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Ewald was born at Göttingen where his father was a linen weaver. In 1815 he was sent to the gymnasium, and in 1820 he entered the University of Göttingen, where he studied with J.G. Eichhorn and T. C. Tychsen, specialising in oriental languages. At the close of his academic studies in 1823 he was appointed to a mastership in the gymnasium at Wolfenbüttel, and made a study of the oriental manuscripts in the Wolfenbüttel library. But in the spring of 1824 he was recalled to Göttingen as repentant, or theological tutor, and in 1827 (the year of Eichhorn's death) he became professor extraordinarius in philosophy and lecturer in Old Testament exegesis. Heinrich Ewald married in 1830 Wilhelmina (1808-1846), daughter of C.F. Gauss. Of all of Gauss' children, Wilhelmina was said to have come closest to her father's talent, but regrettably, she died young. In 1831 Heinrich Ewald was promoted to professor ordinarius in philosophy; in 1833 he became a member of the Royal Scientific Society, and in 1835, after Tychsen's death, he entered the faculty of theology, taking the chair of Oriental languages.
Two years later occurred the first important episode in Ewald's studious life. In 1837, on November 18, along with six of his colleagues he signed a formal protest against the action of King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover in abolishing the liberal constitution of 1833, which had been granted to the House of Hanover by his predecessor William IV of the United Kingdom. This bold procedure of the seven professors led to their speedy expulsion from the university (December 14). Early in 1838 Ewald received a call to Tübingen, and there for upwards of ten years he held a chair as professor ordinarius, first in philosophy and afterwards, from 1841, in theology. To this period belong some of his most important works, and also the commencement of his bitter feud with F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school. In 1847, "the great shipwreck-year in Germany," as he has called it, he was invited back to Göttingen on honourable terms--the liberal constitution having been restored. He gladly accepted the invitation.
In 1862-1863 Ewald took an active part in a movement for reform within the Hanoverian Church, and he was a member of the synod which passed the new constitution. He had an important share also in the formation of the Protestantenverein, or Protestant association, in September 1863. But the chief crisis in his life arose out of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. His loyalty to King George V of Hanover (son of Ernst August) would not permit him to take the oath of allegiance to the victorious King William I of Prussia, and he was therefore placed on the retired list, though with the full amount of his salary as pension.
This degree of severity might have been held by the Prussian authorities to be unnecessary, had Ewald been less hostile in his language. The violent tone of some of his printed manifestoes about this time, especially of his Lob des Königs u. des Volkes, led to his being deprived of the venia legendi (1868) and also to a criminal process, which, however, resulted in his acquittal (May 1869). Then, and on two subsequent occasions, he was returned by the city of Hanover as a member of the North German and German parliaments. In June 1874 he was found guilty of a libel on Otto von Bismarck, whom he had compared to Frederick the Great in "his unrighteous war with Austria and his ruination of religion and morality," to Napoleon III in his way of "picking out the best time possible for robbery and plunder." For this offence he was sentenced to undergo three weeks' imprisonment. He died in his 72nd year, of heart disease.
In his public life Ewald displayed characteristics such as simplicity and sincerity, moral earnestness, independence, absolute fearlessness. As a teacher he had a remarkable power of kindling enthusiasm; and he taught many distinguished pupils, including August Schleicher, Ferdinand Hitzig, Eberhard Schrader, Theodor Noldeke, Diestel and Christian Friedrich August Dillmann. His disciples were not all of one school, but many eminent scholars who apparently have been untouched by his influence have in fact developed some of the many ideas which he suggested.
Ewald's Hebrew Grammar inaugurated a new era in biblical philology. Subsequent works in that department were avowedly based on his, and to him will always belong the honour of having been, to quote Hitzig, "the second founder of the science of the Hebrew language." As an exegete and biblical Critic no less than as a grammarian he has left his abiding mark. His Geschichte des Volkes Israel, the result of thirty years' labour, was epoch-making in that branch of research. While in every line it bears the marks of intense individuality, it is at the same time a product highly characteristic of the age, and even of the decade, in which it appeared. If it is obviously the outcome of immense learning on the part of its author, it is no less manifestly the result of the speculations and researches of many laborious predecessors in all departments of history, theology and philosophy.
