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William Robertson Smith & Religion of the Semites

William Robertson Smith: His Life, His Work & His Times  by Bernhard Maier (Forschungen Zum Alten Testament: Mohr Siebeck) Bernhard Maier presents a new biography of William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), a champion of Old Testament criticism who is also regarded as a pioneer in social anthropology, the sociology of religions and the comparative study of religions.

William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) was successively the embattled champion of the emergent "higher criticism" as applied to the Old Testament, chief editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University. Today he is acknowledged to have been a pioneering figure in both social anthropology and the study of comparative religion, deeply influencing the thinking of J. G. Frazer, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. The first full-length biography of Robertson Smith to be published for almost a hundred years, this text makes use of hitherto unknown material preserved by the Smith family and draws upon the extensive range of correspondence between Smith and such scholars as Albrecht Ritschl, Paul de Lagarde, Julius Wellhausen, Abraham Kuenen and Theodor Nöldeke. Adopting an interdisciplinary and international approach, the biography locates and defines the place of this remarkable polymath within the context of Free Church Calvinism, the Scottish Enlightenment and 19th century German Protestant theology.

Excerpt: In the history of our modern understanding of 'religion', the importance of the second half of the nineteenth century can hardly be overestimated. The demand for an unprejudiced study of the Bible and a historical view of Christianity, the encounter with numerous hitherto unknown ethnic religions, exciting archaeological discoveries of ancient monuments and inscriptions, the establishment of new academic disciplines such as comparative philology and psychology, changes in our perception of man and his environment due to new findings in biology and physics, the rise of positivism, scepticism and agnosticism in an age of growing secularisation, a marked increase in religious pluralism due to migration, changes in mentality and life-styles due to massive urbanisation, and last but not least the large-scale popularisation of scientific discoveries and theories in the wake of educational changes and new media of communication — all these factors contributed to revolutionising traditional notions of religion.

A key figure of that truly revolutionary age is the Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis, editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Professor of Arabic and pioneer in comparative religious studies, William Robertson Smith (1846-1894). Brought up in a country manse in the northeast of Scotland, the highly talented son of a Free Church minister studied in both Scotland and Germany and came to be known as the congenial and valued friend of many leading scholars in both countries. For a while assistant professor in the laboratory of the Edinburgh physicist Peter Guthrie Tait, Smith declined a career in the natural sciences in order to take up theology as his profession. Having come into conflict with his church on account of his strictly historical view of the Bible, he was deprived of his chair of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis in the Free Church College, Aberdeen, and became successively co-editor and editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, University Librarian and finally Professor of Arabic in Cambridge. By a novel combination of theological, historical, comparative and social anthropological approaches, Smith altered our understanding of religion profoundly. But his insights and theories were not just a major contribution to scholarly discussions of his time. Due to the reception of his work by scholars as diverse as James George Frazer, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud, they are of lasting and pervasive influence to this day.

The first biography of William Robertson Smith was published in 1912 by John Sutherland Black and George William Crystal. According to the preface, the preparations for it had started almost immediately after Smith's death.' However, a letter from Smith's sister Lucy to her elder sister Alice shows that as late as 1908, the first three chapters had not yet reached their final shape.' As J. S. Black was later to explain in the preface, the project originally conceived in 1894 had first been 'postponed to the execution of another literary design' — this refers to the four-volume Encyclopaedia Biblica, published in 1899-1903 by J. S. Black and T. K. Cheyne — and was then further delayed 'owing to defect of health and leisure.'4 By the beginning of 1908, the first three chapters were evidently being written up by George William Chrystal (1880-1944), the eldest son of Smith's friend George Chrystal (1851-1911), Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. When the book finally came to be published in 1912, the names of the authors were given as 'John Sutherland Black and George Chrystal' on the frontispiece, but abbreviated as J. S. Black and G. W. Chrystal' on the spine and as J. S. B.' and 'G. W. Ch.' on p. vi at the end of the preface, dated 20 April 1912. This probably means that around 1908, George William Chrystal had taken over from his father, whose health had been failing from about that time and who had died on 3 November 1911. This is suggested not least by the authors' references to Smith as 'their friend' and 'their common friend' (on p. v and p. 576), expressions which do not make good sense in the case of George William Chrystal (who was only fourteen years old at the time of Smith's death), but seem natural in the case of his father who like J. S. Black had known Smith for more than 20 years.

The Life of William Robertson Smith, for many years the only comprehensive biography of its protagonist, was based on personal acquaintance on the part of the authors and a host of unpublished sources, some of which appear to be no longer extant, presumably because they were returned to their respective owners after the conclusion of the project. It provides us with a fresh and vivid picture of Smith's personality, but clearly shows its date both by its firm adherence to the biographical conventions of the times and by its rather idiosyncratic focus on the heresy trial as the single most important event. Moreover, it was written rather too early to provide us with a detached account of Smith's life in its historical context and a detailed examination of the far-reaching influence of his work. Over the past decades, both the historical context of Smith's life and the widely ramifying influence of his work have been the subject of intensive research, and there are now many detailed and comprehensive studies on the political, social, economic and religious history of the Victorian period, the development of scholarship, education and mentality, and the influence of Smith's work on social anthropology, sociology, comparative religious studies and theology. Last but not least, there is the recent discovery of autobiographical memoirs by Smith's father and by one of his younger sisters which shed fresh light on his upbringing and early development.

In this new biography, Maier has tried to take full advantage of the progress of research and yet document the various stages of Smith's life in a way which would not duplicate the efforts of Black and Chrystal. While several key sources obviously could not be bypassed and thus will be found in both books, care has been taken to offer not only fresh interpretations, but also fresh evidence, so that whoever takes up The Life of William Robertson Smith after reading this new look will still find much of interest in the older work. A key source for this biography has been Smith's correspondence with his Continental friends, most notably Carl Schaarschmidt, Albrecht Ritschl, Max Nöther, Felix Klein, Paul de Lagarde, Ludwig Diestel, Eberhard Nestle, Wilhelm Spitta, Abraham Kuenen, Theodor Nöldeke, Julius Wellhausen, Albert Socin and Michael Jan de Goeje. In addition, Maier has used letters from T. Nöldeke to William Wright and M.J. de Goeje, from J. Wellhausen to A. Socin and from Emily Wright to T. Nöldeke and M.J. de Goeje. In the main text, letters which are in another language than English are given in a literal English translation, the occasional Greek, Arabic and Hebrew word or phrase being transliterated and supplied with a translation in square brackets to facilitate both reading and comprehension.

Lectures on the Religion of the Semites:

Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: First Series The Fundamental Institutions by W. Robertson Smith (Kessinger Publishing) reprint of the 1894 edition: Smith studies the primitive religions of the Semitic peoples, viewed in relation to other ancient religions and to the spiritual religion of the Old Testament and of Christianity. Contents: Introduction: The Subject and the Method of Enquiry; The Nature of the Religious Community, and the Relation of the Gods to their Worshippers; The Relations of the Gods to Natural Things-Holy Places-The Jinn; Holy Places in their Relation to Man; Sanctuaries, Natural and Artificial-Holy Waters, Trees, Caves, and Stones; Sacrifice-Preliminary Survey; First-Fruits, Tithes, and Sacrificial Meals; The Original Significance of Animal Sacrifice; The Sacramental Efficacy of Animal Sacrifice, and Cognate Acts of Ritual-The Blood Covenant-Blood and Hair Offerings; The Development of Sacrificial Ritual-Fire-Sacrifices and Piacula; and Sacrificial Gifts and Piacular Sacrifices-The Special Ideas Involved in the Latter.

Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (Second and Third Series) by William Robertson Smith and John Day(The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies: Sheffield Academic Press) The outstanding nineteenth-century biblical scholar and Semitist William Robertson Smith gave three courses of Burnett Lectures on the Religion of the Semites at Aberdeen just over a century ago. The first series, published in 1889 (2nd edn, 1894), has long been a classic work. The second and third series were never published, owing to the author's ill health; however, the manuscript of them still exists in the Cambridge University Library and was recently discovered by John Day, who has produced this edited version of the work to commemorate the centenary of Smith's death. The Lectures, which constitute a work of considerable Semitic and Classical learning, are on the following subjects: Feasts, Priests and the Priestly Oracle, Prophecy and Divination, Semitic Polytheism and Cosmogony. Dr Day has written an Introduction, which evaluates the work and includes nineteenth-century press reports of the Lectures.

Excerpt: Any account of Smith's last and most important work must begin with the Aberdeen merchant John Burnett (1733-1784) who in his day was widely known as a public benefactor. 'In addition to certain charitable bequests for behoof of the sick and insane poor, he left part of the rents of a small estate to be accumulated and applied by his trustees, at intervals of forty years from his death, in the payment of premiums for two prize treatises in proof of the doctrine of Theism.'" A first prize competition along these lines was held in 1814, but when the experiment was repeated in 1854, 'there were no fewer than 208 treatises sent in, many of them of very great bulk, and it took the trustees about 18 months to wade through them'." In 1881, the trustees therefore applied to the Secretary of State and obtained a Provisional Order by which the original scheme of the foundation was changed and public lectures came to be substituted for the elaborate printed treatises envisaged by John Burnett. The first course of Burnett lectures was delivered over three years in 1883-85 by George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903), at that time secretary to the Royal Society and — as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge — twelfth link in a venerable chain extending from Sir Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking. True to the spirit of the founder, the subject of his lectures was stated to be:

The undulatory theory of light: its nature and medium, and in connection with it, the structure and functions of the wonderful organ of vision, having regard to the illustration afforded by the subject of 'the evidence that there is a Being, all powerful, wise, and good, by whom everything exists.

As might have been expected, many among the audience found this exercise in natural theology to be rather hard going, as the local press recalled some two years later:

It was an honour to our city that there should be delivered in it the able lectures on Light, by Professor Stokes, that constituted the first series of Burnett Lectures, but comparatively few could have possessed a knowledge of physics sufficient to enable them to follow with intelligent interest Professor Stokes's masterly exposition. Nor was the subject such that the general reading of cultured men and women, or even a short period of special preparatory study, could do something to supply the want of previous scientific training.

It may well have been considerations such as these which prompted the Burnett Trustees to look for a more easily accessible subject when in the spring

of 1887 they were planning the second course of Burnett Lectures. On 21 March 1887, Alexander Bain — at that time Lord Rector of the University of Aberdeen and one of the three Burnett Trustees — informed his former student William Robertson Smith of the outcome of their deliberations:

My Dear Dr Smith,

The Burnett Trustees meet on the 7th April, to choose the next Lecturer. A preparatory meeting was held a few weeks ago, which all but determined what is to be the result of the meeting on the 7th. [...] On the assumption that 'History' should be the subject there was but one opinion expressed at the former meeting, namely, that you should be asked to give the course, i. e. be appointed Lecturer.

Anticipating the outcome of the prospective meeting, Bain proceeded to argue that the appointment should be accompanied with a definite statement of the subject and asked for a title to be communicated to the committee:

The Trustees would consider it far more important for the success of the Lecture, that the topic should be thoroughly congenial to yourself, than that they should suggest it. For the sake of coming to a conclusion, I will assume that it should refer to the old Semitic religions, or others related to them by way of derivation, contrast or otherwise. In short, taking a wide view of the Semitic family and their allies and foils, the question is how to carve out a rounded course of twelve lectures that would both interest the public, and give you full scope for all your freshest information and research: or for any further research that you would wish to enter upon so as to make the outcome (namely, a book) satisfactory and creditable both to yourself and us. Completeness and general interest might, of course, require compilation and exposition of matter already available, to be supported with whatever novelty you could yourself impart.

On these suppositions, my wish is that you would condescend upon a title that could be at once minuted by the Trust, and intimated to the Public: details of course being left to after adjustment, and being in fact very much in your own hands.

An interesting though probably unanswerable question is whether it was Bain himself who had suggested Smith as the next Burnett lecturer. While this cannot be ruled out, it has justly been noted that Old Testament studies was 'a department of knowledge to which he had never given much attention' and that Bain was, moreover, a philosophical and educational antagonist of Smith.' A more likely candidate, therefore, would appear to be Robert Flint (1838-1910), one of the two assessors of the Burnett Trust. He was Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of Edinburgh from 1876-1903, having written a monograph on The Philosophy of History in France and Germany (1874) and having set out an apologetic argument for the belief in God in his book Theism (1877).' As his biographers point out, Smith was greatly attracted by Flint's personality and preaching, he and his father having met him at Bonn in the summer of 1867 and spent some time together at Heidelberg.' Smith's esteem of Flint is confirmed by an observer noting in 1876 that he spoke of the Edinburgh professor as 'a great scholar, and a deeply learned man.

While Smith's response to Bain's request does not appear to have survived, the handwritten minute of the meeting on 7 April shows that he complied with Bain's suggestions. As the contemporary press reported on the following day:

The trustees and assessors unanimously decided that the subject of the next course of lectures shall be one taken from the first department of those sanctioned by the provisional order, viz.: — "Recent Researches into History, including the illustrations of the forms and effects of theistic doctrines among the older nations of the world.

The meeting then unanimously elected as the lecturer for the next course of lectures the Rev. William Robertson Smith, LL.D., Librarian of the University Library of Cambridge, and the title and theme of the lectures will be "The Primitive Religions of the Semitic Peoples, viewed in their relation to other ancient religions and to the spiritual religion of the Old Testament and of Christianity.

The lectures will be delivered in the University of Aberdeen in the winter session of 1888-89, and each of the following years.

Commenting on this choice, the press was confident that Smith's topic would be as fascinating, though perhaps not as obscure, as that of his predecessor:

The subject fixed on for the second course demands, and at the hands of Dr. Smith will certainly receive, treatment in no wise inferior to Professor Stokes's treatment of Light in power and in subtlety. Though in respect of its dealing with the mind and of often having to depend at important junctures on facts few and imperfect, it is probably more difficult to handle, yet the strong interest that attaches to whatever concerns mankind, the extent to which such matter is more ore less adequately dealt with in current literature, and the ease with which the study of manuals easily got at will put any one in possession of a large amount of the material proper to Dr Smith's subject should concur to make the forthcoming lectures a source of considerable pleasure and profit.

As far as Smith was concerned, he expressed his delight in a letter to his brother Charles:

This will be a nice job, twelve lectures to be delivered — five years to write and deliver them in, and about £ 150 a year for doing so. It will be very pleasant to have some definite work again to bring me to Scotland.

Nevertheless, the strain of preparing the lectures on top of his work as librarian and editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica must have been considerable, as may be inferred from the recollections of an eye-witness:

At that time he was very busy preparing his Burnett Lectures, and I recollect that after a hard day's work in the Library he used to return to his rooms about five o'clock, having stopped after the Library closed to finish some piece of official business, and immediately set to at his book and work hard till seven; and all this without luncheon — he always mistrusted luncheons. Soon after Hall he would be back at his work and write hard till long past midnight. I never could understand how he did it, but his marvellous nervous force carried him on — up to a certain point.

As we have seen, the months after his acceptance of the invitation of the Burnett Trustees turned out to be particularly stressful for Smith, as the death of Thomas Spencer Baynes on 31 May made him sole editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Moreover, in early August his father had a severe apoplectic stroke which left him partly paralysed, while the health of his brother Herbert declined rapidly, death coming as a release on 17 December 1887. Nevertheless, work on the lectures appears to have continued more or less according to plan, and on 6 December 1888, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal duly announced the first series of the second course of Burnett Lectures on `The Religious Institutions of the Ancient Semites (Arabs, Canaanites, and Syrians)', to be given in the Upper Hall of Marischal College, from Thursday, December 13 to Saturday, December 22, at three o'clock in the afternoon. Eight days later, the journal supplied its readers with a detailed account of Smith's opening lecture, which is worth quoting at length, not least because it gives a succinct summary of Smith's leading ideas:

Yesterday Professor W. Robertson Smith, late of Aberdeen, and now of Cambridge, delivered the first of the second course of Burnett Lectures in connection with Aberdeen University in the Upper Hall, Marischal College. There was a very large audience, the hall being crowded. [...] Professor Robertson Smith was received with prolonged applause. He began with an apology, inasmuch as he was afraid that his voice would not be sufficiently heard in so large a hall, and then expressed pleasure at reappearing after so many years of absence before an audience of his fellow-townsmen and members of his own university. An occasion which he had hoped would have passed over much earlier had been so deferred that he had had to come down from Cambridge in the course of the previous night. In these circumstances, he trusted the audience would excuse him if he was not so interesting as he ought to be; certainly he could not hope to do justice to the very kind way in which Dr. Webster [the senior trustee] had introduced him. Having announced as his subject the religion of the Semitic peoples, and alluded to the interest which this subject possesses for the student of the history of religion, inasmuch as the three great positive monotheistic faiths had their origin among the Semites, the lecturer explained that his object was not to trace the history of the positive Semitic faiths, but to examine the general type of the natural religion, the body of religious usage and faith, not based on revelation or propagated by individual authority, but handed down from father to son as part of the traditions of the race, which lay behind the positive faiths of Semitic origin, and with which the authors and preachers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had to reckon. No religious teacher could deal with man as if their minds were a tabula rasa, but must come in contact at every point with traditional beliefs, whether to assimilate them to his own system or displace them by what is new. This [is] the chief interest of the study of Semitic heathenism, big in its bearing on the origin of the spiritual religion of the Old and New Testament. This was illustrated by reference to the nature of sacrifice, which is so prominent in both Testaments, and yet is never fully explained, because it was common to all ancient nations, and was taken as an understood thing. The lecturer then proceeded to justify the assumption, involved in the plan of his course, that there was a certain substratum of religious tradition common in ancient times to all the Semites. This was evident from the Bible itself, for the lapses of the Hebrews into Canaanite worship showed that, in spite of the profound spiritual difference between Jehovah worship and Baal worship, the two systems were not readily kept apart by those who did not look at the meaning of things, but only at the surface of ritual form and practice. That this was so was easily understood from the traditional character of all ancient religions. Handed down from father to son, they formed a common possession of all the descendants of one stock. The linguistic and other evidences that justify us in regarding Arabs, Syrians, Phoenicians, and Babylonians as a well-marked natural group of nations whose ancestors must have lived together for many generations, and at their separation carried with them a great stock of common ideas and usages, were briefly indicated, and it was pointed out that their geographical position and history had tended to maintain to a late date a great unity of race type through all the Semitic lands. As regards religion, the purest manifestations of this type, supplied by our records, were found in Palestine and Arabia; the ancient monuments of Babylon, notwithstanding their antiquity, could not be taken as the starting-point for a history of Semitic religion, as they represented the complex faith of a country where the Semitic blood was largely mingled with non-Semitic elements and where statecraft and priestcraft had combined to form a somewhat artificial imperial religion, built up out of different local worships. The chief sources for the history of the older and simpler Semitic faiths were then indicated, and it was pointed out that the materials for a history of Semitic heathenism did not exist, but that it was possible to make out a series of common features running through the religion of all the old Semitic lands, and that these were the features interesting to us from their bearing on the great positive systems and especially on the origin of the religion of the prophets and of Christ. As regards the method of research it was to be remembered that ancient religions had no dogmas but consisted wholly of traditional usages and practices. These were explained by myths and legends related at every sanctuary; but the legends varied greatly, and no man was bound as matter of faith to believe any one form of them. Every man as a member of the State was

held bound to conform to the traditional rites and usages; but, if this were accurately done, according to precedent, he was free to interpret them as he pleased. It was, therefore, false method to begin with mythology in the study of antique religions. To learn what these religions really were to the worshippers, it was to the institutions of religion that attention must first be paid — the myths, so far as they were not mere inventions to explain ritual, were philosophical, political, genetical, but not properly part of religion itself. The first course of lectures would therefore deal wholly with the institutions of religion among Semites. A second course would treat of myths, the nature of the Gods, beliefs as to future life, &c. The third course would gather these results together by examining the influence of ancient Semitic religion on other races, and especially its relations to the great monotheistic faiths.

Having delivered six lectures in December 1888, and another three in March 1889, Smith proceeded to write two more lectures in the summer of 1889 in order to round off his argument.' By early June, however, it had become clear that he would soon succeed William Wright as Sir Thomas Adams' Professor of Arabic, and this unforeseen development prompted the gloomy prediction, 'If I am elected I shall have a hard autumn's work'.' In fact, Smith barely managed to finish the manuscript by publishing time, 'slaving like a horse' according to his own account, and gratefully acknowledging J. S. Black's offer to prepare the index.'" In the end, the eleven lectures were published in early November 1889 under the title Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. First series: The Fundamental Institutions.

As is obvious from the press report quoted above, Smith had originally intended to reserve the second series of lectures for a treatment of Semitic mythology and the third for a discussion of the relationship between the religion of the early Semites and the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, in January 1890, Smith's health broke down for the first time, and on 24 February 1890 his father died. While the Burnett trustees offered to postpone the second series of lectures until the following winter, Smith decided rather to give them at once, telling his friend J. S. Black on the day of his father's funeral (which he was unable to attend because of the cold weather), 'I don't feel particularly fit to lecture tomorrow but I am very anxious to have it over.' As was pointed out by his biographers, 'it had not been possible for the lecturer to write out fully what he had to say, and he had to face his audience equipped only with somewhat fragmentary notes'.' This lack of preparation was presumably responsible for a significant change of the original agenda. Referring the treatment of Semitic mythology to the third series of lectures, Smith decided to deal first with 'Feasts', 'Priests and the Priestly Oracle' and 'Prophecy and Divination', continuing the argument of the first series of lectures and drawing heavily on his earlier work on these topics." The third series of lectures, in which Smith finally dealt with the gods and goddesses of Semitic polytheism and with cosmology, was delivered on December 10, 12, and 14, 1891. By that time, however, Smith's health had further deteriorated and he had finally abandoned his original idea of dealing with the Semitic background of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sadly, the audience appears to have dwindled considerably by that time, the local press reporting no more than about sixty people to have been present at the opening lecture of the third series.

As was noted by Smith's biographers, nothing survives of the second and third series of lectures 'but the meagre press reports and the somewhat fragmentary notes from which he spoke'." These documents ultimately came to be edited from variant manuscript and typescript draft versions with an introduction by John Day in 1995." Until then, the influence of Smith's lectures rested almost exclusively on the published version of the first series, of which Smith himself managed to prepare a second edition, handing to J. S. Black the annotated print and a manuscript volume of new materials some two weeks before his death.' This was published posthumously in late 1894, being followed by a German translation (by Rudolf Stübe) in 1899.

One of the first to comment on the 1889 first edition was J. G. Frazer whose note is characteristic of the author's engaging modesty:

My dear R. Smith

Very many thanks for your kind present of your new book. It is a most handsome volume and teems with interest, as a very slight inspection is enough to show. I mean not only to read but to absorb and assimilate it as much as I can. As for the way in which you refer to me it almost takes my breath away and is enough to add an inch or even a cubit to my stature. I certainly could have had no idea that I had been of so much use unless I had your word for it. I came round this morning to say how much I liked the book both in appearance and, so far as I can judge as yet, in matter also. But when I have read more of it I shall be better able to talk to you about it.

Two days later, the perennial sceptic Nöldeke sent a brief preliminary acknowledgement:

Many thanks for the Lectures! If it pleases Allah, I shall start reading them soon. For the time being, however, I still have various things to do. When I have read the book I shall write again.

Unsurprisingly, the most enthusiastic response came once more from Wellhausen:

My dear Smith,

Your book is brilliant. I have studied it from beginning to end in four days of continuous reading. The unity of your conception is admirable, especially in comparison with the barren trivia-collecting of the German orientalists who don't know what to do with their learning, having never in their lives experienced a genuine problem at all. They find it difficult to arrange the details in a sequence one after the other. You see them all at once in one picture beside each other, understanding each fragment from the whole and constructing the tree from every leaf. Your manner is simply entrancing, even for people like myself who prefer sticking to history and don't search for the meaning which is elucidated by the origins only. What I like best is what you say about sacrifice and feasts — perhaps because in many instances I have had similar ideas on these topics. But then it was always you who restored complete clearness to my views. I stopped one step short of the goal; you take the step by which the whole thing suddenly becomes comprehensible.

Every competent person will have to concede that the principle that ritual can only be comprehended from the ideas and conditions of primitive culture has been applied by you in such a way that the principle is most brilliantly vinidicated by the application.

In a letter to J. S. Black, Smith voiced his exhilaration at this generous praise which he happened to receive on his forty-third birthday, announcing that he felt bound to 'give myself the pleasure of sending the letter on to you in a day or two when I have answered it,' noting in a postscript, 'The only other person I have yet heard of who has read the book thro' is Lord Acton, who, as Bryce tells me, is "warm in its praise."

As was to be expected, a much more cautious note was sounded by Nöldeke who two days later combined his detailed note of thanks with an expression of his customary scepticism:

My dear Friend,

I have just finished reading through your book and now hasten to thank you once more very much for it. In the book there is so much that was new to me, and there are so many new combinations of things which were more or less familiar to me, that in many instances I was put into the position of not knowing whether to say `yes' or 'no'. I have no doubt that in many and important points you are right, but in my sceptical manner I cannot always and without more ado accept your constructions — not even in those cases where I cannot put forward anything positive as an alternative. You will forgive me for speaking quite frankly: I think you know far too much and draw the conclusions by analogy too confidently.

Having expressed his regret at having no opportunity for a prolonged discussion of individual points, Nöldeke proceeded to list some of the instances where he felt that Smith had overstated his case:

You start from the assumption that some kind of indistinct particular monotheism is everywhere the original thing, that there is only one deity to the clan. That may be correct, but I am not yet ready to concede it. You leave mythology completely out of consideration and believe it to be secondary. I quite agree that the complex of myths which we find in Homer is secondary. But the relationship between the individual gods and nature is by all means original, at least among the Indo-European race. We can assert most confidently that all Indo-Europeans venerated the sky under the same name as the supreme deity, and the parallel between Vedic, Greek and Latin makes it all but certain that they already called him 'father' in a formualaic manner of speaking. This takes us back into a primeval period which according to your view should have known nothing but particular totemic deities. [...] I must confess that I can imagine our ancestors only as polytheists, personifying and venerating the forces of nature as such. I agree that this is much less conspicuous among the Semites. In fact, I regard the difference between the Semitic and the Indo-European disposition as far greater than you appear to do. How could one envisage among the Semites the development of a figure such as Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, who after all is nothing but the flash of lightning, as is shown by her being born fully armed from the head of the sky (Zeus)! (Benfey has made it very probable that the name of Athene is also to be found in the mythology of the Iranians). And so on and so forth. I cannot get it out of my head that even the Semites regarded the sun and the moon as deities from time immemorial. At all events I suspect that the development is not as simple as you make it out to be.

But I repeat that I, too, am convinced that totemism and related phenomena did play an enormous role. Especially what you say about tabu explains many things better than they could hitherto be explained.

