COLENSO, JOHN WILLIAM:
By: Joseph Jacobs
Bishop of Natal and English Biblical critic; born at St. Austell, Cornwall, Jan. 24, 1814; died Jan. 20, 1883. He was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge. After obtaining his degree Colenso passed some time as a teacher at Harrow, where he produced his well-known school-books on arithmetic and algebra. He became Bishop of Natal in 1853. For the purposes of his mission to the Zulus he mastered their language. He wrote and published a Zulu grammar, and translated into that language the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Samuel.
During the course of his translation he was much troubled by inquiries from the intelligent Zulus whom he used as interpreters as to the discrepancies in the different narratives contained in Genesis and Exodus. This led him to write his "Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined," of which the first part appeared in 1862, and created great excitement in the theological world. Colenso drew attention to the arithmetical difficulties attached to the acceptance of the Biblical estimate of the number of fighting men (600,000) who left Egypt at the time of the Exodus, since this number assumes a population of over two millions. Colenso's early studies enabled him to realize the difficulties of commissariat involved in the movement of such large numbers. He was ultimately led to deny the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and to declare that Jeremiah was the author of the Book of Deuteronomy. He was deposed by the Bishop of Cape Town for heresy in 1863, but the act of deposition was not confirmed by the Privy Council, and Colenso remained Bishop of Natal to his death.
His work, the later parts of which show considerable advance on the somewhat crude views expressed in the earlier portions, was concluded by the publication of part seven in 1879. He was for a long time the solitary English representative of the higher criticism, and was thereby exposed to much obloquy. The well-known "Speaker's Commentary" was projected mainly in order to combat his views. These created great interest in Jewish quarters, and were answered by Dr. H. Adler and Dr. A. Benisch.
- Dictionary of National Biography, s.v.