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William Robertson° Smith

SMITH, WILLIAM ROBERTSON° (1846–1894), Scottish theologian and Semitist; born at New Farm, Aberdeenshire. His appointment as professor of Oriental languages and Bible exegesis in the Free Church College at Aberdeen in 1870 was ended in 1881 due to his radical views in regard to biblical revelation which he expounded in a series of articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. At that time at Edinburgh and Glasgow he delivered a series of lectures which were published as The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881, 18922) and The Prophets of Israel (1882). His stay in the Near East in the winter of 1879–80 and the following year influenced his views in regard to the religious institutions of the Semites, their religio-cultural beliefs, and the historical influence of their religion on biblical Judaism and early Christianity. He resumed his academic career in 1883 when he was appointed professor of Arabic at Cambridge. Poor health prevented him from publishing more than the first series of Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889, 18942; ed. by S.A. Cook with introd. and notes, 1927), a major scholarly endeavor which applied anthropological principles to biblical research.

Smith is remembered principally as an investigator of the nature of early Semitic religion. His study of primitive Arab life, as recorded in literature and as observed in the contemporary setting, led him to believe that it was identical in all its fundamentals with the early Semites as a whole. In his Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885) he expounded the theory that the most primitive social organization was matriarchal, with exogamous polyandry and a totemistic cult system. His assumed parallels among the Hebrews are unfounded and lack a critical scientific base. In his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites Smith maintained that the nature and significance of the earliest religious expression were best understood through a study of ritual practices exhibited within the social cult. He thus thoroughly investigated the ritual of sacrifice and its corollaries, communion and atonement, and championed the theory that these were the primary conceptions in primitive Semitic religion. His interpretation posited the common anthropological belief that religion was an integral part of society which cannot be separated from the social and political institutions of a group. He further stated that certain concepts labeled Priestly and post-Exilic by the K.H. *Graf-J. *Wellhausen school had an early date since rituals tended to remain unchanged from their beginnings down through recorded history. Successive periods of ritual practices reflected advances in religious psychology, but essentially the original ideas remain. Smith's root theory that the phenomena of Semitic religion are derived from a single source and are coordinated into a fixed system appears untenable. Yet his description of Israel's origins remains refreshing for a period dominated by the evolutionary approach of the school of biblical criticism.


J.S. Black and G. Crystal, The Life of W. Robertson Smith (1912); H.F. Hahn, The Old Testament in Modern Research (1956), 47–54.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.