In conclusion, Nöldeke commented on Smith's ideas about ritual, revealing both his own religious prejudices and his delight in talking politics:"

Due to my unfortunate dislike of all ritual matters I do not venture to pass a detailed judgment on rites of sacrifice, as I have never cared to make a really serious study of these things. I concede, however, without second thought that the Catholic priest is the direct descendant of the totemic sacrificer. I must candidly confess that I have an insuperable aversion to this rite even in its most attenuated Protestant form. I loathe partaking of the saviour's "flesh and blood" aesthetically, and I take this rite to be only by some degrees less a survival of ancient barbarism than the circumcision of the Jews. —Just look at the way in which the most blatant superstition has dragged itself on through the millennia! It is perhaps 30 years ago that Adalbert Kuhn published a lovely article in which he demonstrated that a number of Vedic charms are being used almost verbatim in Germany to this day. The romantic is pleased with such a thing, but I could not help feeling sad about it even then. So much light has been shed since the days of the earliest Greek philosophers, and such darkness still rules supreme in many segments of our society! (And these segments are to have the same political rights as the most enlightened ones!!)

Commenting on the second edition of Smith's book, J. G. Frazer noted in a letter to J. S. Black that it was beyond doubt a striking and powerful book, full of original thought and abounding in fruitful views. Still, I am inclined to doubt whether simplification has not been carried too far, whether the elements out of which the history of the religion is reconstructed are not too few in number, and too simple and obvious. The latter objection you may think a strange one. What I mean is that primitive man looks at the world from such a totally different point of view from us, that what seems simple and obvious to us almost certainly did not appear so to him; and vice versa, what seems simple and obvious to him is almost always so entirely remote from our ways of thought that we should never have dreamed of it. Accordingly, any explanations of the origin of religion or society which commend themselves at once to us as entirely agreeable to reason and probability ought always, in my opinion, be regarded with the greatest distrust. Their inherent probability (from our point of view) is a strong presumption against them. Rousseau's views (to take an extreme example) on the origin of society commended themselves to the most reasonable people last century, just because, if they had to reconstruct society from the foundations, they would have proceeded much as Rousseau supposes that primitive man did. But from primitive man to a French Encyclopaedist is a very long interval. I do not say that Smith has fallen into the mistake of making the early Semites reason like nineteenth-century people; all I would say is that the very simplicity and obviousness of the deductions inspire me with a somewhat vague and perhaps unjustifiable distrust.

At this point, however, Frazer's deep-seated diffidence and characteristical modesty appear to have got the upper hand of his scepticism:

Certainly, on one subject — the original sanctity of domestic cattle — the conclusion which Smith reached, I believe, by examination of the Semitic evidence alone, is brilliantly borne out by the actual facts of pastoral life among primitive peoples elsewhere. This is a very striking proof of the truth of Smith's intuitions, and is enough to make one distrust one's distrust. He certainly may be right throughout; his insight is very great.

As Smith never got round to revising and publishing the second and third series of his lectures, the initial emphasis on the social character of ancient religions and on the preponderance of ritual over myth has tended to overshadow or even obscure the general conclusion on which the last of his lectures ended. As he had done before in his essay on 'Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament,' he once more contended that similarities in detail which at first glance might suggest an organic development from the pagan religions of antiquity to the religion of the Bible did upon closer inspection point to a fundamental contrast between the religion of Israel and that of its neighbours:

The burden of explaining this contrast does not lie with me. It falls on those who are compelled by a false Philosophy of Revelation to see in the Old Testament nothing more than the highest point of the general tendencies of Semitic religion. This is not the view which that study commends to me. It is a view that is not commended, but condemned by the many parallelisms in detail between Hebrew and heathen story and ritual; for all these material points of resemblance only make the contrast in spirit the more remarkable.

Twenty years later, even his biographers found this conclusion to be rather puzzling:"

As we follow his laborious chapters we are rewarded by almost startling intuitions of the origins of Christian ritual and doctrine; if the book means anything, it means that the process of religious evolution has been continuous. And yet, when the final stage is reached, the author invites us to believe that there is a great gulf fixed; that the religion of the chosen people differed not only in degree, but in kind from that of their near kindred [...].

Yet while his biographers are certainly right in emphasising 'the consistency of Smith's last utterance on this subject with all that he had previously published and contended', it seems unsatisfactory to maintain 'that he refused to sacrifice either his faith or his reason.'59 At any rate, the two were hardly on an equal footing, for when Smith made religion the object of an investigative process, it was reason which he employed to find the answers, but faith which had prompted the questions.



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