Davidson was born at Kirkhill, in the parish of Ellon, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 25 April 1831. He was educated initially at the Aberdeen Grammar school under Dr Melvin and afterwards at the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 1849. Following graduation he took the position of teacher in the Free Church school in Ellon and while in that position taught himself French, German, Dutch and Spanish in addition to the classical languages he already knew. He entered New College, Edinburgh, in 1852, to study for the ministry, and was licensed in 1857. While a student in 1854 he went during the vacation to study under Heinrich Ewald in the University of Göttingen. Following his licensing in 1857 he became a missioner first in Carstairs Junction/Village and later in Craigsmill, near Blairgowrie, thereafter a Probationer Minister in Gilcomston Free Church under the ministry of Dr MacGilvary for a period of six months. In 1858, Davidson became Hebrew tutor in New College, with the express purpose of teaching the Hebrew language to the first class. During this appointment he produced his first book on the Hebrew language in 1861 "Outlines of Hebrew Accentuation" which was followed later during his professorship by an Elementary Hebrew Grammar (1st ed., 1874) and his Hebrew Syntax (1894). It is important to note that an examination of his Hebrew Syntax reveals that Davidson had an intimate knowledge of the comparative syntax of Syriac and Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopic and Assyrian.
In 1862 his first book on Job (chapters 1–14) was published by Williams & Norgate, despite the fact that he never finished this project, it was still classed as, "the first really scientific commentary on the Old Testament in the English language." When, in the following year, the chair of Hebrew fell vacant, Davidson was appointed professor by the unanimous vote of the Free Church Assembly. In 1871 he was chosen to be one of the Old Testament revision committee—a position he held until 1884, which resulted in the publication of the Old Testament section of the Revised Version of the Bible in 1885. As far as his teaching in New College, Edinburgh is concerned, most of it was published after his death in volumes entitled, 'Biblical and literary Essays,' 'Old Testament Prophecy,' and 'The Theology of the Old Testament.' He understood it to be the first duty of an exegete to ascertain the meaning of the writer, and he showed that this could be done by the use of grammar and history and the historical imagination. He supplied guidance when it was much needed as to the methods and results of the higher criticism. Being a master of its methods, but very cautious in accepting assertions about its results, he secured attention early in the Free Church for scientific criticism, and yet threw the whole weight of his learning and his caustic wit into the argument against critical extravagance. He had thought himself into the ideas and points of view of the Hebrews, and his work in Old Testament theology is unrivalled.
It is a moot question as to how and when Davidson's critical views on the authorship of the Pentateuch actually evolved. It is equally a moot question as to what these actually were. At the beginning of his teaching career he wrote in defence of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. However, by 1863 he had retreated to a partial Mosaic authorship in a further article in the same journal. From the notes of lectures taken by one of his students, namely, Henry Drummond it is clear that Davidson was then discoursing to his class on Pentateuchal criticism, but with a leaning to more conservative positions. In fact Drummond had recorded that, 'Davidson did not then take his students beyond the positions reached by Ewald.'(For a detailed analysis of Ewald's views on the authorship of the Pentateuch see J. Rogerson, 'Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century,' London 1984, p. 94f.)The Next piece of evidence comes from Davidson's review of Delitzsch's Neuer Commentar űber Genesis and Dillmann's Numeri, Deuteronomium, und Joshua which is regarded by Strahan as 'important as perhaps the first indication of his accepting Wellhausen's general position, which he is careful to guard against misconception and exaggeration.' In the first of those reviews he stated that, 'the improbability of Moses having given one system of laws (Exodus chaps. 20ff.)at Sinai and another so very different (Deuteronomy) on the plains of Moab; and the impossibility of conceiving of Deuteronomy as extant in the days of the judges and early monarchy. In the second on the work of Dillmann he noted that, 'he is dissatisfied with that scholar's theory of the origin for the Priestly code in the eighth century and leans to a later date.' These briefs comments are the only published explicit statements that Davidson ever made. In this paragraph reference was made to a course which Davidson had given on Pentateuchal criticism—it is a matter of regret that the manuscript of that course was never published, nor had it survived in any other form; otherwise the views of Davidson could be culled from it. What we do know of the contents of that course comes from the biography of Henry Drummond, which states that, 'Besides the grammar, Dr Davidson then gave to the First Year a few lectures introductory to the Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch. It was by such lectures that Dr Davidson started in the early seventies the great