Bible's 1st Textual Critic, Johann A. Bengel

Dan Graves, MSL

Bible's 1st Textual Critic, Johann A. Bengel

When any boy is born into the world, one can only wonder "what will he become?" Will he be a rascal or a saint, a scholar or a general, a nobody or a man of consequence?

John Albert Bengel was born at Winnenden, Germany on this day June 24, 1687. Perhaps such thoughts passed through his parents' minds. John's father was a Lutheran pastor. Whatever his hopes and dreams for his son, he did not live long enough to see them fulfilled. Mr. Bengel died when John was only six years old.

A family friend saw to the boy's education. Firmly grounded in the learning of the day, John entered the university of Tubingen. He studied philosophy and the Scriptures. After taking his degree, he studied theology, but he wrestled with doubts. How could he know what was true when versions of the Greek Bible disagreed with one another?

The young man began to compare manuscripts. Meanwhile, he married. His wife and he had twelve children, but six died young. John established himself as a tutor and then as the head of a school to prepare students for university. Before taking the job, he traveled across Germany, visiting all sorts of schools in order to learn the best teaching techniques of the day.

For many years, he studied Bible texts. He recognized that the texts fell into two families, those that came to us from the east (Byzantium) and those that came from Africa. But where the texts disagreed, which one was right? He decided that "The more difficult reading is to be preferred." Someone copying the scripture by hand would be more likely to simplify a text, he thought, than to make it more complicated. He also taught that the text that can account for all the variations is no doubt the earliest. He suggested alternate versions for the text which he rated from alpha (best) to epsilon (worst).

John was 47-years-old when he published his Greek New Testament. The work was a first of its kind, making him the first Protestant textual critic.

Six years after his Greek revision, John published a book on prophecy. This caused quite a scare. His good sense seemed to have deserted him. Forgetting that Christ said no one knows the day of his return, John claimed that the Millennium (Christ's 1,000 year reign) would begin in 1836. Some of the people who read his book actually sold their homes and moved to be further from the place where they thought anti-Christ would appear!

John's last major book consisted of notes on the New Testament. Scholars still use this, because with just a few words, he could pack deep explanations of scripture. He hoped his book would awaken a new interest in the New Testament. John Wesley loved it.

John Bengel died in 1752. His father would probably have been proud of him, although some people grumbled that he was trying to change the Bible.*

*Note: While there are many differences in texts, the vast majority are minor details, and few, if any, affect the major doctrines of Christianity.

Bibliography:

  1. "Bengel, Johann Albrecht." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.
  2. "Bengel, Johann Albrecht." The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949-1950.
  3. "Johann Albrecht Bengel." Kirchenlexikon.
  4. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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