He was born in Camberwell. His father was from a Yorkshire family that, for three generations, had been supporters of the Evangelical movement in the Church of England. His mother was a Langhorne, in some way related to the poet John Langhorne. At twelve the boy was placed on the foundation of St Paul's School (then in St Paul's Churchyard), and in his nineteenth year he obtained an open scholarship to Balliol. In 1838 he gained a fellowship, and graduated with first-class honours in 1839. Brought up amongst pious Evangelicals, he came to Oxford at the height of the Tractarian movement, and through the friendship of W.G. Ward was drawn for a time in the direction of High Anglicanism; but a stronger and more lasting influence was that of the Arnold school, represented by A.P. Stanley. Jowett was thus led to concentrate his attention on theology, and in the summers of 1845 and 1846, spent in Germany with Stanley, he became an eager student of German criticism and speculation. Amongst the writings of that period he was most impressed by those of F.C. Baur. But he never ceased to exercise an independent judgment, and his work on St Paul, which appeared in 1855, was the result of much original reflection and inquiry.
Jowett was appointed by Lord Palmerston to the Regius Professorship of Greek in autumn 1855. He had been a tutor of Balliol and a clergyman since 1842, and had devoted himself to the work of tuition: his pupils became his friends for life. He discerned their capabilities and taught them to know themselves. This made him a reputation as "the great tutor."
As early as 1839, Stanley had joined with Archibald Campbell Tait, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, in advocating certain university reforms. From 1846 onwards Jowett threw himself into this movement, which in 1848 became general amongst the younger and more thoughtful fellows, until it took effect in the commission of 1850 and the act of 1854.
Another educational reform, the opening of the Indian Civil Service to competition, took place at the same time, and Jowett was one of the commission. He had two brothers who served and died in India, and he never ceased to take a deep and practical interest in Indian affairs. A great disappointment, his repulse for the mastership of Balliol, also in 1854, appears to have roused him into the completion of his book on The Epistles of St Paul. This work, described by one of his friends as "a miracle of boldness," is full of originality and suggestiveness, but its publication awakened against him a storm of theological prejudice, which followed him more or less through life. Instead of yielding to this, he joined with Henry Bristow Wilson and Rowland Williams, who had been similarly attacked, in the production of the volume known as Essays and Reviews. This appeared in 1860 and gave rise to a strange outbreak of fanaticism. Jowett's loyalty to those who were prosecuted on this account was no less characteristic than his persistent silence while the augmentation of his salary as Greek professor was withheld. This petty persecution was continued until 1865, when E.A. Freeman and Charles Elton discovered by historical research that a breach of the conditions of the professorship had occurred, and Christ Church, Oxford raised the endowment from £40 a year to £500.
Meanwhile Jowett's influence at Oxford had steadily increased. It culminated in 1864, when the country clergy, provoked by the final acquittal of the essayists, had voted in convocation against the endowment of the Greek chair. Jowett's pupils, who were now drawn from the university at large, supported him with the enthusiasm which young men feel for the victim of injustice. In the midst of other labours Jowett had been quietly exerting his influence so as to conciliate all shades of liberal opinion, and bring them to bear upon the abolition of the theological test, which was still required for the M.A. and other degrees, and for university and college offices. He spoke at an important meeting upon this question in London on June 10, 1864, which laid the ground for the University Tests Act of 1871.
In connection with the Greek professorship, Jowett had undertaken a work on Plato which grew into a complete translation of the Dialogues with introductory essays. At this he laboured in vacation time for at least ten years. But his interest in theology had not abated, and his thoughts found an outlet in occasional preaching. The university pulpit, indeed, was closed to him, but several congregations in London delighted in his sermons, and from 1866 until the year of his death he preached annually in Westminster Abbey, where Stanley had become dean in 1863. Three volumes of selected sermons have been published since his death. The years 1865–1870 were occupied with assiduous labour. Amongst his pupils at Balliol were men destined to high positions in the state, whose parents had thus shown their confidence in the supposed heretic, and gratitude on this account was added to other motives for his unsparing efforts in tuition. In 1870, by an arrangement which be attributed to his friend Robert Lowe, afterwards Lord Sherbrooke (at that time a member of Gladstone's ministry), Scott was promoted to the deanery of Rochester and Jowett was elected to the vacant mastership by the fellows of Balliol. From the vantage-ground of this long-coveted position the Plato was published in 1871. It had a great and well-deserved success. While scholars criticized particular renderings (and there were many small errors to be removed in subsequent editions), it was generally agreed that he had succeeded in making Plato an English classic.
From 1866 his authority in Balliol had been paramount, and various reforms in college had been due to his initiative. The opposing minority were now powerless, and the younger fellows who had been his pupils were more inclined to follow him than others would have been. There was no obstacle to the continued exercise of his firm and reasonable will. He still knew the undergraduates individually, and watched their progress with a vigilant eye. His influence in the university was less assured. The pulpit of St Mary's was no longer closed to him, but the success of Balliol in the schools gave rise to jealousy in other colleges, and old prejudices did not suddenly give way; while a new movement in favour of "the endowment of research" ran counter to his immediate purposes.
Meanwhile, the tutorships in other colleges, and some of the headships also, were being filled with Balliol men, and Jowett's former pupils were prominent in both houses of parliament and at the bar. He continued the practice, which he had commenced in 1848, of taking with him a small party of undergraduates in vacation time, and working with them in one of his favourite haunts, at Askrigg in Wensleydale, or Tummel Bridget or later at WestMalvern. The new hall (1876), the organ there, entirely his gift (1835) and the cricket ground (1889), remain as external monuments of the master's activity. Neither business nor the many claims of friendship interrupted literary work. The six or seven weeks of the long vacation, during which he had pupils with him, were mainly employed in writing. The translation of Aristotle's Politics, the revision of Plato, and, above all, the translation of Thucydides many times revised, occupied several years. The edition of the Republic, undertaken in 1856, remained unfinished, but was continued with the help of Professor Lewis Campbell.
Other literary plans were not to take effect—an Essay on the Religions of the World, a Commentary on the Gospels, a Life of Christ, a volume on Moral Ideas. Such plans were frustrated, not only by his practical avocations, but by his determination to finish what he had begun, and the fastidious self-criticism which it took so long to satisfy. The book on Morals might, however, have been written but for the heavy burden of the vice-chancellorship, which he was induced to accept in 1882, by the hope, only partially fulfilled, of securing many improvements for the University. The vice-chancellor was ex officio a delegate of the Press, where he hoped to effect much; and a plan for draining the Thames Valley, which he had now the power of initiating, was one on which his mind had dwelt for many years.
The exhausting labours of the vice-chancellorship were followed by an illness (1887); and after this he relinquished the hope of producing any great original writing. His literary industry was thenceforth confined to his commentary on the Republic of Plato, and some essays on Aristotle which were to have formed a companion volume to the translation of the Politics. The essays which should have accompanied the translation of Thucydides were never written. Jowett, who never married, died on 1 October 1893. The funeral was one of the most impressive ever seen in Oxford. The pall-bearers were seven heads of colleges and the provost of Eton, all old pupils.
Theologian, tutor, university reformer, a great master of a college, Jowett's best claim to the remembrance of succeeding generations was his greatness as a moral teacher. Many of the most prominent Englishmen of the day were his pupils and owed much of what they were to his precept and example, his penetrative sympathy, his insistent criticism, and his unwearying friendship. Seldom have ideal aims been so steadily pursued with so clear a recognition of practical limitations. Jowett's theological work was transitional, and yet has an element of permanence. As has been said of another thinker, he was "one of those deeply religious men who, when crude theological notions are being revised and called in question seek to put new life into theology by wider and more humane ideas." In earlier life he had been a zealous student of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, and to the end he never ceased to cultivate the philosophic spirit; but he had little confidence in metaphysical systems, and sought rather to translate philosophy into the wisdom of life. As a classical scholar, his scorn of littlenesses sometimes led him into the neglect of minutiae, but he had the higher merit of interpreting ideas. His place in literature rests really on the essays in his Plato. When their merits are fully recognized, it will be found that his worth, as a teacher of his countrymen, extends far beyond his own generation.
Undoubtedly Jowett was a great scholar, but what did the undergraduates think of their master? One of them, H. C. Beeching, wrote a rhyme which in various forms has become quite famous (which incidentally tells us he pronounced his name to rhyme with 'Blow-it', not the more prevalent rhyming with 'How-it'). It was published in 1881 in a broadsheet entitled The Masque of B-ll--l :
Jowett is buried in Oxford's St Sepulchre's Cemetery.