He was educated at the University of Virginia (1857-1860), graduated at the Union Theological Seminary in 1863, and studied further at the University of Berlin. He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Roselle, New Jersey from 1869 to 1874, and professor of Hebrew and cognate languages in Union Theological Seminary from 1874 to 1891, and of Biblical theology there from 1891 to 1904, when he became professor of theological encyclopaedia and symbolics. From 1880 to 1890 he was an editor of the Presbyterian Review.
In 1892 he was tried for heresy by the presbytery of New York, including James McCook, and acquitted. The charges were based upon his inaugural address of the preceding year. In brief they were as follows:
The general assembly, to which the case was appealed, suspended Briggs in 1893, being influenced, it would seem, in part, by the manner and tone of his ｅxpressions; by what his own colleagues in the Union Theological Seminary called the dogmatic and irritating nature of his inaugural address..
He was ordained a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1899. His scholarship procured for him the honorary degree of D.D. from Edinburgh (1884) and from Glasgow (1901), and that of Litt.D., from Oxford (1901). With Francis Brown and S. R. Driver he prepared a revised Hebrew and English Lexicon (1891-1905, commonly known as Brown Driver Briggs or BDB) based on the lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius, and with Driver edited the International Commentary Series. His publications include: