He was born at Nordhausen. In 1803 he became a student of philosophy and theology at the University of Helmstedt, where Heinrich Henke was his most influential teacher; but the latter part of his university course was taken at the Göttingen, where Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Thomas Christian Tychsen were then at the height of their popularity. In 1806, shortly after graduation, he became Repetent and Privatdozent at Göttingen; and, as he was later proud to say, had August Neander for his first pupil in Hebrew language. In 1810 he became professor extraordinarius in theology, and in 1811 ordinarius, at the University of Halle, where, in spite of many offers of high preferment elsewhere, he spent the rest of his life.
He taught with great regularity for over thirty years. The only interruptions occurred in 1813-1814, occasioned by the German War of Liberation (War of the Sixth Coalition), during which the university was closed, and those occasioned by two prolonged literary tours, first in 1820 to Paris, London and Oxford with his colleague Johann Karl Thilo (1794–1853) for the examination of rare oriental manuscripts, and in 1835 to England and the Netherlands in connection with his Phoenician studies. He became the most popular teacher of Hebrew and of Old Testament introduction and exegesis in Germany; during his later years his lectures were attended by nearly five hundred students. Among his pupils the most eminent were Peter von Bohlen, C. P. W. Gramberg, A. G. Hoffmann, Hermann Hupfeld, Emil Rödiger, J. F. Tuch, Johann Karl Wilhelm Vatke and Theodor Benfey.
In 1827, after declining an invitation to take Eichhorn's place at Göttingen, Gesenius was made a Consistorialrath; but, apart from the violent attacks to which he, along with his friend and colleague Julius Wegscheider, was in 1830 subjected by E. W. Hengstenberg and his party in the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, on account of his rationalism, his life was uneventful.
Gesenius takes much of the credit for having freed Semitic philology from the trammels of theological and religious prepossession, and for inaugurating the strictly scientific (and comparative) method which has since been so fruitful. As an exegete he exercised a powerful influence on theological investigation.
Of his many works, the earliest, published in 1810, entitled Versuch über die maltesische Sprache, was a successful refutation of the current opinion that the modern Maltese language was of Punic origin. In the same year appeared the first volume of the Hebräisches u. Chaldäisches Handwörterbuch, completed in 1812. Revised editions of this appear periodically in Germany.
Of particular interest to English-speaking students of Hebrew are two related works, which arrived on modern library shelves through parallel paths. In 1833, Gesenius published a Latin work, the Lexicon Manuale Hebraicum et Chaldaicum in Veteris Testamenti Libros, and in 1834 a corresponding issue of the German work, Hebräisches und Chaldäisches Handwörterbuch über das Alte Testament. The Lexicon Manuale was subsequently translated to English in America by Edward Robinson D.D. in 1836. The British scholar and theologian Tregelles published his own version in 1846, which was reissued in 1857 with special warnings in a section "To The Student" about scholarly attacks on Christianity and the dangers of Gesenius' rationalism.
The publication of a new Hebrew-English Lexicon was started in 1892 under the editorship of Professors Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver and Charles Augustus Briggs, now well known as the Brown Driver Briggs lexicon or BDB for short. It was published in 1906. With the Lexicon Manuale as a starting point, it drew heavily from the Hebräisches und Chaldäisches as well as Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar (external link below) and Thesaurus (cited below). Since then, both the Tregelles Lexicon and the BDB and have been reissued with Strong's numbering system to aid in navigating their contents.
The Hebräische Grammatik, published in 1813 (28th edition by Emil Kautzsch; English translation by Arthur Ernest Cowley, 1910; 29th edition [incomplete] by Gotthelf Bergstrasser, 1918–29), was followed in 1815 by the Geschichte der hebräischen Sprache (now very rare), and in 1817 by the Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der hebräischen Sprache.
The first volume of his well-known commentary on Isaiah (Der Prophet Jesaia), with a translation, appeared in 1821; but the work was not completed until 1829. The Thesaurus philologico-criticus linguae Hebraicae et Chaldaicae Veteris Testamenti, begun in 1829, he did not live to complete; the latter part of the third volume is edited by Rödiger (1853). Other works include: De Pentateuchi Samaritana origine, indole, et auctoritate (1815), supplemented in 1822 and 1824 by the treatise De Samaritanorum theologia, and by an edition of Carmina Samaritana; Paläographische Studien über phönizische u. punische Schrift (1835), a pioneering work which he followed up in 1837 by his collection of Phoenician monuments (Scripturae linguaeque Phoeniciae monumenta quotquot supersunt); an Aramaic lexicon (1834–1839); and a treatise on the Old South Arabian language, then called Himyarite, written in conjunction with Rödiger in 1841.
Gesenius also contributed extensively to Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopädie, and enriched the German translation of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt's Travels in Syria and the Holy Land with valuable geographical notes. For many years he also edited the Halle Allgemeine Litteraturzeitung. A sketch of his life was published anonymously in 1843 (Gesenius: eine Erinnerung für seine Freunde), and another by Hermann Gesenius, Wilhelm Gesenius, ein Erinnerungsblatt an den hundertjährigen Geburtstag am 3. Februar 1886, in 1886.
- יעקב שביט, "וגם גזניוס ברוך יהיה", באתר הארץ, 16/04/10
- See, Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles), Baker Books, 2000 Reprint. The Preface describes Lexicon Manuale and the German Lexicon separately.
- See, Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, 1979, The preface describes the development of their work using Gesenius and other sources.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Gustav Moritz Redslob (1879), "Gesenius", Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB) (in German) 9, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 89–93
- Hans-Jürgen Zobel (1964) (in German). "Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). 6. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. pp. 340 et seq.. ". In
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar - written by Wilhelm Gesenius; 1910 edition, edited and enlarged by Emil Kautzsch; translated by Arthur Ernest Cowley; scanned and digitized public domain book
- A Hebrew and English Lexicon (Brown-Driver-Briggs) in Wikisource - scanned English translation of Gesenius' Hebrew-German Lexicon
- The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, a search tool based on the Brown-Driver-Briggs Gesenius