard work and lots of it. Kingsley, for example, regularly would work from 10-2 in the morning on his scholarly work. In part this is because he was a good family man, and the earlier part of the evening until the children went to bed was devoted to family tasks, including reading Penelope, and presumably Martin, bedtime stories. Penelope remembers Winnie the Pooh being read, quite distinctly. But then, Kingsley would get to work rather than go straight to bed. You got the impression he didn’t waste much time on TV or lots of sporting events.

Then there was J.B. Lightfoot. He had the natural advantage that he decided to commit himself to the celibate life, and he remained that way always. More time for work, both scholarly, and later episcopal work as well. The anecdotes about Lightfoot are plentiful. For example, in his 1981 lecture of Lightfoot in Durham Cathedral, J.A.T. Robinson quoted the following anecdote from Lightfoot’s days as a Cambridge scholar and lecturer:

“Handley Moule (Lightfoot’s successor one person removed at Durham) describes the man’s habits “No one every loitered so late in the Great Court that he did not see Lightfoot’s lamp burning in his study window, though no many either was so regularly present in morning Chapel at seven o’clock that he did not find Lightfoot always there with him.”

Lightfoot apparently didn’t require a lot of sleep. But that is not the whole story. The man worked even while on the move, and even in the midst of vast episcopal duties. And his powers of concentration must have been immense, not to mention his apparently near photographic memory for ancient Greek texts…

Robinson remarks….There are vivid descriptions of Lightfoot being found in a boat or railway carriage with an Armenian or Coptic grammar in hand or calmly correcting proofs while being driven down precipitous paths in Norway….But above all the secret lay in his ability to switch off, giving himself totally to what was before him. As his chaplain ‘J.R. Harmer] put it… ‘His power of detachment and concentration was extraordinary. I have seen him break off from an incomplete sentence for a momentous interview with one of his clergy, give him his undivided and sympathetic attention followed by the wisest counsel and final decision, and almost before the door was closed upon his visitor become once more absorbed in his literary work.”

Often enough in my career, I’ve gotten the question about how I write so much. Well writing comes naturally to me, and I have been heartened by what Lightfoot says about writing, going against the grain of those who insist that before you write you must suffer the paralysis of analysis until you get a brain cramp. People who think like this seem to think they are expected to produce something final, definitive, earth-shattering, when in fact all that is really required is excellence, and something really good or worthwhile for some good purpose.

Lightfoot: — “Begin to write as soon as you possibly can. That was what Prince Lee [his headmaster at King Edward’s, Birmingham] always said to us. This is the way to learn. Almost all I have learnt has come from writing books. If you write a book on a subject, you have to read everything that has been written about it.”

Writing is a key to learning, and vice versa. As for reading absolutely everything that has been written on subject, that’s a bit of rhetorical hyperbole which one can forgive Lightfoot for, in an age before millions of things online on a given subject.

Hard work, perseverance, learning… and having good models or examples to follow. Perspicuity is the chief virtue of a style it has been said. William Sanday (yet another Durhamite who helped write a commentary for the ICC series) once said that what characterized Lightfoot was ‘exactness of scholarship, width of erudition, scientific method, sobriety of judgment and lucidity of style.”

This is my goal as well, and frankly it takes hard work, lots of sacrifices, and persistence… and perhaps most of all a love for truth, particularly finding God’s truth about Jesus and other essential subjects. I have written a whole book on what it takes to be a Biblical scholar, entitled Is There a Doctor in the House? Consider this a supplement to what is said there.

  • Benjamin Marx

    Thank you Dr. Witherington for sharing the above. I also gained a lot of insight and encouragment from “Is There a Doctor in the House?”

    Grace and peace to you!

  • Matthew Hamilton

    The best writing advice I’ve received is that one has to be willing to write poorly; one must continue writing, even if the quality of the material is poor, until he or she can formulate the thoughts on paper, and then the (self-)editing process will correct the poor quality of the material!

  • BenW3

    Self editing is inadequate for any professional sort of writing. Another pair of eyes is required. BW3

  • Matthew Hamilton

    Oh, I certainly agree, although I am usually too embarrassed to let others see my writing until I am at least a few drafts in!

  • Patrick

    Dr. Witherington,

    First thank you for your ministry of scholarship to the Church! Can you recommend a biography of Bishop Lightfoot, and is there a study that looks at the collective impact/legacy of Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort’s New Testament scholarship? Thank you!

  • BenW3

    Hi Patrick: There really isn’t a good definitive biography of Lightfoot as of yet. There is an older one entitled Lightfoot of Durham which you could track down, but it’s not very adequate. Some of the useful surveys of the modern history of NT interpretation will deal with Lightfoot, Hort, etc. I suggest you look at Stephen Neil’s survey. BW3

  • Patrick

    Greetings, once more, Dr. Witherington! Thank you for your reply and suggestions! I will definitely pursue them! Westcott, Lightfoot, and Hort inspire me with the breadth and depth of their erudition and the consummate way they each melded the two ideals of churchman and scholar together. I recently received early and well-worn editions of Lightfoot’s commentary on Philippians and Westcott’s on the Gospel of John from an older friend who is retiring from ministry. This bequest and your posts on discovering Lightfoot’s notes on Acts and this one on his devotion to the scholarly task have inspired me to learn more about him, his work, and that of his Anglican colleagues in this triumvirate of Anglican New Testament churchman-scholars. Thank you!


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