He was educated at the University of Tübingen, where he became a pupil and friend of Heinrich Ewald, and studied under Ferdinand Christian Baur, though he did not join the new Tübingen school.
For a short time he worked as pastor at Gersheim, near his native place, but he soon came to feel that his studies demanded his whole time. He devoted himself to the study of Ethiopic manuscripts in the libraries of Paris, London and Oxford, and this work caused a revival of Ethiopic study in the 19th century. In 1847 and 1848 he prepared catalogues of the Ethiopic manuscripts in the British Museum (now the British Library) and the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
He then set to work upon an edition of the Ethiopic bible. Returning to Tübingen in 1848, in 1853 he was appointed professor extraordinarius. Subsequently he became professor of philosophy at the University of Kiel (1854), and of theology in Giessen (1864) and Berlin (1869).
Göttingen Academy of Sciences.