Johann Albrecht Bengel’s Textual Criticism
JOHANN ALBRECHT BENGEL was born at Wismenden, Germany on this day, 24 June 1687. His devout, loving father undertook his earliest instruction, but he died when Bengel was only six years old. His teacher David Spindler became a second father to him and oversaw his preparation for higher education. The deeply pious Bengel felt that his sense of responsibility toward Christ made him a better student.
His mother eventually remarried and her husband was able to pay for Bengel’s further education. After studying Scripture and philosophy at the University of Tübingen, Bengel became an assistant pastor in a Lutheran church. A year later he accepted a position preparing students at Tübingen, which turned his attention to theology. Afterward, he accepted a position training ministers at Denkendorf. Before settling into the job, he traveled across Germany, visiting notable educators to discover their best teaching techniques.
He reached Denkendorf well-prepared for his duties, but soon found himself pondering a serious question. As he read through the editions of the Greek New Testament which were available in his day with his students, he was perplexed. Although he believed the Bible was God’s word, he was not sure just what the word said because of variations in the surviving New Testament manuscripts. He determined to find out. Denkendorf lacked resources for Biblical studies, but with zeal and perseverance, Bengel acquired manuscripts and study aids to support his inquiries and began a careful analysis of texts in an attempt to reconstruct the original New Testament.
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At the age of forty-seven, Bengel published his highly original research. He saw that Biblical manuscripts fell into two families—those deriving from Mid Eastern sources and those based on African sources. He reasoned that the manuscript which could account for all the variations was probably the earliest; otherwise, the most complex version should be preferred because a copyist would have been more likely to simplify a text than to increase its complexity. He rated alternative readings from best to worst. Despite his respect for the Bible and reverent approach, critics grumbled he was trying to change the Bible.
Later Bengel caused a stir by issuing a book that predicted that Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth would begin in 1836. He balanced this lapse in judgment with a superb volume of notes on the New Testament, which helped awaken new interest in the Gospels and epistles.
Bengel died in 1752 at the age of sixty-five. Six of his twelve children survived into adulthood.