William Robertson Smith (November 8, 1846 – March 31, 1894) was a Scottish philologist, anthropologist, and Biblical critic. He is best known for his work on the Encyclopædia Britannica and his book Religion of the Semites (1889), which is considered a foundational text in the comparative study of religion. He is credited as one who introduced, to the English-speaking world, a new methodology of the study of the Bible—Biblical Criticism—based on scientific principles. Such views were highly controversial at the time, and Smith was removed from his academic position and even tried for heresy.
Despite such accusations, Smith was a firm believer in religion and God's work in human history. His desire was to open the study of religion to a broader discourse, not limited by dogmatic preconceptions. Smith did not limit his study to the Bible, but was interested in all religions, visiting and studying religious beliefs and practices in the Middle East, as well as corresponding with fellow scholars regarding their research throughout the world. His use of social scientific methods was significant in the study of religion, both in its theory and practices. He thus contributed to the great expansion of knowledge in the area of questions of ultimate concern that has taken place as humankind advances toward a world of deeper insight and connection.
William Robertson Smith was born on November 8, 1846, in Keig, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the second child of Jane Robertson, and William Pirie Smith. Of the ten children born to Smiths, only five survived to live to adulthood. His parents were the followers of the Free Church, which separated from the Church of Scotland in 1843. Young Smith was among the first children baptized in the new tradition of the Free Church.
As a child, he demonstrated a great intellectual ability, and learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages. After being home-schooled, he began attending Edinburgh Free Church College in 1866. He wanted to become a minister, so he occupied himself with the study of theology. At the same time however, he was able to secure the post of assistant to Professor Peter G. Tait, head of the Natural Philosophy department at Edinburgh University. During his four-year study, Smith produced numerous articles on the topics of both religion and science.
In 1867 Robertson Smith visited Germany and met several distinguished German scholars, including Albrecht Ritschl (theology) and Hermann Lotze (philosophy), who changed his view on theology. German universities at the time were a fountain of Biblical Criticism, and Smith accepted the new view on the Bible which he then would bring to Britain.
After graduation he took up a chair in Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870. At the same year he became licensed to preach, and on his twenty-fourth birthday he delivered his inaugural lecture What history teaches us to seek for in the Bible. He spent the next several years teaching, preaching, and joining numerous scholarly meetings to discuss different topic in science and religion.
In 1874, Robertson Smith was asked by Thomas Spencer Baynes, then editor-in-chief of the new (ninth) edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to start to write for him, and in 1875 Smith wrote a number of important articles on religious topics. He approached religious topics without endorsing the Bible as literally true, which resulted in a furor in the Free Church of which he was a member. Smith eventually lost his position at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1881 and was forced to take up a position as a reader in Arabic at the University of Cambridge.
Robertson Smith eventually rose to the position of Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Christ’s College. It was during this time that he wrote The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel (1882), which were intended to be theological treatises for the lay audience.
In 1887, after the death of Thomas Spencer Baynes, Smith became the editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica. In 1889 he wrote his most important work, Religion of the Semites, an account of ancient Jewish religious life which pioneered the use of social science in the analysis of religious phenomenon. In 1886 Smith became the head of the Cambridge University library.
In the late 1880s Smith’s health suffered greatly and he spent the next several years constantly struggling to finish his work, often interrupted by his health problems. He died in 1894 of tuberculosis, at the age of 47. He never married.
Robertson Smith’s first major work was his Britannica article on the Bible, for volume three of the encyclopedia. There he openly questioned the accuracy of the biblical stories, claiming that scientifically and historically, some of them could not have taken place. For the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, he said that it was obviously not written by Moses, but by some writers from a much later period. The whole Pentateuch was gradually put together over the centuries, and finalized in the Second Temple Era, to strengthen the spirit of Jews after captivity under Babylon. Smith thus emphasized historical and literary criticism in his first work on the Bible. Smith believed that the text of the Bible was neither infallible nor supernatural in origin, but was written in a historical context. Yet Smith maintained that the Bible, although written by men, was still a record of God’s work and a record of supernatural revelation.
After his article in Britannica, numerous critics accused Smith of heresy against the church. In May of 1878, Robertson Smith stood public trial for heresy. The event drew a large audience from all over Britain, from laymen to clerics and scholars. The trial dragged on for three years, and resulted in clearing Smith of all accusations, but advising him to restrain from expressing “incautious” statements about the Bible. When in 1880 Smith published his next Britannica article, Hebrew Language and Literature, in which he repeated his views, he was dismissed from his professorial chair at the Free Church College of Aberdeen.
Besides his work on Biblical Criticism, Smith was fascinated by the exotic cultures of Ancient Egypt, Palestine, and the Arabian Peninsula. He learned the Arabic language and spent many months studying local customs. He visited ancient sites and deciphered inscriptions. With all this, his interest increasingly turned to the field of comparative religion. He used correspondence with his numerous friends—biblical scholars, arabists, and orientalists— and combined it with his interest of anthropology, ethnology, sociology, and psychology, to create his famous Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885). His fellow scholars, William Wright, John Ferguson McLennan, and James George Frazer, proved to be of great help. They collected records of religious practices and myths throughout the world, coming always to the same conclusion— all religions pass through the same developmental stages. In 1887, Smith gave a series of lectures with the title The Religion of the Semites, in which he further elaborated on his views on religion. This lecture was eventually published in 1889, becoming one of the classic works on comparative religion and social anthropology.
Smith explored the origins of religious practices and beliefs, starting from primitive animism up to the “organized” religion of the nineteenth century. He included in his analysis the development of ritual and myth, totemism and taboo, and the concept of rebirth. He believed that religious practices have particular importance to strengthen the bonds within society or religious community, maintaining the unity within the group. For example, through common rituals and myths, people feel bonded to each other, while through sharing a common sacrificial meal, they confirm the bond between them and their god.
Robertson Smith introduced to the English-speaking world a new methodology of the study of the Bible—one based on scientific principles. He believed that this new mode of research would liberate theology from dogma, so predominant during Victorian times, and would permit a flow of religious ideas. His views were met with great opposition and he even faced a trial for heresy. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Biblical Criticism became fully accepted by virtually all British theologians. The texts in the Bible were freely discussed in both religious and scholarly circles, and even the Free Church of Scotland, which once accused Smith, accepted more liberal views.
Smith is often credited as pioneering anthropology of religion. His views on totemism and ritualistic practices in early religions have deeply inspired many distinguished scholars, including Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim.
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