He was educated at the gymnasium of Halle and at the University of Berlin, and maintained himself by tutoring and by doing literary work. He published his first effort, a translation of the prophets Hosea, Joel, Obadiah, and Nahum, when fifteen years old.
In 1830 he translated and annotated the works of two Judæo-Greek poets of Alexandria. A philological treatise on medical terms (Hyle Anthropine, 1831, etc.) which followed revealed his qualities as a scholar, and his versatility was emphasized by the publication in 1832 of a vindication of Spinoza.
When twenty-two years old he was called as preacher by the Jewish congregation of Magdeburg and remained in that city for twenty-eight years. In order to promote the interests of Judaism he founded the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums in 1837 and edited that journal until his death.
Two years later (1839) he began an annotated German translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he completed in 1853. This translation, with a commentary in German, was issued in several editions, one being illustrated with designs by Gustave Doré. In 1847 he published Die Entwickelung der Religiösen Idee im Judenthum, Christenthum und Islam, which was followed by Die Religion der Gesellschaft, in 1848. Both of these works were translated into several languages.
The geologist Alfred Philippson was his son.