Distinguished English classical scholar and Christian apologist; b. Oulton, Yorkshire, Jan. 27, 1662; d. Cambridge, July 7, 1742. After taking his B.A. at Cambridge at age 18, he served as tutor to the son of E. Stillingfleet, Dean of St. Paul's and later bishop of Worcester (1689–99). In Stillingfleet's house he had access to one of the best private libraries of the time, and when he accompanied his pupil to Oxford, he was able to make full use of the Bodleian. In 1690, he was ordained to the Anglican ministry and was appointed chaplain to Stillingfleet. In 1694, he was made keeper of Royal Libraries, and in 1700 he became master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Despite bitter feuds occasioned in part by his efforts at reform and in part by his own personality, he retained his mastership until his death, 42 years later.
His Letter to Mill (London 1691), published as an appendix to John mill's edition of the chronicle of the Byzantine historian, John Malalas, revealed his profound knowledge and his brilliant critical powers. It was the first of a series of epoch-making contributions to Greek and Latin textual criticism, metrics, literary history, and historical criticism. Bentley's involvement in a controversy with Sir William temple over Temple's claim that the Epistles of Phalaris was an authentic work led to the writing of his Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris (London 1697; rev. and enl. ed., 1699). By a critical use of chronological, historical, literary, and linguistic evidence, he proved that the work did not date from the 6th century b.c., but was a forgery of the Hellenistic age. In this work, his masterpiece, he founded higher literary and historical criticism.
Bentley's activity in religious controversy and in biblical studies is important also and deserves more attention than it usually receives. As the first preacher appointed under the Boyle foundation at Cambridge, he delivered eight sermons on the Folly of Atheism (London 1692), making full use of the latest discoveries of Isaac Newton in his apologetic. In 1713, under the pseudonym, Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, he published his Remarks, a strongly worded refutation of the Discourse of Free-Thinking by deist Anthony Collins (1676–1729). His Proposals for the Edition of the Greek Testament (London, 1720) is a pioneer work that anticipates in many respects the method of biblical textual criticism developed by Lachmann and other 19th-century biblical scholars. Through his own achievements and through his influence, Bentley is universally recognized as one of the greatest representatives of classical scholarship.
Bibliography: a. t. bartholomew, Richard Bentley, D.D.: A Bibliography of His Works (Cambridge, Eng. 1908). r. c. jebb, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 2:306–314. m. l. w. laistner, "Richard Bentley, 1742–1942," The Intellectual Heritage of the Early Middle Ages: Selected Essays by M. L. W. Laistner, ed. c. g. starr (Ithaca, N.Y.1957) 239–254. j. e. sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, 3v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1903–08) 2:401–410.
[m. r. p. mcguire]
J. A. Cannon