Schürer was born in Augsburg. After studying at Erlangen, Berlin and Heidelberg from 1862 to 1866, he became in 1873 professor extraordinarius at Leipzig and eventually (1895) professor ordinarius at Göttingen. In 1876 he founded and edited the Theologische Literaturzeitung, which he edited with Adolf Harnack from 1881 to 1910. He died after a long illness in 1910 in Göttingen.
His elaborate work on the history of the Jews in the time of Christ, Geschichte des judischen Volks im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (1886–1890; 4th edition 1901–1909), made him one of the best known of modern German scholars in Great Britain and the United States. The second edition was translated into English under the title A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (1885–1891). Later, a revised English version of the work was created under the editorship of Géza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black, with the slightly different title of The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (1973–1987). In its earliest form, this work appeared as Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte (1874).