Supplementary Appendix 91a.1

Friedrich Adolf Ebert, “Charakteristik einiger Göttinger Professoren in den Jahren 1766–1769,” Ueberlieferungen zur Geschichte, Literatur und Kunst der Vor- und Mitwelt, vol. 1, issue 1 (1826), 65–71, here 68–71.

Johann David Michaelis

But Sir Michaelishe was the man with whom one could find everything one was seeking. Although he is familiar enough from his writings, I must say quite the opposite of what I said about Walch and Miller, namely, that Michaelis’s oral presentation far surpassed even his writings.

A man of impressive physical stature and bearing, dressed as a cavalier, clothes bearing the stripes of rank, in boots and spurs, sword at his side, a pompous gait, a proud countenance betraying both grand intellect and courage, fire in his eyes, which gazed so intently that one was disinclined to look directly at him for long — thus did he stride into the auditorium, the Bible under his arm. In this man’s lecture hall, hours became but as minutes for me. One noticed that every hour spent there one’s head became increasingly clear. He guided his listeners along wholly at the pace of his own searching intellect.

His delivery had something incredibly winning about it, being light, witty, and graceful, though his wit did often overflow a bit too excessively. The true suade [ability to persuade others easily], however, resided on his lips. He did not use a lectern, but rather sat quite casually at a small table, sometimes energetically repositioning himself with his chair, sometimes standing behind his chair and leaning on it, sometimes striding to and fro in the auditorium — always perfectly commensurate with the topic he was discussing.

He would have performed every role excellently had he been an actor, for he was able to identify with every situation, every passion, every character as completely as can only a consummate actor; for example, during his explanation of the Book of Job he performed the role of the book’s characters so accurately that all his listeners melted with feeling. I will never forget how while explaining Job 3 he initially described the man on the brink of despair, and then, in chapters 17ff., sank into profound melancholy.

Remarkable that a man whose area of specialization was philology and language criticism nonetheless possessed such a pronounced poetic sensibility, who when reading exquisite poetic passages in the Bible often, through sheer enthusiasm, turned into a poet on the spot. He knew almost all of Virgil and Horace by heart, often reciting entire passages from these poets from memory, and could also recite entire passages from Greek and Arab poets.

Hence one can easily imagine how excellent his lectures on the psalms must have been. There, too, he could express the most varied passions through myriad facial expressions and countenances even to the point of having tears in his eyes, indeed, to the point of the color of his face changing. Every listener was moved to tears by his explanations of Psalms 126 and 137.

Anyone intending to travel in order to acquire wisdom would have to hear Michaelis lecture on Proverbs. With him, one heard a completely different notion of morality than in the lecture halls of the theologians. His acquaintance with men and the world was extraordinarily broad; he was familiar with the grand and genteel world (to which end he had used his stay in England), but also the world of the rabble. When he lectured on Solomon, one felt as if one were in the school of a great wise man of the East.

Michaelis had many enemies among theology students, and many who did not understand him, for reasons that varied among different students. Some hated him because one had to pay in advance, no exceptions. During the initial lecture sessions, students had to write down their names, after which his own bon mot was, “Just writing it out, of course, will not suffice, whereas an advance payment certainly requires a purely believing heart.” —

Others were not his friends because he was constantly engaging in witticisms, sometimes continuing jokes for several minutes. I myself, however, often learned more in a single hour full of jokes and witticisms with him than in several hours among teachers who always pontificated down from their lecterns in an oh-so-serious tone of voice. Some bigoted young people thought it inappropriate for a Bible exegete to be a witty man of the world.

Others were dissatisfied with the material and wanted only what could be directly applied to the pulpit; these were called “Lessians” [after the Göttingen theologian Gottfried Less]. Others were simply too ill prepared for their studies and too weak in their powers of comprehension to follow Michaelis’s train of thought; others thought him too heterodox and were thus scared away.

That notwithstanding, Michaelis’s auditorium, an extremely large hall, was always filled to capacity such that one often could not find a seat.

[Similar to the following seventeenth-century illustration of an overflowing lecture hall (anonymous, Studenten im Hörsaal [ca. 1600–1625]; Dutch school; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur C Geom. 2° [228]):]


In his lecture hall one could encounter all sorts of different nationalities and kindred religions. Many Reformed theology students attended his lectures, and even a group of students of the Greek religion with their pope. Even Catholics studied under him, and the light that emerges here and there in Catholic countries doubtless acquired its initial spark in Michaelis’s lecture hall.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott