Oeuvres completes de W. Robertson: Histoire de l'empereur Charles-quint. Recherches historiques sur l'Inde ancienne

A. Desrez
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Publisher
A. Desrez
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Published on
Dec 31, 1837
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Pages
670
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Language
French
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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.

In the history of nineteenth-century religious thought, William Robertson Smith occupies an ambiguous position. More than any other writer, he stimulated the theories of religion later advanced by Frazer, Durkheim, and Freud. Smith himself was not an original scholar, but was rather "clever at presenting other men's theories" within new and sometimes hostile contexts. Smith was an important contributor to two of the most serious challenges to Christian orthodoxy of the last century, the "Higher Criticism" of the Bible and the comparative study of religion, and was also the victim of the last successful heresy trial in Great Britain. Yet he was an utterly devout Protestant, whose views on Biblical criticism (for which he was damned) are now considered as true as his views on totemism and sacrifice (for which he was praised) are now considered false.

Despite Smith's enormous significance for the history of religious ideas, he has been written about relatively little, and most of what we know about his life and work comes from a source almost a century old. Originally published in 1882, The Prophets of Israel is a collection of eight lectures, including "Israel and Jehovah;" "Jehovah and the Gods of the Nations," "Amos and the House of Jehu," "Hosea and the Fall of Ephraim," "The Kingdom of Judah and the Beginnings of Isaiah's Work," "The Earlier Prophesies of Isaiah," "Isaiah and Micah in the Reign of Hezekiah," and "The Deliverance from Assyria."

A new introduction by Robert Alun Jones discusses Smith's early life, the heresy trial, Smith's early view of prophecy, and the classic text itself. The book will be of interest to students and teachers of religious studies, and general readers interested in Robertson Smith.

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