Taking up the idea of a divine education of the human race, and firmly believing that to each of the leading nations of antiquity a special task had been providentially assigned, Ewald felt no difficulty about Israel's place in universal history, or about the problem which that race had been called upon to solve. The history of Israel, according to him, is simply the history of the manner in which the one true religion really and truly came into the possession of mankind. Other nations, indeed, had attempted the highest problems in religion; but Israel alone, in the providence of God, had succeeded, for Israel alone had been inspired. Such is the supreme meaning of that national history which began with the exodus and culminated (at the same time virtually terminating) in the appearing of Jesus.
The historical interval that separated these two events is treated as naturally dividing itself into three great periods,--those of Moses, David and Ezra. The periods are externally indicated by the successive names by which the chosen people were called--Hebrews, Israelites, Jews. The events prior to the exodus are relegated by Ewald to a preliminary chapter of primitive history; and the events of the apostolic and postapostolic age are treated as a kind of appendix. The entire construction of the history is based, as has already been said, on a critical examination and chronological arrangement of the available documents. So far as the results of criticism are still uncertain with regard to the age and authorship of any of these, Ewald?s conclusions must of course be regarded as unsatisfactory. But his work remains a storehouse of learning and?is increasingly recognized as a work of rare genius.
Of Ewald's works the more important are:
- Die Composition der Genesis kritisch untersucht (1823), an acute and able attempt to account for the use of the two names of God without recourse to the document-hypothesis; he was not himself, however, permanently convinced by it.
- De metris carminum Arabicorum (I825)
- Des Hohelied Salomo?s übersetzt u. erklärt (1826; 3rd ed, 1866)
- Kritische Grammatik der hebr. Sprache (1827)--this afterwards became the Ausführliches Lehrbuch der hebr. Sprache (8th ed., 1870)
- Hebr. Sprachlehre für Anfänger (4th ed., 1874)
- Über einige ältere Sanskritmetra. Ein Versuch (1827)
- Liber Vakedu de Mesopotamiae expugnatae historia (1827)
- Commentarius in Apocalypsin Johannis (1828)
- Abhandlungen zur biblischen u. orientalischen Literatur (1832)
- Grammatica critica linguae Arabicae (1831-1833)
- Die poetischen Bücher des alten Bundes (1835-1837, 3rd ed, 1866- 1867)
- Plan dieser Zeitschrift. In: Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 1 (1837), pp. 3-13.
- Die Propheten des alten Bundes (1840-1841, 2nd ed., 1867-1868)
- Geschichte des Volkes Israel (1843-1859, 3rd ed., 1864-1868)
- Alterthümer Israels (1848)
- Die drei ersten Evangelien übersetzt u. erklärt (1850)
- Über das äthiopische Buch Henoch (1854)
- Die Sendschreiben des Apostels Paulus übersetzt u. erklärt (1857)
- Die Johanneischen Schriften übersetzt u. erklärt (1861-1862)
- Über des vierte Esrabuch (1863)
- Sieben Sendschreiben des neuen Bundes (1870)
- Das Sendschreiben an die Hebräer u. Jakobos' Rundschreiben (1870)
- Die Lehre der Bibel von Gott, oder Theologie des alten u. neuen Bundes (1871-1875).
- Commentary on the book of Job. (translated from German by J. Frederick Smith) (1882) ISBN 0-8370-3085-4
The Jahrbücher der biblischen Wissenschaft (1849-1865) were edited, and for the most part written, by him. He was the chief promoter of the Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, begun in 1837; and he frequently contributed on various subjects to the Götting. gelehrte Anzeigen. He was also the author of many pamphlets.
- Davies, Thomas Witton: Heinrich Ewald Orientalist and Theologian 1803-1903. A Centenary Appreciation. London 1903.
- Perlitt, Lothar: „Heinrich Ewald. Der Gelehrte in der Politik.“ In: Bernd Müller (ed.): Theologie in Göttingen eine Vorlesungsreihe. Göttingen 1987, pp. 157-212.
- "Ewald, Heinrich Georg August", in the Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon.
- Dillmann, A., "Ewald, Georg Heinrich August", in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (Leipzig 1877), Vol. 6, pp. 438–442.
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