He was born in Mainz (then French-controlled), as a youngest son of the lawyer Jacob Derenburg.
According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "He was a considerable force in the educational revival of Jewish education in France." He made great contributions to the knowledge of Saadia, and planned a complete edition of Saadia's works in Arabic and French. A large part of this work appeared during his lifetime.
He also wrote an Essai sur l'histoire et la géographie de la Palestine (Paris, 1867). This was an original contribution to the history of the Jews and Judaism in the time of Christ, and has been much used by later writers on the subject (e.g., by Emil Schürer). He also published in collaboration with his son Hartwig Derenbourg, Opuscules et traités d'Abou-l-Walid (with translation, 1880); Deux Versions hebraïques du livre de Kalilah et Dimnah (1881), and a Latin translation of the same story under the title Joannis de Capua directorium vitae humanae (1889); Commentaire de Maïmonide sur la Mischnah Seder Tohorot (Berlin, 1886-1891); and edited the second edition of Silvestre de Sacy's Séances de Hariri (Paris, Hachette, 1853). In 1871, Derenbourg annotated and published in Paris an important medieval work on Hebrew grammar, taken from a manuscript retrieved in Yemen, and which he titled Manuel du Lecteur (Readers Manual). The manuscript is one of the sole remaining copies of a Hebrew variant of the work known as Maḥberet ha-Tiğān (Manual of the Codices), outlining the rules of Hebrew grammar. He died in 1895 at Bad Ems.
- Joseph Derenbourg, Manuel du Lecteur, d'un Auteur Inconnu, Imprimerie Nationale: Paris 1871. The work is also described by David Solomon Sassoon, in Ohel Dawid - Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London (vol. 2), Oxford University Press: London 1932, section 964
- Yosef Yuval Tobi, Yahadut Teman (Yemenite Jewry), vol. 1, The Association for Society and Culture, Documentation and Research of Yemenite Jews: Netanya 2017, p. 11
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Derenbourg, Joseph". Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 73.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Isidore Singer and Hartwig Derenbourg (1901–1906). "Derenburg (Derenbourg)". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.