Scottish Semiticist and Arabist William Robertson Smith was a celebrated biblical critic, theorist of religion, and theorist of myth. His accomplishments were multiple. Smith's German mentors reconstructed the history of Israelite religion from the Bible itself; Smith ventured outside the Bible to Semitic religion and thereby pioneered the comparative study of religion. Where others viewed religion from the standpoint of the individual, Smith approached religion-at least ancient religion-from the standpoint of the group. He asserted that ancient religion was centrally a matter of practice, not creed, and singlehandedly created the ritualist theory of myth. Since Smith's time, the ritualist theory of myth has found adherents not only in biblical studies but in classics, anthropology, and literature as well.
Smith's accomplishments are seen most fully in Religion of the Semites, adapted from a number of public lectures he gave at Aberdeen, and first published in 1889. Smith delivered three courses of lectures over three years. It is this set that is reprinted here. Only recently were the notes for the second and third courses of lectures discovered and published.
Religion of the Semites combines extraordinary philological erudition with brilliant theorizing. Among the fundamental emphases of the book are the foci on sacrifice as the key ritual and non-ancient sacrifice as communion with God rather than as penance for sin. Most important is Smith's use of the comparative method: he uses cross-cultural examples from other "primitive peoples" to confirm his reconstruction from Semitic sources.
Smith combines pioneering sociology and anthropology with a staunchly Christian faith. For him, Christianity is an expression of divine revelation. For Smith, only continuing revelation can account for the leap from the collective, ritualistic, and materialistic nature of ancient Semitic religion to the individualistic, creedal, and spiritualized nature of Christianity. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites manages to meld social science with theology, and remains a classic work in the social scientific study of religion.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
About the Author
Robert A. Segal is professor of Theories of Religion at the University of Lancaster, U.K. He is the author of The Poimandres as Myth, Religion and the Social Sciences, Explaining and Interpreting Religion, and Theorizing about Myth, and editor of The Gnostic Jung, The Allure of Gnosticism, and The Myth and Ritual Theory. He is at work on an intellectual biography of William Robertson Smith.
William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) was professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was the author of The Prophets of Israel and Their Place in History, available from Transaction.