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John Duncan

John Duncan (1796 – 26 February 1870), also known as Rabbi Duncan, was a minister of the Church of Scotland, a missionary to the Jews in Hungary, and Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at New College, Edinburgh. He is best remembered for his aphorisms.


Duncan was born in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, the son of a shoemaker. Having obtained an M.A. from the University of Aberdeen in 1814, he embarked upon theological study while still an atheist, completing his studies in 1821. He subsequently became a theist, but according to his later testimony was not yet converted when he was licensed to preach in 1825.[1] Instead, he was converted in 1826 through the ministry of Cesar Malan, and in 1830 commenced ministry at Persie in Perthshire. The following year he moved to Glasgow, and was finally ordained as the minister of Milton parish church in 1836. In 1837 Duncan married, but his wife died two years later as a consequence of the premature birth of her second child. Duncan remarried in 1841, and his second wife bore him two children before her death in 1852.

As a consequence of an increased interest in the Church of Scotland concerning the conversion of the Jews, and of his own deep interest in Israel, Duncan was appointed the first missionary to the Jews from the Church of Scotland. He set out for Pesth (part of Budapest) in Hungary in 1841. Macleod writes that "since the days of the Apostles there is hardly on record such a striking work of grace among the Jews as took place in the days of his labours in Buda-Pesth," and that Adolph Saphir and Alfred Edersheim were converted through Duncan's work there.[2]

Duncan stayed in Hungary for two years, until the Disruption of 1843 led to an invitation to fill the chair of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at New College, Edinburgh. Duncan occupied this position until his death in 1870. His tombstone refers to him as "an eminent scholar and metaphysician, a profound theologian, a man of tender piety and of a lowly loving spirit."


Duncan's knowledge of Hebrew and passion for the Jewish people earned him the affectionate epithet "Rabbi".[3] Sinclair describes him as "remarkably absent-minded, in regard to the common things of life," but "intensely exercised about the higher and eternal realities."[4] He did not write any books, and described himself as "just a talker,"[5] but he had a "genius for epigrammatic wisdom,"[6] and his aphorisms continue to be quoted.

William Knight remarked on Duncan's death that "with him has perished a breathing library of wisdom."[7]


I am first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.[8]
Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door: Arminianism is all door and no house.[9]



  1. James Steven Sinclair, "Biographical Sketch," in Rich Gleanings from Rabbi Duncan (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1984 [1925]), 11.
  2. John Macleod, Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Publication Committee of the Free Church of Scotland, 1943), 282.
  3. John Brentnall, Just a Talker: Sayings of John ('Rabbi') Duncan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), xv.
  4. Sinclair, "Biographical Sketch," 15.
  5. Brentnall, Just a Talker, xvi.
  6. Macleod, Scottish Theology, 283.
  7. Brentnall, Just a Talker, xvi.
  8. Iain D. Campbell, Credo
  9. Brentnall, Just a Talker, 6.


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