William Robertson Smith

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William Robertson Smith

William Robertson Smith (born November 8, 1846 in Keig , Aberdeenshire , Scotland , † March 31, 1894 in Cambridge ) was a Scottish theologian of the Free Church of Scotland and Professor of the Old Testament . He was an exponent of church liberalism and was friends with James George Frazer (1854–1941). From 1881 he was professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge .

Robertson Smith's best-known work is the publication of his lectures on The Religion of the Semites (The Religion of the Semites, First Series: The Fundamental Institutions, 1889, German 1899); a classic of comparative religious studies, in which, among other things, a theory of the victim is set up.


Robertson Smith came to Aberdeen at the age of 15 and began studying with his brother. His older sister Mary, who was forwarded to the two of them to run their household, died soon after of tuberculosis , as did his brother George in 1865. From 1866 he studied mathematics and biblical studies in Edinburgh . From 1868 he studied Arabic in Bonn and from 1869 in Göttingen. He was known for his extensive language skills, he was fluent in Arabic, had a particularly good knowledge of Latin and also knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Dutch and French.

Robertson Smith became acquainted with the private lecturer Julius Wellhausen in Göttingen , an encounter that shaped his life from then on. Wellhausen, professor in Greifswald from 1872 , was an Arabist and biblical scholar, and in his work he spread critical theories relating to the Bible and Judaism. Wellhausen's claims about the making of the Bible intrigued Robertson Smith. The criticism of Wellhausen's theses led him to give up his professorship in Greifswald in order to accept a professorship for Semitic languages ​​in Halle in 1882.

Smith was called to Free Church Divinity College when he was only 24 years old. In Scotland, theology-critical research into biblical writings was even less compatible with the exercise of a church teaching position than in Germany. The conflict that led to Robertson Smith's impeachment was that he had first published the article Bible in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1871 , in which he presented the new criticism of the Bible. Among other things, he represented there the thesis that Deuteronomy did not come from Moses . As a result, Robertson Smith was subjected to a heresy process, so that he was removed from his position as professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament in Aberdeen in 1881. Then he reacted aggressively and began to explain his biblical criticism to interested parties. Since 1871 he was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh .

Out of ethnological interest, Robertson Smith then traveled to Egypt, Syria and Palestine for a few months in 1878 and 1879. He then published an essay Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament in 1880 . In this essay, he stated that the biblical tribes had totems . Furthermore, he saw exogamy and polyandry widespread in the biblical tribes and concluded with this that Israel had not managed to rise above the lowest paganism . On the basis of this essay, Robertson Smith was finally dismissed. After his release he became editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and gave lectures on his criticism of the Bible again in Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1881. In 1883 he was then professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge . It was there that he met James George Frazer before he fell seriously ill in 1890 and died of tuberculosis in 1894 at the age of only 48.


Robertson Smith saw the key witnesses of community life in historical sources. He was not satisfied with the interpretation given by tradition, but tried to reconstruct the original community life. So he was particularly interested in the early phase of Israel. In doing so, he was influenced by the research of the lawyer John F. MacLennan, who introduced the term totemism in his work The Worship of Animals and Plants in 1869/70 . In Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament , Smith demonstrated such totemism among Arabs and ancient Israel.

Smith considered the hard cut that Friedrich Max Müller made between the Aryan and Semitic religions to be unjustified. The further back one went in history, the greater, in his view, the similarities became. No positive religion had the ability to make a new beginning and to present itself as if religion were appearing here for the first time. Rather, she always had to establish a connection with older views and customs. In almost every case, the myth was adapted to the rite, and the rite was not rooted in the myth as it was subsequently presented.

Robertson Smith inferred from the later religion of pagan Arabia on the original Jewish religion. He was particularly concerned with their cult and saw as its basis the sacrifice as a solemn, public meal community and religious institutions as a public area of ​​the social community. Because of the political catastrophes to which Israel was exposed, the interpretations of the prophets had transformed the original trust in the gods into fear of God's wrath and a new kind of experience of distance from God. The originally happy communal meal had become a gloomy atonement in the burnt offering.


At the end of the 19th century, William Robertson Smith's work experienced increased interest, as Robertson Smith's approach of inferring an understanding of elementary social structures from the study of the historical conditions of scriptural religions found increasing acceptance.

James G. Frazer's famous work The Golden Bough was so inspired by Robertson Smith that Frazer wrote in his foreword that the central idea of ​​this work was taken from Robertson Smith, namely the concept of the slain God. 1894.

In Totem and Tabu, Sigmund Freud adopted Robertson Smith's thesis that the killing of animals was forbidden to individual people and was only justified if it was carried out by an entire tribe and the tribe was responsible for it. Freud also interpreted the totem animal as a substitute for the father.

Émile Durkheim declared in 1907 that it was only through Robertson Smith's work that he had gained an awareness of religion as particularly important for social life.


  • The book of Moses or the Pentateuch in its authorship, credibility and civilization . Green, London 1868.
  • The Old Testament in the Jewish Church. Twelve lectures on Biblical criticism . Black, Edinburgh 1881.
  • The prophets of Israel and their place in history to the close of the eighth century BC Eight lectures . Black, Edinburgh 1882 (new edition 1895).
  • Kinship and marriage in early Arabia. University Press, Cambridge 1885 (New edition: Cambridge University Press 2014, ISBN 978-1-107-62202-9 ).
  • The old testament. Its origin and tradition. Main features of the Old Testament criticism presented in popular scientific lectures . Mohr (Siebeck), Freiburg / Br. 1894.


  • Gilliam M. Bediako: Primal religion and the Bible. William Robertson Smith and his heritage . Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield 1997, ISBN 1-85075-672-4 .
  • Thomas O. Beidelman: W. Robertson Smith and the sociological study of religion . University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1974.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed April 9, 2020 .