movement of Old Testament study which has characterised Scottish Theology during the last thirty years. He did not then take his students beyond the positions reached by Ewald; but that was sufficient to break up the mechanical ideas of inspiration which then prevailed in the churches, while, with the teacher's own wonderful insight into the spiritual meaning of Scripture, it made the student's own use of his Bible more rational and lively, and laid upon a sounder basis the proof of a real revelation in the Old Testament.' The final question which may be asked on this topic is did Davidson ever accept in full the tenets of the documentary theory of the origin of the Pentateuch? The answer to that question, in as far as it can be answered is that they did not. There are two reasons for this answer, the first of which is that he had studied as was noted earlier under Heinrich Ewald, who had revived Wellhausen's interest in the Hebrew language and history in his teaching, but Ewald never accepted the basis of the documentary hypothesis. The second reason has been reported by Professor Andrew Harper who stated that, 'Consequently, though he recognised the greatness of scholars like Wellhausen, he was never affected by the Wellhausen or other orthodoxies which soon grew up in the critical schools. Finally, it is a fact that, 'he remained sceptical and even sarcastic of the finer distinctions, to which so many critics have carried literary analysis within the limits of the four main Pentateuchal documents.' A piece of supportive evidence which should be considered is the fact that in a recently published collection of the letters written by Julius Wellhausen to various correspondents around the world not one was ever written to Andrew Bruce Davidson, whereas some 118 were written to and in support of William Roberston Smith. It should be further noted that the only Davidson mentioned in Smend's collection is that of Professor Samuel Davidson, to whom 2 letters were addressed.
A further matter connected with the publication of his writings is that following the publication of a list of his writings a dispute broke out between the compiler of that list James Strachan and Professor J A Paterson who had edited a number of his manuscripts for posthumous publication. This dispute took two forms, firstly on the question of the editing itself and secondly relating to the order of the lectures as originally given by Davidson on his lecture room. On the first matter, namely, the poor quality of the editing, this charge would appear to be justified, since in his biography Strahan has noted that, 'no lecture of Professor Davidson's was finer than the one on "False Prophecy." It was ultimately published in the Expositor in 1895. But in the posthumous Old Testament Prophecy an ancient and inferior manuscript has again been palmed off upon the innocent reader, while the perfect Expositor article is left in obscurity.' This judgement has been confirmed by Professor G.W. Anderson. The second cause for dispute is slightly more interesting, since it concerns the order of the lectures that Davidson had given in his lecture room. Strachan has noted that, 'Dr Davidson was above everything else a lecturer on Hebrew prophecy. he gave his students a new and inspiring conception of the real nature of Prophecy and its function in the history of Revelation. I fear that many of them will read the posthumous Old Testament Prophecy with a sense of disappointment. They will protest that this is not the Old Testament Prophecy to which they listened. The difference is not merely the absence of the living voice ... the course itself is altered.' The question that remains why had Paterson altered the order of the course that Davidson had taught? The answer is that both of these scholars had been students of Professor Davidson, but at different times. Paterson had been a student of Professor Davidson in 1874, whereas Strachan had been a student in 1884. In Paterson's time the main focus had been on a course of lectures dealing with Pentateuchal criticism as noted by Henry Drummond above. Whereas, when Strachan had been a student the course had been altered to be a course on Old Testament Prophecy, about which Paterson had no knowledge whatsoever. The reason for this was that when the troubles arose over the Robertson Smith case, Davidson dropped the former course and replaced it with one on Old Testament Prophecy. George Adam Smith had noted about this that, 'Yet, after the controversy on Robertson Smith's articles broke out, Davidson dropped his lectures on the Pentateuch—they were not given to his students in the later seventies—and did not resume till nine years later.' The reason that Davidson gave for concentrating on the eighth century prophets was that with these writings we were on historical ground.
He died in Edinburgh on 26 January 1902. He is buried in Grange Cemetery on the south side of the city. The grave lies on the southern edge of the north-west quadrant, backing onto the embankment over the central vaults.
Davidson was above all a great teacher of Hebrew grammar and syntax and it is to his credit that his grammar is till in print today having now reached its 27th edition, which was published in 1993 having been revised by Dr James Martin. The syntax is also still in print having now reached its fourth edition and was published in 1994 having been revised by Professor J.C.L. Gibson. His work was recognised by several honorary distinctions, LL.D. (Aberdeen), D.D. (Edinburgh), Litt.D. (Cambridge).