1902 Encyclopedia > J A Bengel

John Albert Bengel
(Johann Albrecht Bengel)
Lutheran pietist clergyman and scholar

JOHN ALBERT BENGEL, a celebrated Biblical scholar and critic, was born at Winnenden, in Wurtemberg, on the 24th June 1687. His father, who was one of the ministers of that town, having died when Bengel was only six years old, his education was taken in hand by a friend of his father named Spindler, who having afterwards be-come a master in the gymnasium at Stuttgart, carried the boy thither with him, and superintended his education until he entered the University of Tubingen in the year 1703. While at the university, the works to which, among others, he gave special attention as private studies were those of Aristotle and Spinoza, and so thoroughly did he make himself acquainted with the metaphysics of the latter, that he was selected by one of the professors to prepare materials for a treatise De Spinosumo which the pro-fessor afterwards published. He himself used to express his " great thankfulness for the benefit which he had de-rived from the study of metaphysics and mathematics, in respect of the clearness of thought which they imparted, which was of the utmost value to him in the analysis and exposition of the language of Scripture." After taking his degree, Bengel devoted himself to the study of theology, to which the grave and religious tone of his mind, deep-ened and strengthened by his early training and discipline, naturally inclined him. Like other young men of thought-ful character, before and since, he had to struggle with doubts and difficulties of a religious nature, and he alludes, with much feeling, to the " many arrows which pierced his poor heart, and made his youth hard to bear." It is in-teresting to know that at this early date his attention was directed to the various readings of the Greek New Testa-ment, and that one cause of his mental perplexities was the difficulty of ascertaining the true reading among the great number of those which were presented to his notice. In 1707 Bengel entered the church, and was appointed to the parochial charge of Metzingen-unter-Urach. Here he remained only one year, and during that time devoted himself to the study of the writings of Spener, Arndt, A. H. Franke, and Chemnitz. The profound impression which the works of these men made upon his mind was never effaced, and may be traced in that vein of devotional, not to saypietistic, feeling which runs through all his religious compositions. In 1708 Bengel was recalled to Tubingen to undertake the office of Repetent or theological tutor. Here he remained until 1713, when he was appointed the head of a seminary recently established at Denkendorf and intended as a preparatory school of theology. Before entering on his duties there, he made a literary journey through the greater part of Germany, to acquaint himself with the various systems of education which were in use, in order to qualify himself for the better discharge of his official duties. In prosecuting the journey he visited with laudable impartiality the seminaries of the Jesuits as well as those of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. Among other places he visited Heidelberg and Halle, and had his attention directed at the former city to the canons of Scrip-ture criticism published by Gerhard von Mastricht, and at the latter to Vitringa's Anacrisis ad Apocalypsin. The in-fluence exerted by these upon his theological studies will be apparent when we come to notice his works upon the criticism and interpretation of Scripture. For twenty-eight years—from 1713-1741—he discharged his import-ant duties as head of the school of Denkendorf with dis-tinguished ability and success, devoting all his energies to the religious and intellectual improvement of his students. It is impossible to read the extracts from his diary and correspondence, which have been preserved, without being struck with the spirit of fervent piety, combined with sagacity and good sense, which characterized his manage-ment of the institution. These twenty-eight years were the period of Bengel's greatest intellectual activity, many of the works on which his reputation rests being included within them. In 1741 he was appointed prelate of the cloister of Herbrechtingen, an office which he held for eight years. In 1749 he was raised to the dignity of consis-torial counsellor and prelate of Alpirsbach, with a residence in Stuttgart. Bengel henceforth devoted himself to the discharge of his duties as a member of the consistory. A question of considerable difficulty was at that time occu-pying the attention of the church courts, viz., the manner in which those who separated themselves from the church were to be dealt with, and the amount of toleration which should be accorded to meetings held in private houses for the purpose of religious edification. The civil power (the duke of Wurtemberg was a Roman Catholic) was disposed to have recourse to measures of repression, while the mem-bers of the consistory, recognizing the good effects of such meetings, were inclined to concede a considerable degree of liberty. Bengel exerted himself on the side of the latter. The admirer of Spener, the founder of the collegia pietatis, could not but show himself favourably disposed to meetings held for religious purposes, and while main-taining the rights and privileges of the church, he was an advocate for all reasonable freedom being accorded to those who felt themselves bound on grounds of conscience to withdraw from her communion. The good effects of this policy may be seen at this day in the attitude taken up by those who in Wurtemberg have separated from the church. Bengel's public position necessarily brought him into contact with many individuals of celebrity, by whom he was consulted on all important theological and ecclesi-astical questions. In a single year he received no fewer than 1200 letters. In the year 1751 the University of Tubingen, his own alma mater, conferred upon him the degree of doctor of divinity. Bengel's life was now drawing to a close. He died, after a short illness, in 1752, aged sixty-five years and four months. He himself is reported to have said, " I shall be forgotten for a while, but I shall again come into remembranceand his favourite pupil Oetinger re-marked of him, " His like is not left in Wurtemberg."

The works on which Bengel's reputation rests as a Biblical scholar and critic are, his edition of the Greek New Testament, and his Gnomon or Exegetical Commentary on the same.
(A.) His edition of the Greek Testament was published in 4to at Tubingen in 1734, and in 8vo at Stuttgart in the same year, but without the critical apparatus. So early as 1725 he had given an account in his Prodromus Novi Testamenti Grceci recte cauteqxte adornandi of the principles on which his intended edition was to be based. In preparation for his work Bengel was able to avail himself of the collations of upwards of twenty MSS., none of them, however, of great importance, twelve of which had been collated by himself. In constituting the text, he imposed upon himself the singular restriction of not inserting any various reading which had not al-ready been printed in some preceding edition of the Greek text. From this rule, however, he deviated in the case of the Apocalypse, where, owing to the corrupt state of the text, he felt himself at liberty to introduce some readings on manuscript authority. In the lower margin of the page he inserted a selection of various read-ings, the relative importance of which he denoted by the first five letters of the Greek alphabet in the following manner :—a was em-ployed to denote the reading whicb in his judgment was the true one, although he did not venture to place it in the text; a read-ing better than that in the text; 7, one equal to the textual read-ing ; J and c, readings inferior to those in the text. Stephens's division into verses was retained in the inner margin, but the text was divided into paragraphs. The text was followed by a critical apparatus, the first part of which consisted of an introduction to the criticism of the New Testament, in the thirty-fourth section of which he laid down and explained his celebrated canon, " Proclivi Scriptioniprcestat ardua" (" The more difficult reading to be pre-ferred to that which is more easy"), the soundness of which, as a general principle, has been recognized by succeeding critics, al-though it was objected to by his great opponent Wetstein, who, nevertheless, found " himself ultimately obliged to lay down some-thing nearly to the same effect" (Scrivener). The second part of the critical apparatus was devoted to a consideration of the various readings, and here Bengel adopted the plan of stating the evidence both against and in favour of a particular reading, thus placing before the reader the materials for forming a judgment. It is a proof of Bengel's great critical sagacity that he was the first de-finitely to propound the theory of families or recensions of MSS. His investigations had led him to see that a certain affinity or re-semblance existed amongst many of the authorities for the Greek text—MSS., versions, and ecclesiastical writers ; that if a peculiar reading, e.g., were found in one of these, it was generally found also in the other members of the same class ; and this general re-lationship seemed to point ultimately to a common origin for all the authorities which presented such peculiarities. Although dis-posed at first to divide the various documents into three classes, he finally adopted a classification into two—the African, or older family of documents, and the Byzantine, cr more recent class, to which he attached only a subordinate value. The theory was afterwards adopted by Semler and Griesbach, and worked up into an elaborate system by the latter critic. Bengel's labours on the text of the Greek Testament were received with great disfavour in many quarters. Like Walton and Mill before him, he had to encounter the opposi-tion of ignorant and fanatical individuals who believed that the certainty of the Word of God was endangered by the importance attached to the various readings, as if the received text were pos-sessed of infallible authority. One of his opponents, Provost Kohl-reif, publicly challenged him to put the enemies of criticism to «ilence by admitting that even the various readings were given by inspiration, in order to meet the necessities of various classes of readers! Wetstein, on the other hand, accused him of excessive caution in not making freer use of his critical materials. In answer to these strictures, Bengel published a Defence of the Greek Text of his New Testament, which he prefixed to his Harmony of the Four Gospels, published in 1736, and which contained a sufficient answer to the misrepresentations, especially of Wetstein, which had been brought against him from BO many different quarters. The text of Bengel long enjoyed a high reputation amongst scholars, and was frequently reprinted.

(B.) The other great work of Bengel, and that on which his reputation as an exegete is mainly based, is his Gnomon, or Exe-getical Annotations on the New Testament, published in 1742. It was the fruit of twenty years' labour, and exhibits with a pregnant brevity of expression, which, it has been said, " condenses more mat-ter into a line than can be extracted from pages of other writers," the results of his study of the sacred volume. He modestly entitled his work a Gnomon or index, his object being rather to guide the reader to ascertain the meaning for himself, than to save him from the trouble of personal investigation. The principles of interpreta-tion on which he proceeded were, to import nothing into Scripture, but to draw out of it everything that it really contained, in con-formity with grammatico-hlstorical rules ; not to be hampered by dogmatical considerations ; and not to be influenced by the symboli-cal books. Bengel's .hope that the Gnomon would help to rekindle a fresh interest in the study of the New Testament was fully rea-lized. It has passed through many editions (latest 1850), has been translated into German and into English, and is still one of the books most highly prized by the expositor of the New Testament. It'is a striking testimony to its value that John Wesley largely availed himself of it in writing his Expository Notes upon the New Testament, 1755, saying that he " believed he would much better serve the interests of religion by translating from the Gnomon than by writing many volumes'of his own notes." Later commentators have not failed to follow Wesley's example.

Besides the two works already described, Bengel was the editor or author of many others, classical, patristic, ecclesiastical, and expository, which our limits do not allow us to discuss. We can only name two, viz., Ordo Temporum, a treatise on the chronology of Scripture, in which he enters upon speculations regarding the end of the world, and an Exposition of the Apocalypse, which en-joyed for a time extraordinary popularity in Germany, and was translated into several foreign languages.

For full details regarding Bengel the reader is referred to the Memoir of his Life and Writings, by J. C. F. Burk, translated into English by Rev. R. F. Walker, London, 1837. (F. C.)

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