William Robertson Smith bigraphy, stories - Scottish orientalist

William Robertson Smith : biography

8 November 1846 - 31 March 1894

William Robertson Smith (8 November 1846 – 31 March 1894) was a Scottish orientalist, Old Testament scholar, professor of divinity, and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He was an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and contributor to the Encyclopaedia Biblica. He is also known for his book Religion of the Semites, which is considered a foundational text in the comparative study of religion.

Published works

Among his writings are the following.

Books: annotated

The Old Testament in the Jewish Church

  • The Old Testament in the Jewish Church. A course of lectures on biblical criticism (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black 1881); second edition (London: A. & C. Black 1892).
    • The author addresses the Christian believer who opposes higher criticism of the Old Testament, considering that it will reduce the Bible to rational historical terms and omit the supernatural [cf. 3-5]. He replies that the Bible's purpose is to give its readers entry into the experience of lived faith, to put them in touch with God working in history, which a true understanding of the text will better provide [8-9]. Critical Bible study, in fact, follows in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation [18-19].
    • Prior Catholic study of the Bible is faulted for being primarily interested in drawing out consistent doctrines [7, 25]. Instead Protestants initially turned to Jewish scholars who could better teach them Hebrew. However, the chief purpose of Jewish learning was legal: the Bible being a source of Jewish law, derived to settle their current disputes and issues of practice [52].
    • As Protestant bible study continued, the nature of the text began to reveal itself as complex and many layered. For example, especially in the earlier books, two different, redundant, and sometimes inconsistent versions appeared to co-exist [133]. This would imply that an editor had woven several pre-existing narratives together to form a composite text [cf. 90-91].
    • The Psalms are shown to reflect the life of the entire Hebrew people, rather than that of a single traditional author, King David [224].
    • Prior understanding was that all ritual and civil law in the Pentateuch (Books of Moses) had originated at Mt. Sinai; Bible history being the story of how the Hebrews would follow or not a comprehensive moral order [231-232]. Yet from the Bible text, the author demonstrates how ritual law was initially ignored after Moses [254-256, 259]; only much later, following the return from exile, was the ritual system established under Ezra [226-227].
    • The Pentateuch contains laws and history [321]. Its history "does not profess to be written by Moses" as "he himself is habitually spoken of in the third person" [323-324]. From internal evidence found in the Bible, Pentateuch history was "written in the land of Canaan" after the death of Moses (c. 13th century BCE), probably as late as "the period of kings", perhaps written under Saul or under David (c.1010-970) [325].
    • The laws found in the Book of Deuteronomy [xii-xxvi] are also demonstrated to date to a time long after Moses [318-320]. In fact, everything in the reforms under King Josiah (r.640-609) are found written in the Deuteronomic code. His Book of the Covenant probably is none other than "the law of Deuteronomy, which, in its very form, appears to have once been a separate volume" [258]. Internal evidence found in the bible is discussed [e.g., 353-355].
    • In the centuries immediately following Moses, the Pentateuch was not the primary rule; rather Divine spiritual guidance was provided to the ancient Hebrew nation by their prophets [334-345].
  • Smith's lectures were originally given in Edinburgh and Glasgow during early 1881. "It is of the first importance for the reader to realize that Biblical Criticism is not the invention of modern scholars, but the legitimate interpretation of historical facts." The result is that "the history of Israel... [makes]... one of the strongest evidences of Christianity." (Author's Preface, 1881).
  • Doctinal opposition against Smith first arose after his 1875 encyclopaedia article "Bible" which covered similar ground. In 1878 Church heresy charges had been filed, "the chief of which concerned the authorship of Deuteronomy." These 1881 lectures followed his removal as professor at the Free Church College in Aberdeen.Johnstone, "Introduction" 15-22, at 19, 20, in his edited William Robertson Smith. Essays in reassessment (Sheffield Academic 1995).
  • Smith's 1881 edition "was a landmark in the history of biblical criticism in Britain, in particular because it laid before the general public the critical view to which Wellhausen had given classical expression in his Geschichte Israels which had appeared less that three years earlier, in 1878."John W. Rogerson, "W. R. Smith's The Old Testament in the Jewish Church: Its antecedents, its influence, and its abiding value" in Johnstone, editor, William Robertson Smith. Essays in reassessment (Sheffield Academic 1995), 132-147, at 132. Here [132-136] Rogerson reviews briefly the reception of continental (German and Dutch) higher criticism, mentioning de Witte, Ewald, and Kuenen.Cf. John Rogerson, Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century. England and Germany (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1984), at Chapter 19, "Germany from 1860: the Path to Wellhausen" [257-272]; and, at Chapter 20, "England from 1880: the Triumph of Wellhausen" [273-289]. Yet "Smith did not merely repeat the arguments of Wellhausen, or anyone else; he approached the subject in a quite original way."Rogerson, "W. R. Smith's The Old Testament in the Jewish Church" in Johnstone, William Robertson Smith (1995), 132-147, at 136. Smith's "great contemporaries Kuenen and Wellhausen were historians and not theologians." But "for Smith, the God whose history of grace was disclosed by the historical criticism of the Old Testament was the God whose grace was still offered to the human race."
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