• Date of Birth: August 4, 1707
  • Born City: Tennstedt
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: Johann Christoph, a pastor, & Catherine Sophie Heden E.
  • Date of Death: September 11, 1781`
  • Death City: Leipzig
  • Death State/Country: Germany
  • Married: Rahel Fider, 1714; Amalia Dathe, 1725
  • Education:

    Schulpforte, 1723-6; Wittenberg,1726-8;  Leipzig, 1728-30; Th.D. Leipzig, 1756.

  • Dissertation:

    Vindiciae arbitrii divini in religione constituenda (Leipzig, 1756).

  • Professional Experience:

    Magister, Thomasschule, Leipzig, 1730-1; vice-principal, 1731-4; rector, 1734-59; extraordinarius, ancient literature, Leipzig, 1742-56; prof. eloquence, 1756-9; prof. theology, 1759-81.

  • Publications:

    Initia doctrinae Solidioris (1736; multiple editions); Xenophontis Memorabilia Socratis dictorum libri IV (Commentary) (1737; multiple editions); M. Tulli Ciceronis opera omnia, 6 vols. with clavis Ciceroniana (1737-9; 3rd ed., 1774-7); C. Suetonii Tranquilli opera (1748-9); Initia rhetorica (1750); C. Corneli Taciti opera (1752); Aristophanes Clouds (1754); Benjamin Hedericus, Graecum Lexicon manuale (1754; ed. & expanded, 1767); Homeri opera omnia 5 vols. (1759-64); Callimachus, 2 vols. (1761); Institutio interpretis Novi Testamenti (1761; English trans. M. Stuart as Elements of Interpretation, 1822); Opuscula oratoria (1762); Polybius (based on Casaubon’s text), 3 vols. (1764); Quaestura of CorradusBibliotheca  Latina of Fabricius (unfinished); Archaeologia lideraria (1768); Horatius Tursellinus, De particulis (1769); Johannis Albius Fabricius, Bibliotheca Latina  3 vols. (1773-4); Opuscula philologica critica (1776) Opuscula varii argumenti (1794).

  • Notes:

    Along with Johann Matthias Gesner (1691-1761), whom he succeeded as rector at the St. Thomas School, Ernesti is credited with reforming classical study in schools by employing “cursory” reading, rather like modern languages, instead of deep philological examination. He was dedicated to providing educational texts that spoke to student needs and abilities. His first work may be his most notable, Initia Doctrinae Solidioris, was a textbook on mathematics, religion and philosophy that went into many editions, but he is best known as a classicist for his work on Cicero and his attempts to inspire his students with the ideal of Ciceronian humanitas. To that end, it was more important to him that students grasp Cicero’s essential thought and appreciate his verbal style without deep philological inquiry. Even after he moved to Leipzig, he continued to produce texts that went into numerous subsequent editions, but which deployed thin notes and safe readings. When confronted with a crux in a Latin author, particularly Tacitus, he would often choose a reading that comported with Cicero’s style, which he knew so well. He revised crucial reference works like Benjamin Hederich’s (1675-1748) Greek lexicon and Johann Albert Fabricius’s (1668-1736) Bibliotheca Latina. As rector of the Thomas School he became close to the school’s cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, who asked Ernesti to stand as godfather to his children, but in 1736 they fell out over Ernesti’s approval of a student leader of musical performance whom Bach did not think worthy. In his later years of teaching at the Thomasschule, he produced the volume that made hisscholarly reputation, his six-volume edition of Cicero, ultimately supplemented by two notable appendages, a Cicero lexicon and an account of the laws mentioned in his speeches. The work won him a position at the university and ultimately went to a third edition. 

    Ernesti remained rector of the Thomas School when he moved to the university. Here he continued to reform the curriculum and to maintain classics at its core. His interpretive methods led him to a foundational role in implementing hermeneutic criticism in Germany. So general was his approach that he was not named professor of philology but of ancient literature in which capacity he prepared the way for Neuhumanismus. His most famous Leipzig student was Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812).  . This was certainly easier for his students to grasp. He turned to Greek authors and produced editions of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Aristophanes’ Clouds, Homer (based on Samuel Clarke’s (1675-1729) edition), and Callimachus. His goal again was to help the readers and students to develop their own interpretation of the material, enlarging their ability to think and reason. In this role he became a popular figure who made classics popular, but he was by no means in the first rank of text editors of his day. He did not have the breadth to undertake the historical criticism that would flower a generation later with August Boeckh (1785-1967) but as he gradually turned to theology (he received a doctorate in theology at age 49), he was, along with S.J. Baumgarten (1706-57) of Halle, able to revolutionize interpretation of the New Testament and Early Fathers by employing hermeneutic methods. Despite his criticisms of the Holy Text, he remained a faithful Christian and follower of Biblical teaching.   

  • Sources:

    Eloquentium virorum narrationes I (1826); BG 400-405; F.A. Eckstein, in Allgemeine Enzcyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künst, ed. J.S. Ersch & G.J. Gruber 37 (1842) 250-7; id. in ADB 6 (1877) 253-243; Pokel s.v.; Sandys3:11-3; R. Stevenson, “Bach’s Quarrel with the Rector of St. Thomas School,” Anglican Theological Review 35 (1951) 219-30; K. Blaschke & F. Lau, NDB 4 (1959) 604-5; P. S. Minear, “J. S. Bach and J. A. Ernesti: A Case Study in Exegetical and Theological Conflict,” in Our Common History as Christians. Essays in Honor of A. C. Outler, ed. J. Deschner et al. (1975) 131-55;  F. C. Ilgner, in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Handworterbuch fur Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, ed. H.D. Betz et al, 2, (1999) 1461-2; id., Die neutestamentliche Auslegungslehre des Johann August Ernesti (1707- 1781). Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Aufklarungshermeneutik (diss. Leipzig, 2002); Marcel Nuss, Brill, 185-6.

  • Author: Ward Briggs